Nick Ross: Director Cheltenham Science Festival

PUBLISHED: 14:20 31 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:08 20 February 2013

Nick Ross

Nick Ross

Nick Ross, Guest Director of this year's Cheltenham Science Festival, is best known as presenter of BBC Crimewatch....

Nick, you're going to be speaking on the 'normality of crime' at this year's festival - the fact that, by the age of 30, one in three men will have a criminal conviction. Are you saying we're all potential criminals?

I'm saying more than that. Most of us are criminals, though most of us didn't get caught and weren't reported to the police, sent for trial and convicted. It is a splendid myth that the world is divided into criminals and innocent citizens. Just as we are all sometimes pedestrians and sometimes passengers, so in our lifetime of behaviours we tend to stray from one category, lawful, into another, unlawful. In fact it's a rather unusual person who has never stolen, never cheated, never vandalised, never hit anyone, never bunked off a fare, never evaded a tax, never broken any criminal laws. Of course we all tend to rationalise our own misdemeanours - it's other people that make us hot under the collar. That's not to deny that some people are more predisposed to lawbreaking than others, and given my two decades on Crimewatch I'm more than aware there are some pretty nasty people, but it is usually sensible to caution against the sanctimony of believing we ourselves are above it all.

We know that criminal profiling will often lead police to the sort of person who might commit a particular crime - and we know how accurate these assessments can be. We can also point to many triggers of crime - poverty, deprivation, lack of love in early childhood. Do you think, in that case, people are really 'free' to choose a life of crime over a respectable existence?

Phew. Without getting into the philosophical problem of freedom of the will versus determinism, it seems to me that on a practical level, as with criminality, there isn't a dichotomy. We are not entirely free - we are prisoners of our genes and aspects of our environment, and we can be trapped by addictions which can include risk-taking and violence - but nor are we devoid of choices. With rare exceptions, such as acute psychotic illness or severe personality disorders, people need to be held accountable for their actions. After all, we know instinctively and experimentally that almost everyone behaves better when they think someone responsible is watching them, so clearly we are all able to control ourselves to some degree. There's no room for fatalism. Of course if only our behaviour really was predetermined, then we could predict crime perfectly: who would do it, where and how and when. In fact despite what you say about forensic profilers, they are rarely used except in exceptional cases involving unusual offenders; and even then profiling can be hit and miss. Predicting who will behave badly is not much of a science yet; or at any rate it is a science in its infancy. Certainly the factors you cite, poverty, deprivation and lack of love, are poor predictors of crime in general, and even worse in identifying, let alone forecasting, individual offenders.

You read psychology at Queen's University, Belfast. What led you to take such an interest in the mind?

My aunt was a psychotherapist and I had psychoanalysis as a child, so I was naturally interested in psychology. When I went to university I supposed it would give me x-ray vision into people's souls. But it turned out to be much more interesting than that. At Queen's, psychology was scientific. We had to learn experimental methods, understand anatomy, assess statistical correlations. Coming from an arts background I was horrified at first, but it opened up a whole new world for me. Perhaps I should add that psychology is about behaviour - the manifestation of what goes on inside our heads - rather than about our minds. 'Mind', like 'soul', is a useful concept in a very general sense, but doesn't really bear close scrutiny or definition. Behaviour is our window into whatever it is. In my experience only quack psychology claims to be about the mind.

There seems to be a violent streak running through your career! Your first job as a journalist was reporting on the troubles in Belfast for BBC Northern Ireland. What did this experience teach you about 'ordinary' people and how they can turn to extremes?

Ordinary people make up the most successfully selfish and aggressive species on the planet. In the right conditions most of us are placid, but if provoked most of us can do terrible things. In the aftermath of the second world war, when the Germans were vilified for the Holocaust, US experiments noted that actually many nationalities had been part of the brutality, and wondered if ordinary Americans could be persuaded to act that savagely too. The results - since replicated dozens of times in many different countries - are vivid and depressing. But you don't need experiments to prove the point. Look at the real world. And sometimes the closer people are, as with families, the harder they fall out.

