Humility in Science

milky-way-stars night sky 916523_1920 Skeeze pixabay copy
Skeeze, Pixabay

What qualities does it take to be a great scientist? You might think of intellect, great experimental technique, original thinking, and endless hard work. Humility may not be the first thing that springs to mind. Nevertheless, humility is a very helpful virtue in science, and I think it has played an important role part in leading some scientists to discover God for themselves.

Humility is also part of the package for a Christian. Chapter two of Philippians describes Jesus’ example to us. He is the Son of God yet he was willing to become a man, being born into a poor family. He submitted to the process of developing from an embryo into a full-grown person, and then being treated like dirt by so many, eventually dying at the hands of humankind. We are called to follow the same path. Not many of us in countries where science is possible will find our lives in danger, but the Christian in the sciences has the opportunity to exercise humility in their work. In other words, this is one area where science and faith work hand in hand.

For a scientist, humility means accepting that you might be wrong, or that other people’s ideas might be better than yours. So the focus is on the science, are not on an individual’s ego. Of course there are plenty of egos in science, as there are in any area of life, but I believe that great science is done by people who are willing to let other things take priority over their own achievements.

For example, every scientist has been trained by a series of people who took the time to explain concepts, demonstrate how to run experiments, and help them to develop all the other skills that are needed in order to do research well. Those teachers will have included fellow students and young scientists just a rung or two higher up the ladder, but also experienced professors who pressed pause on their own research in order to teach the next generation of scientists.

At its best, teaching is an opportunity to demonstrate servant-hearted leadership. It involves mentally getting into your audiences shoes, making sacrifices of time and resources (if you’re taking on a student in the lab and giving them experiments to do), and being open to the fact that although this student is less experienced than you, you might learn something from them.

My Father was an academic medic, and he always emphasised to his students and his junior colleagues that they should question him when they thought he was wrong. He knew that he couldn’t stay in touch with the latest knowledge in every area of medicine, and might learn something vital from them.

Research itself also involves humility. If the data are pointing away from your favourite model do you modify it, get more data, or tear your cherished ideas up and start again? You’ll have to do all of these at different times. We are very good at fooling ourselves, so the best scientists are often the ones who can admit they are wrong. For example, Einstein didn’t like the idea that the universe is expanding. He resisted it for a while, but was eventually persuaded by the data. In changing his mind, he became part of a collaboration that proposed an eternally expanding universe that was the accepted model for nearly sixty years.

At times, a good dose of humility may be what is needed to help you stick to your guns. You may think the data are taking you in an exciting direction and want to take a risk with it, but your colleagues are convinced you’re losing your grip on reality. Is not caring about what people think – or whether you turn out to be wrong in the end – an act of humility or arrogance? Probably a bit of both, depending on the situation – but for some scientists, humility may well be part of what keeps them following the data down what may seem like an endless rabbit hole!

The astronomer Jocelyn Bell-Burnell studied a faraway object in the sky that blipped out unusual radio waves from time to time. She may have had some testing times handling her colleagues’ comments about her ‘little green man’ and keeping on looking night after night, but eventually she found another. Her PhD supervisor began to take her results seriously, and eventually accepted the Nobel Prize for the discovery of pulsars. Some thought Jocelyn had been treated badly, but later in life she said that nearly winning a Nobel Prize probably brought her more opportunities than if she had actually won it as a student.

I believe that the kind of intellectual humility needed to make great discoveries can lead scientists to discover God. For example, Francis Collins completed a PhD in quantum physics, then changed track and did an MD-PhD (as you do). He had developed into a fairly argumentative atheist by that point, but had a growing sense that many of his patients were genuinely helped by their faith in God. In the end, an elderly patient stopped him in his tracks. She was experiencing some painful symptoms, and told Francis how her faith helped her to pull through. After sharing her story with him, she asked Francis what he believed. He was stunned, as he’d never considered the evidence for the existence of God before. He made his excuses and left, but it started him down a track that led him to do what a number of intellectuals have tried, and failed, to do. He started out trying to disprove the existence of God, but ended up admitting that the evidence was pretty good. He admitted that God probably did exist, reluctantly at first, but was very glad when he finally learned who Jesus really is.

Francis’s story isn’t that unusual. Christine Done is a Professor of Astrophysics at Durham University who experienced a sense of God’s presence at a friend’s baptism. Stunned but unable to explain it away, she investigated and found herself wrestling with the evidence for the gospel, before finally admitting that there is a God. She discovered a church where she could be at home and explore what a personal relationship with God looked like, and is still enjoying his presence today.

Not every scientist will be willing to accept the limits of science, or humble enough to admit that there might be evidence for God. We belong to the marmite religion – love it or hate it. I believe that our job, as well as doing or teaching science well, is to keep telling the stories and explaining the evidence we have found.  We might just find ourselves able to accompany someone along a part of their journey towards recognising that God exists, the Bible makes sense, and Jesus is worth following.

First published on the UCCF Science Leadership Network blog, 15th Nov 2019. Reproduced here with permission.

R Bancewicz 2015 mugshot small
© Faraday Institute

Ruth Bancewicz is Church Engagement Director at The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. She studied Genetics at Aberdeen and Edinburgh Universities, and spent two years as a part-time postdoctoral researcher at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell Biology in Edinburgh, while also working as the Development Officer for Christians in Science. Ruth is a trustee of Christians in Science, and a Fellow of their US counterpart – the American Scientific Affiliation.

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Humility in Science

  1. Nick November 28, 2019 / 10:06 pm

    Hi Ruth, I think a little more detail is required regarding Jocelyn Bell-Burnell. As with all research students, the research she was pursuing was that assigned by her supervisor, and the object she found was exactly the kind of thing they were both looking for. The weird thing was the part of the sky she found it, and the fact that the regular blips in the signal looked man-made. Her supervisor took her research seriously at all times, but obviously had to be entirely satisfied of their extra-terrestrial origin before looking for their explanation as a novel astronomical phenomenon. So she was working as part of a team, and just as the project was the brainchild of her supervisor, so it is not unreasonable that the prize went to him.

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    • Ruth M. Bancewicz December 2, 2019 / 3:19 pm

      Thanks Nick, sorry if I gave the impression that she had been treated badly – she has said she didn’t think it would have been appropriate to get the prize herself. I should have said ‘results’ rather than ‘research’ with respect to her supervisor taking things seriously – as you say, it takes more work to show that something is significant. Looking back at my notes on her BBC interview, I noticed the ‘little green man’ and assumed at least some good-natured joking – so will add ‘may have’ to that sentence. My point was that academic science is competitive, so even well-supervised work that is done as part of a team can feel pretty lonely until you have some decent data that’s worth publishing. It takes perseverance and a certain kind of humility to keep pushing through. Have heard Jocelyn Bell Burnell speak, she comes across as a very humble person, and it’s a delight to hear her talking about her work and faith.

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