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Four Way Interview - Jim Al-Khalili

Photo by Nick Smith
Jim Al-Khalili hosts The Life Scientific on BBC Radio 4 and has presented numerous BBC television documentaries. He is Professor of Theoretical Physics and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey, a New York Times bestselling author, and a fellow of the Royal Society. He is the author of numerous books, including Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed; The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance; Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology; and The World According to Physics.

His latest book is The Joy of Science.

Why joy?

 While I focus more in the book on the process of science itself to gain knowledge about the world, I also wanted to get across the fact that science is so much more than hard facts and lessons in critical thinking.  Science helps us see the world more deeply, enriches us, enlightens us.  The closer we look, the more we can see and the more we can wonder. I feel strongly that for all the remarkable technological, social and medical advances science has given us, and for all the messy, rich, complicated splendour of the scientific method we have used to gain this knowledge, there is real joy in the practice of science - in Carl Sagan's words, there is 'sense of elation and humility' in learning about the world through science.

What can the scientific method tell us about approaching evidence?

Of course when we say 'the' scientific method we must be careful to acknowledge that there are many ways of 'doing' science. But needing evidence, whether in the form of data, empirical evidence, observation, the power of prediction and deduction, or reproducibility of results and so on, it is evidence that gives us the confidence that our ideas and pictures of the world are reliable. It is encouraging that even in politics, more people are now talking about 'evidence-based' policy decisions.  However, in daily life, as I explain in the book, this is not always so easy. We cannot constantly be looking for evidence to back up our views and opinions, but holding the need for reliable evidence above mere ideological opinion  is something we should at least strive to be doing more of.

 Is there any point arguing with a science denier?

That's a tough one. In one sense, we know that many science deniers are driven not by logical enquiry and critical thinking but by ideology, whether it is politics, religion, past experience or the influence of others. But as we strive to have a more scientifically literate society capable of making informed decisions about all sorts of daily issues and challenges we cannot really shy away from engaging with such people. While I might find amusing and shrug off the views of flat-Earthers or moon landing deniers, I cannot stand by if ill-informed views on climate change or vaccines are being promoted and spread. It can be frustrating of course and not everyone has the stomach for it or feel it is their responsibility to crusade against irrational beliefs.

 Is it ever really possible to overcome our personal biases, even if we are aware of them?

Probably not. But I guess being aware of them is a crucial first step. This is what we try to do in science. Certainly in my own experience in research there have been many occasions that I have had a result, whether from a computer code or a lengthy algebraic derivation, that I 'felt' was correct or wanted to be correct. But I know that is not enough and I will try to test it to destruction, partly to persuade others that I am right but also to persuade myself. Wanting something to be true in science is not enough.  In the end, it is human nature to have biases and opinions that we feel uncomfortable having challenged or are so strongly persuaded by that we are unable to acknowledge that we might be wrong. 


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