During last weeks Battle of the Titans, I got several comments and emails from readers with the same question:

Where do these kooks come from? How do you go from being a PhD, or MD, or DDS, and turn into a complete whackjob?

Well, I cant say what Horowitzs deal is. That is the job of a mental health professional. And it would be rather pretentious of me to talk about the sociological/educational/cultural forces behind HIV Denialism in Africa/homosexual community/society at large. I could guess, but thats not my specialty either.

What I can comment on is how science/scientists operate, and how some people make the decision to transition from ‘scientist’ to ‘kook’.

A– Scientists are wrong all the time.
This is the nature of the job. Youre wrong. A lot. If youre right, say, 20% of the time, youre on a fast track to win a Nobel. The trick to working with this persistent, inevitable wrongness is to make sure that if youre wrong, your data can still point you into a more-right direction. Set up your experiments logically with all the right controls, so when your data doesnt support your hypothesis, you know where you can go and what you can try next.

Because of this inherent wrongness, sometimes it takes the scientific community a while to figure out the right answers. Sometimes we have two, three, more hypotheses from different people to answer the same question at the same time. A modern day example would be if/how a virus called MMTV is related to human breast cancer. Some scientists say they can find MMTV in human breast cancers. Some scientists say they cant find it in human tumors. Like I said in another post, the fastest way to start a fist fight at a scientific conference would be to scream ‘MMTV CAUSES CANCER!!’ into a packed auditorium of retrovirologists.

Eventually, we will get an answer to this question. Either MMTV causes breast cancer in humans, MMTV sometimes causes breast cancer in humans or only a certain kind of breast cancer, or MMTV doesnt cause breast cancer in humans.

Now here is where we get to the kook part– Say we finally determine that MMTV does not cause any kind of breast cancer in humans. All the normal scientists on the ‘MMTV causes cancer’ side will say ‘Aw. Man. Oh well, my bad.’ and keep doing science. Admitting youre wrong in science is not a big deal because scientists are wrong all the time!

Where one transitions from ‘scientist’ to ‘kook’ is the inability to say ‘I was wrong’ and move forward. In the 1980s, Peter Duesberg could have been right! No one knew what was causing this scary-ass world-wide epidemic. Yeah, it might have been HIV-1, but in the US it could have been a side-effect of some recreational drug, only surfacing when use was wide-spread and intense enough. Duesberg could have been right!

But as time went on, evidence stacked up on the side of the ‘HIV-1–>AIDS’ people, and nothing supported the ‘drugs–>AIDS’ people. If Duesberg were a scientist, he could say ‘Ek. Im wrong. Good on you all.’ and continued his career.

But he could not, can not, admit he is wrong. Thus, he is a kook.

B– There is more to being a scientist than being contrary.

There is nothing particularly interesting about being contrary in science– saying the opposite of what everyone else is saying. Its not particularly neat because, A– Scientists are wrong all the time. Thus, if you always say the opposite of what other people say, eventually you will be right.

That doesnt mean you are an ‘innovator’ or a ‘genius’ or a ‘rebel’.

When I was an undergrad, I was kinda scared of grad school. I was like ‘How the hell do scientists think of all these cool experiments??’ Well, the more you know, the easier good questions come to you… but questions arent really the hard part. Anyone can ask ‘Maybe Vpu arose from a recombination between influenza and HIV?’ Anyone can ask ‘Maybe HIV-1 doesnt cause AIDS!’ Anyone can just be contrary and say ‘Maybe aneuploidy isnt an effect of cancer, but a cause!’

Thats not the hard part.

Where ‘genius’ comes in handy is designing experiments to answer your questions, however stupid or contrary or controversial or brilliant your questions are.

Kooks do not answer their own questions. To bring this outside of the realm of HIV Denialism, lets look at Behe. Michael Behe hasnt expended one calorie of energy supporting his own claims. Everyone else has taken the time to design experiments that not only firmly established all of Behes proclaimed ‘irreducibly complex’ systems arent, but increased humanities knowledge of the universe.

So when asked where I think kooks like Duesberg/Behe/etc come from, my answers are that they are either too arrogant to back down from their bad ideas, or theyre too stupid/lazy to design the necessary experiments for them to gain credibility in the scientific world, thus they pander to non-scientists.

