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Humility in Science: Because Science Always Wins

A little while ago I had the privilege of sitting around a table with several other physicians and researchers to discuss a potential collaboration involving my thesis project. About two hours into the meeting, I realized that I was the only person in this room without at least one doctoral degree. Yet these incredible scientists with decades of experience had been treating me — a second-year grad student — as an equal.

Okay, I had been flying pretty high recently because I had gotten some good data, but my results weren’t that good. There was no reason why I should have been placed anywhere close to the same level as these men (yes, they were all men — we’ll get back to that issue at another time). So why were they treating me with such unearned respect?

Of course, this experience is not always the case. I have had plenty of condescending interactions with physicians, researchers, post-docs and even fellow graduate and medical students. But through the opportunities I’ve had to interact with some truly incredible leaders in academic medicine and research, I’ve found there is one trait that (almost) every successful scientist seems to possess: humility.

Now, before you start picturing all the not-so-humble attendings, lecturers, keynote speakers and researchers you’ve encountered, I want to clarify what I mean by humility. Humility does not mean meekness. Humility does not mean unconditional deference. Humility does not mean not standing up for what you believe in — including when you believe in your own scientific findings. Humility means being open to the possibility of being wrong, being willing to consider other people’s ideas and being respectful — of your seniors, your peers and your subordinates. Above all, in this field, humility means being respectful of science.

I want to take a moment to reflect on the humility of two great scientists: Ignaz Semmelweis and Galileo Galilei. Semmelweis was was fired from his job and essentially shunned from the medical community for proposing that doctors were the carriers of diseases, and could prevent them by simply washing their hands. Galileo was tortured, convicted of heresy, and forced to spend the latter part of his life under house arrest for relentlessly promoting his controversial heliocentric universe theory.

Don’t get me wrong: both Semmelweis and Galileo are also famous for the aggressive arrogance with which they regarded themselves and their ideas. But I have to wonder which came first — the idea, or the arrogance?

Semmelweis’ theory was a result of a thorough study of hospital outcomes, and hand-washing was far from the first variable he tried to change. The first presentation of his work simply consisted of facts and statistics — it was only after initial push-back from his colleagues that he developed a reputation for arrogance and stubbornness about his work.

Galileo’s work was also based on a solid scientific approach. He was a student of the Aristotle’s theories, and it wasn’t until after much study, direct observation with the telescope he constructed, and intense mathematical calculations, that he published his first written work refuting Aristotelian theories and supporting the Copernican theory of a sun-centered universe.

Now let’s take a moment to look at the sides opposing Semmelweis and Galileo. The doctors who opposed Semmelweis refused to believe that they could carry diseases on their hands and actually cause the infections that were killing their patients. To these doctors, it was so important to preserve the idea that doctors cured — not caused — diseases, that they could not bring themselves to change their ways and take measures that would prevent the spread disease. 

The church opposing Galileo claimed he was publishing anti-biblical work when, in reality, Galileo published a letter explaining how heliocentricity and biblical theory could be compatible. The church, whose leaders based their identities on being the interpreters and communicators of God’s plan to the masses, refused to acknowledge the validity of heliocentricity because it would have been an admission that they had incorrectly interpreted God’s creation and plan.

The irony in these two groups of opposers is mind-blowing. Doctors — whose job it is to heal — refused to admit that they were to blame, so instead they continued to kill patients. The church — who is founded on the belief that we are insignificant beings in comparison to an almighty God — refused to accept the evidence that we might not understand the larger system surrounding us, so instead they tortured a scientist despite his attempts to reconcile scientific evidence with religious beliefs. If you want to talk about arrogance, these groups had it in spades.

As I mentioned before, Semmelweis and Galileo developed reputations for extreme arrogance themselves. But I would argue that their “arrogance” was in fact a type of humility. Not humility in the form of deference to their colleagues, but rather humility in the form of deference to science. And indeed deference to the highest degree, as they were willing to sacrifice their jobs, respect in their fields and even their freedom for the sake of remaining loyal to the truth of science.

Now here’s the kicker — both Semmelweis and Galileo ended up being correct. But what if they hadn’t been? At what point can we differentiate between loyalty to science and loyalty to our own ideas about science? How do we know when we need to stand up for what we believe is the scientific truth, and when we need to open ourselves to the possibility of our personal truth not being the actual truth?

At first I thought that, as with many things in life, the answers to these questions come down to a matter of balancing both sides. But, as I reflected more, I realized maybe it really isn’t a balance. Maybe, this time, we can actually have it all. If each of us can manage to hold on to the idea that there is always a possibility of being wrong, we can still defend our view of the truth, but from a position of humility.

Alternatively, we could each choose to cling to our own ideas as tightly as we want, and to fight and debate with our peers, our colleagues, our subordinates and our institutions until one of us wins. At the time, the church appeared to win over Galileo, and the rest of the medical field outnumbered Semmelweis. But it didn’t really matter who won those battles because at the end of the day, science was — and always will be — right. And let’s face it: we rarely will be.

Amanda King (2 Posts)

Contributing Writer

Yale School of Medicine

A sleep-deprived, sanity-deficient MD/PhD student torn between the exciting promise of what lies ahead and the grueling reality of what it takes to get there.