Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Humility in science

Scientists often like to talk about how much they know and understand. On one level this is fine and appropriate because it is truly amazing how much we do now know and understand about the material world. Yet there are many things we don't really understand, and in some cases it may be argued we may never (at least in our lifetimes) understand certain things.
Furthermore, the preponderance of hype in science today tends to obscure and confuse what we don't understand. Humility can be a good thing for at least two reasons. First, it makes us more open to seeing our mistakes and misunderstandings. Maybe some things we think we do know and understand we may actually be wrong about. Second, in contrast to hype, humility helps us more clearly see and acknowledge the limitations of our current knowledge, so that we can explore ways forward.

Economics is an interesting case. My son, pointed out this quote from Hayek, a Nobel Laureate.
“The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine the can design.”
Friedrich A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism

A concrete illustration of this ignorance is illustrating by considering the basic (and very important) question, ``Does government stimulus spending actually produce economic growth?"
Economists cannot agree on the answer. This issue is nicely discussed in a podcast at Econtalk. Jim Manzi ``argues for humility and lowered expectations when it comes to understanding causal effects in social settings related to public policy.''

The physical sciences are blessed with "controlled experiments" and the fact that physical systems seem to be a lot "simpler" than social systems. Nevertheless, that does not justify hype rather than humility.


  1. “Thoroughly conscious ignorance is the prelude to every real advance in science.”
    James Clerk Maxwell.
    This quote 150 yrs ago is best way to tame hype in science

  2. Dear Ross,
    Thank you for this post. Very beautiful and useful. Humility is also helpful for mental hygiene. Anthony de Mello, SJ, once promised:
    << I'm going to write a book someday and the title will be I'm an Ass, You're an Ass. That's the most liberating, wonderful thing in the world, when you openly admit you're an ass. It's wonderful. When people tell me, "You're wrong" I say, "What can you expect of an ass?" >>