*shrug*

Comments

  1. #1 Jim Thomerson
    May 25, 2008

    Having an MD or DDS is not firm evidence you are a scientist. You were probably exposed to scientific knowledge, but neither of those two degrees are recognized as research degrees. Having said that, there are MD’s and DDS’s who do science, but they are, I think, a minority. Most of the MD scientists also have a PhD or at least an MS, both of which are supposed to be research degrees. However, there are also PhD and MS folks who managed to slip through unscathed; but, let us hope they are few in number.

    The unfortunate fact is that for the general public, an MD or DDS is the closest thing they know to a scientist. So they credit those credentials with qualifiying one to speak on science.

  2. #2 QED
    May 25, 2008

    All true, but these are well-reasoned explanations from a rational scientist’s POV. It seems to me that many of these people come from a strict religious background.

    Indoctrination to dogma reinforced by respected parents and elders, at a very young age, must result in overwhelming cognitive dissonance throughout one’s career when science threatens dogma. I can’t imagine the anxiety that results from the constant, everyday battle of reason vs. superstition. To have one’s career, or alternately one’s faith, go up in flames, must be an agonizing choice. So agonizing, that a kind of mental illness may develop, allowing science to reign up to a certain point, but building a denial-wall when it ultimately conflicts with religious faith. Find a cure for that, and, Nobel or not, you’ll have taken a giant step toward improving life the world over.

  3. #3 Dustin
    May 25, 2008

    “Scientist” is a state of mind, not a credential. They were probably never scientists to begin with — they’re kooks with degrees who have mistaken the process of science to be one of rationalization rather than experimental investigation.

  4. #4 PhysioProf
    May 25, 2008

    Great post! A real scientist turning into a kookaloon is the extreme endpoint of falling too far in love with a hypothesis to let go when it begins to be proven wrong.

    I constantly try to inculcate in my trainees the conviction that hypotheses are tools. It is not particularly important whether a particular hypothesis is right or wrong, but rather whether it leads to informative experiments.

    A weaker form than descent into kookaloonery of excessive love for a hypothesis manifests itself in an investigator experimentally dancing around it, rather than subjecting it to a definitive test, out of fear of it being ruled out.

  5. #5 a lurker
    May 25, 2008

    Ms. Smith,

    I think you would really like Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud by Bob Park which deals with the type of issues that you are discussing in your post. I just checked online and it is in OU’s main Library.

  6. #6 Art
    May 25, 2008

    You make some very good points:
    “So when asked where I think kooks like Duesberg/Behe/etc come from, my answers are that they are either too arrogant to back down from their bad ideas, or theyre too stupid/lazy to design the necessary experiments for them to gain credibility in the scientific world, thus they pander to non-scientists.”

    But Reading some of the reams of denialist literature, looking at their speaking engagements and long book lists it strikes me that when you say they “pander to non-scientists” you may well sum up but understate their method of making a living.

    IMO some of these people presumably in pursuit of an original scientific goal noticed that if they played the outcast, denier, firebrand roll they could go from having to to be one of thousands of faceless scientists scratching hard for a living doing the dirty work of real science and obtaining grants. To an easy and lucrative life publishing fluff books full of hyperbole and catering to the large body of reclusive, angry, and disaffected conspiracy theorists.

    Given a certain flare for speaking and the ability to produce gripping tracts that seem to reveal great hidden truths while entirely failing to provide any real information, and the intestinal fortitude to mislead people to make your daily bread, you too can become a celebrity in this not so elite group of professional bombasts, trolls and deniers.

    there people are not scientists or science minded. They are cheerleaders and motivational speakers catering to latent grudges and fear. And doing it for profit.

  7. #7 SLC
    May 25, 2008

    I don’t think it is right to say that scientists who turn into whackjobs were not scientists to begin with. Prof. Duesberg, for example, at one time was a more then competent researcher in retroviruses. There are other examples.

    1. Linus Pauling, a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, and certainly a very competent scientists, suddenly decided that vitamin C could cure cancer, based on no evidence, and thus turned into a whackjob.

    2. William Shockley, a Nobel Prize winner in physics, suddenly decided that black Americans were mentally inferior to Caucasian Americans, based on no significant evidence (in fact, bogus evidence provided by Sir Cyril Burt), and thus turned into a whackjob.

    3. J. Allen Hynek, professor of Astronomy at Northwestern, Un., and former president of the American Astronomical Society, decided that the earth was being visited by extraterrestrials, based on no significant evidence, and thus turned into a whackjob.

