Fallibilism is the idea that we can never be 100-percent certain we’re right and must therefore always be open to the possibility we’re wrong. This might seem a pessimistic notion, but it isn’t. Ironically, this apparent weakness is a strength; admitting one’s mistakes is the first step in learning from them and overcoming them, in science and in society.

Fallibilism lies at the heart of scientific enterprise. Even science’s most well-established findings, – the laws of nature, – are but hypotheses that have withstood the scrutiny and testing thus far. The possibility that they may be wrong, or superseded, is what spurs the generation of new alternative hypotheses and the search for further evidence enabling us to choose between them. This what scientific progress is made of. Science rightly champions winning ideas, – ideas that have been tested and passed, – and dispenses with those that have been tested and have failed or are too vague to be tested at all.

Fallibilism is the guiding principle of free, open, liberal, secular societies. If the laws of nature can be wrong, then how much more fallible are our social and political arrangements? Even our morals, for example, don’t reflect some absolute truth, – god-given or otherwise. They too are hypotheses, – biological and cultural attempts to solve the problems of cooperation and conflict inherent in human social life. They’re tentative, provisional, and capable of improvement; and they can be, and have been improved upon. The awareness of this possibility, – allied to the ambition to seize the opportunity it represents, and the scientific ability to do so, – is precisely what has driven the tremendous social, moral, legal, and political progress of the past few centuries.

Fallibilism tells us that our methods for distinguishing better ideas from worse ideas work, and urges us to use them to quantify our uncertainty and resolve it. Better still, to work together. Your opponent is no doubt mistaken, but in all likelihood, so are you. So why not see what you can learn from each other and collaborate further?

Anyone wishing to understand the world or change it for the better should embrace this fundamental truth.

Oliver Scott Curry
Director, Oxford Morals Project, Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology
Oxford University