Science is formalised humility

November 5, 2012

I think I figured out what the core, immutable quality of science is. It’s not formal publication, it’s not peer-review, it’s not “the scientific method” (whatever that means). It’s not replicability, it’s not properly citing sources, it’s not Popperian falsification. Underlying all those things is something more fundamental.


We all know that it’s good to be able to admit when you’ve been wrong about something. We all like to see that quality in others. We all like to think that we possess it ourselves — although, needless to say, in our case it never comes up. And it’s that last part that’s the rub. It goes so, so strongly against the grain for us to admit the possibility of error in our own work.

If science was just a matter of increasing the sum of human knowledge, it would suffice for us all to note our thoughts in blogs and have done. But because we’re not humble by nature — because we need to have humility formally imposed on us – we need the scaffolding of all those other things I mentioned:

  • Formal publication is important so that there’s a permanent record of what we claimed to have found. We can’t weasel out of an earlier mistake by claiming never to have made it.
  • Peer-review helps to prevent us from making mistakes in those formal publications. (That applies to informal pre-submission reviews as well as gatekeeper reviews.)
  • Whatever the scientific method means in detail, it’s a way to keep hypothesis, experiment, result and conclusion separate, so other scientists can clearly see what has been done, what is fact and what is opinion.
  • Replicability is providing enough information to enable others to determine on their own whether we’ve made mistakes.
  • Properly citing sources allows others to check that our assumptions are well supported.
  • Popperian falsification helps prevent us from having too much faith in our own ideas, by leaving them for the community to test.

All these standard parts of how science is done are about helping us to spot our own mistakes, giving opportunity for others to spot them, and providing a means for them to be corrected. (Of course, they have other benefits, too: for example, citing sources is important as a way of giving credit.)

We may not be humble people; but doing science forces us to act humbly.

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12 Responses to “Science is formalised humility”

  1. Science is formalised humilty…except when it becomes arrogant nonsense….

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    For sure, Tom, sometimes — often! — it doesn’t work. If you’re a regular here, you’ll know that I often complain for example about bad peer-review. But I think the underlying goal of all our how-science-is-done conventions and structures is still good.

  3. Tom,

    ““The illusion of purpose and design is perhaps the most pervasive illusion about nature that science has to confront on a daily basis.””

    Well, that’s what I see on a daily basis – creationists who just can’t live if there was no purpose and design in the existence of humans as a whole, and them personally. Oh, and their parents’ design and purpose is not good enough, they must be wanted, planned and loved by a three-in-one immaterial/material omnipotent/have-your-free-will genderless, ageless, old man everywhere/in-the-sky, too. Sadly, a very similar attitude is prevalent among ‘soft sciences’; I encounter it every time I take some humanities students through the Berlin Natural History museum.

    So your rant seems a bit – well – incompatible with my data. Krauss is factually correct, and this needs to be pointed out to very many people – otherwise we’ll be talking the personal wishes of individual genes soon in Cell and Nature, and not only in books for the general public.

  4. Mike Taylor Says:


    Your characterisation of Christianity is naive and uninformed. That’s all I’ll say here, since this is a science blog and (unlike say PZ Myers’ Pharyngula) I don’t want it to get bogged down in religion. You know where to find me if you’d like to follow up off-list ;-)

  5. I wasn’t characterizing the religion – re-read my comment! Or do you wish to equate Christians with Creationists?

  6. Mike Taylor Says:

    OK, you’re quite right. My bad.

  7. no problem – I know many people conflate ALL Christians with creationists as the very worst examples. I’m quite critical of all religion, but still able to distinguish between the nutcases and the normal people.

  8. Mike Taylor Says:

    Yes, but I’d have hoped that I would have known better! :-)

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  10. [...] Science is formalised humility [...]

  11. It doesn’t really matter if there are religious undertones, the idea of having the principle to submit to proper review ensures quality. The clearinghouse doesn’t work if it isn’t allowed to see data. That is perhaps one of the strongest arguments for open-data/open access that I can see. Final publication formats in traditional journals pressures authors to behave unethically. While ethics is a personal responsibility in the first moment, it is not prudent for us to worship a system which does not encourage it.

    While Mike’s bulletpoints seem to outline a traditional system of a clearinghouse, they are not wholly incompatible with open paradigms a la Gold OA…

    I’d like to hear more of your thoughts on the topic Mike.

  12. Mike Taylor Says:

    Hi, Clayton. I most certainly did not mean to imply that the list of points describes the traditional publication process and excludes open access! I don’t remember if I’ve seen your name in comments on this blog before, but if you’ve been around here for a while you will know that I am very strongly in favour of open access — and open data, though I’ve not written about that so much.

    The specific practices I listed — publication in some form, peer-review in some form, separation of fact from opinion and interpretation, replicability, citation and falsification — are what I perceive to the best of the traditional research-and-publish model, and the part of that model that we will want to retain as we move on in to the Shiny Digital Future.

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