Good mental hygiene demands constant vigilance, meta-vigilance, and meta-meta-vigilance

I get paid to think. It’s wonderful. It’s also hard. The biggest challenge is the constant risk of fooling yourself into thinking you’re right. The world is complicated, and learning things about it is hard, so being a good thinker demands being careful and skeptical, especially of yourself. One of my favorite tools for protecting myself from my ego is the method of multiple working hypotheses, described in wonderfully old-fashioned language by the geologist Thomas C. Chamberlin in the 1890s. Under this method, investigators protect themselves from getting too attached to their pet theories by developing lots of pet theories for every phenomenon. It’s a trick that help maintain an open mind. I’ve always admired Chamberlin for that article.

Now, with good habits, you might become someone who is always careful to doubt themselves. Once that happens, you’re safe, right? Wrong. I was reading up on Chamberlin and discovered that he ended his career as a dogmatic, authoritarian, and very aggressive critic of those who contradicted him. This attitude put him on the wrong side of history when he become one of the most vocal critics of the theory of continental drift, which he discounted from the start. His efforts likely set the theory’s acceptance back by decades.

The takeaway is that no scientist is exempt from becoming someone who eventually starts doing more harm than good to science. Being wrong isn’t the dangerous thing. What’s dangerous is thinking that being vigilant makes you safe from being wrong, and thinking that not thinking that being dangerous makes you safe from being wrong makes you safe from being wrong. Don’t let your guard down.

Also see my list of brilliant scientists who died as the last holdouts on a theory that was obviously wrong. It has a surprising number of Nobel prize winners.

Sources:

  • https://www.geosociety.org/gsatoday/archive/16/10/pdf/i1052-5173-16-10-30.pdf
  • https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/when-continental-drift-was-considered-pseudoscience-90353214/