Antivaccine nonsense Complementary and alternative medicine Intelligent design/creationism Medicine Physics Pseudoscience Science Skepticism/critical thinking

A profound misunderstanding of the significance of cranks in science

I’ve spent a lot of time over the years looking at cranks, examining crank science (i.e., pseudoscience), and trying to figure out how to inoculate people against crankery. Because I’m a physician, I tend to do it mostly in the realm of medicine by critically examining “alternative” medical claims and discussing the scientific basis of medicine, both with respect to those “alternative” claims and to more conventional medical claims. However, I don’t limit my skepticism and critical thinking just to medicine, although lately I think that I’ve been “specializing” too much, almost totally forgetting that there are other varieties of cranks besides quacks and anti-vaccine activists. That’s why, when I saw Steve Novella’s discussion of a badly misguided article on physics cranks by Margaret Wertheim, my interest was piqued. Maybe it was because the article was a change of pace for me. Of course, Steve has already done his usual excellent job discussing the fallacies underlying Wertheim’s article, which is the sort of thing that makes me wonder if I should pile on. But then I tell myself: Of couse I should! Before I read the article, I knew it was going to be bad just from the subtitle, namely “Amateurs around the world take on the priesthood of mainstream science.”

Here’s a hint: Anyone who refers to mainstream science as a “priesthood” at the very minimum flirts with giving the impression of being a crank herself. Or perhaps Wertheim has just spent too much time among physics cranks in writing her book Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything. I agree with Steve, though. Her article represents profoundly muddled thinking about the nature of cranks and their relationship with science. Although she seems to understand what a crank is, her article quickly devolves into an apologetic for cranks that blames science itself for their becoming cranks in the first place. Why? Because science is “inaccessible.” Like medicine, I suppose, whose apparently “inaccessibility” must, if Werttheim’s arguments hold water, similarly lead to the emergence of quacks.

She begins her discussion by introducing Jim Carter, a physics crank who has what Wertheim characterizes as a “radical theory of the universe he has been developing for 50 years.” It doesn’t bode well that Wertheim apparently doesn’t understand that the word “theory” doesn’t mean half-assed guess or “something I made up because science is too ‘inaccessible.'” On the other hand, Wertheim does paint a picture of what a crank is, using Carter as a prototype. Basically, Carter has just a single semester of university education, has never published a scientific paper in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, or held any sort of academic position, but he has the arrogance of ignorance to have constructed his own elaborate notions of “everything,” which Wertheim characterizes as “idiosyncratic alternative to quantum mechanics and general relativity, based on the idea that all matter is composed of doughnut-shaped particles called circlons.”

There once was a time when it was possible for people without formal education to make observations about the universe and formulate them into laws and hypotheses that characterize reality. That time ended at least a hundred years ago. The reason is that science builds on what was discovered. The more it builds, the more background information there is that has to be mastered in order to be able to make useful contributions. Although there can be lots of controversy in science, certain fundamental things are agreed upon because overwhelming evidence has led scientists to provisionally accept them as correct. For instance, you can’t suddenly posit a “theory” that says that atoms aren’t made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons, because there is a massive body of evidence that has led to a scientific consensus that they are, in fact, made up of such particles, whatever scientists choose to name them. At least, you can’t do it and have scientists take you seriously unless you can produce evidence that is at least compelling enough to call such well-established science into doubt. Cranks don’t acknowledge this and, through arrogance, think that they alone are able to see what all of science isn’t. As a result, they tend to be upset that science doesn’t recognize their apparent genius.

Yet, of cranks like Jim Carter, Wertheimer writes:

The mainstream science world has a way of dealing with people like this–dismiss them as cranks and dump their letters in the trash. While I do not believe any outsider I have encountered has done any work that challenges mainstream physics, I have come to believe that they should not be so summarily ignored.

Why is it that Wertheimer thinks cranks like Carter, whose ideas have no grounding in evidence and experiment, shouldn’t be just ignored or dismissed by scientists? First, she invokes the logical fallacy of argumentum ad populum and writes:

Consider the sheer numbers. Outsider physicists have their own organization, the Natural Philosophy Alliance, whose database lists more than 2,100 theorists, 5,800 papers, and more than 1,300 books worldwide. They have annual conferences, with this year’s proceedings running to 735 pages. In the time I have been observing the organization, the NPA has grown from a tiny seed whose founder photocopied his newsletter onto pastel-colored paper to a thriving international association with video-streamed events.

So let me get this straight. If I can get a few hundred people together to write books and papers claiming that the world is flat, then scientists shouldn’t dismiss that idea out of hand and ignore cranks who send them letters and articles claiming that the earth is flat? That does seem to be the implication of Wertheim’s argument.

In fact, as I read Wertheimer’s article, I couldn’t help but think of my primary blogging niche, namely the critical examination of “alternative medicine” and hear echoes of Wertheim’s arguments in the many, many apologias to quackery, crankery, and “alternative medicine.” How often have we heard the claims of proponents of various unscientific medical modalities that their woo should be taken seriously by science-based medicine because it’s so popular? Because there are so many practitioners and physicians who seemingly take it seriously? Because there are so many people who believe in it and pay money for it? In fact, I have to wonder if Wertheim would be so quick to claim that cranks like Jim Carter shouldn’t be so quickly dismissed by scientists if Jim Carter weren’t a physics crank but rather a basic, run-of-the-mill quack. It’s easy to look at physics cranks like Carter as harmless eccentrics because the consequences of their pseudoscientific ideas are basically minimal to nonexistent. They aren’t going to persuade scientists, but more importantly they aren’t likely to lead innocents into harm the way quacks do. It’s easy to ignore them–or be amused by them. Quacks do, however, share one characteristic that Wertheim identifies in the physics cranks that she studies:

Very little unites this disparate group of amateurs–there are as many theories as members–except for a common belief that “something is drastically wrong in contemporary physics and cosmology, and that a new spirit of open-mindedness is desperately needed.” They are unanimous in the view that mainstream physics has been hijacked by a kind of priestly caste who speak a secret language–in other words, mathematics–that is incomprehensible to most human beings. They claim that the natural world speaks a language which all of us can, or should be able to, understand. Rather than having their dialogue with the world mediated by “experts,”= NPA members insist that they can commune with it directly and describe its patterns in accessible terms.

One wonders whether Wertheim would be so accepting of similar arguments from, for instance, anti-vaccine activists. Certainly, they think there’s something wrong with medicine, namely vaccines. How many times have we seen anti-vaccine activists referring to medicine and science as a “religion”? I’ve even heard of support of vaccines referred to as “Vaccinianity,” much as Holocaust deniers refer to as “Holocaustianity.” How many times have we heard quacks refer to doctors as a “priesthood”? Indeed, perhaps the most entertaining example of this sort of attack that I’ve seen came from our old friend, the creationist neurosurgeon known as Michael Egnor, who, after congratulating himself for resisting the introduction of “alternative medicine” where he practices, castigates the “arrogant medical priesthood” and urges humility. He conveniently leaves out his own glaring lack of humility in seemingly thinking that he knows more than evolutionary biologists. Dr. Egnor, you see, has made a name for himself as a defender of “intelligent design” creationism who blames “Darwinism” for eugenics.

