Science and humility


As religion declines in the developed world, it is strange that so few people seem to be transferring their support - let alone their devotion - to science. Both philosophically, in fields like cosmology and particle physics, and practically, in medicine and computers, the successes of the last half century have been immense, yet interest in science in schools is down. Very few living scientists are famous.

Science near the leading edge is hard of course, but this need not stop the new knowledge from being exciting if it is well explained. The bigger problem, I think, is that science as an institution looks too sure of itself - especially when scientists like Richard Dawkins are the ones personifying it. This is just what put people off religion. Not that it was irrational, but that it was dogmatic. Modern people do not value conformity any more, they value self-confidence, so they don’t like to be told by anyone, “Our way is best.”

I don’t think scientists themselves are conceited or dogmatic people, no more than average, but science is indeed a boast. It claims to be the best method of knowing things. And it is. Because science is systematised humility. When asked how they know something, people typically refer to their own experience, or to their reasoning, or they cite the experiences of others. These methods of knowing are less reliable than they feel because we all see things selectively, especially our own theories. This is why science insists on experiments, in order to base knowledge on what actually happens rather than on what people expect. It is why the results of experiments are published, so they can be challenged by those who disagree. It is the best kind of certainty, because it is certainty as a last resort, once uncertainty has failed. If the humility of science were better understood, and better personified, I think it would have more of the devotees that it deserves.