A Scientist’s Humility and Why Everyone Needs a George Kneale

This guest post is by Shawn Tucker, Professor of Art and Humanities at Elon College and author of BCC Press’s newest book Humility: A Practical Approach.

Bang! go two hundred feet in unison. She takes a step and, again, Bang! It is her first day of college. She is trying to find a seat in the huge lecture hall. Two hundred white men are already seated. They bang their feet every time she steps. They block every row. She is forced further down the lecture hall with more Bangs! She finally finds a seat. In the front row. With the three other women and a Nigerian. The white male students at Cambridge cannot keep women and minorities out of their school, but they can attempt to shame them, segregate them, intimidate them, and try to tell them they don’t belong.

These were the first experiences that Dr. Alice Stewart had in the 1920s when she began her medical training. Through her career she would face opposition. When she decided to study childhood leukemia, her project was underfunded. When the project started to find unwanted results, it was not her results that were examined. It was her character. And besides being a woman, here was the problem—she was saying that the shiny new tool that doctors were using might be killing patients. Medical professionals, of all people, don’t want to believe that they are harming others. Those doctors’ shiny new tool was x-ray machines. But Dr. Stewart, who clocked thousands of hours collecting and analyzing data, was starting to find that the huge spike in childhood leukemia was linked with fetal x-rays. Here was a woman, and a divorced woman at that, telling doctors that their marvelous x-ray machines were sickening and killing children. You can hear their collective feet go Bang! as they reject that idea.

Dr. Stewart’s work and struggles are described in Gayle Greene’s 1999 biography The Woman Who Knew Too Much: Alice Stewart and the Secrets of Radiation. When the scientific community rejected Dr. Stewart’s emerging conclusions about how dangerous x-rays were for unborn children, Greene quotes how Dr. Stewart responded: “So we tested our theories again and again, using increasingly sophisticated statistical methods and a growing collection of data. We stuck to it, and in the end we were better for the opposition—we had the strength of our data and it was too strong for people to contradict.”[1] Greene says this about Stewart: “She is a scientist who insists first and foremost on fidelity to the data.”[2]  As a Humanities person, this is one of the things I admire most about the scientific approach. There is a humility about science. That humility is a dedication first and foremost to the data. No matter what your ideas or theories, the data trumps all of it. To put it another way, “The rat is always right.” Scientists might have ideas or theories about how the rat will make its way through the maze, but the data about how the rat actually does it is what is right. No matter what the scientists and doctors wanted to believe or wanted to be true about x-rays, the data finally had to be acknowledged, respected, and allowed to dictate how decisions would be made.

Greene’s biography describes someone else who was important to Dr. Stewart’s work. He is also a part of what I see as her humility. That person is an expert statistician named George Kneale. Kneale describes what he does this way: “it’s my job to prove that Dr. Stewart’s theories are wrong. I am in effect trying to disprove her. Hence the strength of our long association.”[3] The statistician’s oppositional approach and his efforts to dis-confirm Dr. Stewarts conclusion are essential in eliminating errors, unreliable conclusions, justifications, and blind spots.

These are two elements of Dr. Alice Stewart’s humility—her fidelity to the data and her active search for disconfirmation. Dr. Stewart’s data and her experience show that when medical professionals seek first to protect their status and then bow to personal bias and prejudice instead of data, people suffer and die. Medical professionals can do better. They can put the health of their patients over the desire to protect their status or ego. They can be dedicated to making decisions based on the data. Finally, they can actively seek disconfirmation that can shed light on blind spots, biases, and willful blindness.  

Nothing I do puts people’s lives in danger like what doctors do, but I’m just as prone to biases, blind spots and willful blindness as anyone. I can be defensive. I can self-justify, using arguments to make something that might be bent or crooked appear straight. I can dismiss others when the evidence or the data they provide does not fit with what I want to see.  It takes courage—the courage of Dr. Stewart—to insists first and foremost on fidelity to the data. It takes courage to be honest. It also takes courage to actively seek out George Kneales and those who provide disconfirmation. Good friends, spouses, and therapists sometimes do just that. Sometimes it is students or children. Embracing humility’s courage can result in embarrassing and painful experiences. It can feel terrible to see how wrong I’ve been and how my mistakes have hurt others. But the embarrassment and pain are worth it when the final outcome is living more truthfully, whole heartedly, and in line with my real goals.


[1] Page 90.

[2] Page 161.

[3] Page 224.

Comments

  1. Shawn, why shouldn’t the humanities adopt the same humility toward data? Maybe we have fewer opportunities to use formulas and statistics, but there’s nothing about our work that prevents us from approaching our data with humility. If we have interesting allusive evidence, it seems much better for everyone involved to note the slight evidence in favor of an interesting possibility, rather than pushing a grand claim far beyond what the evidence supports. It might mean fewer and less controversial articles would be published, but that would be a good thing.

  2. So who is Russle Nelson’s George Kneale?

  3. Shawn Tucker says:

    C. Keen: It seems to me that objective evidence is rather hard to come by in the humanities. What evidence is there in a Mozart sonata or the Parthenon or Paul Beatty’s _The Sellout_? I can examine those works, look at them via different historical and critical frameworks, and compare them with other works, but, it seems to me, they don’t present objective evidence in the way that a scientific experiment does. As for the humility of those who work in the humanities, for me that humility means honesty. It means not bending or twisting a text. It means not transforming a sonata, building, or novel into a ventriloquist dummy that says what you want said with little or no regard for the work itself. Proof texting, to me, seems like such an act, and it seems like something that is empty of honesty and humility. The question that arises is when do my creative connections between a work and other ideas or other works go so far as to do the bending, twisting, and transforming that is a lack of humility? Without objective evidence, I guess that those in the humanities have to try to be honest and humble.

    JLM: The question is above my pay grade. :)

  4. One season of the fictional show Outlander depicts the heroine going to medical school – I think in the 40s – as the first woman in that program. There is also a black man in her cohort and they form a bond as two people fighting medical students and professors who supposedly are brighter than the average person.

    As someone with a masters degree in a quantitative discipline, I’m convinced that while scientists may be marginally better at open-mindedness and new ideas – they are absolutely still subject to bias and dogma. To put a morbid spin on this conversation, if death weren’t a thing or if people lived longer, scientific and medical progress would require more time. Death allows for new people and ideas.

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