by Judith Curry
Philosophers known as “virtue epistemologists” claim that the goods of the intellectual life—knowledge, wisdom, understanding, etc.—are more easily obtained by persons possessing mature traits of intellectual character, such as open-mindedness, teachability, and intellectual courage, than by persons who lack these virtues or who are marked by their opposing vices. – Jay Wood
I just came across a blog titled Big Questions Online, which features posts by two philosophers: Jack Copeland and Jay Wood. Excerpts from Jay Wood’s post entitled How might intellectual humility led to scientific insight?:
I argue that intellectually humble scientists have a stronger likelihood of winning knowledge and other intellectual goods than those lacking this virtue. Intellectual humility leads indirectly to scientific insight. It does not super-charge our cognitive powers or improve scientific techniques, so much as it changes scientists themselves in ways that allow them to direct their abilities and practices in more effective ways.
Humility is a deeply anchored disposition that marks persons remarkably free from pride, or inordinate self-love in its many forms—selfish ambition, snobbishness, conceit, arrogance, and presumption, to name just a few. This is often because excessive self-regard is swamped by a more virtuous concern for knowledge, wisdom, or the well being of others. Humility also works to detect and check the stirrings of pride, where persons might yet be tempted by pride, though in its most mature form, humility does not need to overcome contrary inclinations.
What makes humility intellectual humility, in contrast to the moral humility that suppresses our everyday desires to seek the spotlight? Intellectual virtues, including intellectual humility, are so designated because they are most obviously at work in our intellectual endeavors, in our research, writing, academic conferences, and in everyday forms of intellectual exchange, so that we might obtain intellectual goods—knowledge, understanding, warrant, etc. Intellectual humility opposes forms of pride such as undue concern to dominate others, or excessive resistance to criticism, which often frustrate our quest for the various intellectual goods.
Conceit is a form of pride that moves people to form an unwarranted high opinion of their merits and excellences. It is easy to imagine that a conceited scientist suffering from an exaggerated sense of his own brilliance would resist criticism more readily than a scientist whose humility protected him from this form of pride. Paradigmatically, all scientific results must be reproducible, and the system of checks and balances constitutive of good scientific practice frequently corrects earlier results. Articles must be refereed, data assessed for accuracy, and experimental results reproduced. So it is integral to science, as a self-correcting discipline, to receive criticism, and to be prepared to admit that some particular theory or practice is incomplete or incorrect.
Suitably humble scientists are alive to the possibility that their expectations about how nature should behave may be wrong. Philosopher of science Israel Scheffler dubs this openness to correction “a capacity for surprise,” to which intellectual humility surely contributes.
For lack of a better word, there seems to be a certain arrogance toward nature which people develop. These people have had great insights and made profound discoveries. They imagine afterwards that that fact that they succeeded so triumphantly in one area means they have a special way of looking at science which must therefore be right. But science doesn’t permit that. Nature has shown over and over again that the kinds of truth which underlie nature transcend the most powerful minds.
Nature has a way of dispelling the great conceit that all her ways can be captured within the frame of a single scientist’s perspective. Humility makes scientists receptive to this lesson.
Intellectually virtuous scientists are concerned to impart knowledge as well as to obtain it.
The comments and discussion are well worth reading. Some further insights from Woods in the comments:
I think you’re on target to note the connection between fear, or insecurity, and pride. Fear and insecurity prompt us to shrink from public attention. We commonly overcompensate for fear by erring in the opposite direction, thus risking pride, the chief opposing trait to humility. Persons who think their status is threatened work all the harder to retain it. Humble scientists direct their attention to work well done, and let status take care of itself.
You make the assessment of “merits and abilities” central to your account of humility. I have suggested in my brief essay that accurately assessing one’s merits and abilities is the work of honesty. Of course, when we clamor after acclaim, status, and the praise of others, honesty is made more difficult, and conceit, the exaggeration of our merits and abilities, is more likely. Knowing that our data will be checked for accuracy may make us more intellectually cautious (still another intellectual virtue), but it may not make us more humble. I can imagine a scientist seeking status being very cautious with data, for she knows that only good results will win her the status she seeks.
