Paul Nurse calls for better understanding of scientific limits

Schools should teach the limits of scientific certainty so the public better understand scientific debate, says president of the Royal Society

October 3, 2013

Sir Paul Nurse, speaking yesterday at the opening of the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit in Singapore, said that “problems” often arose “when scientists are called upon to give advice on issues when the science is not yet complete”.

“Science is taught based on the great ideas that have successively undergone much testing, such as those of Newton, Darwin and Einstein, and so we tend to think of all science as equally secure, as if written in stone,” he told delegates.

“But that may not be the case particularly at the early stages of research when knowledge is more tentative.”

The public demanded “clear and simple answers” but this was not always possible, leading to an oversimplified debate in the media over, for example, whether breast implants were safe or the harmfulness of certain foods, he said.

Certainty was not always possible, he said. “People need to understand this and we should start in our schools.”

The “tentative” nature of sciences should receive “greater emphasis in school” which would allow the public to “be better able to appreciate how science impacts on society, how scientific understanding evolves”, he added.

He pointed to the debate around climate change where the “consensus view” among experts was that “human activity is resulting in global warming”.

“Very few” take “more extreme views” that warming was either not happening or that it would happen in a rapid, catastrophic way, he said. “Society should listen to the majority, consensus opinion,” he argued.

The inaugural World Academic Summit is taking place from 2 to 4 October.

david.matthews@tsleducation.com

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 6 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Most Commented

question marks PhD study

Selecting the right doctorate is crucial for success. Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O'Gorman share top 10 tips on how to pick a PhD

India, UK, flag

Sir Keith Burnett reflects on what he learned about international students while in India with the UK prime minister

Pencil lying on open diary

Requesting a log of daily activity means that trust between the institution and the scholar has broken down, says Toby Miller

Application for graduate job
Universities producing the most employable graduates have been ranked by companies around the world in the Global University Employability Ranking 2016
Construction workers erecting barriers

Directly linking non-EU recruitment to award levels in teaching assessment has also been under consideration, sources suggest