Personal experience can mislead us

Smriti Daniel | Updated on March 10, 2018

Decoder: Simon Singh watched hours and hours of The Simpsons to unearth its many mathematical secrets. -- K Murali Kumar


Scientist and mathematician, author and journalist Simon Singh on why he can’t tolerate fools and the importance of evidence

Simon Singh is immediately recognisable in a crowd — his dramatic haircut riffs on a Mohawk and his oval, gold-rimmed glasses glint in the light. One of Britain’s leading science communicators, Singh left Cambridge with a PhD in particle physics and followed that with a stint at CERN. He then joined the BBC as a producer and director working on programmes such as Tomorrow’s World and Horizon. His documentary about Fermat’s Last Theorem won him a BAFTA award and an Emmy nomination. He is also the author of five books, notably Fermat’s Last Theorem, The Code Book and The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets, but it’s the title of his fourth book, published in 2008, that prompts me to ask him about his opinion of homeopathy.

Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial showcases Singh’s penchant for speaking his mind, which he seems more than happy to do again. “All the evidence we have tells us that homeopathy doesn’t work, for any condition at all,” he says emphatically. Describing a lecture he gave the day before at an university, he reveals that in an impromptu poll of his audience, 49 per cent said they thought it effective, albeit less effective than modern medicine, and a mere one per cent said it doesn’t work.

Singh isn’t feigning his dismay when he reports that asking for evidence from the crowd only drew anecdotes. “I think it’s really important that people use evidence rather than personal experience. Personal experience is a good starting point but our personal experience can mislead us. Our personal experience told us that bloodletting was good, our personal experience told us that astrology was good. Our personal experience tells us all sorts of things. In fact,” he says, peering over the terrace where we’re sitting, “the world looks pretty flat from here.”

Singh’s fierce commitment to science runs deep and strong, it’s what saw him through a harrowing five-year battle with Britain’s antiquated libel law. It all began with a 2008 blog published on The Guardian website in which he criticised the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) for claiming that chiropractors could treat childhood conditions such as colic and asthma. The organisation promptly responded by suing him for libel under Britain’s famously sympathetic laws.

Singh refused to back down, spending tens of thousands of pounds defending himself in court, but the trial galvanised libel reform campaigners and is said to have contributed significantly to the movement that culminated in the passing of the Defamation Act 2013. He and likeminded colleagues have since set up the Good Thinking Society ‘to encourage curiosity and promote rational thinking’. Looking back at the time, Singh savours his victory: “So many people were being threatened and that was ridiculous. We were writing in public interest, and if we can’t write what we want to write, that means that other people don’t hear what they ought to be hearing.”

When pressed for why he’s willing to go out on a limb, Singh lists his many advantages — a wife, Anita Anand, who is a journalist; a steady income from his books; their ownership of their home; the powerful allies they have been able to call on. But later admits ruefully, “I get so angry, I get so frustrated when I see people being ripped off, people being taken advantage of, when I see people saying things are scientific, when they’re pseudoscientific. Those make me so angry and annoyed that it’s easier for me to do something than to just live with that pent-up aggression.”

It seems an uncharacteristic admission from an otherwise even-tempered man, and so it’s perhaps fortuitous that Singh often finds his attention drawn to more playful subjects. His latest book — The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets — celebrates the iconic American TV show’s history of embedding complex theorems and equations into unlikely places: the blackboard in Bart’s classroom or the scoreboard at Duff Stadium in Springfield. (Singh’s favourite episode, in case you are curious, is ‘Treehouse of Horror VI’.) To write the book he watched endless repeats of the show, quizzed the writing team composed of an astonishing percentage of math geeks and pored over commentaries and behind-the-scenes reports.

By following this and other obsessions, the author, whose parents emigrated from India in the 1950s, is giving his son a very different childhood from his own. In March, the family is looking forward to seeing a full solar eclipse from the Faroe Islands — the last one visible in Europe till 2026. In the meantime at home, he and Hari are discovering science together. They conduct experiments where they put soap in the microwave, sprinkle different substances on the gas oven to see what colours result and test the effect acid has on seeds. Singh says he definitely hasn’t set his hopes on his boy growing up to be a scientist, but instead wants them to just enjoy their time together. “He understands what an experiment is,” he says, explaining that the five-year-old is already a proponent of the scientific method. In the process, Hari is already absorbing some of his father’s most profound convictions, not least of which is seeing is not always believing.

( Smriti Daniel is a feature writer based in Sri Lanka.)

Published on January 30, 2015

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