Not Even Wrong

In Pseudoscience by Brian Koberlein7 Comments

In science there are models that are right. If they are right often enough or strongly enough, they become scientific theories. There are also models that are wrong. Some, such as the caloric model, seem correct for a time, and then get refuted by experiment or observation. Others are shown to be wrong from the get go. Then there are models that are “not even wrong.”

The phrase is attributed to Wolfgang Pauli, a physicist known for his intolerance of sloppy thinking. A model or idea is “not even wrong” when it’s logically inconsistent, non-falsifiable, or otherwise scientifically untenable. It’s often used as an insult. In science there’s no shame in being wrong. Lots of really good models have proven to be wrong. But if your model can’t even met the standard of being wrong, there’s plenty of shame to go around. “Not even wrong” is the realm of pseudoscience, and “it’s obvious that…” ideas with no clear connection to modern observations. It’s the type of thing you find in rambling comments on science blogs or personal websites on GeoCities. It isn’t the type of thing legitimate science blogs should be writing about.

But recently a science blog that should know better picked up a story about a new theory that could explain dark matter as an electrical effect within our galaxy. The story was then picked up by several popular science sites. It all stems from a paper that appeared recently on the arxiv. Calling it a paper is a bit of a stretch. It’s actually two pages of unsubstantiated claims with a half-page graph of the galactic rotation curve.

Measurements galactic rotation curve was one of the first hints of dark matter, but the author claims dark matter isn’t needed if the Milky Way is positively charged near its center, and negatively charged near its periphery. Assume this, and the galactic rotation curve can be explained without dark matter. Assuming that to be true for a moment, what evidence does the author give to support the idea? Simply (and I quote) “In fact it is quite implausible that the [galactic] core should remain electrically neutral.” That’s it. There are no details presented at all. Just “we can tweak the electric charge of the galaxy to fit the rotation curve.”

Of course the rotation curve of our galaxy isn’t the only evidence we have to support dark matter. We see the separation of dark matter from regular matter in objects such as the bullet cluster. We can see the effects of dark matter through gravitational lensing. Dark matter accurately predicts the clumping of galaxies on cosmic scales, among other things. Dark matter may not be the correct solution in the end, but any model trying to supplant it better be able to explain all these things and more.

This paper doesn’t do that. It doesn’t even substantiate its own claims. It is, in short, not even wrong.

Paper: S. Reucroft. Galactic Charge.  arXiv:1409.3096.



  1. I did a quick search for “Reucroft” over at ye olde to see if even they were embarrassed by this paper. No, not really. No one really bothered to look at it critically. Someone responded hopefully that “they” are getting closer and closer to EU. Oh, good grief.

    1. Author

      A pattern I’ve noticed with several EU supporters is that no evidence contradicting their model is ever valid, but anything that hints at the EU model (even without evidence) is obviously true. Still, I’m the one that’s accused of being closed minded.

  2. By saying that this is not even wrong, you are choosing to not even debunk it. Fair enough, dark matter and dark energy neatly predict a lot on phenomena, and this paper doesn’t present a coherent theory that attempts to explain all the observations. The article you reference doesn’t present it as such – it has the tagline: “Nobody has found convincing evidence of dark matter. Perhaps they should search for electric fields instead, suggests one researcher.” Furthermore, while some EU folks have latched on to this, in v2 of the paper Reucroft attempts to distance himself from EU.

    At the conceptual level, is it implausible – for stellar systems or galaxies – that there is an electric field which affects internal structure and/or causes attractive or repulsive force between neighboring objects? If it is plausible, could this not account for some or all of the effects that are currently attributed to dark matter and dark energy? And if it is possible for this such fields to be part of the equation, what could be done to test for their existence/influence?

    I guess I’m just asking is this a viable topic of study, or is there some observed phenomenon that obviously precludes the very possibility of electric fields operating at similar scales to gravity?

    1. Author

      Here’s the thing. We actually understand electromagnetic phenomena in the interstellar medium pretty well. We’ve mapped out the strength of these magnetic fields, and we know what affects they have on astrophysical processes. The behavior of plasma and electromagnetism in astrophysics is a perfectly valid subject of study, and one that mainstream astrophysics already does. What we’ve found through decades of study is that the interactions don’t behave the way many EU models propose. EU presents itself as humbly studying electromagnetic effects which “traditional” astrophysicists ignore. This simply isn’t true.

      1. Brian, that’s good to know – thanks for the clarification.

        Going back to Reucroft’s idea, dark matter has an attractive force that obeys an inverse square law, and electrostatic fields have an attractive force (on oppositely charged objects) that also obeys an inverse square law. So if one can explain why there would be a charge difference then it seems plausible to suppose that gravitational forces from an unseen source could be replaced with electrostatic forces from a known source to explain/predict the same phenomena.

        Reucroft talks about supernovae sending electrons at high speed away from the core, leading to a deficit at the core and a surplus at the periphery, but there’s no mechanism suggested by which electrons would be preferentially ejected and incorporated into stellar objects at the periphery, while protons are preferentially kept at the core. Plus, if you have a bunch of negatively charged objects at the periphery then they should be repelling each other…

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