4. Certainty, Likelihood, and Probability
← 32 | 33 →
Certainty, Likelihood, and Probability
Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.—Voltaire1
Inquiry is fatal to certainty.—Will Durant2
Science fiction writer/chemist Isaac Asimov offered a rebuttal of radical skepticism.3 He argued that right and wrong are not absolute, that some things are more right than others. He gave an example of two grade school students asked to spell “sugar.” According to Asimov, “shuger” would be more right than “pqzzf.” He noted that Newton’s theories of motion and gravitation were very close to right; they would have been absolutely right if the speed of light were infinite, that is, if light took zero seconds rather than 0.0000000033 seconds to travel a meter. Einstein’s theory corrects for the speed of light, so it replaced Newton’s. Newton’s theory was wrong as all scientific theories are ultimately wrong, but only minutely. And when Einstein’s theory is inevitably overthrown, the correction will be even smaller.
Asimov conceded that scientists can never be absolutely certain. Still, he claimed that routine accuracy of more than 99% is achieved in many disciplines; and that, although specific predictions may turn out false, we can be certain about many broad classes of events. For example, the air we breathe is comprised of about 20% oxygen. Molecules move randomly, so all the oxygen molecules in a room could conceivably migrate to the ceiling and leave the occupants in a...
You are not authenticated to view the full text of this chapter or article.
This site requires a subscription or purchase to access the full text of books or journals.
Do you have any questions? Contact us.Or login to access all content.