Professor Richard Wiseman
Richard Wiseman is Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. Wiseman’s career began as a magician, before graduating in Psychology from University College London (UCL) and obtaining a PhD in Psychology from the University of Edinburgh.
Wiseman is best known for his critical examination and debunking of ‘paranormal phenomena’. He has written a number of bestselling books on this subject as well as rational self-help books. He has recently created a brand new magic trick called ‘The Grid’.
I think people need to understand how science works.
On becoming interested in science
I became interested in science when I was probably about ten. I can remember doing a magic trick – because I became interested in magic when I was about eight – and I did the trick in a particular way, but then I changed the wording and then the trick didn’t work anymore, and so I became fascinated by perception and the mind and from there got into psychology, so, yeah, around about ten.
On the joy of science
For me, I think the joy of science is simply finding out how the world works. And for me that’s psychology, so finding out how our minds work, why people behave in certain ways, or they don’t understand what makes them happy, or they don’t understand why they’re procrastinating or whatever. And if you can gain some sort of insight into that and feed that information back to them and then hopefully make them more successful or happy or whatever, then you’re making the world a better place in your own little way and for me that’s the excitement of psychology.
On my science hero
I would go with a psychologist as my hero. A guy called Joseph Jastrow who was a psychologist in the 1930s and he discovered what’s called the duck-rabbit illusion – which is an illustration that looks like either a rabbit or a duck – and got very excited about that, and I get very excited about that as well, so both of us share excitement of the duck-rabbit. And Jastrow was also interesting because he created the modern form of write-up for psychology, and science as well, so when you write a paper and it says: introduction and method and results and discussion and ah…that’s Jastrow’s invention. So this man had this idea that’s then influenced the whole of science, but little known for it, and little celebrated, so he would be my hero.
On the importance of understanding how science works
I think that people need to understand how science works. That’s incredibly important. So that when they read something that says, ‘Oh, red wine is really good for you’, they can go, ‘Whoa, hold on, hold on a second, what do you mean? What’s the evidence? How many studies? How were they conducted? Who carried them out? Have they been published?’ Those sorts of things are absolutely crucial to understanding science so you can become a sort of informed consumer. So, for me, the popularisation of science should really be about the popularisation of the scientific method: how it works, how it can sometimes go wrong, and how you need to understand that in order to understand what you should and shouldn’t be doing in your life.
I guess whenever you popularise something you cut corners. So, if I do some research and, ah…as I did the other day and looked at the influence of eye movement on lying and I found that there’s this myth that when people lie they look up to a certain place and when they tell the truth they look somewhere else. No truth in it at all. So I put out this finding and it gets picked up by journalists and they over interpret it. They say, ‘Eye movements have absolutely no relationship to lying at all’. Well, that isn’t the case: it was just that my particular finding showed that particular eye movements weren’t related to lying. And as soon as you start doing that, as soon as you start cutting corners, then you’ll get critics, quite rightly, saying, ‘Well now, hold on a second, now you’re over interpreting your results and we need to stand back from this’. But I think the worry about popularising science is we start to simplify, we start to dumb down, and then critics can quite rightly attack the process. So the skill of popularisation is to simplify but not to dumb down. To get the message across but to still have all the checks and balances in place that is part of good science.
I guess, I think, in a sense, people have too much faith in science because the public will think, ‘Ah, a scientist has said that therefore it’s true’. And, of course, that’s not how it works in science. What we thought 100 years ago we don’t think now, and in ten years we won’t think what we think now either. Science is about a way of looking at the world, about slowly getting it right, but it takes a long time and along the way you get it wrong a lot of the time. So I think that’s really important. The other worry is that people hear about these amazing breakthroughs and they don’t realise that most science, like anything else most people do, is really dull. It’s day to day, chipping away before the big bit falls off and you suddenly go, ‘My goodness. Now we’ve changed the world.’ And so there is this concern that if we say to people that science is really amazing, you should all come and be scientists, they get there, first day in the lab, they find out actually it’s really quite dull. So, I do have these kind of concerns about popularising science but in general I think it’s great to get people energised about science.
On the importance of being interested
I don’t think people have to be curious about science. I think that if you care about how the world works, if you care about how you work, if you care about whether a government is being rational in their policies, then, yes, you need to understand how to assess evidence. And that’s what scientists do. But you don’t need to take that approach. You could say, ‘No, I’m going to trust my intuition’, or, ‘I’m just going to have these beliefs even though they might not fit the evidence’ and so on, I think that’s okay. But if you do step over the line and say, ‘No, I do care about evidence’ then yes, you need to understand how science works. And it isn’t difficult. It really isn’t difficult. Sometimes it’s just a little bit counterintuitive and sometimes some of the findings will blow your mind away because they’re so strange, but it’s not that tricky, it’s just very important if you want to understand about the universe you’re living in. Trivial.