Not Even Wrong

 Posted by on 14 June 2006 at 6:01 am  Uncategorized
Jun 142006

Columbia University mathematics instructor Peter Woit has just written a book harshly critical of modern physics “string theory”, arguing that it’s not a genuine scientific theory at all because it does not have the requisite relationship to reality. From the article:

Hence his book’s title, Not Even Wrong: an epithet created by Wolfgang Pauli, an irascible early 20th-century German physicist. Pauli had three escalating levels of insult for colleagues he deemed to be talking nonsense: “Wrong!”, “Completely wrong!” and finally “Not even wrong!”. By which he meant that a proposal was so completely outside the scientific ballpark as not to merit the least consideration.

I found this interesting, because Pauli’s “Not even wrong” is the closest I’ve ever seen in mainstream science to the Objectivist concept of the “arbitrary”.

This related article talks a bit more about the phrase “not even wrong”:

…[P]hysicist Wolfgang Pauli (1900-1958) is in a category of his own: the withering comment for which he’s best known combines utter contempt on the one hand with philosophical profundity on the other. “This isn’t right,” Pauli is supposed to have said of a student’s physics paper. “It’s not even wrong.”

“Not even wrong” is enjoying a resurgence as the put-down of choice for questionable science: it’s been used to condemn everything from string theory, via homeopathy, to intelligent design. There’s a reason for this: Pauli’s insult slices to the heart of what distinguishes good science from bad.

“I use ‘not even wrong’ to refer to things that are so speculative that there would be no way ever to know whether they’re right or wrong,” says Peter Woit, a mathematician at Columbia University who runs the weblog Not Even Wrong (

(Caveat: The articles do go onto say that Woit’s arguments are more along the traditional Popperian lines of, “string theory can’t be falsified”, and “string theory can’t generate verifiable experimental evidence”. Hence Objectivists may find those arguments a mixed bag, at best.)

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