    4. Brian Josephson, Nobel Prize winner in physics, decided that cold fusion, ESP, and PK were all scientifically valid proposals, despite a dearth of evidence, and thus turned into a whackjob.

  8. #8 Joshua Zelinsky
    May 25, 2008

    SLC, as I understand it both Shockley and Pauling did good work even after they developed fringe beliefs.

    There’s another much rarer category that should also be noticed- people who become scientists specifically to promote their fringe beliefs. See for example Jonathon Wells who earned his PhD in cell biology so he could use it to “destroy Darwinism.”

    I think that for the previously accomplished scientists we may be underestimating how many of these people genuinely believe what they are saying. I don’t fully understand the underlying psychology but many of the fringe proponents strike me as sincere.

  9. #9 Tyler DiPietro
    May 25, 2008

    I think the main difficulty is that scientists are human beings, and thus just as susceptible to wishful thinking and dogmatism as any other member of our race. Science at least ideally adheres to a set of ethics that demands we resist these natural inclinations, but they often fail, and some fail hard.

  10. #10 dreikin
    May 25, 2008

    ERV: OT, but I know you’ll be interested:
    Imaging the biogenesis of individual HIV-1 virions in live cells ( http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/abs/nature06998.html )

  11. #11 Rob Abiera
    May 26, 2008

    Speaking of shrugging: check out the character of Robert Stadler in “Atlas Shrugged”. Oh, and Floyd Ferris, too. (Warning: philosophy involved)

  12. #12 Rob Abiera
    May 26, 2008

    Then again, there’s always academia: “Ms. Venkatesan’s scholarly specialty is “science studies,” which, as she wrote in a journal article last year, “teaches that scientific knowledge has suspect access to truth.” She continues: “Scientific facts do not correspond to a natural reality but conform to a social construct.”” Oh, it gets better: it seems Ms. Venkatesan is suing her students – http://online.wsj.com/article/SB120995103004666569.html

  13. #13 Tyler DiPietro
    May 26, 2008

    Speaking of shrugging: check out the character of Robert Stadler in “Atlas Shrugged”. Oh, and Floyd Ferris, too. (Warning: philosophy involved)

    It is an act of excessive charity to call anything in that overwrought piece of garbage “philosophy”.

  14. #14 Bob O'H
    May 26, 2008

    Michael Behe hasnt expended one calorie of energy supporting his own claims.

    You’re wrong here – Behe has spent quite a few calories trying to support his claims, but he’s done it through modelling (errm, you can guess the photoshop I want to link to, can’t you? I’m not going to wade through AtBC to find it!). The problem is that his modelling is awful (unlike the photoshop), and he’s apparently not able to accept the criticism.

    I’ve met quite a few scientists who border on kookiness, and I thing a lot of it is the desire to be contrarian (not necessarily a bad thing), combined with an inability to respond to criticism.

  15. #15 Woobegone
    May 26, 2008

    I think one of the essential differences between a scientist and a kook is in their attitude to the scientific community. A scientist generally regards other researchers in his field as being part of the same enterprise – finding stuff out. He might disagree with them, he might compete with them as rivals, he might not like them, but he listens to what they have to say and respects them (albeit maybe grudgingly) as fellow scientists. He tries to make them agree with him because they’re his peers.

    A kook just doesn’t see himself as part of the scientific community. He’s not interested in what they say because he thinks that they’re not really engaged in the search for truth – rather, they’re either part of some conspiracy to suppress the truth, or in the pay of Big Pharma, or blinded by their atheistic Darwinism, or whatever.

    As soon as you decide that the rest of the scientific community are not worth listening to, you’ve probably become a kook. If someone seems to be more interested in convincing the general public or the media of their ideas than in convincing the professionals, they’re probably a kook. If someone puts scare-quotes around the word “experts”, they could well be a kook. After that, the crazy ideas and refusal to admit defeat become almost inevitable because there’s no-one to correct your mistakes.

  16. #16 BAllanJ
    May 26, 2008

    ERV….they miss-quoted you on the front page for Science Blogs. I knew they had when I read it, but I had to check here…I knew you wouldn’t put a “‘” in youre!
    Excellent post, btw.

  17. #17 Joshua Zelinsky
    May 26, 2008

    Venkatesan is an English teacher. That makes her one of the worst sort of cranks, those who don’t even have anything remotely resembling a relevant background. Her antics are not terribly relevant to the question at hand.

