When Ike de la Peña encountered a lack of energy, even an air of disinterest, on a Zoom meeting, he did the opposite of taking control. He exercised humility.
De la Peña, a research pharmacologist at Loma Linda University in California, was visiting his home country, the Philippines, as part of its Balik (‘returning’) Scientist Program, and meeting with local researchers to explore potential areas for collaboration. On the video call that day in October 2022 were specialists in addiction and neurological disorders as well as educators from the University of the Philippines Manila. Maybe they were simply busy or their focus was elsewhere, de la Peña says. Undeterred, he explained he was there not to impose his ideas or create change, but to learn from the experts in his native country.
“Immediately the atmosphere in the meeting changed,” says de la Peña. “Everybody began just smiling and freely sharing their ideas.”
On the basis of that call, the dean of the university invited de la Peña to become a visiting professor this year, and he’s been able to connect with other researchers in the health sciences and participate in virtual research symposiums as a panellist. The experience has cemented how de la Peña plans to explore future research partnerships: by explaining that he is there to learn. “I start by saying that you know more about this disease than I do because you have been working with it,” de la Peña says. “Tell me more about it. Let’s work together.”
De la Peña’s approach embodies the concept of intellectual humility. According to the University of Connecticut’s Humility & Conviction in Public Life research project, which ran from 2015 to 2020, it involves “the owning of one’s cognitive limitations, a healthy recognition of one’s intellectual debts to others, and low concern for intellectual domination and certain kinds of social status”.
How to include Indigenous researchers and their knowledge
That translates to recognizing the limitations of one’s beliefs and being open to the perspectives of others, says Michael Lynch, a philosopher at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. “Somebody who has intellectual humility understands that they aren’t going to simply climb on top of a mountain of knowledge themselves,” Lynch says. “They recognize it is going to take some help.”
In the past decade, studies have shown that intellectual humility is linked to learning1, educational achievement2 and critical thinking3. It can also boost open-mindedness and receptivity to differing perspectives4 — both of which are essential in successful collaborations.
In research, it is all too easy to get stuck in an echo chamber in which uniform thinking hampers progress, says Tenelle Porter, a psychologist at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey. “Intellectual humility can really help us listen to those who don’t have the same ways of knowing as we do,” or those with a different expertise, she says.
An antidote to academic arrogance
Although intellectual humility’s role in successful collaborations is easy to recognize, the academic environment can make it hard to put it into practice, researchers say. “It is a very Darwinist world,” says Tero Mustonen, a geographer at Snowchange, a cooperative based in Selkie, Finland, that works with local and Indigenous communities in the Arctic.
In academia, survival of the fittest is all about publishing papers, doing so faster than your peers and showing unshakeable confidence in your own beliefs. It’s a culture that favours humility’s opposite: arrogance, a sense of rightness by virtue of position and a stubbornness about not entertaining competing viewpoints, Lynch says. “I’m a professor, so my job is Arrogance, capitalized,” he says.
On less-senior rungs of the academic ladder, in which many researchers are competing for scarce resources, it can be doubly difficult to display any uncertainty or openness, Porter says. Doing so can translate into failure to publish, missed funding and loss of advancement opportunities for early-career researchers.
Learning to collaborate with humility is, however, crucial to solving global challenges, such as building resilience to climate change, says Elena Naumova, an epidemiologist at Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts. “Marginalized and hard-to-reach communities face the greatest threats from climate change,” she says. “And we don’t want to push the old missionary idea that we [outsiders] know what is best, and what works.”
How to train early-career scientists to weather failure
Yet many scientists still take that approach, says Maria Corazon De Ungria, a population and molecular geneticist at the University of the Philippines Diliman in Quezon City. To study population genetics and provide relevant medical treatments, she works with and explains her research to local and Indigenous communities with varied educational backgrounds. She’s seen researchers acting as paternalistic saviours and telling people scientific facts as though they represent the one and only truth. “Whereas, in my experience, it is particularly important to stop talking and listen,” to place research and recommendations in the proper community context, De Ungria says.
In the past, De Ungria might have started off by explaining the benefits of medicines that took into account a group’s genomic make-up. But when she stopped to listen, she heard that such treatments were impractical because there wasn’t a health centre nearby. Consequently, in one instance, she was able to contract a local pharmaceutical company to donate medicines through family physicians. “It is only when we listen that we get to understand how the science could be relevant to the people who are affected the most,” De Ungria says.
Listening is a skill, De Ungria says, one fuelled by the recognition that one’s knowledge might be flawed or, at least, limited. But it’s hard to admit our own fallibility, Leary says. So, researchers should cultivate a mindset and create an environment in which it is OK — even applauded — to make mistakes.
To this end, Leary gives a talk entitled ‘Tales from the trash can — 40 years of failed research’. In it, he outlines his own history of bad ideas, suboptimal decisions and mistakes, such as the time when he sloppily offered research participants a response scale that ran from “strongly disagree” to “strongly disagree”. His objectives are to reassure junior researchers that not every study succeeds and to emphasize that principal investigators should be open to feedback from everyone in their group — a process that could lead to fewer mistakes.
