Not Even Wrong

“Oh no. No no NO no no no no…no-no no-no no-no — NO!”

Earlier this month, Adam Savage of MythBusters gave the keynote address at the DevLearn Conference. I was lucky enough to be speaking there as well, and his talk was certainly a highlight. It was beautiful and funny and thoroughly inspiring, from start to finish. One idea really stuck out to me in particular was the concept of being “not even wrong.

Adam Savage, how do I love thee?

Apparently, while Adam was researching for a segment on if swimming in syrup is as fast as swimming in water, he and had a few questions on viscosity, like how best to measure it. He learned there was a whole field of study called Rheology that was dedicated to “the science of deformation and flow of matter.” Of course there was an international society of Rheology, where physicists, chemists, biologists, engineers, and mathematicians were busily advancing their field. So Adam found the number for the society’s President (which wasn’t hard), and called him up to get some help.

But the man on the other end of the phone soon started yelling at him:

“Really?!? You’re calling ME for this? You don’t — I can’t — You’re NOT EVEN wrong! You ASPIRE to be in the VICINITY of wrong, but you’ve got a helluva lot more to learn before you can even ask a QUESTION that would tell you just how WRONG you are!”

Poor Adam didn’t know that there was no absolute measurement for viscosity, or that there were so many different kinds of viscosity one could measure, or which one applied to his televised experiment. I didn’t know any of this either until hearing the keynote. I can tell that you’re a reasonably intelligent person, but I’m guessing you’d just never given the matter much thought until this very moment, either.

It’s not a matter how smart we are in general, we didn’t know enough to even be wrong about this seemingly simple subject. We just didn’t really know anything about it. Most importantly, we didn’t consider that the subject might be inherently complex. Why would we think that? In such a situation, our obviously intelligent-sounding questions just sound like crazytalk to those in the know.

Like asking a 2 year-old to do calculus for a college professor, the resulting scribblings aren’t even approaching the wrong answer.

Both sides are completely incomprehensible to the other. There can be no relevant discussion, or even a basic transmission of ideas. It’s a stalemate in search of a sequitur.

How often does this happen to us without realizing it? And what do we do about it?

Better yet, when confronted by someone whose fundamental understanding is so absent or malformed that they’re not even wrong, what do you do next?

Oh, I am ever so curious! Please let me know in the comments.

In the meantime, here’s Adam & Jamie swimming in syrup


Originally published at sam-rogers.com.

Sam Rogers is a speaker/writer/director/producer/performer for stage, screen, & system. He is also a constant learner & general weirdo…

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