We need to stop being irrational

Jim Al-Khalili , Professor of Physics and Chair of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey

For a theoretical physicist who’s trained in thinking about quantum mechanics, which involves the idea that by observing something you alter its nature, I know that it is not necessary to explain what we see in terms of an objective reality. In fact, physicists in the 1920s argued long and hard about this – and indeed continue to do so today. By an ‘objective reality’, I mean a real, concrete world that is out there independent of our senses. And, like Einstein, my view is there is indeed an objective reality out there. It might seem obvious this has to be the case, you have to have some sort of working definition of reality. I think there is a definitive ‘truth’, and whilst we don’t know how far away we are from it science can help us converge on it.

The aspect of science that guides us on this path is, for me, rationalism. Rationalism is the bedrock of the scientific method, and when we encourage people to engage in ‘science’ we should encourage them to embrace this outlook – An attitude of constant wonder and healthy scepticism, of forming beliefs based on more than faith alone.

This does not mean rejecting faith, religion or personal beliefs, as we are all entitled to interpret the same reality in different ways. What it does mean is that we should arrive at our beliefs through reason, evidence and inquiry.

There are many ways we can encourage rationalism, from teaching it in schools to calling out irrationality in media and politics. By sharing in this rationalist journey, we promote tolerance and understanding and foster healthy debate, bringing science together with other viewpoints and enriching our culture in the process.

Professor Jim Al-Khalili OBE is a British scientist, author and broadcaster. He is a professor of Physics at the University of Surrey where he also holds a chair in the Public Engagement in Science. Jim has served as a trustee and vice president of the British Science Association and was president of the British Humanist Association between 2012 and 2016.

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