Recently, scientists working in two disparate fields announced shocking new findings. One group in the United States announced that Neanderthals actually ate cooked vegetables and grains. Another group, geneticists from Germany, the UK, and the US – reported there are not one, but two species of elephants in Africa. Science news is dominated by “shocking new findings” that overturn previously held beliefs, assumptions, and theories. Why? That’s the scientific method at work. A basic tenet of this method is that our answers can only be as good as our questions and our data. Facing the same data, if we have assumptions that lead to bad questions – like the belief that concentrated protein in Neanderthal bones could only come from eating a meat exclusive diet – then we will seek to interpret other information in different ways. Sequencing mastodon and elephant genes, we come out with different answers – answers that will be challenged and argued about for some times – than we had held previously.
Humility asks us to recognize our limitations of assumptions, beliefs, data, questions, and answers. Knowledge changes and we human beings, for the most part, can keep learning throughout our lives, adapting to those changes. What do you know for sure that might change significantly with different assumptions, information, or questions?
Open-mindedness doesn’t mean we give up discerning what we hold to be true and the meaning we ascribe to our lives. Open-mindedness does call us to risk being wrong regularly, to fail often, and to keep seeking to understand. If successful learning requires failure and lots and lots of wrong answers, how does that affect your sense of what success requires?
Listening to what is accepted and to what is new, testing assumptions and offering ones that quite probably will often be wrong, and cultivating humility advance learning and the accumulation of wisdom.
I’ve personally found these practices to also advance my sense of happiness, because being wrong or failing isn’t a moral state assigning me to the recycling heap, but only a way of learning. What might you learn in the new year?
 Pallab Ghosh. “Neanderthals Cooked & Ate Vegetables” BBC Dec. 27, 2010: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-12071424
 Richard Black. “African Elephant is Two Species, Researchers Say” BBC Dec. 21, 2010: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-12054343