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

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