Not every dispute is easily settled by checking the data, as you point out. Whether, in the face or intelligent disagreement by an intellectual peer, sticking to one’s guns is epistemically unjustified or dogmatic is the subject of a lively debate in contemporary epistemology. I tend toward the view that retaining a belief in the face of peer disagreement is not necessarily unjustified or unhumble.
You describe intellectual humility as “believing with the firmness the given belief merits,” where firmness is determined by “the reliability of the cognitive faculties that produced it.” I think your account actually names another intellectual virtue: “intellectual firmness,” where persons have the appropriate level of “hold” with respect to their beliefs. Dogmatists embrace their beliefs too firmly and, I would argue, Pyrrhonian skeptics too lightly. Sometimes people become set in their ways, calcified in their beliefs. We can imagine someone saying, “I’ve always believed that thus and such is the case, and I’m not about to change my mind at this stage of life.” Here we have a person who has calcified intellectually, and whose firmness of belief is not a function of its reliability, but born out of a desire to avoid the difficulty of re-thinking some issue. I agree that this is intellectually subpar, but it’s not clear that this person’s reluctance to rethink some belief is owing to vanity, arrogance, conceit, or some other species of pride. Nor would someone necessarily lack humility who, untutored in statistics and probability, formed a belief with greater firmness than probabilistic reasoning strictly allows. In fact, we can also imagine this same person being quite willing to reassess her level of firmness upon being corrected. In sum, I don’t think it will do to analyze intellectual humility as a function of one’s beliefs conforming to the reliability of the faculties that produced it. But I do think you’ve put your finger on another important intellectual virtue.
JC comment: Wood’s essay provides much food for thought. In the 1980’s when I first entered into the field of science professionally, to me it seemed that humility was ingrained in the culture of science and the few scientists that were self promoting and engaged with the media were viewed with some suspicion. In the 21st century, scientists are under pressure from their funding agencies and their institutions to communicate the broader aspects of their science. Scientists engaging with the public is a good thing; but the incentives in place don’t seem to reward humility in a scientist.
The policy relevance of climate science has created a caste of ‘rock star’ scientists who are frequently in the media and have established themselves in position of power (within the scientific field and to some extent in the policy arena). The career awards going to these rock star scientists are substantial; not just research awards from professional societies, but often cash awards in six or even seven figures. By the 1980’s standards, some of these rock star scientists would not necessarily have been particularly noteworthy or remarkable.
In the wake of ClimateGate, a common criticism of the scientists and those who defended them was arrogance. The value of science is not judged by whether or not the scientists are arrogant or humble; however arrogance and defensive behavior can blind a scientist to the idea that they might be wrong and lead to unjustified dismissal of skeptical arguments. When arrogance is institutionalized (e.g. the IPCC and AAAS have been criticized in this way), then the self correcting methods of science are put at risk.
What motivates an individual scientist can be complex; somewhere all research scientists started with a passionate curiosity about a scientific question. Over the course of trying to succeed in a scientific career, issues of promotion, salary increases, research funding and peer recognition can become substantial motivators, often at the expense of intellectual courage and other traits that made them a good research scientist in the first place. When conducting research on a politically controversial topic such as climate change, the potential for conflicts and challenges to intellectual integrity increases.
The scientists, universities, funding agencies, and professional societies seem to have a social contract whereby scientists with ‘flash’ are unduly rewarded. Unfortunately, this motivates scientists to work on the flashy low-hanging fruit topics (e.g. climate change impacts), rather than doing the deep, difficult, painstaking work to make progress on the fundamental challenges.
That is how I view it anyways. While establishment climate science seems to have lost its capacity for surprise, I suspect that nature has some surprises in store for us.