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Developing A Scientific Mindset (My Unofficial Guide): Part I: Humility

Updated: Dec 9, 2022


Welcome to the first official post on AMND as well as the first installment in a series dealing with a subject, about which, I am very passionate -- scientific literacy. For quite some time, I've wanted to speak on and contribute to improving general scientific literacy, and I feel that there have been few moments in time in which the value of and need for improved scientific literacy have been clearer.

I've always been curious about the natural world, understanding how it works, and -- most importantly -- understanding how we know it works. As a scientist, there are few things -- if any -- that match the joy taking the knowledge acquired by decades, centuries, or millennia of inquisitiveness, dedicated study, as well as moments of serendipity, and incorporating it into a problem of modern times, knowing that that bit of information -- regardless of its source -- has stood the tests of time because it itself reveals something fundamental about the universe and ourselves.

In this first installment, I'll briefly address 'humility', why I feel it's vital to the scientific enterprise, admissions of incorrectness, and adaptation.

Knowing that things happen pales in comparison to understanding how they happen, and I hope that -- with this series, as well as other posts -- I can effectively communicate that to any who are interested.

Thanks again.


Part I: Humility

Humility is often spoken of within the context of social interactions. Personal achievements and honors are celebrated and the recipient shows gratitude for the recognition, often by downplaying the degree of their own involvement while acknowledging others for their contribution. It's widely regarded seen as one of the more respected traits a person can possess in a social setting.

Humility is certainly valuable in any setting, no less a social one. However, often overlooked is its value in science. Though the context may differ, humbling one's self is key in developing a curiosity for understanding the natural world.

I want to very briefly talk about a couple of key components of this approach and why they are necessary in the scientific process.

  1. Admission of Ignorance and Incorrectness

  2. Need and Desire to Adapt

Admission of Ignorance

We are all ignorant of most things -- far more than we are aware -- and that-- in and of itself -- isn't an issue. There will always be something unknown to us at any given time. Even when we, as a species, cooperate to bridge much of that ignorance, there is more to learn. One of the most helpful aspects of science and the scientific process is the recognition and utilization of this fact.

Though not the case in other areas of life (e.g. politics, religion, etc.) in which -- for better or worse -- an admission of ignorance opposes institutional assertions and/or results in a loss of influence, admissions of ignorance in the scientific process help avoid the complications that accompany compromised veracity.

Admitting our ignorance drives us to want to learn that which we don't know. It fuels us to reject and/or overcome intellectual stagnation, giving us the assurance that, if we are willing to, we can always improve our condition. Ultimately, this admission allows us to let our observations and measurements tell us the story of the universe, and not the other way around.

A Need to Adapt

In the recognition of an error, miscalculation, or setback, a scientific approach does not include continuing with the same process that yielded the unwanted result; nor does or should it claim that the object, situation, or topic of study is the cause of the problem. Instead, the appropriate response to realizing that a mistake was made is to revise the hypothesis and the methodology. When hypotheses are tested and shown to lack the necessary evidence to move forward, we set them aside and -- until one shows promise -- continue with that which works, always seeking to improve upon it. In a way, one could consider it to be a "common sense" approach. Indeed, the scientific approach -- at its heart -- is simplistic, yet it is that simplicity and effectiveness as a knowledge-gathering system that makes it our greatest tool.

Of course, the methodology can -- at times -- be slightly more complex than I'm letting on, however the message remains the same. If you expect one thing, and observations show you something else, you must adapt. To quote the late physicist Richard Feynman "if it disagrees with experiment, it's wrong".

The universe is always correct and it's our job to agree with it. That is the essence of scientific adaptation. The ability and willingness to change in the presence of new or contrasting information is a display of humility. We know that we don't know everything, but this recognition and acceptance is what will allow us to move forward.


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