Intellectual Humility in Science

One issue I sometimes see among scientists is a lack of intellectual humility, especially when it comes to areas outside of their area of expertise (like philosophy, ethics, etc) or the humanities. My concern is that science’s place of relative importance in our world lets scientists (and those of us doing scientific research) feel they can speak as experts in fields they aren’t such experts in. As Christians, we are called to be humble, and I’ve personally found that I’m better able to do work when I’m not presupposing views are wrong simply because I’ve been “right” about other things in the past.

Jonathan Haidt talks about how “morality binds and blinds;” that feeling self-righteous is a value judgement and not always an intellectual one. This is particularly apparent when high-profile scientists, claiming to speak for “science” and “science education,” disparage other fields like philosophy without understanding it. Those like Dawkins, Hawking, and Tyson, in my view, actually end up undermining science because they can make scientists look like they lack the very intellectual virtues that led to science in the first place.

Any thoughts? Any thoughts on staying open-minded to new ideas, theories, and the like?


What came to mind here is that Christians love to derive morality from the Old Testament but are always biased in their selections! Nothing in the Mosaic Law was about morality, and thinking so comes from the artificial and arbitrary division of the Law into “ceremonial”, “moral”, and “judicial”, a division that is not found in and cannot be sustained from the text. As has been pointed out by more than one scholar, the choice of what to categorize as “moral” law invariably conforms to the categorizer’s prior personal views about morality.

So the “blinding” starts even before people consider the text of the scriptures, and I would say that the sermonizing about morality from Christians undermines Christianity just as much as sermonizing from scientists undermines science!

That said, it’s not always easy to not speak on some subject one isn’t really familiar with when others ask questions about such things. It also occurs to me that both theologians and scientists make such ventures because of deeply-held feelings – so a good piece of advice would be to back off when such feelings are involved and stay silent until at least examining them.

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The greatest commandment and the second are an encapsulation of moral law, ‘the laws of love’, and where did Jesus say they came from? Another encapsulation, not quite as concise, are the Ten Commandments.

Surely all law is based on morality? The idea being to make people conform to the basic moral codes of living. Killing, Robbery, falsehood, deceit, all these things are covered by human laws. Why if not morality? Any defence or justification will be on moral grounds. (the exception being the simple “I did not do it”)


I was under the impression that throughout the Old Testament there was roughly 611 laws of do this or don’t do this and 2 laws that were statement. The 611 laws in gematria equaled to Torah which Tim Mackie says is better understood as the teachings and these teachings contained stories with moral lessons and laws. But that it was just a selection of their laws and it their moral codex with hundreds of more laws found in other texts or records and that these laws were broken up in different categories of such as ceremonial , judicial and so on. Then in the New Testament, we see several laws done away with. Eye for an Eye changed to turn the other cheek. You no longer had to be circumcised or eat specific foods. But many laws still carried over like sexual immorality, theft and murder. So it’s not just cherry picking, it’s looking at what’s been carried over.

Only if they become accepted in their views. Science is a field of study and as such cannot be undermined. Scientists on the other hand have a reputation to be made, kept or lost. Just as creationists can be devalued by using psuedo-science, so Scientists can be devalued by proclaiming authority on philosophies that are outside the scope of science.


(1,050 New Testament Commands, ‘laws of love’? To measure our hearts against, not to keep a checklist on others or ourselves… and not that shouldn’t be any accountability.)

Love is a principle not any number of defined laws. A law has boundaries some of which can be indistinct. If you live by love you cannot possibly break all the morality laws of the Decalogue, although you could probably do it without acknowledging God or the Sabbath.


But laws let us know when we’re not being loving, don’t they. You know, to measure ourselves with as we are told to do?

Read Paul more carefully. Laws condemn. Especially if they plant goal posts that are beyond human capabilities.



Read Paul more carefully. What do you measure yourself with, compare yourself against?

Yes, we are to judge (not condemn) ourselves, and I fall short.

I agree with your sentiment here. I think there’s also a bit of societal feedback involved where people tend to give more weight to the word of scientists compared to other professions. Scientists can’t make themselves (in)famous. What we can say is that scientists are just as human as anyone else and are just as prone to having wrongheaded ideas in different areas of life.


Tyson is a brilliant astrophysicist, but he frequently gets history wrong. Dawkins is a good biologist but needs to separate his philosophy from his work. There are also philosophers of science around, such as Robert Pennock.

What new ideas or theories do you have in mind? If it’s science we are talking about you should back everything up with data, not philosophy.

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Especially later in life. Look at Linus Pauling and his Vitamin C!


I have seen this be a problem in science as well. When wavelets were first discovered, many researchers thought they were a waste of time because they weren’t inspired by classical physics-based definitions like Fourier’s basis of complex exponentials. People like Ingrid Daubechies were able to show such things are useful for a wide variety of applications. I learned this as a cautionary tale from the late and great Sidney Burrus.

1 Cor 13 is enough.

But with the forgiveness brought by Christ there is no need to consider further. I know if I have sinned. I do not need any law to tell me. And because of this, I do not try and justify against any Law or find mitigation within the Law. IOW Laws are irrelevant, or superfluous.


I have worked with scientists who have gone off the beaten path. One researcher I know started taking magnetic therapy seriously. We could also point to Fred Hoyle who refused to accept the Big Bang model even as mountains of evidence piled up for it. In fact, Fred Hoyle is credited with coining the term “Big Bang”. He meant it more as an insult, but scientists do have a sense of humor . . . at least some do.


Lateral thinking is often the means of breakthrough. Treading the beaten path will only produce expected and proven results.



One issue I sometimes see among Christians is a lack of intellectual humility, especially when it comes to areas outside of their area of expertise. And the weird thing is that it is usually not based on any amount of academic achievement, research, or examination of the facts.

As Christians, we are called to be humble. And yet so many take this as a license to judge all those who are not Christian as lacking anything of value.

And I am not talking about vocal radicals but even the average Christian. The truth is that the average scientist or professor is quite humble by comparison, well aware of the vast number of things which he doesn’t know anything about. And this is despite the fact that they really know more than most people about many things. But what about the average Christian by comparison?

And what about being open-minded to new ideas, theories, and the like? When it contradicts what they know then the average scientist and Christian alike are naturally not going to very open minded. But what about when they clearly don’t know anything about a subject?

Though… I will relate one personal story…

I was in discussion with a group of post-docs (I was not a post-doc but only a grad student) in the physics department when the fact that I believed in God came up. And one of them said to me, “well then you must not be a very good physicist.” I laughed and what could I say in such company about how good of a physicist I was. It is a good example of just how stupid an atheist can be even if, on average, atheists tend to be smarter. You can find stupidity like this in any group of people. But really… in my experience, most atheists are not like this. But I strongly suspect the average intelligence of atheists will drop (and has been dropping) as atheism becomes more popular. And you will hear more atheists spouting such irrational dogma.

Perhaps if we Christians remember that call to humility we will try harder to do better than that.


“Off the beaten path” was my polite way of saying “off their rocker” or “off the deep end”.