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What Exactly Does It Mean for Science to be Wrong?

Wrong, Not Even Wrong

We are living in an age of unparalleled scientific progress. Granted, much of the progress is in hyper-specialized subfields, but nevertheless the way in which we view particular scientific disciplines is rapidly changing (largely due to the influx of new technology).

With all forms of progress, as something new steps in something old is left behind. A new theory rises to prominence, while the previously accepted one is relegated to history books. It will forever be remembered as the theory that was wrong.

But what exactly does it mean for science to be wrong?

Not Even Wrong

There is a possibly apocryphal story (see Peter Woit’s Not Even Wrong for a more detailed account of the story) in which the theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli was presented with a paper from a young physicist. After reading though the paper, Pauli famously (or possibly) exclaimed that the paper was “not even wrong.”

To Pauli, there are two distinct ways of not being correct. For something to be wrong it must have some grounding in reality, and must follow some legitimate string of logic. It may be wrong, but it had the theoretical possibility of being right. To be “not even wrong,” something must be so far off from reality or contain such a glaring logical flaw that it at no point would could reasonably be considered correct.

The Relativity of Wrong

In his brilliant essay, The Relativity of Wrong, Isaac Asimov describes the different ways in which someone can be wrong about science. Asimov notes: “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 relative wrongness of a theory can be determined by how closely it resembles the accepted theory at any given time. Democritus’s atomism was one level of wrong when the accepted theory allowed for the existence of only four basic elements. His atomism was another level of wrong once sub-atomic particles were first discovered. Wrongness, in a sense, is adjusted over time based on the progress of a scientific discipline.

Incommensurability

In studying how science progresses, Thomas Kuhn suggested that science evolves through a series of paradigm shifts. In each shift a scientific field is overtaken by an entirely new theory that is entirely incommensurable with the one that preceded it. Within each paradigm, however, scientific progress occurs under the banner of “normal science.”

The concept of incommensurability adds to the consideration of wrongness in science. There is significant difference between being incorrect during a period of normal science, and being part of a previous paradigm. The incommensurability between the theories on the two sides of a paradigm shift implies an almost “not even wrong” attitude toward the older theory. During a period of normal science, any wrongness is tempered by the fact that the research was grounded in some set of shared fundamental principles.

Convergent Realism

The wrongness of a surpassed theory is best examined from the lens of convergent realism. Convergent realists maintain that within any mature scientific discipline, progress is converging toward the eventual scientific truth. Though a surpassed theory may be incorrect, it laid the foundation for those that followed it. Its wrongness is therefore very different than that of a theory that did not contribute to the convergence.

Though the theory of convergent realism has been frequently attacked for arbitrarily defining “mature science” so as to exclude all counter examples, or its difficulty in integrating a notion of incommensurability, it does lend to a nuanced notion of scientific progress. As one theory replaces another, our total knowledge increases.

Asimov described the progress from think of the earth as flat, to a sphere, to an oblate spheroid, to finally pear-shaped. Even if one wishes to deny the existence of scientific truth, it is hard to debate that we have accumulated and integrated move knowledge into each successive theory (see Asimov’s piece for more details).

Conclusion

Assuming that science continues to progress at the current rate, at least some of the accepted scientific knowledge that we have right now will be replaced in the coming years. Several of our prevailing theories will be shown to be wrong, and some will perhaps even be demonstrated as being “not even wrong”. Our current theories are future victims of scientific progress.

Being wrong, however, is not always bad. Wrongness implies the possibility of being correct. Wrongness implies the proper adherence to the scientific method. Wrongness is an expansive spectrum that should be devoid of any inherent connotation.  It is only when we are “not even wrong” that our work is perhaps detrimental to the scientific enterprise.

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    By: Wade Miller

    Wade Miller is a senior chemistry major at the University of Pennsylvania. In addition to his interest in drug development and pharmacology, Wade has studied both the philosophy and history of science. Wade is also member of the Philadelphia branch of Neuwrite, a collaborative writing group for scientists and writers.

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