Simon Singh: ‘Science doesn’t dictate policy but policy shouldn’t ignore science’

Written by on April 9, 2018 in Bulgaria - Comments Off on Simon Singh: ‘Science doesn’t dictate policy but policy shouldn’t ignore science’

It is a troubling world, one within which climate change deniers and those who are anti-science occupy high office – looking at you, Trump – and one in which pseudo-science is accelerated as fast as codswallop may be posted online.

Is best-selling popular science author and physicist, Britain’s Simon Singh, troubled by these trends?

He says that, yes, Trump is hugely anti-science, whether on climate change or vaccinations, and seems completely out of touch with scientific thought.

In the UK, however, there are no doubt some problems, but British politics seems to be moving more towards evidence-based policy, with most government departments now having a chief scientific advisor.

Singh explains that this means that policy should take science into account, though obviously that does not mean that it is the only factor; others include costs and public opinion.

“Science doesn’t dictate policy but it (policy) should not ignore the science,” Singh says, noting that some prefer to use the term “evidence-informed policy”: “I am very comfortable with that, it is a good way to look at it as well”.

Singh is well-known not only for his books and his career in radio and television, but also for his stance against pseudo-science. While he has challenged the effectiveness of various alternative therapies, including homeopathy, he also has concerns about the anti-GMOs movement, those who scaremonger about the deleterious effects of wi-fi and much more. His court clash with chiropractors after he derided some of the claimed benefits of that practice resulted in a victory for him, and a change to libel laws.

“When I was first became interested in pseudo-science, it was kind of funny, it was Uri Geller bending spoons, it was alien abductions, it was Bigfoot, it was the weird and the wonderful, and I think lots of people in a way became interested in science because of this amazing pseudo-science, almost verging on science fiction,” he told The Sofia Globe in an interview from his London home.

However, he adds, in the past 20 years, pseudo-science has become a serious matter: “It leads to anxiety and some poor decisions among parents who decide not vaccinate. It means cancer patients are persuaded that their doctors are idiots and that the real cure for cancer exists in the deserts of Mexico. Pseudo-science is dangerous.

For Singh, such phenomena as the GMO controversy call for conclusions that are evidence-based “as opposed to just being ideologically against anything that is genetically modified”.

He is a big fan of Mark Lynas, formerly an activist who wrecked crops, who then looked into the science and then recanted his views, going on to write the book “Seeds of Science”, published in March 2018. Subtitled “how we got it so wrong on GMOs”, Lynas argues for more research and a more open-minded discussion on GMOs.

Of Lynas’s transformation on the GMO issue, Singh says: “I think that is what science is about, about being open-minded and saying, if the evidence says this, that’s what I have to go with – I cannot keep holding on to my prejudices and biases when the evidence tells me the opposite”.

Or as John Maynard Keynes said: “Keynes actually said this. The closest is a book from 1940 that quotes him as saying, “When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?”

Singh has faced this himself, he says. A keen chess player who thoroughly enjoys playing the game with his older son, Singh says that he has held the belief that chess has a beneficial effect on the development of the brains of young people – preparing them, for instance, to engage with Singh’s great passion, mathematics. However, well-grounded scientific research, involving large numbers of subjects, has found no evidence of chess benefitting the brains of the young. “Of course, we still play chess,” says Singh, “because it’s fun, which is the main thing.”

When it comes to pseudo-science, Singh – as others have done – points to the pernicious presence on the internet of misleading and ill-founded claims: “The internet is a wonderful thing, but the problem is that if you type in a particular prejudice, you’ll find hundreds of other people who will back up your beliefs”.

He says that when people challenge him on his views about pseudo-science, he asks them to go away for some days and do some proper objective research, particularly focussing on arguments that counter their point of view. Then, if they still think Singh is wrong, they may return to him with their criticism.

Singh is asked whether school curricula, in places such as the UK, are sufficiently up to speed in today’s internet-dominated environment, in teaching the scientific method and getting young people to understand its value.

“In recent years, my main work in the UK has been in maths education, because it is an essential skill for subjects such as physics and engineering. I think the main focus of shools has been to support those who struggle with maths, which is obviously an important priority, but I think we tend to neglect those who are good at maths and who have the potential to be excellent,” he says.

“Being a strong mathematician (or indeed a strong engineer) means developing a resilience and stamina for tricky problems, and that mindset needs to be nurtured from a young age, alongside the core technical skills that need to be practiced and tested over and over again. If the project succeeds, which means nurturing talent in a cost-effective and scalable way, then it will be my proudest legacy, far more important than books that I written or films I have made. The goal is to enable many more young people to achieve excellence.”

So, is the author of Fermat’s Last Theorem, Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts about Alternative Medicine, The Code Book and of The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets working on any new book projects at the moment?

No, he says, citing three reasons: “First, I am not sure that readers are so hungry for science books, because there is so much brilliant material available online for free, and that is a very good thing. Second, I have not had a good idea for a book for the past 14 years. Third, I am very busy working on my maths education project.”

Singh will be coming to Bulgaria for the first time in May 2018, to speak at the annual Sofia Science Festival on May 12 at 7pm. What’s the sneak preview on his presentation, which the British Council bills as a “special trip through the world of his bestsellers”?

“I try to keep my talks fresh by not thinking about them too much in advance,” he tells The Sofia Globe.

“It won’t be a random series of thoughts connected by lots of ums and ers, but the night before I speak I will build a talk that relies on different themes and examples from my various books. Moreover, there will be plenty of time for questions, so that the audience can take the talk in any direction.”

  • The Sofia Globe is a media partner of the 2018 Sofia Science Festival. Further information about the festival is available on its Facebook page.

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About the Author

Clive Leviev-Sawyer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe. He is the author of the book Bulgaria: Politics and Protests in the 21st Century (Riva Publishers, 2015), and co-author of the book Bulgarian Jews: Living History (The Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria 'Shalom', 2018). He is also the author of Power: A Political Novel, available via amazon.com