Eureka! Out of the lab and into the theatre

The author of 'Fermat's Last Theorem', Simon Singh, had the bright idea, but can it pull in the crowds today? It worked for the Victorians ...
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The Independent Culture

London's Soho is usually associated with jazz clubs, Chinatown and peep shows, but from this week onwards there will be an incongruous addition to the list – lectures on the mathematics of probability theory.

The Soho Theatre has taken the bizarre decision to invite myself and Dr Richard Wiseman to present a science lecture double-act that will run for four nights. Theatre of Science is an effort to tempt the sort of people who would normally run a billion microns at the thought of attending a science lecture, but who might feel reassured if the science is going to be contained in a funky, cosy, arty environment. This is experimental theatre from a scientific perspective.

It might sound crazy to expect a West End audience to turn up to science lectures, but in the 19th century it was considered a hot night out. In fact, the traffic heading towards lectures at the Royal Institution was so great that the road leading to it, Albemarle Street, was designated London's first one-way street.

Scientists such as Michael Faraday and Humphry Davy wowed audiences with their chemical and electrical tricks. Spectators would be laughing one moment and in tears the next. This might have been the result of leaking nitrous oxide and ammonia, but a more powerful influence was the remarkable ideas on display.

The notion of Theatre of Science hit me just over a year ago, when I attended a lecture by the psychology researcher Richard Wiseman – who also happens to be a member of the Magic Circle. He discussed the psychology of deception, using magic to demonstrate some of the concepts he was trying to explain. The result was an enthralling lecture with a decent dollop of humour.

The only problem was that the lecture was in a rather austere auditorium, and the majority of the audience already had an interest in science. Here was a speaker who was preaching to the converted, but who could have engaged a much broader cross-section of the public. I suggested to Richard that we find a more mainstream venue for him and that I would also give a science talk, something that could match the theatricality of Richard's magic. And we could turn it into a two-part show.

Although Richard and I have somehow been included within the Soho Theatre's comedy listing, I should stress that we are not comedians. Instead, we are more like the Victorian lecturers, purporting to be purveyors of fine ideas. There will be a few laughs in the show, but more importantly, there will be moments of realisation, instances when the audience suddenly grasps a fundamental scientific concept. Personally, I find a lucid explanation as memorable as a great joke.

My lecture is all about probability and risk, possibly the most important and least understood areas of mathematics. There are no certainties in life, apart from death and taxes. Everything else is probabilistic. Therefore, people need to understand how probability works in order to make good decisions.

Probability, and its misunderstanding, is everywhere. For example, in the trial of OJ Simpson, the defence attorney repeatedly stated that only 1 in 2,500 women who are abused by their partners go on to be killed by them. Therefore, he persuaded the jury that the spousal abuse in the Simpson marriage was irrelevant to the case.

At first sight his reasoning might seem to make sense. However, the probability of 1 in 2,500 is largely irrelevant. If Nicole Simpson were still alive, then it would be fair to say that it's unlikely that in the future she would be killed by her abuser. But we know that Nicole Simpson is dead, so the more relevant fact is that nine out of 10 murdered women in abusive relationships are killed by their partners. Nobody in court questioned the significance of the earlier statistic or brought up the more pertinent one.

Judges, lawyers and juries need to be trained in the intricacies of mathematics. Otherwise the court is incapable of deciding the significance of a DNA match or spotting the flaw in a statistical argument or assessing the relevance of probabilistic evidence.

Science is a fundamentally probabilistic pursuit, and scientists need to explain this to the public in order for people to have a voice in debates ranging from genetics to global warming. Whenever a scientist publishes a result, there is always a careful analysis of the probability that the result is indeed true. There can never be 100 per cent certainty, but 99 per cent or even 95 per cent is a level of probability that the scientific community can accept. Proving a theory is a bit like convicting a defendant, inasmuch as a theory is only proved "beyond reasonable doubt". A scientific theory, as agreed by the scientific community, is the best theory we have.

Once accepted, a result or theory is then put on a pedestal, but only so that others can throw rocks at it and try to disprove it. If they knock it off the pedestal, then a new theory has to be created – or at least the old theory has to be revised. But if the original theory remains in place, then it has a greater probability of being true, approaching closer to 100 per cent, but never quite reaching it.

It is vital that scientists convey to the public the fundamentally probabilistic nature of the scientific method. The scientist Stephen J Gould wrote that "a misunderstanding of probability may be the greatest of all impediments to scientific literacy." The visionary HG Wells made a similar point: "Statistical thinking will one day be as necessary for efficient citizenship as the ability to read and write." The entire debate surrounding MMR vaccination should have been about probabilities. The question is not about whether the MMR jab is absolutely safe or not, because this is something that cannot be established with certainty. Instead, the question is probabilistic. Is having the MMR jab probably better than not having it? The scientific consensus is that the probability that a particular jab will cause autism is vanishingly small. Furthermore, not having the MMR jab leads to a much greater probability of serious illness. There is an exceedingly high probability that it is safer to have the MMR jab than to not have it.

Medical researchers continue to examine the MMR vaccine and any associated risk, trying to reduce the uncertainties by conducting detailed surveys across large populations. Meanwhile, there continue to be vocal critics of MMR, who often seem to base their analysis on anecdote or a one-off observation, ignoring or misunderstanding the probabilities involved.

My lecture will attempt to give the audience a better feel for probability. Along the way I will reveal some absurd paradoxes and some highly counter-intuitive results. To reinforce the point, the audience will get the chance to gamble. Everybody will put their probability skills to the test by placing a free bet, and if they win, then I will buy them a drink. I am banking on the subtleties of probability theory to win the vast majority of bets, otherwise I could be out of pocket by the end of the run. However, there will be times when the laws of chance (and that's an oxymoron if ever there was one) will go against me, so to some extent my performance is in the lap of the probability gods.

Theatre of Science will give Richard and myself a chance to talk about a couple of subjects that fascinate us, but the longer term goal is to establish a regular venue to allow scientists to talk to the public. I have seen enough scientists who have the talent to enlighten and entertain an audience to know that we can sustain a regular show. And I have faith in the British public that they are curious enough to want to hear about the latest theories in cosmology or the newest mathematical analysis of juggling.

If Theatre of Science works, then it will be a permanent fixture in the West End. The public will come in droves, secure in the knowledge that they will leave the theatre enlightened and entertained. Fortunately, the Soho Theatre is already on a one-way street.

'Theatre of Science': Soho Theatre, London W1 (020 7478 0100), Wed, Thur and 24 April at 8pm; 25 April at 6pm & 8pm. For further details visit www.sohotheatre.com/comedy

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