Sunday, 20 November 2011

The Relativity of Wrong

Isaac Asimov was a polymath and prolific writer. As well as writing and editing over 500 books, he contributed numerous letters and articles to magazines. Although I must admit that I cannot recommend his joke books(!), I can recommend the piece he wrote for The Skeptical Inquirer called The Relativity of Wrong.

Here's a taster:
The young specialist in English Lit, having quoted me, went on to lecture me severely on the fact that in every century people have thought they understood the universe at last, and in every century they were proved to be wrong. It follows that the one thing we can say about our modern "knowledge" is that it is wrong. The young man then quoted with approval what Socrates had said on learning that the Delphic oracle had proclaimed him the wisest man in Greece. "If I am the wisest man," said Socrates, "it is because I alone know that I know nothing." the implication was that I was very foolish because I was under the impression I knew a great deal.

My answer to him was, "John, when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together."
Although written in 1989, this is still a great piece and worthy of a read now and again, especially if challenged about trusting current scientific explanations because they are "all wrong". Take evolution, for example. Whilst the details of evolutionary theory - a body of work, not a single theory - are subject to change, we can be as certain as we are of anything that the essence will not. Although conceptually evolution can be disproven by new evidence, the likelihood of such evidence is vanishingly small and diminishes further all the time. We may not have all the details but we can be confident that evolution is not "wrong".

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