Quote of the Week – Sagan

“The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what’s true. We have a method, and that method helps us to reach not absolute truth, only asymptotic approaches to the truth — never there, just closer and closer, always finding vast new oceans of undiscovered possibilities. Cleverly designed experiments are the key.” – Carl Sagan, “Wonder and Skepticism”

May 9, 2009 • Posted in: Quotes

2 Responses to “Quote of the Week – Sagan”

  1. Walter Harknett - March 12th, 2011

    I love this quote because of its honesty and excitement in discovery.

    But everytime I read it I feel unsettled by the word ‘asymptotic’.

    Firstly we have the idea that absolute truth is being approached as we make discoveries.

    Secondly we have the idea that we progressing across vast new oceans of undiscovered possibilities.

    So presumably we don’t know what vast new oceans of undiscovered possibilities still exist, still less the implications of those discoveries. All of us involved in science know that the smallest and apparently most inconsequential detail can have a huge impact on our conclusions (think of value of the weak nuclear force, or impact of the misplacement of a single nucleotide base – both good or bad).

    The word ‘asymptotic’ is a gross assumption. It arises from too deep a belief in the omnicompetence of science.

    Your point is well taken, but I think you may be confusing an asymptotic approach to knowing everything as opposed to knowing more about the particular question under investigation. We do know more and more over time about a great many topics, with some discoveries opening entirely new doors of inquiry. When this happens our knowledge has still increased, but the amount that we do not understand has also increased. That doesn’t necessarily mean we are further away from knowing more about our original question. Just my two cents.

    Check out the Asimov column “The Relativity of Wrong” that was published in the Skeptical Enquirer in 1989: http://chem.tufts.edu/AnswersInScience/RelativityofWrong.htm.

    See also this PhD comic: http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=374

    ~Craig [Prefrontal]

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