  18. #18 Interrobang
    May 26, 2008

    Venkatesan is an English teacher. That makes her one of the worst sort of cranks, those who don’t even have anything remotely resembling a relevant background.

    Sorry, that reads really strangely. Being an English teacher doesn’t make you one of the worst sort of cranks. (Sorry, sticking up for “the perfesh” here.) Opining outside your discipline just might, however.

    If she were talking about science as it exists as a structure of discourse, she would most likely be within her area of expertise, but I think that’s not what she’s trying to say.

  19. #19 trrll
    May 26, 2008

    It can be an asset to have bold and contrarian ideas. There are famous scientists who have made their careers mostly upon being wrong–but by being wrong in interesting ways that led to important experiments that advanced understanding. And persistence is important, as well. You don’t want to abandon an interesting idea at the first negative result–sometimes an apparently negative result is an artifact, or misinterpreted. There are many scientists who don’t really trust any result that has not been confirmed in their own laboratories, because no matter how good the Methods look in a paper, you don’t know for sure what people were actually doing.

    What sometimes seems to happen with older scientists is that the very traits that made them successful earlier in their careers become an obstacle to understanding–they are at a point in their life when they are no longer doing their own experiments, and the field is starting to move on, and they simply refuse to accept the results that don’t support a pet hypothesis. Since they aren’t actively pursuing the field in their own laboratories, they don’t have occasion to actively confront contrary results. If somebody else gets a result that doesn’t fit with your ideas, it’s easy to think “Well, they must have screwed up somehow,” and dismiss it. But if it happens in your own laboratory, you have to confront the issue, and think, “OK, so maybe this result is wrong or misleading; how can we prove it? What additional experiments are needed to resolve the issue?” and eventually, you either find the mistake, or else you have to confront the fact that your pet hypothesis was wrong, no matter how intellectually appealing it might have been. Once you stop doing research, this essential grounding is lost.

  20. #20 Muse142
    May 26, 2008

    Apparently those no-nothing scientists have figured out how to image HIV forming.

    http://www.rockefeller.edu/

    I know this is off-topic, but I figured I’d drop you a line. :)

  21. #21 william e emba
    May 26, 2008

    2. William Shockley, a Nobel Prize winner in physics, suddenly decided that black Americans were mentally inferior to Caucasian Americans, based on no significant evidence (in fact, bogus evidence provided by Sir Cyril Burt), and thus turned into a whackjob.
    =======================================
    This doesn’t make much sense as criticism. If Burt supplied bogus data, how was Shockley at fault for believing it?

    As it is, the questions surrounding Burt’s data are not very easy to answer. There was a time when Burt was widely denounced, and in some (usually liberal) circles “Burt is a fraud” is taken for granted. But careful reexamination over the years has, in some people’s eyes, rehabilitated Burt’s reputation.

    And who gets to say what is or is not “significant” evidence? It’s almost always obvious after the fact, but at the time, the anomaly that matters versus the anomaly that’s just noise versus the anomaly that’s subtly biased sampling can all look rather identical.

    The fact is that what Shockley was attempting to study was much more complicated than people knew how to study back then, so most of the responses were as unscientific as his own work.

    This is in contrast with the responses to Behe and Duesberg, for example. There has been so much clear scientific refutation to the point where it’s impossible to imagine why anyone would give their ideas even a moment’s credence.

  22. #22 SLC
    May 26, 2008

    Re william e emba

    1. Excuse me but I must be missing something here. My information is that the twin studies published by Dr. Burt were fabricated; the twins he supposedly studied did not exist. Has some information become available which now refutes this?

    2. I had the misfortune to read all of Prof. Shockleys’ papers on this subject, which he sent me in 1969, none of which was published in a peer reviewed journal. The most shocking thing was the total incompetence in the application of the scientific method demonstrated by such a prestigious scientist. Many of his calculations were based on data which was totally wrong. As a for instance, he based one calculation on an assumption that the number of Jews in North America was 2 million. Reference to the World Almanac shows that the number, at the time, was 6 million, completely invalidating the calculation at issue.

  23. #23 Woobegone
    May 26, 2008

    SLC : The Burt affair is a can of worms. There are now a number of serious people who don’t believe that Burt is guilty of fraud. Others still do. There have been whole books devoted to the issue. It’s purely academic now anyway – the interesting question is whether IQ is heritable or not, and there is plenty of evidence relating to that question which has nothing to do with Burt.

  24. #24 Chris Noble
    May 26, 2008

    I like this quote from Judah Folkman.