The fact is, in medicine, cranks are all too often quacks, and vice versa. Should we be accepting of, for example, Hulda Clark’s view that something with modern oncology is “wrong” and that all cancer is caused by a liver fluke? Or perhaps I should have phrased that “should we have been accepting?” After all, after having plied her quackery on untold numbers of desperate cancer patients for decades, ironically Clark herself succumbed to cancer. Or what about Tullio Simoncini, who thinks that all cancer is a fungus and the treatment is injecting sodium bicarbonate into them? Or Robert O. Young, who thinks that cancer is a cell “poisoned” by acid, the tumor a protective reaction of the body to cells, and alkalinization is the treatment for cancer and virtually everything else? Or what about Lionel Milgrom? Milgrom is a homeopathy apologist who derives ridiculously complicated equations and models based on nothing, all in order to make it seem as though there is a scientific basis to that quackiest of quackeries, homeopathy. To me, Milgrom is the crank who most resembles Carter in that he has built up the most elaborate justifications for his pseudoscience. Compare Milgrom’s illustrations with some of Carter’s illustrations and explanations and you’ll see what I mean. It’s been nearly 30 years since I took advanced undergraduate physics and physical chemistry, but even I know that Carter’s explanation of gravity is hilariously off-base. The difference is that Carter’s equations don’t hurt anyone. Milgrom’s equations are used to put a patina of scientific respectability on quackery.

Do the existence of quacks like Clark, Simoncini, Young, and Milgrom mean that there’s something wrong with the science of medicine? Science-based medicine is not by any means perfect, but just because there are medical cranks like these four does not mean that there is something wrong with medical science, just as just because there are physics cranks like Jim Carter doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with physics. Neither of these observations means that science is a religion or scientists and doctors are a “priesthood.” Yet that is exactly what Wertheim seems to be arguing:

Regardless of the credibility of this claim, it is sociologically significant. In their militantly egalitarian opposition to what they see as a physics elite, NPA members mirror the stance of Martin Luther and other pioneers of the Protestant Reformation. Luther was rebelling against the abstractions of the Latin-writing Catholic priesthood, and one of his most revolutionary moves was to translate the Bible into vernacular German. Just as Luther declared that all people could read the book of God for themselves, so the NPA today asserts that all of us ought to be able to read the book of nature for ourselves.

And just as Luther didn’t reject the basic tenets of Christianity, outsider theorists do not reject science: They believe that it provides the right tools to reveal the majesty of our world. But they insist that the wonders of science be available to everyone.

And the anti-vaccine movement is, by this analogy, a “militantly egalitarian opposition” to what antivaccinationists see as a medical elite. Perhaps Wertheim would view Bob Sears as Martin Luther nailing his new “alternative vaccination schedule” and his explanations fo vaccine science to the church of modern medicine. Or something like that. In fact, anti-vaccinationists are every bit as “do-it-yourself” as Jim Carter. They come up with their own vaccine schedules based on their own amateur science, such as phone surveys and questionnaires disguised as science. Heck, Mark and David Geier even set up a lab in the basement of Mark Geier’s tony Silver Spring, MD home, just as Jim Carter uses various devices and equipment he’s cobbled together (including a disco fog machine) to test his “circlon” ideas.

Yes, obviously I used the example of quacks and anti-vaccine activists as a sort of reductio ad absurdum aimed at Wertheim’s arguments, but let’s get a bit more specific and blunt. Wertheim’s entire thesis in this article is that we shouldn’t dismiss cranks like Carter (and, I infer, Simoncini, Clark, Young, and Milgrom) because:

  • There are quite a lot of them (argumentum ad populum)
  • Math is really hard.
  • Learning the necessary background knowledge to do modern science is also really hard.
  • Science is complicated; so there must be something wrong with it
  • Science is a religion that should be available to all, just as Martin Luther wanted Christianity to be available to all through his translation of the Bible.
  • Outsider scientists feel “alienated” by scientific explanations and science as practiced.

None of these are, in my book, reasons to view science as a priesthood or religion, or to argue that the existence of cranks means there’s some major need that science isn’t meeting in the population. Rather, it’s more of a reason to wonder what it is in the personality of cranks that leads them to reject science; yet that doesn’t seem to be the conclusion Wertheim draws from the existence of cranks like Jim Carter.

In all fairness, there is a germ of a a couple of good points in Wertheim’s article, but they’re buried in polemics, and she draws the wrong conclusions from them. Perhaps she develops her arguments in a more nuanced, less crank-friendly fashion in her book and refrains from making so many analogies likening science to religion, but I tend to doubt it. If reading Michael Shermer’s review is any indication, Wertheim’s book seems to be arguing that There Is Something Seriously Wrong With Science. In any case, the first germ is that it’s not always easy to see where the fringes of science end and crankdom begins, and sometimes it’s only possible in retrospect. Occasionally people dismissed as cranks to turn out to be vindicated, but it doesn’t happen nearly as often as cranks and crank apologists like Wertheim like to think it does. As Michael Shermer once wrote:

For every Galileo shown the instruments of torture for advocating scientific truth, there are a thousand (or ten thousand) unknowns whose ‘truths’ never pass scientific muster with other scientists. The scientific community cannot be expected to test every fanstastic claim that comes along, especially when so many are logically inconsistent.

As I once wrote seemingly so many years ago:

For every Galileo, Ignaz Semmelweis, Nicolaus Copernicus, Charles Darwin, Louis Pasteur, etc., whose scientific ideas were either ignored, rejected, or vigorously attacked by the scientific community of his time and then later accepted, there are untold numbers of others whose ideas were either ignored or rejected initially and then were never accepted–and never will be accepted. Why? Because they were wrong! The reason the ideas of Galileo, Semmelweis, Copernicus, Darwin, Pasteur, et al, were ultimately accepted as correct by the scientific community is because they turned out to be correct! Their observations and ideas stood up to repeated observation and scientific experimentation by many scientists in many places over many years. The weight of data supporting their ideas was so overwhelming that eventually even the biggest skeptics could no longer stand. That’s the way science works. It may be messy, and it may take longer, occasionally even decades or even longer, than we in the business might like to admit, but eventually in science the truth wins out.

Unfortunately, Wertheim doesn’t seem to acknowledge that it’s almost always possible to tell the difference between crank pseudoscience and fringe science prospectively; we don’t have to wait until in retrospect. The second germ of a good point is that science communication is hard; it’s very difficult to translate the complex concepts behind physics, or medicine for that matter, into language accessible to an educated lay person. On the other hand, as Steve noted, the information is out there. In the age of blogs and the Internet, there could well be more good science out there aimed at the lay public than there has ever been. Cranks don’t care. They prefer their own pseudoscience. It sets them apart in their own minds and allows them to think that they can see what all the rest of the “priesthood” of science can’t.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

74 replies on “A profound misunderstanding of the significance of cranks in science”

Science should always have criticism, including self-criticism, somewhere in it. Without this work loses perspective.

There is a place for hypothesis generation but those presenting them should be self-critical enough to recognise the limitations in what they have built up. I feel one place trouble starts is when people start being “hopeful” about their hypothesis, rather than self-critical of them.

Science should always have criticism, including self-criticism, somewhere in it. Without this work loses perspective.

Yet inane or obviously erroneous criticism adds nothing except a vague salute in the direction of a fundamentalist approach to liberty. And, when expensively hyped, confuses the ignorant to the detriment of society as a whole. This doesn’t mean that there should be a ban but those who are actually aware of the way the world works are also permitted to both provide actual education, where we have time, and to make fun of them whenever they pop above the parapet.

“It’s easy to look at physics cranks like Carter as harmless eccentrics because the consequences of their pseudoscientific ideas are basically nonexistent.”

Unfortunately, these people have been attracted to climate denier blogs like WUWT and its satellite blogs like bees to honey. Here they get to parade their homemade physics to a receptive audience of fellow cranks.

Anyone who has followed the comments on a global warming article in a online newspaper site will recognise the physics crank at work.

While they may once have been harmless, the attack on climate scientists by the fossil fuel funded think tanks and politicians have made science fair game for the army of cranks.

