A Brief Field Guide to Scientific Crackpots

Science and technology have progressed rapidly over the past fifty years, and access to this knowledge and opposing viewpoints has grown rapidly as well, thanks to the internet. Unfortunately, not all of these opposing viewpoints are reasonable, and many come from genuine crackpots. For the non-technical reader, it can be difficult to separate the legitimate science from the crazy nonsense, both because the actual science often sounds crazy (invisibility cloaks, for instance) and the crackpots can mask their nonsense with plausible-sounding technobabble. How does a non-specialist distinguish between a legitimate scientist and a crackpot?

This question motivated me to write this post, “A Brief Field Guide to Scientific Crackpots”. We will look at a number of common attitudes possessed by such cranks, any of which should raise warning flags if encountered. Hopefully such a list will help people navigate the often treacherous world of scientific thinking without colliding with pseudo-scientific icebergs.

It should be mentioned that this list is certainly not complete, and not necessarily absolute. Scientists doing legitimate research will sometimes fall back on crank-like arguments, for instance. It should also be mentioned that this list concerns scientific crackpots, and not medical charlatans: medical charlatans are often more polished and clever in their arguments, in large part because they are genuine con artists instead of deluded individuals.

Anyway, here’s a list of crackpot arguments, along with an explanation of why such arguments should be regarded with suspicion:

1. An obsession with semantics, the exact meaning of words, and an abuse of it. The most infamous example of this sort of argument is the “evolution is a theory, not a fact” cry of the anti-evolution/creationist crowd. The scientific definition of ‘theory’ is significantly different, and more rigorous, than the popular definition; creationists attempt to use confusion over this to their advantage. In my recent run-in with a relativity denialist, there was an obsession with Einstein’s use of the word “natural” in one of his examples. Although in context I (and all physicists) find it clear what Einstein meant by the word, the denialist felt that this usage invalidates the entire theory!

It should be noted that words are important in science. Everyone has to agree on the terminology used, and when they don’t, genuinely intractable arguments can arise. I’ve been privy to at least three big arguments amongst colleagues that arose, it turns out, because they were using the same words and phrases to talk about subtly different things. But theories do not rise and fall on the basis of semantic definitions; they rise or fall on the presence or absence of supporting experimental evidence.

2. A criticism of only the oldest experimental and theoretical results. Major scientific theories are not accepted blindly due to ideology or mob mentality; they are accepted because of a long, overwhelming body of evidence in support of them. Crackpots trying to attack one of the foundations of modern science, such as evolution or relativity, like to ignore the majority of the evidence and only attack the weakest links.

Usually, this tends to be the oldest evidence. The previously mentioned denialist’s entire argument hinges on papers written by Einstein over fifty years ago! Another relativity denialist I have discussed spent a significant amount of time criticizing observations of a solar eclipse in 1919 which, at the time, were considered to be direct evidence of Einstein’s theory. It is true that later analysis of these measurements have suggested that the results were inconclusive, but there have been numerous other measurements made, all of which clearly confirm the theory.  The crackpot makes no mention of these later results.

Anti-evolution arguments are similarly plagued. Creationists can be found referring to old hoaxes such as Piltdown man (that was in fact uncovered by scientists) or found claiming that no transitional fossils have been discovered (completely ignoring numerous examples which have appeared since Darwin first proposed his theory).

These crackpots seem to think that a scientific theory is only as strong as its weakest link. This is demonstrably false: quantum mechanics, for instance, labored for decades under a complete lack of understanding of what is meant by an ‘observer’ and a ‘measurement’. These questions, in fact, are still not completely resolved, but decades of tests confirming the predictions of quantum mechanics have demonstrated its validity as a theory.

3. An obsession with ad hominem attacks, or a focus on criticizing individuals rather than theories. Crackpots will often focus their attacks and attention on the ‘founding fathers’ of a scientific theory. These attacks may be honorably limited to the research of the individual, but just as often as not become personal attacks on a researcher’s character.

Darwin is the most common target for ad hominem attacks. Creationists love to tell the story of how he recanted on his deathbed (not true), and are eager to point out that Darwin knew very little mathematics (not that they know any more than he did, in most cases). Einstein is usually not slandered, but there is a special emphasis on trying to find flaws in his original papers.

Such arguments are completely irrelevant, in any case. Science, strictly speaking, does not care about the character of an individual, only how well his theories hold up against reality. Furthermore, as mentioned above, successful theories grow beyond the vision of their ‘parent’, changing to incorporate new experimental evidence and growing stronger with each new independent confirmation. Metaphorically speaking, figures such as Darwin and Einstein only gave birth to their theories: generations of scientists since then have adopted those theories, helped them grow and become stronger.

4. Constant references to a conspiracy against the author’s results. When science dismisses, ignores, or mocks the work of the crackpot, it is never the crackpot’s fault: either the audience of scientists are too ‘vain and ignorant’ to comprehend the genius at work, or the scientists are actively conspiring to hide THE TRUTH from the general public, for reasons of ideology or self-interest.

Creationists love to make this accusation. Their ‘creation science’ is only ignored because scientists are afraid to challenge the establishment or because scientists are attempting to fulfill some sort of atheistic conspiracy.

It is true that science is a human endeavor, and is potentially subject to all the human foibles such as greed, lust for power, pride, and jealousy. (Check out Great Feuds in Science for a description of ten of the liveliest fights.) The community as a whole, however, is quite self-regulating in a “free-market” manner: for every scientist who might want to suppress a new discovery for selfish reasons, there are numerous others who would love to take credit for making that discovery.

