Sloppy science should not be tolerated

The Austrian-born theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli (1900-58) was a pioneer of quantum mechanics. In 1925 he discovered a new natural law, which became known as the Pauli principle or the exclusion principle, or even the Pauli exclusion principle. His discovery was rewarded in 1945 with the Nobel Prize in Physics, for which he had been nominated by Albert Einstein.

Now I can’t explain Pauli’s discovery to you because quantum physics does my head in, what with its half-integer spin particles and its antisymmetric wavefunctions – not to mention (oops, I am mentioning them) its quarks and its photons and all those other cute little bosons and fermions.

But although I am too thick to understand Pauli’s exclusion principle, I have developed a warm feeling towards him because of another sort of principle – his principle that sloppy science should not be tolerated.

One day, so the story goes, a colleague asked Pauli for his opinion of a young physicist’s paper that he suspected was not of great value. Pauli is said to have commented, “Das ist nicht nur nicht richtig, es ist nicht einmal falsch!“
That is not only not right, it is not even wrong!” What Pauli meant by this was that the paper’s false argument was so woolly that it could not even be tested to prove that it was wrong.

On another occasion, Pauli dismissed a physicist’s sloppy argument with, “What you said was so confused that one could not tell whether it was nonsense or not.”

Although few of us may be able to grasp Pauli’s exclusion principle, we can all embrace his principle that arguments that are “not even wrong” should be rejected. Sadly, the healthcare world contains many examples of such flimsy pronouncements. I refer in particular to the pseudoscience that supports many complementary and alternative therapies. The arguments put forward by advocates of these practices are often “not even wrong”. They fail at a fundamental level either because they cannot be falsified by experiment or because they rely on a fundamental logical fallacy.

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, 15 November 2014, Vol 293, No 7836;293(7836):DOI:10.1211/PJ.2014.20067042

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