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Crackpottery

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:

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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.

Comments

  1. #1 bill
    July 18, 2008

    On the other hand, Ramanujan was “discovered” when he sent math-spam to Hardy…

  2. #2 Aaron Golas
    July 18, 2008

    I remember hearing once (I wish I could remember where) that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who want to write books, and those who want to have written books. And of the two, only one will ever have a chance of finding success as an author.

  3. #3 Coturnix
    July 18, 2008

    For every Ramanujan, there are a million Einstein wannabes. It is usually easy to figure them out….

  4. #4 Dean
    July 18, 2008

    “On the other hand, Ramanujan was “discovered” when he sent math-spam to Hardy…”
    But Hardy said that after he examined the materials, and saw several results dealing with integrals that took him (Hardy) some time to work out, that the writer had to be brilliant because a person unfamiliar with higher mathematics wouldn’t have the imagination to write the things that were in the message.
    I doubt that a person who believes physicists can’t see reality for the “mathematics” falls into that class.

  5. #5 James F
    July 18, 2008

    From your points above:

    1) 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.

    2) 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).

    3) 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).

    The mindset isn’t that far off from that of classical creationists and the neocreationists of the Discovery Institute and the Biologic Institute, including the creators of Expelled. The only things missing are religious dogmatism and political power, the latter of which makes it imprudent to ignore them….

  6. #6 zeno
    July 18, 2008

    The book Mathematical Cranks by Underwood Dudley is a valuable compendium of crackpot math theories and their inventors, ranging from “proofs” of the “real” value of pi to new rules for arithmetic. (Instead of “minus times minus equals plus”, how about “the product get the sign of the first factor”? Hilarity ensues.)

    I wonder if there’s a similar book on physics cranks.

  7. #7 Coturnix
    July 18, 2008

    Book? I will have to re-listen to the podcast of the show again, but I believe something like that exists and was mentioned.

    Also, Bob’s friend the journalist managed to persuade a physicist to look at the manuscript and even to talk to Bob (with disastrous results) and, well, apparently Bob thinks that momentum and energy are the same thing….an easy mistake to detect and enough to invalidate the entire idea.

  8. #8 Steve
    July 19, 2008

    That act was one of my favorite acts of any This American Life episode. The utter smackdown of that guy by the physicist makes me smile every time I hear it.

  9. #9 Blake Stacey
    July 19, 2008

    I’ve had a few rather strange folks show up in my blog’s comment threads, but I’ve only received one “fractured ceramic” e-mail really worth talking about. It did display all the classic signs mentioned in this post.

  10. #10 jomega
    July 20, 2008

    All this isn’t to say that scientists aren’t immune to crackpottery, at least outside their fields of expertise. My Grandfather -a chemist- spent his last years trying to figure out where Michelson and Morley went wrong. It was years before I stumbled across any reference to the “luminiferous aether” outside the old man’s ramblings.

  11. #11 BrianR
    July 20, 2008

    nice post … it’s quite amazing how well aligned the characteristics of crackpots from different “fields” are.

    I’m a geologist and have engaged with some of the abiogenic-oil crowd a bit and see all these patterns – arrogant ignorance, rampant straw-manning, the ‘Galileo Gambit’ rhetoric, refusal to address details, and, my favorite, associating me with the deluded groupthink of academia. I was told I was part of a “tribe” and have been brainwashed.

    Another favorite tactic of their’s is to claim that if you can’t explain the well-established theory in a short, succinct statement that a layperson can understand that it must be invalid. And then when you do provide such a statement, they claim that it’s not that simple and we really don’t understand it well enough to make a conclusion. This one is rampant in global-warming denialism.

    For a while, I wanted to engage with these people and naively thought they would come around if I showed them enough data (note: they don’t really like discussing data) … I was calm and never called them nuts, they will jump on any opportunity to cry ‘ad hom’. They accused me of trying to ‘appear reasonable’. Good times.

  12. #12 Andrew Dodds
    July 21, 2008

    Brian –

    I’ve had the same experience with the Abiogenic oil people (my original training was petroleum geology). The theory has some interesting consequences (if true).

    First, if oil and gas are being continuously generated at anything like current rates of extraction (a common inference), then the magniture of pre-industrial oil seeps would have been vast – like 40 supertanker sinkings in the Persian gulf *every day*. Strange no one ever noticed..

    Second, such a rate of oil and gas escaping and degrading would draw down oxygen levels. And raise CO2/methane levels. In fact, free oxygen could not exist under the Abiotic world.

    Third, and this is the one that will never get absorbed in their brains, if it were true, then the oil majors could use it to put OPEC out of business. This being the same OPEC that took over all the oil major’s big assets in the 1960s and 1970s. So this conspiricy theory means that the world’s biggest oil companies are being very charitable to the same governments that took their best assets.

    The ‘argument by being ad-hommed’ is a Crank Classic… The Crank is, of course, allowed to make any ad hom, factual error, logical error or baseless assertion that they feel like, wheras even the slightest hint of mild impatience from the scientists instantly proves the Crank correct.

  13. #13 BrianR
    July 21, 2008

    Andrew … thanks for the comments re abiogenic stuff … I never thought about the oxygen implication.

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