Not Even Wrong

Physicist Wolfgang Pauli was once asked to review a technical paper and assess its accuracy. The content was so garbled, however, that Pauli is said to have remarked that not only was the paper not right, it was “not even wrong.” He meant the paper was so poorly written, so muddled in its reasoning, that it was impossible to evaluate in any fashion. It was even worse than wrong—it was incoherent. The author would have to substantially improve the paper in order for it to even be assessed as wrong.

Science is largely a literary endeavor. It advances only when scientists are able to communicate their discoveries to other scientists for independent evaluation and confirmation. A hypothesis that is not clearly stated cannot be tested. Only when experimental methods are carefully articulated can they be critiqued or validated. Therefore, scientists must be able to cogently articulate their hypotheses, observations, and methods. They must carefully define important terms and use them in a consistent way. Anything less is confusing at best and “not even wrong” at worst.

This type of problem frequently appears in debates over origins. Both evolutionists and creationists can be guilty of muddled thinking that results in muddled writing—papers in which terms are not defined or used consistently.

Consider the term evolution. It can mean “change” in a generic sense. It can refer to a shift in allele frequency in an organism’s DNA. Or it can refer to the idea that all organisms share a common ancestor. Any of these definitions are fine if used consistently. But they are different and therefore must not be mixed.

How many fallacious arguments have I seen where the person thinks he has proved evolution (common descent) by giving an example of some other type of change that he also calls “evolution”? In logic, this type of bad argument is called an equivocation fallacy. You may have noticed in many of ICR’s writings that we refer to “particles-to-people evolution,” “Darwinian evolution,” or some similar qualifying adjective at least once. This is a way of implicitly defining our terms to avoid fallacious reasoning. We use the term evolution consistently in the sense of the alleged descent of all life from a common ancestor.

Consider the term adaptation. This can refer to a non-genetic change within an individual organism in response to a change in the environment. One example is when a person moves to a higher elevation and his or her body responds by producing more red blood cells to accommodate the lesser supply of oxygen. Alternatively, adaptation can refer to a shift in a population of organisms due to the extinction of those members with traits unsuitable to their environment. In this latter type of adaptation, no individual organism does any adjusting whatsoever, but the group makeup shifts because some of its members die. This is a totally different process, yet some people erroneously confuse the two.

Muddled writing is a symptom of muddled thinking. When an author writes in a way that makes no sense, using terms inconsistently or in a convoluted fashion, it suggests that his or her thoughts on the topic are confused. Given the chance to interact with the author, it may be helpful to ask him or her to define the terms in question. “What exactly do you mean by ‘evolution,’ ‘adaptation,’ or ‘science’? What is the central point you are attempting to make?” In many cases, the reader is confused because the author is confused. As Christians we should strive to be consistent and clear (2 Corinthians 1:18) as we boldly defend the faith.

* Dr. Lisle is Director of Physical Sciences at the Institute for Creation Research and received his Ph.D. in astrophysics from the University of Colorado.

Cite this article: Jason Lisle, Ph.D. 2015. Not Even Wrong. Acts & Facts. 44 (1).