“a secret language–in other words, mathematics–that is incomprehensible to most human beings”

Mathematics is not a secret language. Math is hard, but there are an enormous number of books from which it can be learned. There are plenty of teachers who will eagerly teach it to antyone who will study it.

“Luther was rebelling against the abstractions of the Latin-writing Catholic priesthood, and one of his most revolutionary moves was to translate the Bible into vernacular German. Just as Luther declared that all people could read the book of God for themselves, so the NPA today asserts that all of us ought to be able to read the book of nature for ourselves.”

Luther translated the Bible into German. He did not pretend that it was originally written in German, or that you could totally understand every nuance of it by reading the translation. Many, many Protestants over the centuries have learned Greek and Hebrew specifically so that they can read the Bible in its original texts for themselves.

Comparing cranks to Luther doesn’t even work as an analogy. It merely suggests the need for more real scientists to translate physics and other areas of science for the benefit of laymen.

Physics cranks and crackpots are great fun (except when they’re also dabbling in quackery of course). One of the best examples I’ve come across recently is this definitely-not-a-quack medical chap:

BTW, I wonder what’s up with Michael Shermer. Here’s his review of Wertheim’s book: o_O He even deleted my sarcastic comment!

Just a reminder, Margaret Wertheim presumably praises physics crankdom more in her recent book, Physics on the Fringe. Some reviews (Michael Shermer, John Horgan, Peter Woit) collected here:

Note to Orac: “Learning the necessary background knowledge do modern science is hard” should read “… to do modern science”

Who wouldn’t want to be a sought after authority on a subject matter, let alone all subject matters.
1) Act as the mouthpiece of an invented oracle
2) Reveal yourself as a soi disant intuitive genius
3) Create or use bogus credential-granting instruments to label you as if you were an expert
4) Labor hard to understand the universe in a manner which is reliable, useful and communicable and always be willing to subject your ideas with confrontation with reality and criticisms of similarly inclined students of nature

Only one of these advances the knowledge of the universe gained by humanity, and it’s not the path chosen by quacks and cranks.

Learning the necessary background knowledge do modern science is hard.

OTOH, learning the background knowledge (using that term loosely) necessary to understand physics cranks’ ideas is frequently impossible, because said knowledge often resides solely in the skulls of cranks with the pedagogical skills of newts.

An awful lot of “alternative” thinking works like this: mainstream idea X is wrong because it has property Y. Therefore, by the fallacy of the excluded middle, crankery Z has to be true. That Z also has Y is irrelevant.

Science and doctors aren’t a priesthood, Dave. Just cranks and quacks like you who worship science. That’s the priesthood.

Some great topics for discussion here.

Accessibility doesn’t just mean to the nuts and bolts of a field, but also to learned people willing to explain it to the lay person. The internet has helped some, but it has also created a new way for misinformation to be spread.

People who have a deep understanding and expertise of a subject matter often spend most of their time talking to EACH OTHER – which is great, but it means that understanding concentrates in one demographic, instead of being more widely disseminated.

The base motivation of information consumers must be factored in. If it is a desire to understand, the consumer will seek out a different source than if the desire is to seek a cognitively consistent explanation. Seeing “God called him/her home.” as an explanation/rationale for a preventable death is not uncommon. Alternative explanations that posit that there is a Higher Purpose to everything that happens will appeal to people who desire that reassurance.

I’m sure that medical professionals run into that regularly..

I believe that a vulnerable portion of the population will buy into woo because it is highly attractive to them because of their world view. The problem isn’t the woo-inclined, but that the peer pressure of the woo-inclined can prevent everyone else from accessing accurate, reliable information.

“Oh, there’s this GREAT alt-med remedy for that! You should try it.” If one person they know say that, they might ignore it and seek medical attention. If their entire family(/social network) believes it, then things can end badly.

Keep pushing back against the bad science pushed by woo meisters. Keep pushing to get the evidence based information out. Definitely keep working to kick the bad apples out of the barrel. (Wakefield et al)

..and great blog. I appreciate it.

I teach physics and astronomy, and I’ve certainly seen my share of cranks over the years.

One interesting point is how a great many of them see Einstein as a role model — the lone outcast, thinking his way to a revolutionary understanding of the world! What they fail to realize is that Einstein was a very well-educated physicist, and that special relativity preserved and completed electromagnetic theory — it didn’t overthrow anything except some intuitively sensible, but wrong, ideas of how time and space behave.

Another issue — While I’m not familiar with the psych literature, my impression is that there’s been little study of these folks’ underlying personalities and in particular the processes of their ideation. What’s up with these people? How do they get so deeply invested in their “unrecognized genius” status that they go down the rabbit hole into unreality? I’d think this would be very interesting to psychiatrists and psychologists. My guess is that Wilhelm’s book offers little or no insight on this point.

Another thought, then I’ll shut up.

I wonder whether physics and cosmology cranks are more common in the US than in other regions of the world. Americans seem to distrust authority more than most other cultures, and there’s also a strong current of anti-intellectualism in American culture; these provide fertile soil for crankery of all kinds. Global warming denial has taken root here more strongly than elsewhere, for example.

eh – speaking of Not Understanding…
Age Of Autism: Inflammation Highway

There are multiple comments, most of which imply a limited understanding of the topics discussed. Sed rate? A test with limited utility, but much cheaper and faster than C reactive protein. Both tests don’t give any specific answers to the cause of the problem. Allergies and autoimmune disorders talked about generically and almost interchangeably.

Mention of a lipid disorder. Liver problem? GI problem? They don’t say.

Much frustration. Some anger. Understanding? I don’t see much.

I find that frustrating. I’m sure on some forums, you’d find parents who could tell you everything they know about the diagnosis, test results, medications and so on. Those parents are out there. They started out just as ignorant as anyone else, but they asked questions, found answers, they LEARNED. They understood.

If medical professionals encounter patients and family who ask question after question – encourage that. Those people are your ambassadors to the lay community. A well informed lay person is both resistant to woo and a source of good information for their friends, family and other social contacts.

“Science is complicated; so there must be something wrong with it”

I think this is the biggest piece of background thinking behind crankery; it’s basically arrogance. If I can’t understand this theory, it must be wrong because I’d be able to grasp the real answer to life, the universe and everything.

I’m sorry, Orac, but on this one I think you swung and missed. I may not agree with Wertheim’s logic or her conclusions, but I don’t think you even described her conclusions correctly.

You keep referring to Wertheim’s arguments as “argumentum ad populum.” That fallacy does not happen simply any time the popularity of an idea is brought up; it happens specifically when someone tries to argue “this idea is popular, therefore it is likelier to be correct.

Wertheim is not saying that the popularity of crank scientific ideas mean those ideas have merit (in the sense of likely correctness); she’s not even saying that the popularity of crank scientific ideas means the mainstream ideas are lacking in such merit. She is arguing that the popularity of crank scientific ideas implies an unmet need in much of the population to feel they understand science (not too outrageous a proposition) and that this means science could be doing something better to promote understanding of real science (much less defensible from the evidence given; I agree more with Steve Novella that the personality of the crank would in most cases lead them to reject the proven ideas and cling to their own, no matter what efforts science made to meet them far more than halfway. Many cranks, I believe, are simply practicing a Not Invented Here policy to their understanding of reality.)

Your criticism of Wertheim, however, seems to think that to “take an idea seriously” inherently means to attribute to it some likelihood of being correct. That assumption is unjustified. If I am visiting someplace like Nigeria, and I am arrested on charges of practicing witchcraft, quite obviously I don’t believe the charges to be correct! But I had better take it damn seriously as an idea in their heads, which may lead to me being put to death if I can’t disabuse them of it.

