Science is Wrong About Everything

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.

More Sci-Fi Wisdom from The Light Brigade

Last week, I shared some Sci-Fi wisdom from The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley.  I’m madly in love with this book, in case anyone hasn’t noticed. Today, I’d like to share another quote from Light Brigade, something that I found particularly enlightening.

There’s a theory that consciousness itself begins with story.  Stories are how we make sense of the world.  All of us have an internal story that we have told ourselves from the time we were very young.  We constantly revise this story as we get older, honing and sharpening it to a fine point.  Sometimes, when we encounter something in our lives, or do something that does not match up with that story, we may experience a great sense of dissonance. It can feel as if you’ve lost a piece of yourself.  It can feel like an attack on who you are, when the real world doesn’t match your story.

This idea of stories—both the stories that society wants us to believe about ourselves and the stories about ourselves that we make up on our own—this becomes a recurring theme throughout The Light Brigade.  It’s also been a recurring theme in my personal life these last few years.

It strikes me as a very writerly way of looking at the world. But it’s also, I think, a scientist’s way of seeing things.  Much of The Light Brigade, and especially the section quoted above, reminded me of Isaac Asimov’s classic essay “The Relativity of Wrong.”

[…] 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.

In a similar way, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, what we stand for, and what our purpose is in this world—these stories are imperfect descriptions of reality.  And that’s okay.  It doesn’t mean these stories are entirely false or that they have no value.  It just means some stories are more accurate then others.

All we can hope for is that our stories are as close to the truth as possible.

Photons and Ice Cream

How can light be a particle and a wave?  I have no freaking idea.  This has perplexed scientists for generations now, but experiment after experiment have proven it is true.  Somehow, the individual photons that make up light are particles sometimes and waves others, depending on how you look at them.  Even weirder, sometimes photons seem to have the properties of both particles and waves at the same time.

Asimov

A few years ago, I read a simple analogy that makes particle-wave duality a little easier to understand.  This comes to us courtesy of Isaac Asimov’s book Atom: Journey Across the Subatomic Cosmos.

Asimov asks us how we might describe an empty ice cream cone (other than disappointing).  Is it a triangle or a circle?  Somehow, it appears to be both.  When observed from one perspective, it’s clearly a triangle; from another, it’s obviously circular.  And sometimes, if viewed under certain special circumstances, the ice cream cone appears to exhibit properties of both a triangle and a circle at the same time!

I had planned to include a picture of an ice cream cone here, but it mysteriously disappeared. Such strange things are known to happen in quantum physics.

Of course, light’s dual nature is far more complicated than that of an ice cream cone.  Our limited, human minds may never learn how to visualize photons doing their quantum voodoo particle-wave thing, but the ice cream analogy might make this bizarre concept a little easier to digest.

P.S.: A few years ago, I wrote a review of Atom: Journey Across the Subatomic Cosmos.  If you have any interest in learning about science, this book is a must read.  I cannot emphasize enough that it is the best book on science I have ever encountered.