A New Year’s Resolution: Intellectual Humility

In April, while waiting for a safe time to travel and not having seen her father since “pre-COVID,” my friend, an emergency room doctor in California, lost her father to a heart attack in Maryland. She had made the decision not to travel with the information she had at the time, doing all she could to “do the right thing” and keep her family and community safe.

Every day we make thousands of decisions, maybe tens of thousands. We make these decisions based on what we think we know at the time. In 2021, on a global scale, it became clear how quickly the truth can evolve. The truth about droplet transmission has succumbed to a better understanding of airborne propagation. The truth of the COVID-19 vaccine’s initial impressive effectiveness in preventing disease and transmission has been tempered by newer variants of the coronavirus.

This is not to say that our original truths were lies or plots, but that science allows us to continuously study and learn from the world around us. Our understanding of our world must change over time because life is not static; neither should our knowledge be.

As a doctor, I have doctor friends with very different beliefs about how we should proceed with life at this time. I have doctor friends who think we should test ourselves all the time to slow the spread and keep our loved ones safe. I have others who reasonably believe that indiscriminate testing can lead to too many false positives, creating a crippling ripple effect on human life and relationships, unnecessarily closing schools and businesses, putting life at risk. food and housing insecure people, some of the very lives we try so hard to protect. Every political decision we make creates winners and losers. Even with our best intentions, innocent bystanders will be caught in the sights of our decisions.

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle states that there is an inherent uncertainty in the act of measuring a variable of a particle; the more precisely you know something about that particle, the more uncertain the other properties of that particle become. Not being a physicist myself, what I get out of it is the importance of intellectual humility. Our minds are imperfect, filled with blind spots, and often lack the latest mirror technology.

When did we become more interested in hearing ourselves than hearing others? When have we forgotten the wisdom of one of our Texan heroes, Lyndon B. Johnson, who is known for the saying “You don’t learn if you speak”? We would do well to replace our certainty in ourselves with the certainty of uncertainty; accepting our own limitations is not a sign of weakness or doubt, but the mark of the wise.

As you reflect on your resolution for this New Year, consider resolving to cultivate your own intellectual humility. Listen to those around you, look for those who see it differently, step out of your echo chamber. Recognize the inherent uncertainty in the world around us. Recognize the finiteness of our lives on this earth. Kiss your loved ones, tell them you love them; because perhaps the only certainty we have is that we will never have that day again.

Lauren Fine is an emergency room doctor in Dallas. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

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