A couple of months ago, we got a multipurpose crank at our hackerspace. He was a piece of work, a condescending smug troll playing out wacky discussion threads in person. He talked over everyone else, and one of the other guests had to moderate the discussion for a while, until the moderator got tired and left. The host told him numerous times that we wanted to end the discussion and to come back when he had a working prototype, but he kept going.

Instead of taking the hint, he told another guest he “didn’t have the intellectual hardware” to understand his ESP experiment when the other guests brought up reasonable objections to his assumptions of how it would work. (Two people having the same emotional reaction to a piece of music is NOT proof that they are influencing or perceiving each other’s response! It’s evidence that composers can elicit similar responses in different listeners. A musical soundtrack is NOT a good way to control for environmental sounds. And that’s just the first layer of DUH! level assumptions.)

He also had some new way to structure the Internet and cloud computing in a totally non-hierarchical manner. Somehow the key to all his schemes was the “innovative” application of Bayesian statistics. I’m not an expert on Bayesian methods, but I’ve used it a bit for cladistics and his use of the term reminded me more of technobabble than anything that made sense related to my coursework. None of us could understand why a hierarchical structure is bad, except that the crank seemed to be against any hierarchy anywhere, even having your files in separate folders/directories.

Even after all the guests had left except the three of us (host, crank, myself), the crank went on and on and on, berating us for 90 minutes until we finally told him we had to close the place and go home.

There is a problem with science education in schools that contributes to the problem; too many teachers (either because science wasn’t their area of concentration or just from bad pedagogy) present science as a fait accomplit and teach it by rote, so from a student’s point of view there’s little difference between an altar and a wet bench. (With a Rubber Bible and everything!) You use the accoutrements in the approved rite and gain the approval of the pries… er, teacher. I wish there were more teachers who taught the real scientific process, who got kids to form hypothesis, design experiments, record and analyse results, and examine the predictions in light of those results.

Of course, that’s only one contributor. Crankery has probably been around since humanity invented language, far predating modern teaching techniques. But it is a contributor that we can do something about, isn’t it?

— Steve

I work in the aerospace business, we have no place for crank physicists. People are free to come up with whatever “theories” they want, but I’ll stick with the “priesthood” of aerospace engineers when it comes time to hop on a plane. No sane person would suggest that Boeing, Air Bus, and the other commercial plane manufacturers should consider alternate theories when designing a plane, so I cannot imagine why they would suggest we invest time and energy into equally absurd theories in other areas of physics either.

If you are wrong, you are wrong. There is no need to be mean or rude to people who don’t understand a topic. But, there is also no need to sit there and listen to them go on and on just to make them feel better either.

One can’t help but note that Steve Novella characterized Wertheim’s article as:

“Margaret Wertheim tries, for some reason, to defend those cranks who believe they have developed an alternate theory of physics. In the article she does a good job of painting a picture of what a crank is, but it seems almost incidental as the main thrust of her article is to criticize science for being inaccessible. The result is confused and misleading.”

“Wertheim strangely makes a leap from the crank community to the notion that modern science is inaccessible to the public. This is a strained point, to say the least.”

“This is a massive non-sequitur. The concern she raises, however, is legitimate – it just has nothing to do with the crank phenomenon.”

In any case, the argumentum ad populum was only part of my post, and there is the implication in Wertheim’s article that perhaps we shouldn’t be so fast to dismiss cranks because of their popularity. More important is her focusing on modern science and its “priesthood” as a cause of crankery rather than the personality of cranks.

Purely my own take: science evolves naturally as a human capacity- Piaget described the very young child “experimenting”- dropping an object, picking it up- the environment is understood and ultimately controlled through interaction in the service of adaption. The pre-adolescent begins to make use of abstraction, including the seeds of doing research- understanding combinational possibilities, controlling for the effect of a variable when considering others, *predicting* outcomes.

While we have a mind-shattering, awe-inspiring ability for creating myth and fiction, we also possess the means of self-checking this exuberance: How does my account hold up against what others observe? Am I perhaps biased and self-serving? Am I being unfair? How will my ideas affect others? Abilities like these begin to rear their canny heads throughout adolescence- which is very significant: “coming into your full powers”, they used to say.

Surveying crankery ( for 12 years now!), I’ve heard the charge of elitism coming from proselytisers who circumvent the usual methods of gaining expertise as well as their own poorly functioning self-criticism. Similarly calling scientists “priests” implies rigid dogmatism as well as unrealism: this comes from self-appointed gurus whose work is not critiqued by external, objective sources and who flee screaming from consensus opinion. Sometimes they even go to court when the outside world rejects their “truths”.

Science is our common language that unfortunately all can not access equally- this probably has more to do with how education is acquired and controlled than what scientists believe. While the internet itself could be a tool for restructuring how people become educated I unfortunately have been rudely awakened to the networking of nonsense and instantaneous transmission of mis-information. That’s why I’m here.

Maybe this is the conversation Wertheim meant to stimulate but missed the target: It is vitally important to “democratize” science by making it more accessible and including people in discussions about the social and policy implications of scientific findings. It will always be the case that few people will understand the mathematics behind advanced physics, but there are good writers who make the essential ideas accessible to literate readers. Academia does not encourage this sort of thing, however — you get no points for writing a popular book or magazine article, and it might even hurt you.

In the case of climate science, for example, this really matters, a lot. I’m unaware of a climate science equivalent of Stephen Hawking, James Gleick, or Richard Dawkins; and there is a real reluctance on the part of most of them to get into the public sphere and take part in policy debate. The conventions of scientific discourse also hobble popularization of scientific ideas, e.g. the extreme caution about conclusory statements and the abhorrence of simplifying analogies. There is work to do to make science seem less remote, arrogant and threatening.

@ palimdrom:

I have a comment in moderation: I think it’s important to look at cognitive differences as well as personality and emotional issues; also the styles of thinking displayed by those who purvey/create pseudo-science may be very attractive to those who accept it.

In my younger days, I delved into the creationist/intelligent design literature. I had the notion that, whether or not their “theory” was correct, because they were coming from a different paradigm, they might have discovered evidence that had been neglected by conventional biology. It turned out to be a colossal waste of time. The problem with cranks, I discovered, is that while they like to imagine themselves to be “skeptics,” they are utterly credulous when it comes to anything that seems to support their ideas or challenge the accepted science. Indeed, they are happy to embrace mutually contradictory arguments, so long as both of them assert that the conventional view is incorrect. Every single claim I followed up turned out to be wrong. Either it was a misunderstanding of the actual evidence, or else it was simply a lie. Claims that had been decisively refuted many years before (often several times) continued to be repeated as fact, and with not even a mention of the counterarguments. Ultimately, I concluded that the level of “noise” in the crank literature is so high that even if they discovered something important, there was little chance of finding it buried under all the crap.

Since then, I’ve met quite a few actual scientists who espoused theories that departed from the scientific consensus. Some of them I thought were right; some I’m pretty sure were wrong. A few have actually had their ideas come to be accepted theory. But guess what? They don’t sound or act like cranks at all! When I follow up their evidence, it is real. They acknowledge and address counterarguments, and they do further studies to test their theory against those criticisms. Their ideas evolve over time. Even the ones who are wrong often advance science, because their ideas suggest experiments that are practical and and that yield important insights. There are a few people whom I regard as important scientists even though they’ve been wrong about nearly everything. So there really is such a thing as “brave maverick scientists.” But they don’t act or sound like cranks at all. At this point, I think I can distinguish the two species pretty reliably based upon a fairly brief conversation. Most of the time, it takes just a few minutes.

Just as Luther declared that all people could read the book of God for themselves, so the NPA today asserts that all of us ought to be able to read the book of nature for ourselves.

One has to ask what exactly they believe is preventing anyone from reading the book of nature themselves?

