Stephen Fry to join Royal Society president to discuss misperceptions around ‘following the science’

21 September 2020

The actor, comedian, writer and polymath Stephen Fry will join Royal Society president, Venki Ramakrishnan, to discuss the vital part science has to play in addressing global health issues, in particular its crucial role during the Covid-19 pandemic. The ‘In Conversation’ event, which will be livestreamed on YouTube at 6pm on 20 October 2020, will highlight the importance of maintaining trust in cutting-edge science while also recognising its inherent uncertainty and limits. 

Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society, said: “In a time of crisis people want simple answers but the science is rarely simple.  No one had heard of Covid-19 a year ago so we have had to learn a huge amount in a very short space of time – we better understand how it spreads and have developed better ways to treat it - but there is still a huge amount we do not know.  If we try and gloss over that uncertainty we risk breaking the trust the public has in science.

“Worse still, there are those who wilfully ignore the uncertainty and present their own outlandish theories, often based on rumours circulated through social media, as fact. We have seen 5G masts burned down because of unfounded theories that they spread the virus.  We have seen dangerous suggestions about injecting bleach into people to fight the virus. In a world where information can flash around the world in seconds, we need that information to be based on the evidence.”

Stephen Fry said: “To be asked to speak at the Royal Society (even when the at is more of an @ and denotes a virtual appearance) is one of those honours which gets cold shivers and hot tremors running up and down the spine. I am so looking forward to diving in with President Ramakrishnan and talking about many things.

“For example, how science is simultaneously so close to us interested non-scientists and yet seems so alien, and so alienated. For even science, ultimately, can only communicate itself by language, and – as artists, writers and plenty of scientists have described so well over the centuries – language can obscure, distort and pervert as much as it can clarify, explain and enlighten. The president and I will be using words, not symbols, numbers or gestures for our conversation … so I do hope you will drop in, lend ears and maybe help us out as we toss ideas about.”

The event comes amid concerns that the government’s message during the pandemic that it was ‘following the science’ has created a perception that scientific knowledge is fixed and completely certain.  As a result, when changes in scientific advice or policy are made, people assume that the science was wrong, rather than the fact that more has been learned about the virus and its impact.

Dr Ramakrishnan added: “Our aim is to explore the public’s understanding of scientific approaches and methods and to inspire and enthuse them about the essential role science plays in our understanding of nature and our amazing universe, as well as our everyday lives.

“However, it is also important to remember that at the frontiers of science there is always uncertainty. Science gathers evidence to reduce uncertainty but this happens slowly as data are gathered and hypotheses are tested.

“We will explore the need to understand how the process of science works to accumulate knowledge. We need to understand that uncertainty is an intrinsic part of science. We also need to understand how we perceive relative risks. This has a lot of real-world implications from acceptance of vaccines to acknowledgement of climate change and its consequences.

Find further information on “Following the Science: An evening with Stephen Fry and Venki Ramakrishnan”, which will include pre-submitted questions from viewers as well as live questions and comments.