It helps to remember that it is impossible to know everything, Porter says. This understanding can then spur individuals to hunt out the gaps in their knowledge and be open to fresh ideas. Ultimately, exercising intellectual humility requires approaching assumptions, beliefs and opinions with curiosity and no small degree of courage. But the pay-offs are there, Porter says. “You have to be willing to wade into the unknown to make new discoveries.”
Intellectual humility isn’t merely an inward-looking endeavour of rooting out limitations, however, Lynch says. “It also has an outward-looking aspect — the idea that what others bring to the table can teach you something.”
What it means to practise values-based research
For instance, when it comes to discerning why populations evolve the way they do, genomics is simply one part of the puzzle, De Ungria says. History, culture and language all play a part. So arriving at understanding relies on collaborating across disciplines and cultures, she says.
In recent years, scientists and policymakers have also recognized the crucial role that traditional and Indigenous ecological knowledge have in conservation and climate-adaptation strategies. Such knowledge represents the accumulated experience and understandings of societies with long histories of interacting with their natural surroundings. Bradley Moggridge, a hydrogeologist at the University of Canberra and a Murri from the Kamilaroi nation on the eastern coast of Australia, says his nation’s songs and dances contain observations and understandings from more than 60,000 years of connection with the land.
Such knowledge can provide accurate and useful climate information and can point to solutions, says Mustonen, who is also head of the traditional village of Selkie and a lead author of the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The mission of Snowchange, which Mustonen co-founded, is to give local and Indigenous communities a voice and agency in the stewardship of their environments. Snowchange workers employ intellectual humility in their collaborations simply by not assuming anything. It’s an approach that builds trust in collaborations and results in information being shared more freely, Mustonen says.
Such humility also has a role in the work of the IPCC, Mustonen says. “We should be trying to work in an honourable and consented way with Indigenous peoples and their knowledge, because we need all the evidence now to make the best possible decisions to maintain humanity’s existence on the planet,” he says.
To help such efforts, Moggridge says that scientists need to see traditional ecological knowledge as equal in value to other scientific knowledge. In Australia, doing so could help to resolve natural-resource issues such as how water is managed or preparing lands for a hot, dry summer with ‘cultural burning’, the use of controlled fires to reduce wildfire risks. However, non-Indigenous scientists there don’t typically see Aboriginal Dreamings — oral-tradition stories that capture thousands of years of observations — as providing useful evidence. The stories “are put in the realm of fiction and make-believe”, he says.
Humility training could help scientists to recognize that different forms of knowledge exist, have value and require different methods of data collection, Moggridge says. The Indigenous perspective on natural-resource management is one of knowing, being and doing, all in the context of the local environment, so if you want to understand Aboriginal knowledge, it is essential to go to where that knowledge is held, he says.
Collaboration built on trust
Consequently, establishing research partnerships with Indigenous knowledge holders can prove invaluable. But, too often, scientists define their research questions with little to no consultation with communities. “It is too late to start a project and then go to the people and ask their opinions because the train is already on its path,” Moggridge says. “We are so tired of being an afterthought or add-on.”
Moggridge says the solution is to collaborate with intellectual humility from start to finish. Scientists should start the conversation early with a community, build trust over time and then start talking about the research priorities of that community. The result is a co-designed project that can also be co-delivered — feeding the results not just into scientific publications but back into the community in a way that is useful, he says.
In Western Australia, projects run by an organization called Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa embody such an approach. Its rangers draw on ancient knowledge of species habitat and behaviour, and use bush skills of the Martu people to monitor and protect species including the warru, or black-flanked rock wallaby (Petrogale lateralis), and the mankarr, or greater bilby (Macrotis lagotis).
Universities and funding agencies can provide cultural-sensitivity training to help raise scientists’ awareness of different perspectives and world views. IPCC panel members receive such training. Online resources for collaborating with Indigenous communities also exist: the Native Movement, a Native Alaskan organization rooted in an Indigenized world view, provides an online course called Untangling Colonialism, and Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation has compiled ‘Our Knowledge, Our Way’ guidelines for scientists who work with Indigenous peoples. In New Zealand, guidelines for researchers working with Maori communities are outlined in the Kaupapa Māori ethical framework. One principle it emphasizes, mahaki, is that of showing humility when sharing knowledge.
Perhaps the biggest act of humility for non-Indigenous researchers is developing the awareness that their beliefs and values are often simply a product of the Western scientific paradigm, rather than being neutral and objective descriptions of reality. Recognizing that can allow them to question their world views and biases, and clear the way for entering collaborations with fresh and open minds. Then respect, deep listening and a willingness to learn can help to foster trust. “Really, as scientists, our currency is not just knowledge, but also trust,” De Ungria says.
Intellectual humility is a skill or habit that can be learnt (see ‘How to apply intellectual humility in your science’), and scientists are well positioned to embrace the concept, Leary says. “A big part of science is being wrong and acknowledging and understanding when you’re wrong,” he says.
Recognizing that there’s more to learn, together with the humility to listen, lie at the heart of effective collaboration. And intellectual humility can serve as a tool to unite disciplines and cultures in the quest for solutions to complex challenges. Moreover, it doesn’t necessarily require extensive training or hard-to-implement strategies, Leary says. It can be as simple as getting into the habit of asking yourself one question whenever you are tempted to assert your position: “Could I be wrong about this?”