But notwithstanding their important differences, science and democracy share a crucial heritage. Though prefigured in many ways in the classical world, they each began to flourish in the early modern period in the 16th and 17th centuries. Among the many ideas that were mixed together to create these impressive structures was that of fallibilism: the simple conviction that we can always be wrong.
The centrality of this idea to democracy should be clear. By voting for our representatives, and then doing it again some time later, we are acknowledging that there is no one perfect ruler, no philosopher-king with all possible wisdom. If there were, it might make sense to turn over all power to them, as Plato advocated. Instead, we elect leaders on a provisional basis, reserving the right to change our minds (and sometimes even imposing term limits to prevent ourselves from being swept up with enthusiasm for a particularly charismatic politician). The United States Constitution proudly features checks and balances that make it hard for any single person or institution to wield too much power.
This principle of fallibilism is less clear, though equally important, to the practice of science. We have our wise heroes, our Newtons, Darwins, and Einsteins. But they are not infallible. There is no Science Pope to whom we can turn for final adjudication of sticky research questions.
Precisely the opposite: Science proceeds by showing how our wise heroes were, in larger or smaller ways, mistaken. Einstein overthrew Newton’s cosmos, and modern biologists are improving upon Darwin all the time. You may have a brilliant theory of the universe, but if it is contradicted by an experiment performed by a lowly graduate student, the data wins.
Science and democracy, in other words, both upend the ancient pyramids of power and knowledge: Answers bubble up from the bottom, rather than being imposed from the top.
This similarity between science and democracy is worth pointing out because it’s not an easy or obvious one to rally around, and that makes it fragile. Few people march down the streets carrying signs proclaiming “I Could Very Well Be Wrong!” But if we refuse to acknowledge the demands of that principle, both science and democracy will be threatened.
The temptation to appeal to authority or put our fates in the hands of a wise few—kings, popes, strongmen—is a powerful one. In science, we elevate most esteemed practitioners, ascribing to them an almost alien degree of intelligence and insight. In democracy, we can’t help but think that our problems could be readily dispatched with if the right person could simply impose their will and break the gridlock of our current system.
It’s worth resisting these temptations. As uninspiring as it may be to admit that nobody has all the answers, there are good reasons why the humble principle of fallibilism plays such a large role in the most powerful ideas of modernity.