Not Even Wrong

I love the phrase, “Not Even Wrong,” because it so aptly describes most of the spurious claims that dominate our informational space. When I’m in one of my frequent, cynical moods these days, it seems that U.S. culture – and I do mean that ironically – has morphed into a tacky, 24-7 media outlet featuring infomercials on all channels. Hucksters and their marks abound; everywhere I turn, someone is spewing face-palming nonsense to a poorly informed, intellectually inert, gullible public too immersed in their Facebook trivia and “reality” TV to think about, much less investigate, what they’re hearing. Much easier to go with the gut, accept whatever confirms their biases, whatever a favorite celebrity talk-show host/pundit/doctor/politician/pastor tells them is the belief du jour (e.g., the succession of Obama canards, including “anti-Christ”). On their end, the hucksters are busy mining their opinion polls and focus-group results to make sure they’re pandering to preconceived biases and superstitions, the better to persuade the marks to buy, or buy into, what they’re selling – from holographic bracelets to nutritional supplements to alternative-medicine quackery to trickle-down economics to praying for cures or rain in Texas. The main thing is to keep the messages brief, superficial and memorable, and repeat them often. Above all, avoid elite-sounding terminology, complexity, uncertainty, or anything that entails time and effort to understand. Americans just don’t want to deal with the inherent messiness and uncertainty of science and reality. And with the Internet facilitating all these self-reinforcing, tribal communities, we seem to be entering a post-modernist’s wet dream where everyone’s “truth” is just as good as the next guy’s opinion. To quote the great Isaac Asimov,

Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

Never mind that what is true has never been determined by popularity (the correlation is surely negative). But enough contemptuous sarcasm for the moment: let me explain my title phrase, since you may be reading it here it for the first time.

It originated with theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli, who was the first to postulate the existence of the neutrino and went on to receive the Nobel Prize in physics in 1945 for his contributions to quantum theory. He was nominated for the prize by none other than Albert Einstein. A colorful personality, Pauli was also noted for pithy, often witty, expressions: He famously said of his colleague, Paul Dirac, “If I understand Dirac correctly, his meaning is this: there is no God, and Dirac is his Prophet.” A nice play on the Muslim mantra, “There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is his Prophet.”

When Pauli said “This is not even wrong,” he was referring to purportedly scientific claims or theories that were so unclear and vague as to be untestable and thus did not belong in the realm of science. He thought that such claims were much worse than wrong because there was no possible way to falsify them and thus no good reason to take them seriously. Sound familiar?

In general I find Pauli’s concept of “not even wrong” to be useful in deciding which propositions are pointless to debate. If a belief or a claim cannot be tested or verified, then there seems little or no reason to argue about it. I put faith claims such as the existence of gods – or any supernatural spirit entity, for that matter – in this category. People who believe these things do so for reasons other than evidence, and they need to recognize that their faith has no greater claim to truth than anyone else’s. Many argue they have had personal experiences that provide all the evidence they need for their beliefs. I consider this to be arrogant and narcissistic, bordering on solipsistic. (Just think of all those right-wing Republican candidates who claim they have been “called by God” to lead the nation – people like George Bush, Michelle Bachman, Rick Perry, et al. Or the right-wing dominionists who claim divine authority to take over the world for Jesus. Lamentably, in our times most people still seem to take this personal revelation nonsense seriously, at least when its consistent with their own beliefs.)

But if someone’s going to cite personal experience as valid evidence for their belief, they have to deal with at least two major problems: The first is other people who claim personal experience in support of conflicting beliefs. You can’t expect someone to accept your experiential claims unless you’re willing to accept theirs! A second insurmountable problem is simply that there’s no way to verify that a person actually had the revelatory experience they relate or that it means what they think it does. By now we know enough about the brain and states of consciousness to be skeptical of anyone making such claims.

It’s possible, in principle, that a reported personal “revelation” could constitute evidence worth considering. For instance, suppose someone reports having had a near-death experience and then reveals detailed information they could not possibly have acquired through any known normal process. There have been a few such claims, but as far as I know they didn’t hold up. A woman patient came out of anesthesia and reported floating outside her body, looking down on her surgery, and seeing something on a high shelf that wasn’t visible from the operating table. The surgeon was deeply impressed and claimed this was evidence of a genuine out-of-body experience. Unfortunately, the great breakthrough into the other realm turned out to be as simple as a reflection in a clock face. Nope, faith-based claims are not EVEN wrong and certainly not an acceptable basis for judging other people. And surgeons may be brilliant technicians, but that doesn’t mean they have been trained in critical thinking.

The current usage of Pauli’s phrase has been expanded to include pseudoscience and bad science. I’m concerned that Indiscriminate use may rob the phrase of its usefulness, but I do favor applying it to claims that can and have been tested but have no scientific plausibility. Homeopathy is the best example: despite having the Royal Family’s endorsement, its claims are so absurd, so contrary to mountains of scientific evidence and theory, that it simply cannot work. (I was going to say “cannot work as claimed,” but I really mean cannot work at all, because it is, quite simply, absurd.) Other types of alternative-medicine are almost as absurd: acupuncture is based on the assumed flow of energy through nonexistent channels called meridians; similarly, chiropractic spinal “adjustments” that cure almost everything are based on invisible, totally hypothetical, nonexistent spinal “misalignments” called subluxations. In simplest terms, the prior plausibility of these hypothesized mechanisms has got to be close to zero.

So I favor adding beliefs and theories that flagrantly contradict well-established science to the “not even wrong” list. One problem is that even though most alt-med “treatments” make no biological sense, it is devilishly hard to put them to rest. Part of the reason is bad research, a topic I’ll take up next time. But I am pleased to report that recent, well-controlled studies are showing acupuncture and many of the ridiculous claims of chiropractic to be no better than a placebo.

Research using human subjects is notoriously difficult, and it has taken a long time – far too long – to develop and implement experimental protocols that control for the placebo effect and other sources of experimental error. I fully expect acupuncture and chiropractic to be widely classified as pseudosciences within the next few years. Sadly, even if this comes to pass, it will take much longer to put the Hydra of unscientific health care in its well-deserved resting place.

Finally, there are a multitude of religious beliefs like the abomination known as young-earth creationism or the foundational story of the Exodus. These myths have been around for ages and persist despite massive amounts of scientific evidence proving beyond reasonable doubt that they are wrong. No, make that not EVEN wrong and no longer worthy of serious consideration. Still, we are treated to the spectacle of creationists coming up with bizarre arguments to deny the science and cling to the embarrassing fiction of a 6,000-year-old earth. Sadly, millions of Americans take them seriously. Similarly, archaeologists and Egyptologists have pretty conclusively shown that the 40-year Exodus of jews never happened. To quote the Wikipedia entry,

The archaeological evidence of the largely indigenous origins of Israel is "overwhelming," and leaves "no room for an Exodus from Egypt or a 40-year pilgrimage through the Sinai wilderness."

So there you have it, the concept of not even wrong, the idea that certain beliefs and claims do not merit serious attention, except, of course, for the social and political problems their adherents pose. As always, there is this scientific caveat: pending new and compelling evidence.

Next time I’ll take a look at several reasons why science as practiced so often comes up short of the ideal of best scientific practice and so often gets it wrong.