Wronger than wrong

American science writer Michael Shermer has described as ‘wronger than wrong‘ the mistake addressed in what he calls ‘Asimov’s axiom,’ after the noted author Isaac Asimov, who discussed the issue in his book of essays, ‘The Relativity of Wrong.’

A statement that equates two errors is wronger than wrong when one of the errors is clearly more wrong than the other. As Asimov put it: ‘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 explains that science is both progressive and cumulative. Even though scientific theories are later proven wrong, the degree of their wrongness attenuates with time as they are modified in response to the mistakes of the past. For example, data collected from satellite measurements shows precisely how the Earth’s shape differs from a perfect sphere. Shermer states that being wronger than wrong is actually worse than being not even wrong (that is, being unfalsifiable).

According to American historian John Jenkins, who reviewed ‘The Relativity of Wrong,’ the title essay of Asimov’s book is the one ‘which I think is important both for understanding Asimov’s thinking about science and for arming oneself against the inevitable anti-science attack that one often hears — [that] theories are always preliminary and science really doesn’t ‘know’ anything.’

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