Monday, April 09, 2007

How Wrong is Wrong, And How Right Is Right?

Having been wrong a time or two, I can appreciate how important it is to know just how wrong you are. Are you "Sleeping on the couch" wrong, or just "You're doing the dishes tonight" wrong? For a man, evaluating the differing degrees of wrongness is a critical skill.

Which means it should come as no surprise that the most prolific author in American history, Isaac Asimov, wrote something on the subject of "The Relativity of Wrong". In this case, Asimov was concerned not so much with the vagaries of gender relations, but on the utility of science.

I find it ironic that what its adherents see as science's greatest virtue -- the ability to change in the face of contrary evidence -- is seen by its detractors as its greatest weakness. And yet I often read or hear criticisms of various scientific theories (or even the practice of science in general) as being built on a house of sand. I've even felt it myself; one day we're told eggs are the greatest threat to your health since arsenic, the next that eggs are the perfect food. It's frustrating living in a world of uncertainty, and I think that's always been one of the strongest selling points of religion. For religion is always the same, its adherents are eager to tell you. God is eternal and so is their faith.

Of course that ignores thousands of years of schism, sectarianism, and apostasy, but you get the general idea.

In his essay, though, Asimov points out that there are relative levels of wrongness, not an absolute scale where there is only completely right on the one hand, and anything that falls short of it in the other. Even when you're wrong, he argues, you can be less wrong than someone else:

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."
In short, my English Lit friend, living in a mental world of absolute rights and wrongs, may be imagining that because all theories are wrong, the earth may be thought spherical now, but cubical next century, and a hollow icosahedron the next, and a doughnut shape the one after.

What actually happens is that once scientists get hold of a good concept they gradually refine and extend it with greater and greater subtlety as their instruments of measurement improve. Theories are not so much wrong as incomplete.

I know that many theists take the same approach towards religion, and in fact that very argument has been made right here on this blog by GeoPoet. I do have sympathy for that approach, as I do for any endeavor that involves humility and an honest search for the truth, an admission that everything we know is but a beginning to a story that is still incomplete.

That is the profound hope that makes us get up in the morning, that as a species, we are moving in the right direction along the Axis of Wrongness, that we are becoming both closer to right, and closer to wisdom, at the same time. As always, the threat is from fear and malice, from the perverse desire to be right regardless of the evidence, to defend our beliefs (whatever they may be) not because they are less wrong than the alternative, but simply because they are ours.

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