You have been involved in the ethics of gene therapy and other medical and scientific matters, including the use of chimps and other non-human primates in research; and we're now talking about creating human/animal hybrid embryos for research. Can we ever know what is 'right' in science? And should the general public - who as non-specialists cannot understand all the complexities involved - expect to have a say in these matters?

No, we can never know what is right in science, either in the practical or moral sense. Science is a technique for narrowing down unknowns. Only faith deals in certainty, though in the practical sense mathematics gets close at times, and science sometimes gives you the next best thing. As for the ethical aspects, again the only repository of certainty is faith - and judging by religions over the past millennia even faith changes quite a bit, at least between generations. Ethics may be shaped in part by our discoveries, but they reflect our society in its widest sense, not just its science. That's why scientists routinely have ethics committees, recruiting lay people (sometimes including me), to keep a check on the implications of their actions. We can never claim to get it right in the sense of ending all moral arguments - all we can do is try to reach a logically coherent and moral consensus. Wouldn't it be interesting if artists - and journalists - exposed themselves to the same external scrutiny? As for whether non-specialists can understand, the answer is they can, or at least they can to the same degree they can grasp contemporary art, economics, history or anything else. It would help if universities insisted on scientists and students using plain English. Sadly, academics often rather encourage verbal impenetrability and even pomposity. Actually it is essential that we all do make an effort to understand science, and newspapers should recruit more science-trained journalists to help us navigate through the complexities. After all, whether it's nuclear power, radio masts or MMR inoculations it is key to public policy, public health, and sometimes democracy itself.

During your time on Crimewatch, your co-presenter at the time, Jill Dando, was tragically murdered. To have something so dreadful happen to someone you were close to must have dramatically altered your views about crime? It also led to you promoting new ways of tackling the fight against crime...

Jill's death was a momentous event for all who knew her. But I'm not sure it shaped my attitudes to crime. In fact if anything it galvanised me to a focus on quite different forms of offending - not rare stranger homicides (and they are rare - a small fraction of people killed in road accidents, for example) but the sort that affects most people: mass crime like street offences, burglary, car break-ins and vandalism. And focusing not so much on detection as on prevention. Crimewatch had taught me that the criminal justice system is a very slow, expensive and cumbersome way of tackling crime. The courts are presumed to be the key to resolving it and yet in no way are judges or other lawyers held to account for the ebb and flow of crime. I looked to criminology for answers, but found most of it was neo-Marxist theorising with little practical interest in crime reduction. That was what led me to conceiving a new discipline to be called Crime Science, which would recruit all the multidisciplinary talents - and above all the systematic methods - of science to analyse patterns of crime and find new ways to cut it. Jill's death prompted me to propose a new institution in her honour and to start a new charity in her name. Her fianc agreed to be the chairman of the Jill Dando Fund and we raised almost 1.5m which established the Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science at University College London. It now has some 30 people working there and two other universities have established Crime Science departments.

You're particularly associated with Crimewatch, but you've made documentaries on many serious issues, including the rise in road accidents, and drug addiction. Are there still subjects you feel are under-reported that you've yet to tackle?

I'm always attracted to Cinderella issues. Road safety was regarded as an anorak subject when I got involved but we managed to cut fatalities by almost half. I'd love to devote more attention to mental illness. In fact there are dozens of issues I'd like to get involved with, and the trouble is that to some extent I have: I've committed to more good causes than I can give enough time to. Given the range of problems that deserve our attention, it's such a shame that despite the huge diversity we have in mass media, the news agenda encourages journalists to gravitate again and again to the same popular and narrow themes.

You are one of the writers who have helped bring science to the public and are keen to interest the wider world in scientific issues. Richard Dawkins, Robert Winston, Stephen Hawking - thanks to people like you, our top scientists are now celebrities. Why is it important to capture public interest on scientific matters?

