The Relativity of Wrong

The Relativity of Wrong is a 1988 essay collection by Isaac Asimov, which takes its title from the most ambitious essay it contains. Like most of the essays Asimov wrote for ‘F&SF Magazine,’ each one in ‘The Relativity of Wrong’ begins with an autobiographical anecdote which serves to set the tone.

Several of the essays form a sequence explaining the discovery and uses of isotopes; the introductory passages in these essays recount Asimov’s not particularly pleasant personal relationship with physical chemist Harold C. Urey, whom he met at Columbia University.

In the title essay, Asimov argues that there exist degrees of wrongness, and being wrong in one way is not necessarily as bad as being wrong in another way. For example, if a child spells the word sugar as ‘pqzzf,’ the child is clearly incorrect. Yet, Asimov says, a child who spells the word ‘shuger’ (or in some other phonetic way) is ‘less wrong’ than one who writes a random sequence of letters. Furthermore, a child who writes ‘sucrose’ or ‘C12H22O11‘ completely disregards the ‘correct’ spelling but shows a degree of knowledge about the real thing under study. Asimov proposes that a better test question would ask the student to spell sugar in as many ways as possible, justifying each.

Likewise, believing that the Earth is a sphere is less wrong than believing that the Earth is flat, but wrong nonetheless, since it is really an oblate spheroid or a reasonable approximation thereof. As the state of knowledge advanced, the statement of the Earth’s shape became more refined, and each successive advance required a more careful and subtle investigation. Equating the wrongness of the theory that the Earth is flat with the wrongness of the theory that the Earth is a perfect sphere is wronger than wrong.

Asimov wrote ‘The Relativity of Wrong’ in response to an ‘English major’ who criticized him for believing in scientific progress. This unnamed individual took the postmodern viewpoint that all scientific explanations of the world are equally in error. Irritated, the rationalist Asimov put forth his views in his monthly ‘F&SF’ column, and the result became the title essay of this collection.

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