Lisa Randall: What makes a science-literate citizen?

Start with understanding what percentages mean, Randall says.
  • Transcript


Lisa Randall: Well the first thing – this is one thing I always say when I’m asked this question – is it would be nice if people understood numbers at a very basic, elementary level so that when any issue – not just a scientific, but especially a scientific issue – is presented, we don’t have to say, “Some people think this and some people think that.” We can say, “Seventy eight percent of the people think this, or this is known at 90 percent confidence level.” And for people to have some idea of what that means so that we can describe . . . I mean there’s always this hesitation when something isn’t 100 percent known. And nothing is ever 100 percent known, and we can test it to some degree of precision. And it would be nice to be able to speak in those terms so that rather than say, “Some people think this or some people think that,” or, “Maybe it’s true or maybe it’s not,” that we can really put . . . attach numbers to that. And I think it would give rise to much more intelligent debates on many subjects. Because the way everything is presented today is sort of in black and white terms. And it would be nice to be able to evaluate. And it’s an interesting thing. I mean I had a friend who used to do that to me. You know he would ask a question and he would say . . . and I’d say, “Well I don’t know the answer to that.” I’d say, “I don’t know whether that’s true or not.” And he’d say, “Well, you know . . .” but he sort of was a gambler. So he’d sort of say, you know, “What kind of odds would you put on it?” And it’s interesting because you almost always do have in the back of your mind some sort of probability. And so rather than just say, “I don’t know,” sometimes just say well, you know, “Maybe 70 percent chance that this is right.” You know and it sort of makes you think a little bit more deeply about these things rather than this very surfaced level which can be dismissive. So I think that’s really important – for people to just have a basic understanding of numbers and what . . . so they can understand scientific evidence better – what it has shown. But also, I mean, there’s obviously just some concepts that I think it’s important to know, particularly about issues that are relevant to our society. I don’t think that people necessarily have to know about theoretical particle physics. I do, however, think that people who want to know about theoretical particle (26:30) physics should have the opportunity to do so. I mean that was one of the reasons I wrote a book, because it’s such difficult material that unless you can really give a lot of the background – explain quantum mechanics, explain general relativity, he particle physics – I can talk about extra dimensions in the way we’re doing now, but it’s nice to have this deeper understanding that comes with really understanding the development of physics; and understanding what are the questions we’re trying to answer at a deeper level; and why would we think this might be the right answer. But I don’t think everyone has to want to know that; but I do think that people who want to should be able to. And these experiments are expensive, and they involve lots of people. And so if we’re asking for the government to support it, it’s only fair that we should tell people why they should be excited. It’s not just discovering Higgs particles. It’s discovering new forces, new elements of nature and what that can mean – what the implications are. Maybe it’s telling us about space time even. I mean it could be really just interesting and deep, even if it’s not changing our daily lives. But there are issues that do change our . . . that are important for our lives where the science can be really complex too, such as climate change, which is an important issue. And it’s important for people to be able to sort of evaluate what’s . . . At this point, almost all of the scientific evidence is given in a sort of “he said, she said” kind of way. And it would be nice to be able to go a little bit more deep into it. A lot of medical advances, it would be nice for people to, again . . . to be able to really evaluate what the evidence is and how many . . . just what the significance is for various studies. Recorded On: 11/2/07