Humility in the age of complexity

Humans love answers. If certainty is heaven for most people, then randomness is hell. However, as complexity increases, so do uncertainty and randomness. One of the best ways to deal with complexity is with humility.

In our complex world, we’re bound to be more wrong than right. Our gut instinct is woefully inadequate for dealing with most of the challenges we face today. We have two basic choices.

Firstly, we can lie. We can pretend that we know. We can boast. We can strut. It works. Many people love a good liar because if there’s one thing that terrifies them more than not knowing the answer, it’s the knowledge that nobody else has the answer. Someone else must have the answer because there must be an answer.

In the long run, the only person who benefits from lying is the liar (and perhaps their close network). Everyone else gets exploited because the nature of a liar is to exploit others’ weaknesses.

The other strategy is to be humble—humble about ourselves and our leaders. To constantly question the answers and challenge the beliefs we hold dearest. To learn how to digest and interpret evidence. We need to be prepared for the pain and anguish that comes when a fact we cherish is proven false. In the messy world of uncertainty and randomness, the ability to adapt, research, and interpret is a crucial skill.

Science is seen as a bastion of facts, when in fact it is a bastion of hypotheses. Science does have more solid facts than many other disciplines, but it is far, far from the land of certainty. “A large number of scientific findings have been disproven, or become more doubtful, in recent years,” Brian Resnick wrote in an excellent article on humility published in Vox in January 2019. “One high-profile effort to retest 100 psychological experiments found only 40 percent replicated with more rigorous methods.”

Science often falters in the face of complexity. It doesn’t have nearly all the answers. Sometimes there are no answers. Sometimes the answers change as circumstances change. We have to learn how to better live with uncertainty because it is here to stay. So is randomness.

We have an ever-increasing access to research tools and data today to develop hypotheses and to test them. We have a huge capacity to observe what is happening in real life. We can rapidly iterate and adapt on the basis of the constant feedback we receive from our environment in a way that was hardly possible before.

That requires humility, inquisitiveness, and a flexible, nonjudgmental mind. Accepting that we are wrong is hard. Accepting that we don’t know the answers is hard. We will be up against boastful, arrogant, vain, bullying, liar-spouting certainties. Our humble arguments may not win most of the time. Yet, we must keep arguing. We must keep collaborating, reaching outside of our comfort zone, outside of our peer group, outside of our belief system.

Because if we let the liars win, we will all suffer greatly.

Intellectual humility: the importance of knowing you might be wrong by Brian Resnick

3 thoughts on “Humility in the age of complexity

  1. Pingback: Stay Humble – Kent Fackenthall

  2. Macdara Butler

    Thanks Gerry this is a well-made point, anyone in today’s complex world who presents themselves as being completely unshakeable in their beliefs/assumptions is basically a fraud.

    In the words of W.E. Deming “How would they know? How would they know?”

    In context he was effectively saying “How could anyone possibly know the answer?”

    A lack of critical thinking is at the base of many of our problems.


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