    In research, there’s a very fine line between persistence and obstinacy. You do not know whether if you’re persistent a little while longer you’ll make it, or whether you’re just being obstinate, [it] doesn’t exist. And, of course, you can keep on going, stay with an idea too long, [that's] called pigheadedness.

    You are not going to get far in science if you give up after your paper is rejected. On the other hand if you just get more and more pigheaded the more criticism you receive you’ll probably end up following the path to kookdom.

  25. #25 SLC
    May 27, 2008

    Re Woobegone

    1. Unfortunately, not only Shockley but also Arthur Jensen, in a controversial article published in the Harvard Educational Review, also depended heavily on Burts’ work.

    2. A brief Google search indicates that all too many of those seeking to rehabilitate Burts’ reputation belong to questionable organizations, like the Discovery Institute and the Galton Institute. In addition, these also include blatant racists like Phillipe Rushton. It would seem that the would be Burt rehabilitaters have another axe to grind.

  26. #26 Gerald
    May 27, 2008

    Great post ERV. I just wanted to add that one reason I think scientists, or anyone, becomes a kook is for the attention. Most kooks aren’t given much, if any, respect in the field they criticize. But with the general population, they can be popular. Creationists are a good example of this. They are ignored by the scientific community, but are treated like movie stars in the fundamentalist community.

    I remember once reading about the holocaust denier David Irving who claims he is using the holocaust deniers as a stepping stone to become a world famous historian. They were the ones who initially paid attention to him and he just sort of fell into their crowd. I wonder if this could be the case with other kooks. They didn’t plan on becoming a kook, but it pays the bills and they get the attention they crave from the kook crowd.

  27. #27 william e emba
    May 27, 2008

    1. Excuse me but I must be missing something here. My information is that the twin studies published by Dr. Burt were fabricated; the twins he supposedly studied did not exist. Has some information become available which now refutes this?
    ===========================================
    Any brief history of the “Burt affair” begins with the recognition that Burt was an extremely polarizing figure in his day, using and abusing his position of academic power in all sorts of slippery, obnoxious, and downright fascist ways, in addition to firmly claiming proofs of some right-wing pet ideas. After he died, there was a power shift to the left, and numerous academic and political enemies got their revenge. Practically the first thing done after the funeral was his original data kept at UCL were all burned. Not a very scientific refutation.

    Although there were accusations of fraud at the time, this didn’t become the standard “fact everybody knows” until his official biographer concluded that Burt was a fraud a few years afterwards. At some point afterwards, it was pointedly noticed that the accusations themselves were not all that convincing. Good enough for outraged op-eds, maybe, but that’s about it.

    Ever since, it’s been an unholy mess. I highly recommend the Mackintosh collection Cyril Burt: Fraud or Framed? for a first introduction to the Burt affair.

    From the scientific point of view, Burt’s claims about twins separated at birth have been repeatedly verified. The effect turns out to be even stronger than Burt claimed, in fact. This is, I believe, due to the use of DNA to distinguish monozygotic and dizygotic twins. Burt had to eyeball the difference.
    ===========================================
    2. I had the misfortune to read all of Prof. Shockleys’ papers on this subject, which he sent me in 1969, none of which was published in a peer reviewed journal. The most shocking thing was the total incompetence in the application of the scientific method demonstrated by such a prestigious scientist.
    ===========================================
    Actually, the scientific method is incompetently applied by everybody. The winners generally do a good job of rewriting history, and most scientists, both the average and the genius, don’t know diddlysquat about the real history of their discipline, or any philosophy for that matter.

    There is, for example, a serious paper accusing Eddington of fraud in his reports of the 1919 solar eclipse that confirmed Einstein’s prediction of the bending of light. I’ve read it, and the relevant work of Eddington, and I can see how someone who thinks science is done in a clean straightforward manner might misunderstand what Eddington did.

    Similarly, there’s a serious paper accusing Millikan of fraud in his famed oil-drop experiment. Again, I don’t buy it, but I can see why somebody might squirm over the issue.

    On the other hand, incompetent use of statistics really is everywhere. I’m currently reading The Cult of Statistical Significance, and while I don’t agree with everything the authors say, I do find it depressing.

