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. Continue reading