Not Even Wrong

4 November 2014

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.

The Dude abides. Via: Quickmeme
The Dude abides. Via: Quickmeme

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.1 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.

  1. Reucroft, S. “Galactic Charge.” arXiv preprint arXiv:1409.3096 (2014). ↩︎