    The bottom line is that cutting edge research, for the most part, must take place in a gray zone, but few want to admit to it, at least not out loud. This confuses the merely competent, and makes it easy for the ignorant to totally not understand the scientific method.
    ===========================================
    Many of his calculations were based on data which was totally wrong. As a for instance, he based one calculation on an assumption that the number of Jews in North America was 2 million. Reference to the World Almanac shows that the number, at the time, was 6 million, completely invalidating the calculation at issue.
    ===========================================
    More to the point, pretty much nobody knew how to control for all the obvious cofactors in those days. It doesn’t matter if the input data is correct if the statistics are utterly meaningless.

    Today’s economists are, for the most part, quite savvy at digging up the right numbers and making convincing arguments as to what the real causes and effects are. Having seen my fair share of what good arguments of this sort are like, I don’t need to see Shockley’s numbers to know right away that they are gibberish.

    It’s like the Behe and Snoke paper. Their calculation was obviously irrelevant. End of discussion. But that’s not crackpot material, lots of irrelevant calculations are out there, done by good people. That some reviewers also pointed out that a lot of their numbers going in were nonsense is just more reason to write off Behe as incompetent. That Behe didn’t learn that his numbers and calculations themselves implied random mutations and natural selection were more than sufficient to evolve the protein he was concerned with until his cross-examination in Dover, now that was breathtakingly inane crackpottery.

    Shockley was clearly incompetent, but I’m not at all certain if he was a crackpot.

  28. #28 jre
    May 27, 2008

    Ooh! Ooh! Can I nominate Fred Hoyle?

  29. #29 trrll
    May 27, 2008

    Ooh! Ooh! Can I nominate Fred Hoyle?

    I’d put Hoyle more in the category of scientists who have made important contributions by being (mostly) wrong. He gets a demerit for his overstated (and sadly, much repeated) “tornado in a junkyard” analogy, but I wouldn’t say that it qualifies him as a crank.

  30. #30 SLC
    May 27, 2008

    Re william e emba

    1. With respect to the Late Prof. Shockley, I think that the crackpot label is appropriate as when his mistakes were pointed out to him, he brushed the negative comments aside. That is the mark of the the crackpot. The big problem with Shockley is that he was operating in an area outside of his expertise just as Linus Pauling was.

    2. Relative to the light deflection experiments and the Theory of General Relativity, they were not actually the most convincing as the error bars were quite large. In fact, the measurements were not accurate enough to distinguish between Einsteins’ theory and the Brans-Dicke theory. The most convincing observation was the explanation for the 43 seconds of arc discrepancy between the observed precession rate of the orbit of the planet Mercury and the prediction of the effects of the other planets made by perturbation theory.

  31. #31 Mike Z
    May 27, 2008

    Another interesting book about persistence vs. obstinance in science is “Selectivity and Discord” by Alan Franklin. The examples are all from physics, with some pretty technical details, but the theme of how scientists resolve discordant data and contrary viewpoints still comes through well. The “selectivity” part deals with how scientists decide which data to include and which to exclude. Sometimes the results just come out too crazy, and it is appropriate to exclude them. But how far from expectations do they need to be before it is appropriate to exclude them? One must be careful that you aren’t chucking out important clues about what is really going on, or worse, biasing the data set to favor your own preferred hypotheses. In some of the examples, we can see how a good scientist can go fringe, while in others we can see how they manage to stay respectable.

  32. #33 SLC
    May 27, 2008

    Perhaps as a counterexample of a scientist who had a reputation for being off the wall but is not considered a whackjob is the Physicist Thomas Gold. In particular, Prof. Gold had a notion, based on the existence of hydrocarbons in the universe, that the fossil fuels found on earth might not be fossil fuels at all but are primordial, i.e. have existed on the earth since its creation. There are a number of commentators who take this proposal seriously, including skeptic Michael Shermer. Although it is unlikely that the coal deposits and probably the oil deposits on the earth are primordial, it is quite possible that the natural gas deposits, at least in part, are.

  33. #34 Chris Noble
    May 27, 2008

    Great post ERV. I just wanted to add that one reason I think scientists, or anyone, becomes a kook is for the attention. … They didn’t plan on becoming a kook, but it pays the bills and they get the attention they crave from the kook crowd.

    They seem to form a symbiotic relationship with their supporters. People like Duesberg seem to crave the attention they get as contrarian iconoclasts. His supporters desire the credibility that comes from Nobel prize winner or member of the NAS.

    Kary Mullis is another example.

