Knowledge Is Asymptotic

Why the relativists and the absolutists are both incorrect (or why I’m tired of reading headlines about science being “wrong”)

Photo by Barna Bartis on Unsplash

It is understandable that we would prefer sharp clean distinctions. From an evolutionary perspective, being decisive is far more advantageous on the savannah where lions, snakes, and various other dangers lurk than being a philosopher or scientist who prefers to consider every predator’s behavior in context. Yes, the blood dripping from its mouth is probably an indication it just ate, but let’s just climb the nearest tree and figure out how hungry it really is later.

In nature, being wrong often comes with little cost. Indeed, caution could be defined as the willingness to be wrong almost every time in order to improve your chances of survival. Overreactions to potential threats really only need to be right once to pay huge dividends.

We still act this way today. The odds of a car accident during any given trip are hundreds to one against, but we still buckle up and the government still requires manufacturers to place airbags in automobiles. Likewise, we expect pharmaceutical companies and medical professionals to inform us of the risk associated with various treatments even though psychological research has shown that we consistently tend to overestimate the true danger even when we’re in possession of the data.

Given our tolerance for error in so many of our routine daily activities, you could be forgiven for thinking we are quite tolerant of it in a scientific context. After all, error is an expected part of the scientific process, even if the hope is that it will progressively diminish as our knowledge increases.

Instead, scientists are consistently accused of crying wolf or of just plain getting it wrong. Every meteorologist knows that if they claim there’s an 80% chance of rain and it doesn’t rain, they’ll be accused of ruining people’s weekend plans. Likewise, if a doctor tells a patient there’s a 1% risk of experiencing a particular side effect and the patient turns out to be that unlucky one in a hundred, the patient will inevitably suspect the doctor underestimated the risk.

In 1989, Isaac Asimov published an essay in The Skeptical Inquirer entitled “The Relativity of Wrong.” It was inspired by a letter Asimov had received from a student majoring in English literature who felt the need to set Asimov straight on the subject of science. The English lit major was convinced that Asimov had been a too eager promoter of science, given that science had over the past few centuries been initially wrong about a great many things. The student reminded the great writer and scientist that Socrates had said that "If I am the wisest man, it is because I alone know that I know nothing.”

The student’s letter serves simultaneously to remind us that both relativism and absolutism are poor perspectives from which to view the universe if our goal is to expand our comprehension of it. Socrates was offering a lesson in humility and a statement regarding absolute or perfect knowledge, not making a claim that it is impossible to gain greater understanding. Too many of us, like the student who wrote Asimov, think that anything short of perfect knowledge is ignorance, and therefore unworthy of our effort.

An asymptote is a curve that continually approaches a line but never actually touches it. Knowledge is asymptotic, not absolute.

In his response to the student Asimov wrote, “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.” He goes on to point out that the curvature of the earth is only about “0.000126 per mile,” so the flat earthers weren’t completely out to lunch given that’s awfully close to zero. As for the earth being a sphere, due to a bulge at the equator it’s more like an “oblate spheroid.”

But Asimov’s larger point is that as we gather more facts and consider how they fit together our understanding approaches a perfect knowledge. That it never becomes absolute is irrelevant. The flat earthers weren’t 100% wrong, but they were more wrong than those who thought the world was spherical, who were more wrong than those who realized planets bulge at their equator, and so on.

Isaac Asimov would be disappointed to read all the headlines circulating on the Internet these days that provocatively declare — more in the interest of clicks than truth, I suspect — that “Science is wrong” about this or that. Skeptics throw out words like “scientism,” which I suppose is meant to distinguish those of us convinced that science is something worthy of our respect and attention from people like John, the English literature major who is wise because he, like Socrates, knows he knows nothing.

People will argue that a vaccine with a success rate of 50% is a failure because up to half the people receiving it might still get sick, as though reducing the instances of a particular disease by half was just as bad as not reducing the number of people sickened by the virus at all. They will point to the one in 10,000 infants that has a negative reaction to a vaccination while ignoring the millions that no longer get measles or mumps, as if that single infant is proof the whole vaccination enterprise is a disaster.

Finally, someone will inevitably cite some scientist or another who falsified their data in order to convince the rest of us their hypothesis was correct, and use this case to discredit science. Integrity is central to the scientific method. Blaming science for a scientist who was either dishonest or inept is like blaming the law every time a bank is robbed or blaming internal combustion for accidents caused by distracted driving. Scientists, like everyone else, make mistakes. Sometimes they are intentional, though usually it’s just human error.

Arriving at a better understanding of our world and how all the different bits fit together and influence one another is what makes science and philosophy interesting. One of the reasons I enjoy writing is it allows me to explore different perspectives and to use the process to improve my understanding. Writing is thinking in action.

Nothing we do leads to a perfect understanding, but hopefully our efforts move us steadily further from the chaos of absolute relativism. Knowledge is asymptotic. The arc of our understanding will hopefully keep bending steadily toward perfection. We shouldn’t be discouraged because it will never reach it.

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US citizen residing in British Columbia, Canada. Degrees include anthropology and environmental studies. Activism, politics, science, nature.

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