The Relativity of Wrong

Phil Plait points out a link to one of my favorite Asimov essays, “The Relativity of Wrong.” Like most of his essays, it begins with an anecdote: in this case, Asimov receives a letter from a fellow “majoring in English literature,” who took offense at Asimov’s implication in an earlier essay that people have made definite gains in understanding Nature.

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.”

Asimov goes on to defend this position. This is actually a short version of the essay which appeared in The Skeptical Inquirer; a longer one was published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and later became the title essay of the collection The Relativity of Wrong (1988). The introductory anecdotes of the essays in that book also tell how Asimov met Harold Urey and, many years later, F. Murray Abraham — so, even without the science content, it’s an interesting little book.