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Jim al-Khalili: ‘You can’t just give people the facts’

The physicist on how scientists can gain people's trust
May 12, 2022

Jim al-Khalili is recovering from Covid; luckily, he’s fully vaccinated and wasn’t hit too hard. A professor of theoretical physics at Surrey, and one of our best science communicators, al-Khalili is proud of his profession’s role during the pandemic. Covid showed us “just how important it is for people to be scientifically literate enough to know why they should get the vaccine, why they should be wearing a mask, why ventilation is important.”

His own specialism helped us communicate in lockdown. “Without quantum mechanics,” he tells me, “I wouldn’t be talking to you over Zoom, right. Because we wouldn’t have understood the nature of semiconductor materials. And we wouldn’t therefore have developed silicon chips, microchips and computers.” 

His pithy new book, The Joy of Science, argues we could all do with a bit more scientific thinking. Boris Johnson insisted he was “following the science,” but “one of the strengths of science,” says al-Khalili, “is that we adjust our understanding in light of new evidence.” There are now so many “alternative views” on offer that it can be difficult to come to reasoned conclusions. The scientific method can, he says, help us stay “objective.”

How to deal with a vaccine sceptic? “You can’t just give people the facts. You can’t just say, ‘this vaccine works, you have to go and get a jab.’ You have to gain society’s trust.” A friend of his who believes in homeopathy won’t let her children take paracetamol. “But even someone like that, if it came to having a mammogram, for example… she knows that medicine is the only way.”

Born in Baghdad in 1962 to a Protestant English mother and Shia Iraqi father, al-Khalili is used to negotiating between perspectives. As an ex-president of the British Humanist Association (now Humanists UK), he has an evangelical belief in rationality. Unlike other atheist-scientists, though, he is friendly, even cuddly, towards his opponents. He once presented an enlightening BBC series called Science and Islam.

He also admits that scientists have their own biases: “the scientific community is at least starting to acknowledge that there’s not enough diversity of views.” Yet he is clear that truth does exist, and it is the scientist’s job to “weed out” what he calls “culturally relative truths… and examine them rationally.”

I raise the trans debate, where both sides argue science bolsters their case. Some trans activists claim that having a “female brain” in a male body requires corrective surgery. But fertility expert Robert Winston was adamant on Question Time that “you cannot change your sex,” which he defines by a person’s chromosomes. 

“With issues like that,” al-Khalili responds carefully, “where science is really integrated into the complexity of human behaviour, cultural and societal norms at any particular period, science loses that absoluteness. You can make certain statements and facts about chromosomes. You can find counter-examples where that is fuzzy, where it’s not necessarily true… the ground is murkier.”

Less murky is climate change, where a political consensus has emerged. In 2017, a climate-sceptic like Nigel Lawson could be invited onto the Today programme for “balance.” That wouldn’t happen now, in part thanks to al-Khalili who, along with Brian Cox, got in touch with Radio 4 and told them that the facts at least no longer needed debating. 

As with Covid, will science help solve climate change? “I’ve always been a glass-half- full person,” al-Khalili tells me. “When push comes to shove, science will respond. Whether it’s seeding clouds or carbon capture or growing algae in the sea to absorb more CO2—we’ll come up with a solution.”