After all, scientific journals documenting huge bodies of observations (experimental and otherwise) about the natural universe are pretty freely available after all–what stops them from hitting the local library or Pubmed?

Seems to me it’s not that they want to read the book of nature themselves but that they want the ability to rewrite any part they don’t find personally appealing.

Include me among those who don’t see the relationship between “communicating with the lay public” and cranks. Cranks, at least by their own assertion, are fully qualified practitioners of science, and not laity. In fact, calling them lay people sounds awfuly condescending for folks claiming we should take them seriously as scientists, and is an outright admission that they aren’t considered as such.

Scientists do not have a lay persons understanding of scientists. They are experts in the subject. Lay people will not have an expert’s understanding of the subject, regardless of what that subject is and regardless of how well the experts communicate.

If the general public can become fully qualified pratitioners by listening to pop media communication by the supposed experts, it doeesnt say much about the discipline

After all, scientific journals documenting huge bodies of observations (experimental and otherwise) about the natural universe are pretty freely available after all–what stops them from hitting the local library or Pubmed?

I hate to defend Wertheimer’s questionably analogy, but: The same thing that stopped Germans before Luther from consulting the Bible in Latin (or Greek or Hebrew), namely lack of the relevant skills. Most people don’t have the education to make sense of scientific literature, just as most Germans in Luther’s day didn’t know Latin (still less Greek or Hebrew).

Of relevance to this discussion is the Crackpot Index devised by John Baez back in 1998. Anybody who refers to science as a “priesthood” in a non-ironic fashion is arguably earning the points from item 34 on that list.

I note that the sciforums link in #6 is displaying a classic example of physics crankery – the “HoJo Motor” “free energy device”.

All the classic examples of crankery – US Patents displayed as examples of anything other than a hideously disfunctional patents system; “they are oppressing me” – the energy companies in this case; a misunderstand of the claimed physics “unpaired electron spins”!; £40 for the secrets of the universe (if they can do this, why aren’t they producing their own energy and feeding it to the grid?)

Seems to me the problem of people lacking the education to make sense of scientific literature is pretty thoroughly addressed in this nation–the ready availability of college and adult education courses in the sciences; the large number of popular science writers publishing in more accessible venues such as newspaper and magazine columns, on the web, and in books written by scientists but aimed at the general public like “Blind Watchmaker”, “Demon Haunted World”, “Brief History of Time”, etc. And for those that don’t read there’s media programming like “Cosmos”, NPR’s Science Friday, etc. There are a lot of scientific Luther’s out there rendering the ‘Latin’ of science into the vernacular for public consumption. I still see the problem more as the unwillingness to read nature in any language, unless it says something the reader wants it to say.

Jim Carter believes the “idea that all matter is composed of doughnut-shaped particles called circlons.”

Jim has grasped only part of the truth, which is that the foundational structure of everything in the universe is based on actual tiny, subatomic glazed doughnuts. Homeopathic solutions have a memory of these particles, which is why people who take such drugs often have an unexplained craving for doughnuts.

The high priests of physics can’t prove me wrong.

As a Canadian, I believe that Tim Horton is God.

Mr. Carter’s theory is entirely compatible with this belief.

Playing in the NBA is inaccessible to me. Must be something wrong with professional basketball.

Oh, Ms Wertheim, I’m just embarrassed for you – even by the knee-jerk “contrarian” standards of Slate, that article is truly weak sauce. In the course of my work I get a lot of correspondence from people like Mr. Carter – designs for “free energy” machines, self-fuelling renewable energy systems, cars that run on electricity pulled straight out of the atmosphere (often with hand-drawn specs) and yet my reaction is much the same as those dogmatic priests of science she’s criticizing. The last time I set foot in a physics class was in high school, but I can still tell crankery when I see it.

The argument I see her making is that science is supposed to make people feel warm and fuzzy and if it doesn’t, that’s somehow science’s fault. I mean, how else are we supposed to interpret this: “[Jim Carter] has just a single semester of university education, which was enough to convince him that what was being taught in physics departments was an offense to common sense. Um, so what? That’s a subjective judgement, and while his alternate theories of physics may make him feel better about his place in the universe, there’s no reason for anyone else to take them seriously. I’ll freely admit I was a poor physics student, but even at the height of my teenage arrogance I never thought to blame science for that. It was my own disinclination to learn it that was the problem (IIRC the term my father used was ‘laziness’ but hey, tomato tomahto).

However, I still greatly admire the people who do put the effort into learning physics and continue to advance our knowledge in a very challenging field. Trying to suggest that real physicists have something to learn from the cranks is just ludicrous.

I think you’re misinterpreting (wilfully or otherwise) Wertheim’s point. For example, you quote her as saying:

“While I do not believe any outsider I have encountered has done any work that challenges mainstream physics, I have come to believe that they should not be so summarily ignored”

and you follow that by quoting her statistics on how many cranks are out there. Fine so far. But then you set up a huge straw man, claiming that these two statements of Wertheim’s together imply that

“If I can get a few hundred people together to write books and papers claiming that the world is flat, then scientists shouldn’t dismiss that idea out of hand and ignore cranks who send them letters and articles claiming that the earth is flat”

The thing is, there is a world of difference between dismissing people’s ideas, and dismissing the people themselves.

I very much doubt that cranks have anything at all to tell us about physics (or medicine, or whatever), but their existence, mindset and methods have quite a lot to tell us about the hazards and pitfalls of communicating science to non-scientists, and about how our community is perceived by outsiders. This is useful information, especially when the stakes are higher than they are for theoretical physics. So I’m glad Wertheim has done a sociological study of cranks, and I’ll look forward to taking what I can from it: ie zero physics knowledge, but some info about the warped views of inexperienced people with agendas.

I’d agree that the problem is education related – children need to make sense of their world, and the way Science is presented, natural curiosity is discouraged and their education loses it to details learned from authorities. Against which they must naturally rebel during their teenage years. The natural urge to understand as one united whole (we all seem to have it) is fractured by rote instruction of pieces, and the tests are on short-term memory symbol manipulation. Not saying I have the solution, but in my brief look at Science teaching, there seems a necessity for allowing exploration, of allowing at least some of them to “re-invent the wheel.”

In my own looking at it, spin is the way Universe works. It’s Unity in motion, and something is Conscious. Probably the most fundamental thing to say about this place is that all masses radiate electro-magnetic energy everywhere, according to their temperature.

Buckminster Fuller’s take on how things work is recognized in Bucky Balls and other fullerenes, posthumously discovered throughout the universe.

Points of View: Internal consistency of structured thought, and some measure of control, is what most “neural nets”, human brains, strive for. Carter was looking at self-regenerating rings, as played with by dolphins underwater, as seen in smoke circles, as fascinated Lord Kelvin. What’s amazing is that Jim spent all that time building up a theory that fits observations, even if it is overall wrong. What made him do that? What makes us want to learn and know? What is knowledge? What is life?

It’s not true that blue and indigo are particularly different parts of the spectrum – yet its taught that way to children…in bullying defiance of what they themselves can see. They are TAUGHT to lie to themselves., or to accept untruths, or things not readily apparent, as Scientific realities. It’s not true that points, lines, and 2-dimensional planes, or pi actually exist (Fuller) – yet the math is conveniently easy, so it runs on in schools, markable in exams. Further, what we teach we must later on un-teach – what, after all, is light?

Learned knowledge, unless experienced, is a manipulation of symbols, particularly if it is not applied in any way.

I sympathize with the lonely souls who strive to make sense of the world, and I think there is general agreement that the technological blow-out of our Science has got us on a linear path to disaster. What we should be looking for is a Science education that allows exploration, with a strong unified base of coherent human-experienced-summed learning to fall back on…AND a searching for regenerative patterns, so that we can apply them to our actions, and so sustain our species.

