barnaby_marsh's picture
Evolutionary dynamics scholar; Program in Evolutionary Dynamics, Harvard University; Visitor, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton

You might not think of humility as a scientific concept, but the special brand of humility that is enshrined in scientific culture is deserving of special recognition for its unique heuristic transformative power. 

I reflect upon Sir Richard Southwood's invitation an incoming class of Oxford undergraduate biologists: "Remember, perhaps 50% of the facts that you learn may be not be quite right, or even wrong! It is your job to find out where new ideas are needed." In the scientist's toolkit of concepts for solving problems, scientific humility is among the most useful tool for finding the better pathway. It clarifies, it inspires, and it should be more widely known, practiced, and defended. 

Respect for scientific humility gives us license to question in ways all too rare in other professional fields. Allow yourself to ponder: When were you last surprised? When were you last wrong? As scientists, we are explorers and need to wonder and play. We need to have ample freedom to tinker and fail. In contrast to other fields and even the general culture, our field does not progress by the brash power of authority, by skillful interpretation, or by rhetorical style. It does not advance by the mountain of evidence we are able to amass in our favor, but rather, by how well ideas stand up to rigorous probing and humility. The humble scientist suspends judgment, remembering that many breakthroughs start with "What if?" Am I absolutely sure? How do I know that? Is there a better way? The results are compelling.  Even the most complex systems become more orderly as different pieces of knowledge fall into place. 

As we advance in our scientific careers, it is all too easy to feel overconfident in what we know, and how much we know. The same pressures that face us in our everyday life wait to ensnare us in professional scientific life. The human mind looks for certainly, and finds comfort in parsimony. We see what we want to see, and we believe what makes intuitive sense. We avoid the complex and difficult, and the unknown. Just look across the sciences, from biochemistry to ecology, where multiple degrees of freedom make many problems seemingly intractable. But are they? Could new tools of computation and visualization enable better models of the behavior of individuals and systems? The future belongs to those brave enough to be humble about how little we know, and how much there is that is remaining to be discovered. 

Scientific humility is the key that opens a whole new possibility space-  a space where being unsure is the norm; where facts and logic are intertwined with imagination, intuition, and play. It is a dangerous and bewildering place where all sorts of untested and unjustified ideas lurk. What is life? What is consciousness? How can we understand the complex dynamics of cities? Or even my goldfish bowl?  Go there are one can see quickly why when faced be uncertainty, most of us would rather quickly retreat. Don't. This is the space where amazing things happen. 

The clearest and most compelling message from the history of science is that old ideas, even very good old ideas, are regularly augmented or even replaced altogether with new ideas. As the case of classical and quantum mechanics shows, examples can even be highly counterintuitive. Right now, someone somewhere is beginning to question something that we all take for granted, and the result will radically change our future.