In this essay, written in response to a colleague’s skepticism toward his optimism about scientific progress, Isaac Asimov argues that there are degrees of being wrong. Being slightly off is better than being COMPLETELY wrong.
“The basic trouble, you see, is that people think that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are absolute; that everything that isn’t perfectly and completely right is totally and equally wrong. However, I don’t think that’s so. It seems to me that right and wrong are fuzzy concepts.”
Asimov then gives a brief history of scientific thought, using the size and shape of the earth as an example of how an idea can refined to become less and less wrong over time. He describes how and why man first perceived the earth to be flat, then spherical, before deciding that the planet is an ‘oblate spheroid’ shape.
“The correction in going from spherical to oblate spheroidal is much smaller than going from flat to spherical. Therefore, although the notion of the earth as a sphere is wrong, strictly speaking, it is not as wrong as the notion of the earth as flat.”
He concludes the essay by describing why a belief in theory is important; because even when a new theory seems to represent a revolution, it usually arises out of small refinements. Otherwise, the original theory wouldn’t have endured for so long:
“In short, living in a mental world of absolute rights and wrongs may be imagining that all theories are wrong, the earth may be thought of as spherical now, but cubical the 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.“
Isaac Asimov’s scientific writing is a joy to read. With only 2,480 words, you can’t afford not to read “The Relativity of Wrong”.
If this subject is especially interesting to you, I suggest checking out Thomas Kuhn’s classic A History of Scientific Revolutions or Asimov’s out-of-print but still available The Relativity of Wrong.