Just an hour or so ago I was in the car, listening to This American Life on NPR, when this story (Act Three) came up on the air:
Bob Berenz had a good job as an electrician. But he wanted to do something bigger. He came up with an idea for an invention. But as he studied physics texts to see if his invention could work, he happened upon the biggest idea of his life: a revelation about physics that would disprove Einstein, and Newton. That is, if Bob’s right.
It is a great story to listen to, and quite revealing about the psychology and the emotional motivations for crackpottery.
Ah, what a Great Cosmic Synchronicity – me and a bunch of other science bloggers, mainly biologists, physicians and philosophers, all got this e-mail today:
Except, it is not a synchronicity. This show first aired in 2005. And no matter when it aired, that would be at least within the same week if not the same day when we get one of these crackpot e-mails. Usually, I spend about a millisecond before sending such things to Trash, but listening to the show made me fish it out again just so I can show it to you.
These kinds of e-mails are a constant in many science bloggers’ mailboxes. I get roughly one per week. I bet PZ gets a dozen a day. I cannot imagine how many of those are received and promptly deleted by real physics professors, or the editors of physics journals!
There are some things in common to all of them.
People who come up with these theories have no science background. They think they are very smart (and may innately be so – they usually do not sound stupid, just ignorant), but do not have any idea how much they do NOT know.
If they knew anything, why would they send their physics theories to a bunch of biologists?
They want to become famous scientists but are too lazy to do the necessary work to get there. They are much more interested in becoming instantly famous than becoming scientists.
They really do not know what constitutes knowledge, and the way one gets to knowledge. They do not understand how science works, because they were never trained in it.
They are incapable of taking criticism, or admitting they are wrong. Big egos help in this regard, and so does a lack of scientific training (which makes you quite humble pretty quick in grad school).
Once they try peddling their impressionistic ideas, they get rebuffed which makes them resort to conspiracy theories about the walls surrounding the academia. As Bob from the NPR show says at one point, scientists are too engrossed in all that mathematics to be able to see the Truth (I am confident he meant it with a capital T).
As it is impossible to talk sense to them, and as they are unwilling to put effort into some real training, the only thing one can do with e-mails like one above is to quickly delete them as they come in – there is just no reason to waste time on it.