Priapic Positivism and The Infinite Monkey Cage

Professor Brian Cox. I promise there'll be more to this post than simple envy of the man's boyish good looks...


Amidst the insultingly patronizing and the drily opaque, BBC Radio’s The Infinite Monkey Cage stands out as almost pitch-perfect popular science programming: passionate but relaxed; witty and down-to-earth.

Brian Cox, one of the two presenters, was a little underwhelming on TV; his penchant for standing in front of spectacular backdrops and offering grandiose exclamations earning him some (presumably)  unwanted comparisons with Paul Whitehouse’s ‘brilliant!’ character on The Fast Show:


embedded by Embedded Video

embedded by Embedded Video

Yet on radio Cox is, well, ‘brilliant': warm, naturally funny, and flaunting his distaste for all things unscientific with just enough self-deprecating irony to get away with it – especially when assisted by the superb Robin Ince.

I say ‘just enough’ irony because there’s a point beyond which Cox and Ince (the latter a supporter of the Rationalist Association and contributor to New Humanist magazine), are no longer joking.

Robin Ince. At the risk of a rather simple analysis, he's funnier than Cox but not as good looking.

For both of them, ‘unscientific’ is all but synonymous with ‘irrational': any knowledge worthy of the name is open to expression and explanation in scientific terms – any suggestion to the contrary is a sign of human weakness and credulity, an embarrassing need of fairies and the fantastical.

Not knowing Brian Cox or Robin Ince personally, it’d be unfair to caricature them as exclusively, parodically science-minded. Most of us naturally shift between different modes of explanation or commentary depending on the situation, and presumably while Cox could discuss the common cold in terms of planetary physics and the human body’s regulation of its own heat, he’d see that a friend feeling seriously under the weather would no more want to hear it than they would a short cultural history of the minor ailment. ‘Sympathy, grapes, or get lost’ would probably be the reply – and fair enough.

Priapic positivism

But it’s an underlying insistence that one system of commentary ultimately trumps the rest that gives rise to what I call ‘priapic positivism': a combative, hyper-masculine insistence that where big questions are concerned science and reason (both of which apparently were only invented in the eighteenth century; before that, we were mostly idiots) are where it’s at, and anyone who disagrees is weak, flighty, deluded, desperate, nostalgic, or dangerous – and possibly all of these things that your classic alpha-male insists are feminine traits.

Is there even (paging Dr Freud…) a sense in which scientific certainty confers, for some, a sort of satisfaction that’s almost genital in its intensity and adolescent boyishness?

Be that as it may, ‘science’ is obviously not intrinsically (hyper)masculine or ‘priapic’, and as a practice it provides so many instances of human genius writ large that it ought to require no defending (though in some cultural contexts, it still does); science becoming an ideology is a different matter – and the danger of confusing one with the other is compounded when the kind of sneering, we’re-smarter-than-you rhetoric and tone that just occasionally takes over on TIMC (and elsewhere in the media) is used to bully people into narrowing their horizons.

This kind of hermeneutical land-grab is surely wrong, and goes against what we know about how the human brain processes the world: not just via cognitive reasoning, but also through metaphor, symbols, music, visual arts, an emotional life, and even silence.

We use these various modes in concert, and it’s not always easy to say what is dominant at any one time. Cox’s ‘brilliant’ commentary, when faced with something of impressive proportions (no sniggering, please…), suggests that aesthetics matter a great deal to him in his understanding of the world. Ditto Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan, and their sense of wonder at nature and the cosmos. So rather than smuggle aesthetics and metaphor into science would it not make sense to concede the broader point that plurality is actually a good thing?

Bertrand Russell, 1872 - 1970

For all the frustration that the British philosopher Bertrand Russell felt towards much of modern continental philosophy, his denunciation of existentialism as ‘psychological observation made to pass for logic’ captured the point, even while it seemed to miss its importance: the likes of Sartre, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard neither wrote nor were read primarily as logicians. Theirs was a language of dilemma, shifting convictions, and impossible situations – enjoyed by people for the powerful resonances it offered. They knew that to frame the world in a way that didn’t take plurality and modulation seriously would be a step backwards, not some giant, utopian leap forwards.

So just as the poet T.S. Eliot criticised Russell, his one-time philosophy teacher, as a ‘priapic materialist’, I hope that as we all strive to become more scientifically literate we can be spared the discouragement and shrinking of horizons that a priapic positivism might threaten.


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  • ben Epstein
    May 11, 2012 - 4:07 pm | Permalink

    I think Donna Haraway would like to have a word with you! :)
    “So, with many other feminists, I want to argue for a doctrine and practice of objectivity that privileges contestation, deconstruction, passionate construction, webbed connections, and hope for transformation of systems of knowledge and ways of seeing. But not just any partial perspective will do; we must be hostile to easy relativisms and holisms built out Of summing and subsuming parts. ‘Passionate detachment’ (Kuhn, 1982) requires more than acknowledged and self-critical partiality”

  • Chris
    May 12, 2012 - 7:01 am | Permalink

    Cheers for your comments Ben! I think what she is saying here is totally unobjectionable, even a bit bland. Rejecting the naive correspondence-theory priaprism sometimes – and I stress ‘sometimes – on display with TIMC shouldn’t be equated with relativism, I don’t think. There are many more critical possibilities than that – and I think even a programme that quite fairly sets out to be gladiatorial and humorous in its defence of science can afford to allow for these now and again.

    (In defence of Brian Cox, his Desert Island Discs appearance was wonderful – a real charmer, with some great music choices…)

  • ben Epstein
    May 12, 2012 - 8:10 pm | Permalink

    Donna Haraway, Bland? Blasphemy! I was definitely not suggesting you two are at odds, on the contrary, if you were convoked to Professor Haraway’s office I’m sure it could only be a pleasant meeting of minds ;) I just remembered some other things I had read about a while back about feminist critiques of objectivity, and a guess one of her points is that we can’t reduce all objectivity to the ‘masculinist’ gaze or what have you. Look forward to reading more about priapic positivism though, I think it’s a great idea to play with.

  • Chris
    May 14, 2012 - 7:33 am | Permalink

    I like the sound of Donna Haraway now. Could you perhaps post a link to this ‘masculinist gaze’ idea, when you have a moment? It would be a really useful addition to this post…

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