A Cosmography that makes sense…that’s what the outsiders are searching for, driven by a neural net that wants to make sense of things. By ignoring consciousness for so long, Science has produced a relatively careless monster that the majority of living beings can’t quite relate to. And true, the arguments for learned higher math apply. Whereas, as Dawkins has it, the amazing discoveries of Science have shown us how awesome this place is. The disconnect, the alienation, is enforced during the science education process of our children.

Having just finished Wertheim’s book, and about to embark on Dawkins elementary science-teaching book “The Magic of Reality” it was interesting to stumble across this blog. Children are looking for a safe and unified world in which they belong. Lacking that coherence, we produce splintered beings.

SunWindSolar paints an image of science education that is completely at odds with how I experienced it, how my children experience it and how in institutions of HE at least it is implemented in the UK. If rote learning is used without experimental (exploration in other words) backup that is very sad. But the idea that science represents anything other than “coherent human-experienced-summed learning” is just plain silly. Thats what it is! and in there is a cosmography that makes sense, wether it is the correct one long term or not.
That said I agree with the problem of having to unlearn things. the concept of electrons as ball like particles is a tough one to dislodge from students in my experience.

A few terms ago, I had a student ask me, “If science is about making and testing hypotheses, why do we spend so much of our science class time learning facts?”. It took me a while to formulate an answer to that question, an answer that is applicable to the issue of the “inaccessibility” of science.

Science – as it is done outside of the classroom – is a form of exploration, an attempt (not always successful) to find out something new about the Universe we live in. Long ago, when not much was known about how the Universe worked, it didn’t take much education to reach the “end of the road”, the limit to what was then known about the Universe. A few years of part-time reading would suffice.

Today, however, some centuries after the development of real science, so much has been discovered that students must spend years to learn what is known about even a small piece of the Universe.

A useful analogy is the exploration of a new continent. At first, new discoveries can be made just by walking along the beach. After a while, it takes a longer walk to reach terra incognita. And if you don’t bother to learn what has already been discovered, you will “discover” things that are already known. Or, worse yet, you will fall into pits and cravasses that others have already found and charted.

Eventually, exploring new areas of the continent requires major expeditions and months or even years of walking through areas that have already been explored. This is where we are now with the sciences. Science today seems less “accessible” than it was in the past because you have to learn so much information before you reach “unexplored territory”.

There is no shortcut, no way to “skip ahead” or “fast forward” the process, just as Lewis and Clark (US explorers in the early 1800’s) couldn’t find a shortcut from the east coast to the Pacific Ocean. They had to walk, ride and paddle every mile of the way and today’s would-be scientists have to learn what has already been done in their field before they can start making new discoveries.

I sympathise with the “armchair scientists” and would-be “natural philosophers” because I, too, wanted to experience the thrill of scientific discovery. Unlike them, however, I expended the necessary time and effort to learn what I needed to know so that I could make legitimate advances – small though they may be – in science.

These wanna-be physicists (and other “alternative researchers”) are as ridiculous as someone who claims to be exploring the Antarctic by hiking in Central Park (New York). No matter how many there are or how popular they may be, they deserve nothing but scorn and ridicule.


SunWindSolar (SWS) (#38):

“In my own looking at it, spin is the way Universe works. It’s Unity in motion, and something is Conscious.”

While it is true that the subatomic particles that make up all matter in the Universe have “spin”, it’s probably not the sort of “spin” SWS had in mind. It’s a perfect example, however, of how not getting a solid grounding in the field (physics, in this case) can lead to ridiculous “theories”.

“Probably the most fundamental thing to say about this place [the Universe?] is that all masses radiate electro-magnetic energy everywhere, according to their temperature.”

While black body radiation is a fundamental property of matter, I fail to see how it would rate as “the most fundamental thing about this place”.

“It’s not true that blue and indigo are particularly different parts of the spectrum – yet its taught that way to children…in bullying defiance of what they themselves can see. They are TAUGHT to lie to themselves., or to accept untruths, or things not readily apparent, as Scientific realities.”

And yet, blue and indigo are in different parts of the spectrum, whether we accept it or not. At least, they are if you accept that the colour humans describe as “blue” is different from that described as “indigo”. If it is “bullying” to teach that reality is reality even if it contradicts our belief or even perceptions (see: optical illusions), then scientific discovery has been one long string of mental wedgies and swirlies for humanity.

“It’s not true that points, lines, and 2-dimensional planes, or pi actually exist (Fuller) – yet the math is conveniently easy, so it runs on in schools, markable in exams.”

Oddly enough, I remember that even in grade school, I was told that points, lines and two-dimensional planes were “idealised” and did not exist in nature. Pi, in the other hand, does exist. Even though it is an irrational number, it is a real number.

“A Cosmography that makes sense…that’s what the outsiders are searching for, driven by a neural net that wants to make sense of things.”

Here, SWS hits the nail on the head – although it doesn’t appear he/she was aiming at this particular nail. What drives most pseudoscience is the need to have the Universe make sense. The problem is that the Universe doesn’t always accomodate our beliefs about what “makes sense”.

For example, much of the kerfluffle about “particle-wave duality” that permeated early quantum physics happened because the early researchers were stuck in their belief that particles and waves were mutually exclusive conditions. As it was taught to me – many decades after the origin of quantum physics – the “duality” is the result of measuring a “thing” that is neither a particle nor a wave, but can manifest properties of both. It certainly doesn’t “make sense” in the macroscopic world we perceive, but it is reality (or the best current model of reality).

SWS ends with:

“Children are looking for a safe and unified world in which they belong. Lacking that coherence, we produce splintered beings.”

Since the “world” (let alone the Universe) is neither “safe” nor “unified”, why not teach children the truth? I can’t imagine that teaching them about the reality of the Universe will “produce splintered beings” any more than teaching them that blue is indigo (if you want it to be) and that all matter is made of glazed doughnuts.


Prometheus — Beautifully stated, thanks.

One subtlety, though —

“There is no shortcut, no way to “skip ahead” or “fast forward” the process, …”

True enough, but not quite exactly right I think. For a while after a discovery is made, there’s a sort of distillation process in which the essence and context get clearer and clearer, and people learn how to teach it. We teach a version of Maxwell’s equations today that’s much simpler and easier to handle than what Maxwell used, thanks largely to the notational innovations of Oliver Heaviside and others. We teach special relativity to bright freshmen, even though it was considered horribly abstruse for a while after its discovery.

There’s still no shortcut to the frontier. But now we have better roads.

For Surreptitious Evil @ 30 in re my post @ 6
Even gets saddled with some crazy advertisements.
I generally take no notice of the ads, but I see that one poster has taken issue with it.

Yes, it’s [i]that[/i] Walter Wagner of anti-LHC lawsuit fame.

For Margaret Harris @ 37.
Psychedelic art is one artistic interpretation of a subject. An impressionistic oil painting is a distinct artistic interpretation of a subject. A child’s crayon drawing is yet another.

None of these is suitable as a blueprint for a 1 km bridge. And should the bridge fail, none of these interpretation can replace the engineering history of the bridge for analysis of the question of why the bridge failed.

Cranks seek to speak authoritatively on the nature of the universe without actually confronting hundreds of years of summarized observations of the universe. If there is a new idea on the nature of the universe, it has to be useful and describe pretty much the same summary of those observations. It fails if apples do not fall at nearly the same rate as baseballs. It fails if red and blue light don’t travel at nearly the same rate through the vacuum. It fails if it fails to replicate the very precise summaries of the universe we do have.

And how is someone supposed to confront reality with precision without using mathematics of one kind or another?

I followed a link to the circlon dot com expecting nonsense.

You owe me 11,179 brain cells. Which is also, the number of meters per second that the Earth is expanding to account for gravity according to him.

