This isn’t right. This isn’t even wrong.

The title of this post is a quote from Wolfgang Pauli. It was the ultimate scientific smackdown in response to a terrible paper, which was vague and unfalsifiable.

Based only on Pauli’s quote, let’s then take these 3 statements:

A) Pauli was not supportive of the paper

B) Pauli was supportive of the paper

C) Pauli’s favourite Care Bear would have been TenderHeart Bear, had he not died in 1958.

Of course, A) is right B) is wrong and C) is not even wrong. Essentially, C) isn’t wrong but it certainly isn’t right. It is a disconnected supposition based on… well, nothing. We have no evidence to even begin to test the idea that Pauli would have loved TenderHeart Bear.

Oooooooh yeah, you sexy bitch.

Ok, so… what the hell am I talking about? Well, I wanted to give an, admittedly vapid, example of the difference between testable propositions and untestable ideas. Both statements A and B are, though utterly opposite, perfectly testable, based on this post’s preamble. Statement C, however, can not be tested or supported by any available evidence. Not even Pauli’s Wiki page.

Falsifiability is a key concept in science. If something is unfalsifiable then it renders that thing completely untestable. If something is truly untestable then it may as well not exist. This is not just hyperbole. Testability means that there is a discernible interaction with the universe, to some smaller or lesser degree, leading to a change from the starting conditions. For something to be truly untestable, it must have no interaction with any part of the universe which can be measured.

The idea that a metal pin will pop a balloon is testable. And fun. The idea that this invisible pin which nobody else can touch or feel will pass through the balloon without popping it is not testable. Assuming this magic pin exists, it exerts no influence at all on anything in the universe. It is impossible to say definitively that it does not exist. However, what we can say is that it effectively does not exist.

The abstract for my latest submission to Nature. Results were conclusive.

To a believer of this magic and balloon-friendly pin, we can not convince them that there is no evidence of the pin. They believe in the pin and that is enough. In fact: there’s a conspiracy between government, scientists, big Pharma, and erm, whoever else thinks the pin does not exist. Any attempt to engage with these pin-fundamentalists is just met with yelling about how we’re too close-minded to see the pin, but it’s there if we want to accept the truth. It’s a circular belief with no way of being evidentially disrupted.

Speaking of magic pins and the lack of evidence, I’m sure we’ve all heard of acupuncture. I’ll admit, I used to think there was a possibility that it worked. Afterall, you were doing something physical to the body. However acupuncture has been tested time and time again and shown to perform no better than placebo (toothpicks, anyone?). Acupuncture is not alone on this. Homeopathy, reiki, crystal healing, “ancient” Chinese remedies, faith healing. The list goes on. Once the testable parts of these beliefs have shown that they have no effect, it’s not uncommon to see the special pleading start (well, qi doesn’t respond well to science).

In this sense much alternative medicine shares a psychology with psychics, horoscopes, UFO abductions and so on. There’s always some reason you can’t test the claims. In psychics it’s because the negativity of the sceptical inquirer makes dead people shy. And so on.

All these groups are really saying, when testing their claims has produced negative results, “no, the pin is there and I have pushed it through the balloon”. We just can’t see it. It has no effective existence.

When it comes to science, we can only test things which have a basis in reality. If something can’t be tested, then it’s a safe bet it doesn’t exist outside of the mind of the believer. If something can be tested but believers resort to untestable support when testing fails them, then the same applies. And this again ties in kooky psychics with alternative medicine proponents. Their chosen belief can not be shown to work, as it doesn’t exist outside of the mind of the beholder. And that’s not science, baby.

If there is something that requires only hand waving to support it, then it isn’t right. It isn’t even wrong.


3 Responses to “This isn’t right. This isn’t even wrong.”

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