APU Opinion Original

Humility and Science as Essential Bedfellows

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Note: This article is part 4 of a six-part series on humility written by university faculty.

It is said that ego gets you attention, but humility gets you results. This axiom may be true in entertainment or politics, but it runs counter to how things are done in the world of science. In science, when things go well, results get you attention, so humility must be a virtue.

Successful science relies on a high level of “intellectual humility,” which is just an acceptance of the things that you believe might be wrong. This leads to an openness to learning from the experience of others, which is a skill not often taught in STEM programs. However, it is an area of emphasis in many of the degrees at the university, such as our B.S. in computer technology and our upcoming B.A. in computer science.

Humility Is an Essential Quality for Scientists

I have a former colleague who was fond of saying that her “ego was surgically removed in graduate school.” Most successful scientists would agree.

Here is an example. In this animation from a blog article on Psych Networks, a group of seemingly random dots floats through a field. However, when connected, the dots appear to be a series of rotating triangles. Without humility, one might state a discovery and be certain that no other pattern is possible.

However, that same field of dots can form other patterns, such as a series of squares or a six-pointed star. This represents, in the jargon of scientific philosophy, under-determination of theory by evidence, or in the jargon of statistics, statistical equivalence.

An increasingly common representation of this unwillingness to use irrefutable facts to back up one’s position is what is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, which states that the less someone knows about a topic, the more confident they are about it. In short, it is a disbelief that one can have cogitative “blind spots.” Mark Twain summed it up: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Start a B.S. in computer science at American Public University.

Science Relies on the Scientific Method, Which Is Based on an Assumption of Humility

Science relies on the scientific method and that is based on an assumption of humility. It is all about invalidating your own work and the work of others.

Without that process, there could be no scientific progress. Unfortunately, it’s difficult for people to admit that they are wrong, and it’s hard when others point out the error.

Yet science relies on these challenges. A recent example of this evolution and how it was weaponized was in plain view early in the pandemic, when Dr. Anthony Fauci initially told the public that face masks were not needed and might not be effective.

Upon further study and consultation with colleagues, Dr. Fauci reversed that guidance and admitted his earlier mistake in the name of science. This evolution of thought was seen by many as incompetence, due to a lack of understanding of the role that humility plays in science. The public was seeing it play out in real time, which is not something most people are used to. It can be uncomfortable to see how the sausage gets made.

So how do we increase our intellectual humility? We need to appreciate and be open to our cogitative blind spots and recognize that their existence can lead to more discovery. We need to realize that we won’t be punished for our errors, as science relies on them to correct and revise our mistakes.

To help researchers, the Max Planck Institute for Human Development started the “Loss of Confidence Project,” which is a safe opportunity for researchers to state that they no longer believe in one of their previous findings. In short, it’s an opportunity to put intellectual humility on full display and to showcase the evolution of thought.

Science and Society Benefit from Humility

Science is in a good place. Self-correction is becoming as accepted as self-citation. The public has seen this process at work and, while uncomfortable, seems to have accepted it.

Humility and science must go hand in hand to progress, and the ego has to take a big back seat. When these things happen, all of society benefits.

Dr. Danny Welsch is the Associate Dean for the School of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. He holds a M.S. in environmental engineering from the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry and a Ph.D. in environmental science from the University of Virginia. His research focus is on the transfer of water, carbon, and energy between streams, soils, and the atmosphere. He lives in the mountains of Western Maryland where he enjoys backcountry skiing, camping, hiking, and racing bicycles.

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