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The Huxley debate

The Huxley debate

by Imran Khan, Chief Executive of the British Science Association. Imran discusses the history behind the upcoming Huxley debate and why we've decided to go back to our roots.


The British Science Association is launching the first in a new series of Huxley debates at our Festival this September, with the upcoming debate focusing on epigenetics. But why are we doing this?

Much - maybe too much - of science engagement still relies on an overly simplistic view of what the public will 'get' and find interesting. We spend a lot of time and energy talking about the products and breakthroughs, but not quite as much on the disagreements, debates, and motivations behind research.

I think that the messy, murky, and tentative areas of science are not only hugely relevant to the public, but they also help show what science is really about.

If we restrict ourselves to communicating published papers and neatly defined issues, we miss out on many of the the most interesting bits of science, and the issues that the public often care about most.

Take the Gran Sasso experiment from a few years ago which appeared to show neutrinos generated at the Large Hadron Collider travelling faster than the speed of light. The findings were eventually proved to be a mistake, but only after a period of immense public interest in the fact that one of the central tenets of modern physics was up for question and that scientists didn't know what the answer was.

More recently the UK has had both scientific and political controversy over issues such as 'fracking' for natural gas, a badger cull to stop the spread of bovine tuberculosis, and once again on genetically modified food crops. They're all areas where scientific research is directly affecting people's lives and/or things they care deeply about.

These kinds of debates aren't new. Back at the Association's annual meeting in 1860, Thomas Huxley ('Darwin's Bulldog') and Samuel Wilberforce (the Lord Bishop of Oxford and a Fellow of the Royal Society) debated the still-tentative matter of evolution. 

The debate took place just months after Darwin had finally published On the Origin of Species, and was arguably instrumental in helping the public - or at least some sections of it - engage with evolution as an idea at the same as its scientific merits were being debated.

We want to try and capture that spirit of public debate, engagement, and interest in an area of emerging science, and we want our new series of Huxley debates to be part of the answer.

So on Tuesday 10 September, we're going to have Tim Spector and George Davey-Smith debating the emerging field of epigenetics - is it the great new hope for medical science and patients, or simply hype?

The debate will be chaired by the Association's incoming President, Lisa Jardine, and you're invited to join her in listening to, but also probing and challenging the speakers. Come to the Festival, follow the debate online, or help analyse it afterwards - and whatever you do, tell us what you think and which subjects you think we should explore in future.

Join the debate...
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