Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Wolfgang Pauli famously had little tolerance for error. The Wiki page on him puts it like this:
Regarding physics, Pauli was famously a perfectionist. This extended not just to his own work, but also to the work of his colleagues. As a result, he became known in the physics community as the "conscience of physics," the critic to whom his colleagues were accountable. He could be scathing in his dismissal of any theory he found lacking, often labelling it ganz falsch, utterly wrong.
However, this was not his most severe criticism, which he reserved for theories or theses so unclearly presented as to be untestable or unevaluatable and, thus, not properly belonging within the realm of science, even though posing as such. They were worse than wrong because they could not be proven wrong. Famously, he once said of such an unclear paper: Das ist nicht nur nicht richtig, es ist nicht einmal falsch! "Not only is it not right, it's not even wrong!"
This "not even wrong" quote shows up all over, and is even the title of a book about string theory:

The publisher plays with the idea by typesetting "wrong" backwards on the cover. I have a different take on this that I used in my (unpublished) novella Canman:

The System is never rong.
--System Documentation v1.0

It looks ironic because it appears to be a typo, but "rong" is deliberately spelled like that. Literally, "rong" is "not even wrong." It's pronounced with a long 'o' sound, so that you can distinguish the two words.

The original idea was that if you use the right approach but make a mistake you can get the wrong answer. But if you use a method that can't possibly work, you might accidentally get the correct answer once in a while, but it's still rong. Astronomy may give you the wrong distance to a remote galaxy, but astrology will lead you to rong conclusions. The idea that the Sun orbits the Earth is wrong, but the idea that Apollo pulls it around in a chariot is rong.

I think this is a useful term because it grounds any subsequent discussion. That is, it identifies the particulars of the argument as the issue (potential wrongness), or the whole methodology as the issue (potential rongness). 

Of course, this opens the door for more meta-levels of error. One could propose "roong" to mean "not even rong," and "rooong" to mean "not even roong," and philosophers could then debate the degree of rongness of a particular idea.


  1. Something is clearly rong with your coffee. ;)

  2. Hmmm. I'm trying to parse that. If you said there was something wrong with my coffee, that would mean it didn't fulfill its intended purpose, perhaps. Rongness would require an error at the meta-level, perhaps implying that the purpose itself is misplaced. On the other hand, it could refer to the method of making the coffee (pouring cold water over grounds is wrong, doing a "coffee dance" and waiting is rong).

    My head hurts.