Not even wrong

Mini-column ‘Alison in Wonderland’, published in the Observant, Maastricht

“It’s not even wrong.” This was the criticism a friend recently received for his PhD work in maths. And it’s a damning allegation. Consider 1 + 1 = 3. This is simply wrong. But 1 + 1 = vodka is so bizarre it’s not even wrong – it’s nonsensical, and thus meaningless. The phrase “not even wrong” was coined by the Austrian physicist Wolfgang Pauli, who had no patience for sloppy science. A scientific claim must be testable, which means it may be proven wrong. But for Pauli, a wrong claim is better than a meaningless claim, which cannot be falsified at all. As for my friend: he is consoling himself with the fact that even superstring theory is “not even wrong”, since it remains untestable. And, of course, with said vodka.

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