February 22, 2024

Scientists need humility, says Harvard prof

In an essay in the leading journal Nature, a Harvard professor of science and technology has called upon scientists to be more humble. In the face of the complexity and uncertainty of real-life problems, says Sheila Jasanoff, scientists need to acknowledge that they cannot provide all the answers and need to pay more attention to ethics:

"Science fixes our attention on the knowable, leading to an over- dependence on fact-finding. Even when scientists recognise the limits of their own inquiries, as they often do, the policy world, implicitly encouraged by scientists, asks for more research. For most complex problems, the pursuit of perfect knowledge is asymptotic. Uncertainty, ignorance and indeterminacy are always present…

"This call for humility is a plea for policy-makers to cultivate, and for universities to teach, modes of knowing that are often pushed aside in expanding scientific understanding and technological capacity. It is a request for research on what people value and why they value it. It is a prescription to supplement science with the analysis of those aspects of the human condition that science cannot easily illuminate. It is a call for policy analysts and policy- makers to re-engage with the moral foundations for acting in the face of inevitable scientific uncertainty."