Hello, friends! So one day when I was a little kid, I got into a huge argument with another kid in school. I’d said something about how Earth is a sphere, like all the other planets. The other kid told me (firstly) that Star Trek isn’t real and (secondly) that the earth is flat.
As evidence, the other kid told me to just look around. It’s obvious that the world is flat. If I needed more proof, I could look at a map. More kids soon jumped into this argument. They all agreed: the earth is flat, and also I’m a huge nerd for watching so much Star Trek. I was outnumbered, and being outnumbered was further proof that I must be wrong.
I went home so mad that day. How could those other kids be so stupid? I was right. Everybody else was wrong. I’m tempted to turn this into a metaphor for Internet culture, but that’s not the point I want to make today.
Yes, when those other kids said the Earth is flat, they were wrong. But when I said the Earth is a sphere, I was wrong too. Less wrong, obviously. But still, I was wrong.
Isaac Asimov’s essay “The Relativity of Wrong” is a brilliant summation of how science works. It should be required reading for every human being (click here to read it). As Asimov explains:
[…] 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.
As Asimov goes on to explain, there was a time, long ago, when educated people really did believe the world was flat, and they had good reasons for thinking it to be so. But then discoveries were made. New knowledge was learned, and people came to think of the world was a sphere. Then more discoveries were made, and people started to think of the world as an oblate spheroid (round, but slightly bulgy at the equator). And then still more discoveries were made, and even the oblate spheroid model turned out to be slightly inaccurate.
People (including people on the Internet) will gleefully point out that science has been wrong about stuff in the past; therefore, science could be wrong about stuff today—stuff like evolution, climate change, general relativity—also stuff like vaccinations and COVID-19. When science is wrong so much, why pay attention to science at all?
Well, it’s true. In absolutist (this-or-that-ist) terms, science is wrong. Science is always wrong, about everything, all the time. Science is full of educated guesses and close approximations of observed reality. It’s not perfect. It will never be perfect. But with each new discovery, science is a little less wrong today than it was yesterday. And you can trust science to keep being less and less wrong, even if it will never be 100% right.
And that process of constant refinement and improvement, that process of getting closer and closer to the truth—that’s something worth paying attention to, something worth taking seriously, don’t you think?
P.S.: I’ll concede that those kids in school were right about one thing. I was, and still am, a huge Star Trek nerd.