Brain Pickings

Brian Cox on Why Science Is Essential to Modern Democracy

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“For a democracy to function correctly, we need as many citizens as possible to at least have an understanding of the scientific method.”

In the fall of 2012, Brian Coxquantum physics wunderkind, whimsical explainer of science, champion of the wonders of life — was awarded the prestigious President’s Medal in London. His acceptance speech addressed the epidemic of promoting bad science in popular culture and the desperate importance of continuing to fund science education, echoing Richard Feynman’s timeless words on the role of scientific culture in modern society and scientists’ universal responsibility to remain open to the unknown. This magnificent short film by Brandon Fibbs remixes the most poetic portion of Cox’s speech — an eloquent case for science as a prerequisite for democracy, one that Ray Bradbury made for reading some years ago — with awe-inducing footage that captures the glory of science, technology, and space exploration.

We live in a society — as the great physicist and communicator Carl Sagan always emphasized — a society that is entirely based on science, it is based on technology and engineering. All the great, important decisions that our democracy will be forced to take in the next decades, and all the way into the 21st century, are based on science — they’re based on scientific method, they’re based on an understanding what reason and reaching conclusions based on evidence is. And if the presentation of science is a Frankenstein presentation of science — a misrepresentation of what we do, a complete misselling of the wonder of exploration — then we have a problem in our democracies. And it’s the same problem that we have if we don’t have an educated population.

For a democracy — a modern scientific democracy — to function correctly, then we need as many citizens as possible to at least have an understanding of the scientific method, if not the fact. When asked, “Why do you want to continue to explore?” Humphry Davy said, “Nothing is more fatal to the progress of the human mind than to presume that our views of science are ultimate, that our triumphs are complete, that there are no mysteries in nature and there are no new worlds to conquer.”

Watch Cox’s full speech below:

Pair with this fantastic read on how ignorance drives science, one of the best science books of 2012, and this wonderful mashup celebrating NASA by way of Walt Whitman.

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