I doubt that humility is among the first traits most people think of when they think of scientists. And indeed, some scientists (like some academics and intellectuals generally) exhibit a combination of confidence in their own intellect and limitations in their social skills that makes them seem abrasive if not arrogant. A few have made a public career of intellectual overreaching, not least in matters of science and faith. But in my experience (and certainly, let me stress, in the case of my own wife!) this is much more the exception than the rule. If intellectual humility is essentially a willingness to admit what you do not and cannot know, science cultivates humility like few other pursuits can — because in few other pursuits do you so often find out that you were wrong.

though we tell the story of science through its high points — the discoveries and confirmed theories that won Nobel Prizes and launched new eras in technology — the actual practice of science, for nearly every working scientist, involves far more failure than success. This is especially true for experimental science, the kind that requires the most direct interaction with recalcitrant reality. On most days, in most labs, the data do not add up, Matlab has an untraceable bug, the laser is on the fritz, and all the cultures have been contaminated when the undergraduate research assistant sneezed. And while each of these everyday setbacks requires immense amounts of patience and persistence to overcome, they are only the quotidian version of the perplexity that begins early in the study of science. Every scientist, in the process of their training, has had to repeatedly discover that their intuitions about the world are simply wrong, or at least incomplete. Even great scientists have come up against the sheer oddity and unpredictability of the world — Albert Einstein, for example, never fully accepted the uncertainty at the heart of quantum mechanics, something that is now universally accepted by physicists.