Miguel Panao | Professor and Author

Finding ways to improve scientific writing and academic productivity.

Humility: a quality for being a better scientist

Recently, I read an article by Adrian Bejan on the “Evolution in Thermodynamics.” His work is fascinating because of the Constructal Theory he proposed which is one of my main research subjects. However, what caught my attention was a reference at the end containing the word: humility.

humility in every scientific thing you do

The reference is an article written by Mike Taylor, a paleontologist, for The Guardian, entitled “Science is enforced humility.” There he writes

“Science is not always right – very far from it. What marks it out from other fields of human endeavour is that, because of its formalised humility, it’s always ready to correct itself when it makes a mistake.”

I have made mistakes and always found the value of peer review to keep improving the science we make. Also, after a presentation made in a Conference during my Ph.D. period, a scientist I had the highest regard acknowledged and remarked how humble I was while presenting. That was the first time I experienced the value of humility.

 

Cultivate humility?

But I wonder if we are we fully aware of the value of humility when we work in science, share with others what we do, or listen to others about what they do. And if we are aware, how can we cultivate this quality?

I think there are 4 things we can use to value humility when we do science.

Listening

Just using your ears to receive some input about your work is not listening. Listening is welcoming the other’s reasoning with an open mind. Being humble is a quality that can keep your mind open.

Don’t self-judge

It’s not bad to be wrong, but not good when you self-judge as not being able to get it right. Humble scientists only judge what they do, not themselves.

Be like water

In its liquid form, water adapts to every vessel, regardless of its complexity. Times change. Technology changes. Human creativity is yet to define its boundaries. And the only ones who are humble enough can become like water, adapt, change, be creative and strive to make the best science possible.

Restart

If you fail and a fellow scientist points your failure, be glad. You finally became part of the scientific community. Scientists live out of failure, ignorance, but also resilience, hope, desire to know and humility. A humble scientist in front of a failed experiment gets up, goes back to board, and restarts. We can always restart.

 

Why humility?

I believe the quality of humility has the power to keep a scientist’s momentum despite drawbacks, criticisms, and failures. It triggers an active acceptance that we can always improve what we do because we know why we do science: there’s nothing more exciting than pursuing the truth.


Question: have you experienced the value of humility in your work?

About Miguel Panao

I am a Professor at the University of Coimbra in Mechanical Engineering. I am also author of books in the fields of environmental ethics and Science and Religion. From the several research projects, this site is personal and dedicated to the search for the best approaches, tools, techniques to improve scientific productivity.

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