Thanks for the laugh, and the serious work you do for all of us.


(hazy memory alert)
In the 1800s in Victorian England there was a group known as the Zeitists, who tapped into the popular idea that a person could know all things from first causes by applying common sense and being observant. Some of them took it beyond what others had, and proclaimed that the earth was flat.

Still, at the time, there was validity in thinking that a person could, by dint of hard work and effort, make valuable contributions to science even though they may be a manual labourer. Some people did just that, and a number of luminaries of the time were self-taught.

That doesn’t hold true today. It isn’t just the amount of knowledge that a person would need to recreate, but some of it now requires some very specialized and expensive equipment that the average person (or average university) cannot afford. If a person isn’t willing to accept the hard earned knowledge from the past centuries but would rather do it themselves, they’ll be as out of their league as a Victorian science-philosopher would be today.

And there’s one common feature to all crankery, the reason why so many of them cling to the idea of Einstein as the lone outsider working from brainpower alone.

The genius alone in his ivory tower/ cold, damp garret/ gentleman’s country estate. Straight out of a 1950s film.

I do think, though, that lecturers in large first-year (freshman?) classes are in a challenging position. While many students in my bio classes, for example, will go on to major in biology (or in some other branch of science), a significant minority are taking it as an ‘elective’ & don’t intend to take their science studies any further. (At my institution we don’t have the option of ‘bio for non-majors.) Now, I don’t want to turn that minority completely off science, so I’m faced with a bit of a juggling act.

I think there’s a good case for teaching core, ‘troublesome’ concepts (something a colleague & I have blogged about elsewhere) that are needed for deep understanding further along the track, alongside ‘nature of science’ , so that all those varied students gain both the understanding of how science is done and some core knowledge that should be useful to both cohorts.

Essentially the qualified conclusion of your article is correct : Wertheimer is a crank herself. As an Australian I have listened to her occasional appearances on Radio National’s ” The Science Show” somewhat suspectly but now I can say with certainty that she is a crank.

So what is Margaret Wertheim’s motivating reason for this book?

In the book, pages 257-259 she talks about the functional view of science as inherently progressive and points out how hard it is to take issue with that view. (Crankdom is not progressive, and it more like art or making sex, in that there are different schools of crankdom but not crankdoms of higher utility.)

At the bottom of 259, she shifts gears and writes:
“Yet this is not the aspect of physics that captures public attention, nor is it the quality that turns physicists into celebrities.”

Celebrity has long been viewed as antithetical to progress in the sciences because the glare of celebrity hampers human beings in evaluating the content of the celebrity’s ideas. Celebrity is the authority of vox populi saying that this person is important, which is specious in that it has no value in evaluating future ideas from the same person, often premature, and unfair as it is based on the instrumentality of the popular press and not merit.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, while sensational claims require only a press release and the spirit of the age. Margaret Wertheim has from her own words condemned crankdom as meritless attention-seekers. These soi disant authorities are the self-diagnosing hypochondriacs of the popular science reading public.

re RobertC at 45: Your mention of the Earth expanding made me (also) lose many braincells. I too have now read that everything expands, so that the surface of the Earth is going up, and gravity doesn’t really exist.
Which is interesting, since the last time I read that idea it was coming from Scott Adams of Dilbert fame.
Of course, if everything is expanding and therefore there isn’t gravity this then leads to the problem of “why is the Earth and the Sun not running into each other as they expand”, which I’m sure he explains carefully but for which I’m not willing to subject my braincells to further degradation.

Marcus Ranum @54: That is incorrect, and you know it.

Science thrives on criticism, but likewise that criticism better be substantiated by evidence.


Does this mean you’re now a shill to Big Math, Orac? 😛

What? There’s such a thing as Big Math? How do I get in on it?

Big Math? Sounds like Big Money to me.

I’ve been pretty disappointed with the long-delayed rewards promised by Big Pharma. I may switch my allegiance.

So as not to attract inordinately persistent trolls I will only mention in code here e*xpand*ing Ear^th The)(ory which claims the foundational theory of plate tectonics is a hoax.

Yes there are cranks in geology too. And there are any number of charlatans who will exploit anything if given the opportunity. I reference the great canadian diamond play of the early 1990’s when many millions were fleeced from naive investors who were conned into thinking the whole country was prospective for huge profits.

The sad reality is that it is easier to make a good living off bullshit than it is off real work. The harm done is systemic and does not necessarily express itself instantly, but it is still there. We reap what we sow.

@54: Weird. (Doubly weird as others have made the same point as I did, more strongly.)

It’s hard to imagine scientists objecting to work being questioned – they do that themselves – that’s what criticism is. Research work, done properly, is self-criticised before presenting it to others, then offered for criticism from colleagues before the work is presented for publication, where it’s criticised again by the peer-review.

What scientists might object to would be people making assertions that those presenting the assertions can’t (or won’t) back – something cranks of all stripes do frequently.

They claim that the natural world speaks a language which all of us can, or should be able to, understand.

The term for that is “magical thinking”.

rpenner @43, I agree entirely with what you say, but I don’t see what bearing it has on my point about there being a difference between dismissing cranks’ ideas and dismissing them as people.

The former is perfectly reasonable. I get a lot of crank mail, and (like Wertheim) I’ve yet to see anything in it that could even remotely challenge mainstream physics.

But understanding the crank mindset, understanding how people come to be cranks, understanding how they communicate and how their spurious arguments may convince others (not usually a problem in physics, but regrettably common in medicine and climate science) – I think all that is incredibly useful, and in order to do all that, you have to be willing to listen to cranks for a while and (to some degree at least) take them seriously as human beings. Frankly, I don’t have the patience for that, but if Wertheim does, then my hat’s off to her.

It’s possible, of course, that she’s slipped from sociological observation of cranks into becoming part of the community herself. I don’t know, I haven’t read her book. But then, neither have most other people on this thread, and yet they’re remarkably quick to condemn. Isn’t that a bit…unscientific?

Marcus Ranum @54: That is incorrect, and you know it.

Perhaps he’s improving, though. He didn’t threaten anyone with violence this time.

Marcus @ 56 re: “the science is not really there” regarding global warming

I don’t want to derail the tread, but have you not taken the time to read the IPCC reports, documenting the observed rise in global mean temperature ? They quite firmly establish that global warming has and continues to occur, citing robust evidence documenting a non-linear rise in global mean temperature (a rise 0f 0.8 degrees over the past 100 years, with 75 of the rise occurring in the past 3 decades). It’s true politics will inform how we elect to respond to rising GMT, but that doesn’t make globl warming a political construct.

I have my own idiosyncratic alternative to quantum mechanics and general relativity, based on the idea that all matter is composed of doughnut-shaped particles eaten by mo-rons. Doh!

I have an elegant proof of this, but sadly it won’t fit into this comment box.

It is worth to point out that in some fields (e.g. astronomy) the non-professional/amateur contribution is well recognized and fruitful.

@65 (richard77):

It’s a good point. I think what they are contributing tells us a bit about limitations of doing modern science without substantial support. I would imagine they will be fields where direct observations can be readily made on reasonably modest budgets and where the observations in and of themselves are of value.

One reality of most of modern science is that observations are indirect, not simple or require expensive equipment. You’d think this would be limited to where these things aren’t an issue.

Another element at play is the distinction between data and interpretation. (Interpretation requires a solid background in the subject; data collection may not necessarily require much background knowledge.)

I suspect that there are also contributions in interpretation that could be made by talented amateurs. For instance, it seems wholly plausible that someone who just took an interest, had access to existing data, and had the right talent could solve any number of interesting problems in physics such as specific three-body (or dare I say, four-body) problem solutions.
Considering the time and effort involved in developing significant theories, though, it seems less likely that a talented amateur would come up with something that’s novel, useful, and conforms to current observations.

