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.

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