    I guess that it’s easy to fall into. You stop trying to convince your scientific peers and start writing books and articles for a lay audience. Duesberg get’s lots of letters from Denialists praising him. They may die later from AIDS but that doesn’t seem to bother Duesberg as long as he can get a steady stream of new supporters.

  34. #35 Ichthyic
    May 27, 2008

    . They may die later from AIDS but that doesn’t seem to bother Duesberg as long as he can get a steady stream of new supporters.

    well, that he would have to get NEW supporters kinda goes without saying, right?
    ;)

    again, it still bothers me that MCB hasn’t come out with a public statement at least distancing themselves from Deusberg.

    His denialism ISN’T harmless kookery, people have died because of his specific recommendations.

    Sometimes, I regret my decision to have done my graduate work at Berkeley. Even if it was in an entirely different dept.; I saw a lot of destructive politics going on everywhere.

  35. #36 william e emba
    May 28, 2008

    1. With respect to the Late Prof. Shockley, I think that the crackpot label is appropriate as when his mistakes were pointed out to him, he brushed the negative comments aside. That is the mark of the the crackpot.
    ===========================================
    I would almost agree, except for the fact that the history of science if full of examples of good scientists doing the exact same thing, and being right in the end. That’s what I meant by the gray zone.

    The Baltimore case provides a classic example. The accuser O’Toole recounted, among other things that Imanishi-Kari showed her how she selected good data from bad data, in what O’Toole thought was a post hoc manner. Perhaps it was, but that’s how you operate in the gray zone, eyeballing the signal from the noise.
    ===========================================
    The big problem with Shockley is that he was operating in an area outside of his expertise just as Linus Pauling was.
    ===========================================
    The bigger problem was that he was wrong.
    ===========================================
    2. Relative to the light deflection experiments and the Theory of General Relativity, they were not actually the most convincing as the error bars were quite large. In fact, the measurements were not accurate enough to distinguish between Einsteins’ theory and the Brans-Dicke theory.
    ===========================================
    Well, Brans-Dicke came along decades after 1919. There were a tiny handful of competing theories at the time, and then there was Einstein.
    ===========================================
    The most convincing observation was the explanation for the 43 seconds of arc discrepancy between the observed precession rate of the orbit of the planet Mercury and the prediction of the effects of the other planets made by perturbation theory.
    ===========================================
    That was the most convincing to Einstein and others. As it is, the exact same formula that Einstein derived for the excess precession was first given in 1898 and 1902 by Paul Gerber, an otherwise totally forgotten high school teacher.

    The one free parameter in Gerber’s theory was the speed of gravity, and assuming it was the same as the speed of light, out came the correct excess precession. The theory was republished in 1917 after Einstein’s GR. It predicted 50% more bending of light than GR.

    Gerber’s theory was never taken seriously. Most of it is that Gerber doesn’t make any sense, but Einstein was Einstein so nobody tried very hard. Gerber’s intuition that there is a magnetic analog to gravity is straightforward enough, and indeed is now part of modern-day GR “gravitomagnetism”, but he gets no credit.

    See http://www.mathpages.com/home/kmath527/kmath527.htm

  36. #37 jayh
    May 29, 2008

    ” A brief Google search indicates that all too many of those seeking to rehabilitate Burts’ reputation belong to questionable organizations, like the Discovery Institute and the Galton Institute. In addition, these also include blatant racists like Phillipe Rushton. It would seem that the would be Burt rehabilitaters have another axe to grind.”

    The fact that kooks try to defend you beacause they perceive that your work seems to suit their prejudices is in itself not a refutation of your work.

  37. #38 Bryan Elliott
    December 18, 2009

    This essay needs to be the last thing high school graduates are made to read before unleashing them on civilization.

    We might have to modify it a bit – add in vignettes explaining who Behe, Horowitz, and Duesberg are – but past that, I think it’s perfect.

  38. #39 Smurfette
    March 21, 2011

    I read a good blog post that discussed the psychology behind quacks and followers which mentioned something about stages of psychology and how quacks keep their followers in a state of fear and anxiety. I was reminded of that by the latest article by Trine Tsouderos on XMRV and CFS which had a quote of Judy Mikovits talking to patients and focusing on fear. I can’t find the blog post anymore and only remember that I probably got there through links somewhere in this blog circle. Does anyone know which blog post I’m talking about?

  39. #40 Smurfette
    March 21, 2011

    Never mind, I found it.

    How they do the voodoo that they do so well – Part 1
    http://photoninthedarkness.com/?p=150

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