Have you ever heard of the Piltdown Man?
One of my favorite podcasts is “Stuff You Missed in History Class” (suffice it to say that I missed a lot in history class–my husband is constantly shocked at my ignorance!). Last week, I listened to an episode on the Piltdown Man (find the episode here: The Piltdown Man). This was a famous hoax that was perpetrated on the scientific community in 1912 (we still don’t know who was behind it). Bone fragments found near Piltdown, East Sussex (in England) were presented as being from the first human being, the “missing link,” first said to be 500,000 years old.
One thing that was noteworthy about this hoax is that it took 45 years for it to be definitively repudiated; today, scientists look back and were amazed that so many people were so ready to believe the bones were authentic, even in spite of the mounting evidence suggesting otherwise.
And that is the thing that really struck me: people were so convinced that these bones were real, and they wanted so much to believe that the “missing link” between the human and the ape had been found in England, they ignored the increasingly compelling evidence that humanity actually had its origins in Africa. The authors of the podcast emphasized that scientific progress and anthropological work actually was slowed by those individuals and organizations who insisted that it was most fitting that humanity would have been born in Europe rather than Africa, and refused to consider any other possibilities, even as it seemed less and less likely that the hypothesis was true.
As I was thinking about this, I was reminded about an answer one of my students gave on his final exam this fall. In the “Seven Deadly Sins” class (oh yes, as fun as it sounds!), one of my students, Matt Best, chose to answer this question: “If you could add one sin to the list, which one would you add?” Can you guess what sin he added? Certainty! I would never have picked that one, but his explanation was very strong and quite compelling. He talked about how being so sure that something is true, so certain that one is right, puts up barriers between ourselves and others, and ourselves and God. We don’t want to listen to anyone who might disagree with us, and we get angry if our views are challenged. We insist on our own way, and we will fight with anyone who suggests there might be another possibility. We even refuse to see evidence right in front of our noses that might challenge our convictions. This is, in short, idolatry; divinizing our own ideas, our own world view, our very selves above others, and even above God. We would even kill to protect our own beliefs, both figuratively and literally. Before reading his exam, I wouldn’t have thought of “certainty” as a sin, but after reading it, I was totally convinced he was right.
So, in 2017, I am hoping for a year with less certainty, less insistence on our own way, and less dismissing and demonizing of those who disagree with us. The positive side of this, then, is more openness, more flexibility and more humility. We’re not always right; and more importantly, we don’t always have to be right: it’s OK to be wrong, to learn something from others, and to change our minds. Maybe it’s even “saintly.”