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I’ve lately been reading and enjoying The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan‘s manifesto against pseudoscientifc beliefs (such as alien abductions). One of the more enjoyable and thought-provoking sections of the book is a discussion of scientists’ humility: “I maintain that science is part and parcel humility. Scientists do not seek to impose their needs and wants on Nature, but instead humbly interrogate Nature and take seriously what they find. We are aware that revered scientists have been wrong. We understand human imperfection.” (32) The ideal scientist humbles herself before the truths about the natural world that she finds in her work. He quotes his wife Ann Druyan to the effect that science “is forever whispering in our ears, ‘Remember, you’re very new at this. You might be mistaken. You’ve been wrong before.'” (34-5) I hadn’t thought of science in these terms before, but I think Sagan is quite right about this – to an extent, as I’ll discuss below. Sagan repeatedly and rightly stresses the importance of uncertainty for a scientist; to live up to the ideals of scientific research requires the ability to admit we are wrong. A scientist must never be too confident in her own rightness; what first seems obvious is often exactly what turns out to be wrong, overthrown by the evidence. I think this is excellent advice for scientists to follow – or anyone else.

After quoting Druyan, Sagan proceeds immediately to add: “Despite all the talk of humility, show me something comparable in religion.” And this is where he goes astray. For the answer is right there in that very sentence. Talk of humility – humility as an ideal – is directly comparable to Druyan’s quote, which is, of course, itself talk. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Ideals are good things to live up to. It’s just that in practice we fail to do so.

The chastened intellectualists named by Aaron Stalnaker – the Christian Augustine and the Confucian Xunzi – tell us exactly the idea spoken in Druyan’s “whisper.” In the few decades we humans have on earth, we remain very new at this whole living thing. We may well be mistaken about a great deal; we have been wrong before. Even our reason can mislead us, a point on which they agree with Freud: too often it serves only to come up with rationalizations for the troublesome desires that are in fact bad for us. I have argued before that humility is, if anything, even more important for Judaism and Islam – for there the gulf between imperfect humans and perfect God is far greater than it is in Augustine’s Christianity, where a human being could be God.

Sagan’s reference to “talk” suggests a gap between ideals and practice. We are all too familiar with the arrogance of zealots, the Bible-thumping preacher and the unpersuadable New Age Buddhist who refuse to admit any doubts in their views. Such people fail to live up to their traditions’ own “talk of humility,” the ideal that Sagan himself identifies: they fail to acknowledge that they are mere humans and not an omniscient God or Buddha. But once we acknowledge that humility here is a gap between ideals and practice, then science does not seem so very different. It is not clear how often science changes because those who held falsified ideas recant them, and how often it changes because those whose beliefs didn’t fit the evidence simply die off. Here we are dealing with my point from last week: in scientific tradition as in “religious” traditions, there is a gap between theory and practice, the normative ideal the tradition advocates and the historical institutions charged with bringing that ideal to life.

This gap can be bridged, of course. Sagan does about as good a job as anyone can at the difficult (because paradoxical) task of demonstrating his own humility, when on pages 256-7 he comes out to list several cases where he has been proven wrong. But in this he is not so far from Augustine, whose Confessions is a book-length account of the various ways he has been wrong in his life to this point – and a painful acknowledgement of the ways he still falls short of the ideal.

There, Sagan (like Augustine) personally lives up to the ideal of humility he espouses. What he doesn’t show us is humility in the scientific tradition he advocates for. In arguing that science is humble in practice as well as theory, he proudly claims that “We give our highest rewards to those who convincingly disprove established beliefs.” He proceeds to cite several examples of cases where young and up-and-coming scientists have managed to overturn ideas previously cherished. But this is no example of humility. It is no humility at all to show how someone else is wrong. Typically, that is the very opposite of humility, which requires acknowledging where you have been wrong. To reward those who generate new ideas and disprove the old can encourage an arrogance that goes against the scientific ideal. For if your data only serve to confirm your null hypothesis – the existing established views – you may well be tempted to fudge that data to get the new and exciting view you wanted, the one that is rewarded. The academic humanities and social sciences often proceed similarly on the model of rewarding those who demonstrate new things, and I can vouch those who have been so rewarded tend to have outsized egos.

Humility is hard work, harder than many other virtues. André Comte-Sponville calls it a contradictory virtue, because he who claims to have it does not. One of the more reliable ways to get it is to submit to the ideals of an established tradition, rather than exalting your independent ideals as the highest good. In this respect, scientific tradition is quite comparable to the traditions we call “religious.”