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Not Even Wrong

There’s an expression “not even wrong”, which is generally attributed to theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli, and which I have heard used to describe many ideas of doubtful validity and even some of the more speculative ideas in science such as string theory.

But I think there are degrees of “not even wrong-ness”. String theory is a genuine attempt at describing reality and there are ways to decide whether it’s right or wrong even if we can’t really perform the experiments right now. So describing string theory as not even wrong is too harsh I think, although I do agree we should be careful about attaching too much significance to it until experiments supporting it can be performed.

The same could be said concerning other speculative scientific theories, such as multiverse theories. But again, these are genuine efforts at understanding the universe and they can be proved and disproved even though we don’t really have the experiments to do that yet, so I don’t think they can be described as not even wrong either.

So at this point you might be wondering what does deserve that label? Well you probably won’t be surprised to hear that I would apply it to “theories” espoused by people who are motivated by worldviews other than rational science. And yes, I mean people like my friend Richard who is clearly motivated by supporting his own particular interpretation of the Christian religion.

Recently I have been shocked to realise that he is, by any reasonable definition, a creationist! And creationism is obviously something that really is “not even wrong”. So let’s go through a few attributes of creationism which show this…

First, what community does the “theory” (I will use that word even though creationism isn’t really a theory at all) come from? Well it’s clearly not from the science community because there are just no scientific papers which support creationism. Clearly it comes from the religious community, in fact from certain religions within that community, and even then from only certain groups within that community with particularly irrational views.

So creationism fails on that count. It isn’t a genuine attempt at establishing the truth because it only exists within a population with fixed views which are based on ideology rather than an honest attempt at understanding.

Second, is creationism a well documented theory with specific, clearly defined attributes? Absolutely not. There are old Earth creationists, young Earth creationists, those who reject evolution completely and others who think God guides it, some who think the Bible is literal truth, others who think it’s a metaphor, and still others who pick and choose based on nothing more than convenience.

So any time evidence is found against creationism the supporter just switches things around a bit and says something like “no, that’s not what creationism is, serious creationists think this…” and how can you debate that because in reality creationism says both everything and nothing

Third, creationism has its own terminology which it uses to obfuscate its obvious weaknesses. For example, micro- and macro-evolution aren’t well defined scientific terms which have any specific meaning. And referring to “kinds” instead of species leaves a gap where false beliefs can escape. Specific branches of science also have their own jargon, of course, but they are well defined scientific terms which could be explained to a non-specialist if necessary.

Fourth, creationism has a very emotional appeal. What is more likely to make its followers feel good: the idea that we are the product of a caring and all powerful creator, or the idea that we are just the product of chance and natural physical processes? For someone seeking reassurance instead of truth creationism has an obvious attraction.

Fifth, what is the source for the “knowledge” behind creationism? Religious beliefs are “revealed truths” rather than scientific ideas which are the result of careful theory and experimentation. Creationism is a theory derived from an old book with absolutely no scientific credibility. Science is derived from observation of the real world, formulation of theories, careful testing of those ideas, revision of them, and in some cases completely discarding them and starting again.

Sixth, creationism is basically a “gaps” theory. Most of the arguments for creationism are arguments (almost completely without merit) against evolution, abiogenesis, and the Big Bang. Creationists seem to think that the fact that they personally find evolution hard to accept means that God (usually their specific interpretation of the many gods out there) did it instead.

Finally, creationism has no detail. Basically it can be entirely specified in one sentence: “God did it.” But when, how, why? Are there any details at all? Apart from a few contradictory personal opinions, no. It’s almost completely without any real structure, which is how it must be of course because details make theories testable.

So without even looking at any of the specific claims of creationism it can be consigned to the pile of other useless nonsense that most modern, intelligent people have already consigned to the scrap heap of superstition.

I know that some creationists (and I have debated some fairly well known ones) know they’re wrong and are just constantly lying to maintain something which they benefit from in some ways. Others are just too ignorant to understand that creationism is nonsense. And others still are the saddest cases of all: they are lying to themselves. They have genuinely convinced themselves that creationism has some merit. How can it? It’s not even wrong!

  1. August 17, 2014 at 5:38 pm

    Hello sir,
    Thank you for your nice posting.It is very interesting and informative site. these are genuine efforts at understanding the universe and they can be proved and disproved even though we don’t really have the experiments.

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