How being less wrong is actually right

Our earth is not exactly a sphere
photo: NASA
I was teaching a class on critical thinking yesterday and the discussion afterwards was great.  As I was driving home though, I started to think about the basic problem of figuring out what is true and what is false: which is the point of critical thinking after all. And I think this is what trips up a lot of people. Most people just want to know what is true and what isn’t. And they get frustrated when scientists say – we figured it out this time, only to learn a few years later, that they really hadn’t gotten it right at all.

And this reminded me of an essay by Isaac Asimov titled “The Relativity of Wrong.”  You see, a scientific mindset is actually just judging theories as right or wrong on a sliding scale.  The question a scientist is asking isn’t, are we absolutely right?  The question they are asking is, are we less wrong then we were before?

The example Asimov gives is how our knowledge of the earth has evolved as we have learned more and more.  At first people thought the earth was flat – and even though they were wrong, it didn’t really impact anyone because for all intents and purposes, it is, from a single person living on the surface of the earth’s perspective.  Then we realized it was a sphere (which isn’t entirely correct either but it is clearly less wrong than the previous view).  Then people realized they got the size of the earth wrong and it is actually bigger than they had originally thought. Again, this is still wrong, but not as wrong as they had been before.  And now we know that technically the earth isn’t even a sphere – it apparently has some bulges in the middle. So again, no scientist would say we have it figured out now for sure, all they are doing is making our understanding of the planet we live on less wrong which makes us more right than we were before.

Why does this matter? Well, because, when it comes to solving problems it is important to accept that your knowledge is never going to be perfect and that you need to figure out a solution to your problem anyway.  At some point, you need to act and do the best you can.  To quote Thoreau “The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think is right.”

1 comment:

  1. Great post! I've been thinking lately about how knowledge itself isn't as vital as the lens through which we view the knowledge we have. I don't quite have the words for it yet, but this seems like an important addition to that. Taking a critical approach - the scientific method - is predicated upon remaining open to new information.


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