I'm not sure you should bracket me with such superstars, and those you cite are actual scientists, unlike me; but we do share a passion for communicating science. What I mean by that is not a passion for throwing facts around. Detailed knowledge is rarely the key. It's about sharing discoveries, and above all sharing understanding of how to evaluate evidence. If there's one thing that motivates me it's something that goes back to experiments we conducted at university: the recognition that we human beings, though equipped with a powerful intellect, are hard-wired to make quick decisions on imperfect evidence and then often cling to those opinions in the face of better evidence. We rely too much on anecdote, personal experience and intuition. We are resistant to being told we are wrong. Scientists share all our human failings but the best of them have developed techniques for sieving out part of our egos and our biases. Theirs were the techniques that taught us the Earth was spherical and circled the sun - both daft ideas - and, also teaching us humility, that we humans are closely related to other animal species and share common ancestors. It is the systematic approach of science which, since the Age of Enlightenment, has freed us from so much superstition, doubled our lifespan and flown us to the moon. If life is a journey of discovery, we have lived more in the last two centuries than in the previous two millennia. Little wonder scientists have become celebrities. But most of these inventions have power, and power can always be used for good or ill. That's why it's so important to capture public interest on scientific matters.

The Cheltenham Science Festival is a great way to engage the public in scientific debate, of course! Which are the pressing issues this year, and which events are you most looking forward to seeing?

Life has taught me to value the unexpected, so the most truthful answer is: I don't know. Obviously I have a particular interest in the crime theme, and how exciting it is that scientists are becoming engaged in finding ways to cut it, not just investigate it. I'm also intrigued about IQ tests and why it is that they're so poor at predicting conspicuous success. In fact as I go through the Cheltenham programme it's hard to find a subject that doesn't interest me.

As this year's guest director, what are you aiming to bring to the festival?

Engagement. I hated science at school. I remember one intriguing introductory lesson with lots of bangs and flashes and after that it was mostly rote learning. It wasn't until I became engaged with science by accident when reading psychology at university that I realised what it had to offer. Incidentally, I, like all my colleagues from the arts and humanities studying for a BA, thought ourselves superior to our fellow undergraduates who were on track for a BSc, but we soon discovered that while we were hard-pressed to explain simple phenomena - like why radio signals get through walls - the science students could not only answer that but knew as much about the theatre, galleries and cinema as we did. Galling. So if drama, art and movies can be accessible to scientists, why can't the rest of us share the glory of the sciences?

The environment is always an important topic at the festival - you yourself act as an Ambassador for the World Wildlife Fund. Are we getting better at understanding and appreciating our effect on the world around us?

Sometimes we humans underestimate the colossal influence we have on the rock we call home. Take a plane from anywhere to anywhere and look down on a planet's surface that has been thoroughly harnessed to the short-term needs of just our species. We have tamed the wild. We have planted farms across continents. We have drawn water from the deserts. We have trawled life from the depths of the lakes and seas. We have dug up fossil fuels that took millennia to form. We have caused mass extinctions. We are plundering the world's resources at a pace that Nature can't replenish. Now at last we have grasped the significance of our impact. True, extinctions can do long-term good by opening up niches for the evolution of new creatures, and true the universe could get on happily without homo sapiens, but for sentimental reasons I don't like the thought. It's also true that some green propaganda goes well beyond the evidence, but at least we've woken up from our sleepwalk. Maybe technology will come up with all the answers, but I wouldn't bet the lives of future generations on it. So yes, we are getting better at appreciating the effect we are having on our world.

If there were just one message people could take away from the festival, what would it be?

That science is not a dry library of facts, nor even a group of subjects like physics or biology. It is a careful approach which helps us check whether what we think is true is really likely to be true. And this, essentially simple, methodology has created more spine-tingling insights and more amazing advances, than all the philosophy, wizardry and certainty that went before.

Do you have nightmares...?

No, hardly ever. Or at any rate I don't remember them!

Cheltenham Science Festival, June 4-8: Where else can you debate the hottest topics:

Should scientists be allowed to create human-animal hybrid embryos for research?

Where would scientific evidence for a theory of everything leave religion?

Put your questions to some of the country's leading scientist, including Richard Dawkins and Raymond Tallis; do your own experiments in the free hands-on Discover Zone exhibition; enjoy a drink whilst exploring the science of cocktails; and indulge a little sexual competition in Sperm Warfare ...all on the same day!

And there are still four other days to enjoy, featuring, amongst others, Guest Director Nick Ross, Top Gear's Richard Hammond, Tony Robinson, comedian Mark Watson, Robert Winston, Steven Pinker and David King.

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