What you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.— James Downey, Billy Madison
“Not even wrong” refers to any statement, argument or explanation that can be neither correct nor incorrect, because it fails even to meet the criteria by which correctness and incorrectness are determined.
The phrase originates with physicist Wolfgang Pauli, who reacted to an unclear research paper with “Das ist nicht nur nicht richtig, es ist nicht einmal falsch!” (“That is not only not right, it is not even wrong!”) It implies that not only is someone not making a valid point in a discussion, but they don’t even understand the nature of the discussion itself, or the things that need to be understood in order to participate.
The term has gathered popularity amongst those involved in refuting pseudoscience to refer to the difficulties faced in dealing with some of the more out-of-this-world arguments, where discussion rapidly devolves into a game of pigeon chess. Examples include so-called creationist escape hatches or science stoppers, which defy correction with conventional logic.
A correct argument or explanation may look like this:
2 + 2 = 4
A wrong argument has an incorrect conclusion, but is at least presented in such a way that we can evaluate it:
2 + 2 = 6
Something that is not even wrong has broken or absent premises or logic:
2 + 2 = 2 2
2 + zebra ÷ glockenspiel = homeopathy works!
This is far more than just an argument leading to a wrong conclusion — the premises aren’t even related to the conclusion, or the premises are themselves completely nonsensical.
The Dunning-Kruger effect is often at base, where someone makes a not-even-wrong argument because they lack the meta-cognitive ability to recognise that they don’t know enough even to make a wrong argument, never mind a right one.
A “not even wrong” argument may start from simple misconceptions: the proponent doesn’t know enough about the subject to know what is needed to form a sensible argument. The premises of an argument may be known to be false, or are being used to describe theories which cannot possibly be falsified or provide meaningful predictions. Any physical theory based on the existence of the aether, or any biological idea based on evolution by Lamarckian inheritance would be classed as not even wrong: using incorrect or non-applicable premises will always yield an incorrect answer.
The argument may be an extreme non sequitur — such as the homeopaths who claimed that (purported and unverified) observations of neutrinos breaking the speed of light meant that all science might be wrong and therefore homeopathy could work. The premises, their arrangements, the conclusion, are so divorced from facts and logic that even attempting to rationally engage with it gives it too much credit.
Examples in real life often involve “skeptics” arguing with established scientists. Climate science is an area where “not even wrong” arguments are common, owing to the complexity of the system under study and the political pressures not to accept the conclusions. In Climategate, where a thousand e-mails from leading climate change researchers were hacked and released publicly, most critics seemed to not understand the basic meaning behind some of the emails (climate science and atmospheric chemistry are complex disciplines), instead preferring to quote mine emails. The political pressure group CO2 is Green is not even wrong when declaring that “more CO2 is good for the planet because it’s plant food”. The group’s declaration is akin to noting that a certain amount of salt intake is necessary in our diet, and extending that to conclude that therefore “salt is healthy.”
In the Lenski affair, Conservapedia owner Andrew Schlafly demanded that Professor Richard Lenski “release the data” on his long term evolution experiment. This stemmed from Schlafly’s misinterpretation of the research paper in question (if indeed he actually read it — as Lenski himself observed, Schlafly almost certainly hadn’t at the time of the e-mail exchange). The paper did in fact mention all the relevant data one would need to appraise the experiment. Schlafly’s further criticisms concerning the paper were wrong enough that even his own fellow Conservapedia editors suggested he might like to reconsider.
There is one step further than not even wrong and that is wronger than wrong. The phrase was coined by Isaac Asimov in The Relativity of Wrong, and expanded and popularised by Michael Shermer, who called it “Asimov’s Axiom“. Wronger than wrong describes any idea that equates errors that clearly aren’t equal. For example:
Flat earth → Spherical earth → Oblate spheroidal earth
Aristotlean physics → Newtonian physics → Einsteinian physics
In these examples, the second stage is not as right as the third stage, but it’s a significantly better approximation to reality than the first. But saying that a flat earth and a spherical earth are equally wrong, so science was wrong before so their theory might therefore hold water, is more wrong than both those errors combined. Equivocating errors in this manner is an example of the continuum fallacy (the “fallacy of grey”).
The phrase “wronger than wrong” has important implications regarding the nature of scientific theories and aptly describes how the scientific method builds up knowledge and understanding — theories may change and adapt, but calling them outright wrong is inaccurate in important ways. Science is always tentative and theories are always open to revision, but we do in fact know enough to claim that we know a thing or two.