Universities must do more to promote intellectual humility

During today’s Australian Open tennis championship final, the stadium may be full, but the court will still feel eerily empty. The absence of world number one and nine-time former champion Novak Djokovic has left a void that continues to make more headlines than the tournament itself.

Djokovic, of course, had his Australian visa controversially revoked after initially securing an exemption from normal Covid vaccination rules; it seemed to an angry public that the tennis administration became so eager for the unvaccinated Serb to feature in the tournament that they played fast and loose with the rules.

The exact risk Djokovic might have posed, having apparently had Covid recently, could be dismissed forever – especially given the doubts that have recently arisen over the timing of his case. But perhaps the real public health risk was a popular backlash against vaccination mandates if an elite athlete who appears to ignore virtually all scientific advice nevertheless wins a 21-year record.st Grand Slam.

Djokovic isn’t the only celebrity vaccine skeptic. Hollywood superstars Robert De Niro, Charlie Sheen and Jim Carrey have also spoken out publicly. The same goes for American podcaster Joe Rogan – prompting musicians Neil Young and Joni Mitchell to remove their music from the platform that hosts his podcasts.

Of course, for every flaky celebrity with eccentric views on vaccination, there’s been an army of academic talking heads to counter them. But did any of them look as fit and healthy as Novak Djokovic? Or attract the same loyal audience? A recent study found significant positive associations between anti-vaccination attitudes and celebrity admiration and interest. In Serbia, where Djokovic is a national hero, less than half the population is estimated to be fully vaccinated against Covid.

American psychologist Lynn McCutcheon, co-author of the study, suggests that most admired celebrities are harmless and related to our natural need for entertainment. However, she adds that some people who lack meaningful relationships, or perhaps even a strong sense of personal identity, may exhibit addictive attitudes toward celebrities, even leading to obsession.

Another of McCutcheon’s studies finds that celebrity worship in the United States has increased dramatically since 2001, likely due to increased access to celebrity information on social media. And another study she participated in found that admiration for celebrities is associated with lower general and intellectual humility.

Research also indicates that humility is key to gaining new knowledge. All teaching requires students to have the humility to realize they have something to learn (this has been shown to be associated with better course grades, for example). Intellectual humility is the middle ground between the extremes of intellectual arrogance and intellectual servitude; intellectually humble but bookish people understand and accept that their brains are not perfect, so their understanding can sometimes be subject to error.

But intellectual humility can be subtly discouraged by social pressures to have all the answers; saying “I don’t know” sounds stupid or incompetent. But it’s not just students and celebrities who can succumb to a lack of intellectual humility. To what extent did the various academic experts in virology or epidemiology who became media celebrities during the pandemic go from humility to intellectual arrogance as they enjoyed the spotlight? After all, neither the media nor the public had much of an appetite for experts saying they needed more data or pointing out the vast unknowns that still exist.

According to BBC News, Djokovic clarified his outspoken opposition to vaccines by conceding he is “not an expert” and would keep an “open mind”. But he wanted to have “an option to choose what’s best for my body.” The subtext remains: how dare a doctor claim to know better than the superstar athlete himself what is best for his body?

Today, it seems that everyone considers themselves an expert – their expertise stemming from their “lived experience”. But if education is based on the notion of ignorance, what about universities?

Maybe nobody cares. If a college degree has basically become just a ticket to a job, the question of what it is to get a real education is forgotten. Yet even businesses demand intellectual humility – and the top performers recognize it. As former Google senior vice president Laszlo Bock described it: “The most successful people here…will have a fierce position. They’ll argue like crazy… But then you say, “Here’s a new fact” and they’ll say, “Oh, well, that changes things; you are right.'”

Universities must fight harder for intellectual humility, promoting it as an essential part of our broader intellectual culture. It’s the essential antidote to the insidious influence of celebrity vacuity. However, aping such spurious certainty on the media circuit can only end in play, set, match, and championship for anti-vaxxers.

Raj Persaud is a consultant psychiatrist in private practice in Harley Street, London, and author of The mental vaccine against Covid-19 (Amberley Press, 2021). Adrian Furnham is Adjunct Professor of Psychology at BI Norwegian Business School in Oslo and co-author of The Psychology of Spies and Espionagepublished in February by Troubadour.