Science as a whole is a somewhat conservative discipline: radical changes in thought are resisted until undeniable evidence is presented in its favor. The fact that crackpots are ignored has nothing to do with conspiracy and everything to do with their utter lack of evidence.

5. An extreme view that an established scientific theory is “completely wrong”. I used to get spam email regularly (another sign of a crackpot) from a person in China with the header, “Uncertainty principle is untenable!” I never bothered to read the message, but I doubt that I missed any revelatory new physics.

Crackpots are typically not only convinced that a theory is flawed, but that the theory is completely wrong. Our relativity denialists take issue with Einstein’s founding postulates, and with that belief, feel free to ignore all supporting evidence that comes along.

6. Criticisms of existing theories which rely on “common sense”. This particular branch of’ ‘crackpottery’ reminds me of a personal anecdote. Years ago I was wandering through the lamp department of a Service Merchandise store, when I noticed bright red signs prominently displayed: “CAUTION! Light bulbs are hot! Do not touch!”

Common sense is evidently a terribly inaccurate method of understanding the world! I’ve mentioned in previous posts numerous modern “common sense” ideas which were anything but when first proposed, among them: Newton’s laws, heliocentrism, the germ theory of disease, the brain as the center of intelligence, the theory of atoms.

For relativity denialists, the idea that space and time are intermingled violates common sense. They have no strong quantitative criticism of the theory (which they probably don’t understand anyway), only a mushy notion that it “feels funny”. Relativity felt funny to a lot of people, who raised objections to the theory in the form of apparent paradoxes — all of which were resolved successfully. The lesson physicists learned from this is that “common sense” is an artifact of our limited perceptions and place in the universe. In fact, modern science was really born when people realized that the universe might work differently in circumstances different from those experienced in daily life.

7. A complete absence of quantitative analysis. In a 165-page “primer” on geocentricity (discussed in another post), the long-disavowed notion that the Earth is the center of the universe, a crank author uses no calculations to back up his extravagant alternative theory of celestial motion. He claims the theory works just fine, but does it? Without calculations which can be checked for errors and compared to experiment, there’s no immediate way to tell. The relativity denialists mentioned earlier also present no quantitative results to back up their ideas, only appeals to “common sense”. The Templeton Foundation, a group dedicated to promoting the links of science and religion, once asked for proponents of intelligent design (dressed-up creationism) to submit research proposals. “They never came in,” said the Foundation’s senior vice president.
These are some of the characteristics and arguments of crackpot scientists, and are things which should raise a red flag if you come across them. Anybody have any other characteristics to add to the list?

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8 Responses to A Brief Field Guide to Scientific Crackpots

  1. Blake Stacey says:

    Related to #3 and #4:

    I’ve noticed that crackpots often have an obsession with credentials. I think it comes from being “rejected by the Establishment” and therefore hating the whole scientific community, while at the same time coveting the mojo you get from being accepted by that community. Cranks will go a long way to find the identity of an anonymous debunker, for example.

  2. Blake: You’re absolutely right; that’s one I’ll have to add to the list. “Crackpottery” seems to have, as a symptom or a cause, an incredible ego associated with it. There’s typically a complete disdain for the credentials of others, combined with a hyping of any they might have.

  3. Personal Demon says:

    Skulls in the Stars wrote: “I’ve been privy to at least three big arguments amongst colleagues that arose, it turns out, because they were using the same words and phrases to talk about subtly different things.”

    Yes, indeed you have. Who would have thought that a word like “polarization” could be so… er… polarizing in the scientific community. 😀

  4. PD: And that argument is still going on, I believe…

  5. Pingback: Cranks: A Brief Field Guide (Part 2) -- a Nadder!

  6. Body&soul says:

    I am presenting the famous equation: E = mc², which I believe was probably derived from Isaac Newton F= m x a and Giovanni Coriolis’ W = F x d. Do you think Einstein was a smart crackpot?

    FORMULA >>STATEMENT
    W = F x D >>Eq1 – Coriolis equation
    F = (M x A) >>Eq2 – Newton’s equation
    W = (M x A) x D >>replace F from eq1 with eq2
    W = (kg x m/s²) x m >>substitute dimensions w/units
    W = (kg x m x m) / s² >>apply laws of exponents
    W = ( kg x m² ) / s² >>( X)^A x (X)^B = (X)^A+B
    W = kg x (m²/s²) >>combining
    W = kg x (m/s)² >>simplifying
    W = M x V². >>subsitute Kg for M, m/s for V
    W = m x c². >>c = velocity of light, m=mass
    E = m x c² >>since Work(W) = Energy(E)

    So for the genuine thinkers: Is it correct if I say that work = mass times acceleration times distance (W=MAD)?

  7. Jim says:

    Another sure sign of crackpottery is a dismissive view of the issue of statistical certainty and math in general. This permits merely numerically “interesting” but not statistically significant results to be viewed as “valid” by the crackpot.

  8. Ari says:

    Another flavor of the ad hominem attack against science is the gendered attack — “science done by women must be wrong”. I’m thinking particularly of the folks who disputed Marilyn vos Savant’s provably correct answer to the Monty Hall problem, and blamed her alleged error on “female logic”. http://priceonomics.com/the-time-everyone-corrected-the-worlds-smartest/

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