More than two millennia ago, Plato compared the ordinary person to a prisoner living in a cave. Chained, looking straight at the wall in front of them, they can only see shadows.
What Plato didn’t mention is that this chained existence in a dark cave is one of their own making. It’s pretty easy to unchain yourself, but most people don’t want to.
They have one view of the world, and stubbornly keep to it. The brain is great at discarding facts that don’t fit into this narrow window. Ignorance is bliss. And ego is ever powerful.
Plato’s teacher, Socrates, saw right through this. Rather, his prescription to a good life was to acknowledge your own ignorance.
“I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance.” — Socrates
Charles Darwin, the unassuming hero
When you think of the scientific geniuses of history, which names come to mind? Galileo Galilei? Isaac Newton? Albert Einstein? I am pretty sure if you were forced to make a list, one name would surely appear on it. Charles Darwin.
Yet, what most historians agree on is how average Charles Darwin really was. He wasn’t particularly good at school. Nor did he stand out among his peers. Even Darwin himself acknowledged this in his writings.
“I have no great quickness of apprehension or wit which is so remarkable in some clever men.” — Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin, while smart, was no genius. His strengths lay elsewhere.
A hint of this can be found in Janet Browne’s description of him in her biography of the man:
“Darwin was the most unspectacular person of all time, a man known to his contemporaries as a quiet, methodical worker, devoted to his family, hard to prise out of his house in the country, averse to ostentation, utterly conventional in his behavior, modest and unassuming about his results.” — Janet Browne
Methodical worker. Modest. Unassuming. These words show us where Darwin’s strengths lay. It was not his powerful brain. Rather, it was the traits of his character that were behind his success.
Why your brain is preventing you from changing your mind
Science advances one funeral at a time. This short paraphrase of German scientist Max Planck’s observation on the nature of scientific progress hints at a larger human condition.
“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.“ — Max Planck
People are stubborn. Scientists are people. Hence logic dictates they are often stubborn.
It’s the human brain’s wiring that is at fault here. It’s ego-driven and falls for cognitive biases. The most prominent of these is confirmation bias.
You have a particular view of the world. And you search to confirm those views. That means acknowledging the facts that are in line with your beliefs. And discarding everything else.
So if you come across something that challenges these cherished beliefs, you tend to discard it. Sometimes even rage against it. This can result in the so-called backfire effect, where not only do you not change your opinion when a fact negates it, you actually start believing in your BS even more.
Imagine that! A fact comes in that disproves your assumptions. And despite this proof being solid, you go on pretending it doesn’t exist. Your mind does a magic trick. It erases these inconvenient facts from existence.
This type of mental mechanism not only prevents you from changing your mind, it also hampers you in finding a better solution to problems.
Humans are often one trick ponies. You find one decent way of solving problems, and stick to it. You repeat it, and repeat it. This prevents you from seeing other ways of solving the same problem. Often, better ways of solving that problem.
In psychology, this is called the Einstellung effect. If all you have ever been using are hammers and nails, then you will treat everything as if it were a hammer and nail problem.
That’s just how the brain works. It’s hard to change your mind. For scientists, just like for normal people.
Charles Darwin was one of those rare characters who was able to tame these negative propensities of the brain. He had a nice little trick to battle confirmation bias.
Darwin’s Golden Rule
Charles Darwin revolutionized our thinking about the world. By uncovering some of the deep inner workings of the natural world, he opened up new avenues of research. And not just that.
The theory of evolution has been one of the most groundbreaking scientific achievements. It changed science. But also society. He turned the way humans view themselves upside down.
It went totally against the grain of the ideas prevalent among people for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Charles Darwin was able to go against the grain, exactly because of his mental humbleness. His open-mindedness.
It was his Golden Rule that was behind his success. It was a simple rule. Whenever he came across something that opposed his preconceived notions, he wouldn’t discard it.
Rather, he took care to note it down.
“I had also, during many years, followed a golden rule, namely that whenever published fact, a new observation of thought came across me, which was opposed to my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once; for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from the memory than favorable ones.” — Charles Darwin
He didn’t run away from contradictory evidence. He welcomed it. He knew these facts contradicting your worldview escape memory much faster than those that support it. That’s why he noted them down.
In this way, he was the total opposite of many of the scientists of his day. Even the professors that taught him in his university days.
In her first volume of Darwin’s biography, historian of science Janet Browne noted how Scottish naturalist and University of Edinburgh professor Robert Jameson went out of his way to hide evidence that contradicted his own theories:
“Jameson had his foibles, including, most notoriously, his efforts to prevent students seeing any geological specimens that might contradict his own well-developed views.” — Janet Browne
While this type of behavior is natural, it doesn’t really bode well for science. In fact, it is often strange out of place results that push science the farthest.
A quote often attributed to the great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov points to the essence of how discovery in science works. Every great scientific breakthrough starts off when someone notices things that are strange or shouldn’t be there.
“The Most Exciting Phrase in Science Is Not ‘Eureka!’ But ‘That’s odd …’”
Darwin took this mindset to heart.
How to apply Darwin’s Golden Rule
Intellectual humility is at the basis of discovery. It can also help ensure that your theories stand the test of time. As writer Adam Gopnik stated in his book Angels and Ages, this was the strength of Darwin’s thought.
He was the first person to outline the chief objections to his own theory.
“All of what remain today as the chief objections to his theory are introduced by Darwin himself, fairly and accurately, and in a spirit of almost panicked anxiety — and then rejected not by bullying insistence but by specific example, drawn from the reservoir of his minute experience of life.” — Adam Gopnik
So how do you apply this type of mindset in your own daily life? It all starts with adopting a certain way of thinking. Acknowledge your limitations. Accept that you will be wrong on occasions. To err is human.
When you come across facts that contradict your own views, don’t discard them right away. Examine them. Note them down.
Keep a notebook for this sort of activity. Charles Darwin kept lots of notebooks. They are quite useful. Browsing them later on can remind you of things you might have forgotten.
This is a great habit to have.
Darwin’s ideas changed the scientific world. Perhaps his Golden Rule can change your thinking. Unchain yourself from the cave.
An earlier version of this article was originally published on “Medium” here.