Isaac Asimov and the fuzzy nature of knowledge

It’s an odd thing that when people list great science popularizers of the past, names like Sagan and Feynman always pop up, but most people seem to have forgotten Isaac Asimov, who wrote some fabulous essays on understanding science. Here’s one example, in which he addresses a claim we hear all the time, that the errors of the past mean our knowledge now is on very shaky ground. He’s answering a complaint from an English Lit student who chastised Asimov for thinking he knew anything at all.

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.”

The basic trouble, you see, is that people think that “right” and “wrong” are absolute; that everything that isn’t perfectly and completely right is totally and equally wrong.

However, I don’t think that’s so. It seems to me that right and wrong are fuzzy concepts, and I will devote this essay to an explanation of why I think so.

Go read the rest, it’s worth the time.