11 March 2009

Not even wrong

Wolfgang Pauli is said to have responded That's not right. That's not even wrong. to a paper.

"Not even wrong" is a good summary of a number of psuedoscientific things. I was reminded of this by a document that wanted to toss aside most of the last 100+ years of science on climate. I'm not going to dwell on the document itself, but it seems worthwhile to look some more at the 'not even wrong' flags.

But first, the term itself. If I said 2+2 = 5, that'd be wrong. If I said 2+2 = kumquat, we're over to not even wrong. One form of 'not even wrong' is that the answer has nothing to do with the question. This shows up often in blog comments about climate where a question like "Has the temperature risen in the past 100 years?" is met with responses like "It was warmer 70 million years ago", "You're just trying to take away my SUV", "It's all natural." Not even wrong -- the response has no connection to the question.

Different version is to start with a falsehood and then draw whatever conclusion you'd like. ex: "Meteorologists don't allow for urban heat island effect, therefore there's been no real warming the last 50 years."

6 comments:

gmcrews said...

Hi PENQUINDREAMS,

The Wikipedia reference you give for the term also repeatedly associates "Not even wrong" with the issue of a theory's (or model's) falsifiablity. Why did you not discuss this?

Roger Pielke, Jr. has recently offered the possibility that: "out of fear that legitimate efforts at falsifiability will be used as ammunition by skeptics (and make no mistake, they will) in the politics of climate change, issues of falsification are simply ignored or avoided."

I hope that this is not the case here. The falsification of the climate models or the inability to falsify the climate models despite the legitimate and repeated attempts by a host of sincere and talented people is an important issue.

Penguindreams said...

Nothing nefarious involved, so you can relax. I happen to disagree with the wikipedia about that interpretation of 'not even wrong'. That's all. The 2 + 2 = kumquat, or iguana + 2 = banana sorts of formulations are what I take as central to 'not even wrong'. It's also much more likely to be what Pauli had in mind given that Popper didn't start writing on Falsification until after Pauli made the statement.

Pielke Jr.'s mind reading skills really aren't about science, so I skip that. I followed your link to his article instead, and in the second paragraph he says: "And we have learned from Real Climate that all possible temperature trends of 8 years in length are consistent with climate models, ...". That struck me as a strange statement. I do believe that 8 years is too short to be talking about climate as a general matter, but if global mean temperature next year jumped or fell by 2 C without major changes (solar or volcanic or X), I'd say that the models were missing something important (hence 'falsified').

But realclimate does not say that all possible trends are consistent with the climate models. They say:

What it shows is exactly what anyone should expect: the trends over such short periods are variable; sometimes small, sometimes large, sometimes negative - depending on which year you start with. The mean of all the 8 year trends is close to the long term trend (0.19ºC/decade), but the standard deviation is almost as large (0.17ºC/decade), implying that a trend would have to be either >0.5ºC/decade or much more negative (< -0.2ºC/decade) for it to obviously fall outside the distribution. Thus comparing short trends has very little power to distinguish between alternate expectations.


There's quite a difference between a particular test having little power, and all model trends being accepted. Even more between a particular test being observed to have little power and saying that the models can't be falsified.

Scruffy Dan said...

I've been reading Pielke Jr long enough to know that he doesn't always present an honest look at the situation (the recent kurfuffle with Michael Tobis comes to mind) . Thus it is worthwhile to do some fact checking before jumping to any conclusions based on what he writes.

John Mashey said...

I think one must be careful in applying "Not even wrong" to blogs/newsgroups, etc.

1) When someone writes a "not even wrong" paper, it either doesn't get through peer review, or it gets published somewhere (usually silly) and ignored. I.e., it does little harm.

2) But when it appears in a blog thread:

a) Someone may just not understand.

b) Someone may just be a natural complexifier.

c) Or someone may be doing this on purpose.

But the end result is to lower the S/N ratio of the blog thread.

EliRabett said...

Eli knew a guy who, when you talked with him, you ended up knowing less than when you started. The bunnies called that conveying negative information content. Some blogs are like that. Some on purpose.

Hank Roberts said...

> all possible temperature
> trends of 8 years in
> length ...

Turing test FAIL ...