The Relativity of Wrong

If you’re not right, then you’re wrong. Right?

Isaac Asimov considered this in his essay ‘The Relativity of Wrong,’ which appeared in his book by the same name and the Skeptial Inquirer in 1989.

The essay is a response to a letter received from an English Lit major who argued, as many still do, that we should expect all our theories to eventually be proven wrong. After all, many have claimed knowledge in the past and in almost all cases it has turned out they were mistaken.

Asimov responds:

“[W]hen people thought the world 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.”

Michael Shermer calls this Asimov’s Axiom — some views are wronger than wrong, and it’s even more wrong to think otherwise. Just like coming in 2nd place in a race might still mean you’ve lost, it’s not as bad as coming in 100th.

Asimov then extends this argument beyond scientific theories or findings and into basic questions of spelling:

“How do you spell “sugar”? Suppose Alice spells it p-q-z-z-f and Genevieve spells it s-h-u-g-e-r. Both are wrong, but is there any doubt that Alice is wronger than Genevieve? For that matter, I think it is possible to argue that Genevieve’s spelling is superior to the “right” one.

Or suppose you spell “sugar” s-u-c-r-o-s-e, or C¹² H²² O¹¹. Strictly speaking, you are wrong each time, but you’re displaying a certain knowledge of the subject beyond conventional spelling.”

Asimov then turns to math, a field that can seem to make the distinction between right and wrong very obvious.

“Suppose Joseph says: 2 + 2 = purple, while Maxwell says: 2 + 2 = 17. Both are wrong, but isn’t it fair to say that Joseph is wronger than Maxwell?

Suppose you said: 2 + 2 = an integer. You’d be right, wouldn’t you? Or suppose you said: 2 + 2 = an even integer. You’d be rather righter.”

This highlights an interesting idea — while there are an infinite number of ways to be wrong, with some being relatively closer to the truth than others, there are also, often, many ways of being right.

If you ask someone to draw the earth, are they more correct to draw a circle (or an oblate spheroid) or should they lay out a rectangle so that they can picture every continent like many maps (and flat-earthers) do?

If one, rather than drawing the surface, traces the tectonic plates, are they wrong? Is that not still the earth? What if they only scribble a dot but accurately align and scale it with the other planets in our solar system?

Asimov finishes by pointing to the accumulative nature of science:

“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.”

Read Asimov’s essay here, and follow that up with Believing is Easy, Being Correct is Difficult; The Ethics of Belief; How Doubt Leads to Better Decisions; How Does Your Gut Sort Fact From Fiction?; and Is Overconfidence Tearing the World Apart?

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