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How scientists and non-scientists perceive the world


'Knowing' in science
Francis Crick Scientist
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Science is very different in this way from what most people think of as… as knowledge and what they know. The thing you know in science is never absolutely right, you can never say that. It’s the best interpretation you have at the time. But some interpretations are so good that it’s probably foolish to doubt them most of the time. So that you don’t doubt them and you… but you have to know what all these previous interpretations of the data are… are, otherwise you… you can’t, as it were, begin thinking in a scientific way about some new problem. So you have to know that, but you have to realise all the time there may be something which you think is a well established fact, or well established theory, which nevertheless isn’t quite right or may have to be looked at in an entirely different way. So, all scientific knowledge is provisional but on the other hand the paradox is it has a much higher degree of certainty than most ordinary knowledge which people think is… is certain but isn’t. So scientists really do live in a quite different intellectual world from the majority of people.

[Q] This isn’t at all generally understood, I don’t think, is it?

No, I… well I… I mean it… I don’t think so, of course, it’s understood by most scientists but… but for people who are non-scientists, that’s not that there’s a lot of intermediate people who are interested in science and some of them would understand it. A lot of non-scientists don’t think that particular way. Thinking in a scientific way is not necessarily a natural way, it just happens to be a very effective way. It’s not even very effective for one person, it must be groups of people doing it because otherwise you get trapped in your own errors and having other people… that’s why you need a consensus of… of people to agree on something scientifically. To have one person is fallible. I won’t say it’s a group… other… a number of people are infallible but they’re less fallible. The errors tend to average out, shall we say.

The late Francis Crick, one of Britain's most famous scientists, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962. He is best known for his discovery, jointly with James Watson and Maurice Wilkins, of the double helix structure of DNA, though he also made important contributions in understanding the genetic code and was exploring the basis of consciousness in the years leading up to his death in 2004.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: science, scientist, scientific fact, scientific consensus

Duration: 1 minute, 58 seconds

Date story recorded: 1993

Date story went live: 24 January 2008