Math is hard? True, but as Orac and Steve Novella have pointed out, we have today a lot more possibilities for acquiring basic science information and help us not only understand but see how science works and what those complicated physics words mean.

I’ve recently watched a five-minute YouTube video with Brian Cox which just blew my mind: he managed to use something as simple as a spring balanced between two people to illustrate the different energy states of electrons. Wave-particle duality, quantum of energy, excitation of particles: all “hard” science concepts, made visible in a way that a twelve-year-old can understand.

And Mr. Carter and other proponents of alternate physics would probably understand, too, if only they didn’t enclose themselves in their own confirmation bubble.

Margaret Harris (#62):

“…my point about there being a difference between dismissing cranks’ ideas and dismissing them as people.”

It’s probably because my area of expertise is in biology, rather than sociology, but I’m not sure what is meant by “dismissing them as people”. Would that be saying “You are no longer a person – you are dismissed.”?

I’m guessing that Ms. Harris means that we should say “Your idea is stupid.” rather than “You are stupid.”, something I learnt from parenting magazines.

However, there comes a point when the ignorance is so impenetrable, after countless attempts to explain, instruct and re-direct, that we have to move beyond the assumption that we are dealing with an otherwise intelligent, rational human being with a merely a bad idea. We might be dealing with something much more serious – an irreversibly closed mind.

At that point, saying “You are stupid.” is a moral duty, because it warns anyone who might be observing the exchange that this person is not a good source of information.

I teach a university virology class – an upper division course – and twice I’ve had students who were adamant that HIV (the virus) was not the cause of AIDS (the disease). No matter how I presented the data, no matter how many studies I cited (and gave to them), neither would budge from their fixed belief that HIV was not the cause of AIDS. What do we say to people like that? Do we say “I respect you as a person, but your idea is wrong?”?

There comes a point when the “usual stuff” doesn’t apply any more. Yes, we should strive to not “put down” or “dismiss” people with ideas that are demonstrably wrong, but if they are entirely resistant to reason and data…?

Richard77 (#66):

“It is worth to point out that in some fields (e.g. astronomy) the non-professional/amateur contribution is well recognized and fruitful.”

You don’t have to be a professional to acquire the necessary knowledge base to contribute to science – and you don’t have to know it all. You just have to get to where you know enough to be at the “frontier”. In astronomy, even the amateurs need to be able to distinguish a star from a planet (something our ancient ancestors could not) or a nebula from a comet to make a contribution, so I assume that rank amateurs (the type who don’t know which part of the telescope to look into) are not useful contributors to astronomy.

A certain amount of knowledge – beyond what the general public knows – is necessary for most scientific discoveries today. Finding a new comet may not require a great deal of knowledge about astrophysics or cosmology, but finding the cause of solar variability would (I presume – I lack the knowledge necessary to know for sure).


I teach a university virology class – an upper division course – and twice I’ve had students who were adamant that HIV (the virus) was not the cause of AIDS (the disease). No matter how I presented the data, no matter how many studies I cited (and gave to them), neither would budge from their fixed belief that HIV was not the cause of AIDS. What do we say to people like that? Do we say “I respect you as a person, but your idea is wrong?”?

That’s the classic dilemma, isn’t it? How do we hate the sin but love the sinner?

As I said, I disagree with Wertheim’s apparent conclusion that if a gap exists between cranks and mainstream science, it must be because mainstream science is doing something wrong in their attempts to reach cranks, but I think it’s important to argue against that conclusion, and not against the straw man that Wertheim somehow believes the cranks to be on to something that mainstream science could learn from.

BTW, upon re-reading, I suspect that some of the mis-reading of Wertheim’s intent may be due to not knowing a point of journalistic practice: in traditional journalism publishing, it is not the writer who writes the headline, it’s the editor. In other words, Wertheim said that cranks perceive mainstream science as a priesthood, but she did not assert that it was a priesthood.*

If the editor chose a headline that implicitly endorsed the cranks’ paradigm, it wouldn’t be the first time that an editor’s headline put forth a position stronger than the writer actually endorsed; the famous “Go To Statement Considered Harmful” headline that spawned both a contentious argument and a long-running meme in computer science was the work of editor Niklaus Wirth, and not the author of the letter Edsger Dijkstra.

* At least in her New Scientist article; I can’t speak to her other writings.

Re. Cervantes at #22: the climate scientist equivalent of Hawking et. al. (who have taken the time to speak with the lay public): that would be Hansen at NASA. There are a few others whose names escape me at the moment. Unfortunately, most of the time they are drowned out by the tsunami of right-wing climate woo on talk radio.

Fully agreed, we need to fix the bug in academia whereby writing for lay audiences is discouraged and even penalized. “Teaching the public” outside of the universities, has got to become one of the core requirements for tenured faculty in all fields. That doesn’t mean they have to suffer the cranks and fools: they could do it by writing one decent book or a handful of decent articles, and having a few of their grad students (or undergrads, why not?) filter their public email for them and reply to anything that’s worthy of it.

Re. Steve at #17: rote. Yes, exactly. The “three Rs” of rote, repetition, and regurgitation, suck the life blood out of anything. What got me hooked on science starting in high school was being taught the core of scientific method: something that can be conveyed in plain English, is conceptual rather than “rote stuff,” and theoretically makes any natural phenomenon accessible. Once you learn how to think in terms of scientific method, you naturally apply it to any interesting question that comes your way. And then you go out looking for whatever published work might exist on the subject, and you have an automatic “BS detector” to apply to it.

Being dyslexic, I couldn’t do the math to understand modern physics, but none the less I’ve gained a decent grasp of it for a layperson: enough to even ask questions that credentialed physicists say are reasonable and interesting (and I preface those questions with “I’m not ego-attached to my ideas, so if this is BS or ‘not even wrong,’ say so”). For example, “An expanding universe that eventually reaches heat-death, asymptotically approaches absolute zero. In that case, if measurable movement and energy transfer virtually cease, what happens to the measurement of time? And if you remove ‘measurable time’ from spacetime, what effect does that have on the other three coordinate axes?” (What they said was, we really don’t have good answers to those questions at this point. But if they were “being nice” and that stuff is barking mad, someone here please say so!)

Laypeople should be encouraged to hang out in places such as this, and ask questions, offer up their own wild ideas, and be willing to listen to what working scientists have to say. It’s not as if you (Orac, or Ethan the astrophysics dude) are going to bite us, and in any case the anonymity of the internet means that if you do bite us from time to time, we don’t have to face the embarrassment “in real life.” That makes this a perfectly safe learning environment.

I’m always mystified at the idea “If something is difficult, then it must be wrong, and the answer is really simple …”. I’m a physicist. It is hard, the math is difficult, and I’ve been studying for near 12 years (PhD should be coming along in 2-3 months!) and still only know a small fraction of it. But so are many things … I don’t tell the plumber, the mechanic or the electrician that he is wrong because it takes study to learn those trades, and that I have my new mechanical-electro-lumber theory that he should hear about.


Some things are difficult, and you can’t know everything there is to know.

BTW: any other physicists in the house keep getting e-mails from a crank Prapdipta Mohapatra about the “SPACE MIRROR MYSTERY”? He postulates that the universe is much smaller than scientists think and that what we observe is really a reflection back and forth between a huge space mirror.

…neither would budge from their fixed belief that HIV was not the cause of AIDS. What do we say to people like that? Do we say “I respect you as a person, but your idea is wrong?”?

I prefer Willie Wonka’s response:

“You get nothing! You lose! Good day Sir!”

BTW: any other physicists in the house keep getting e-mails from a crank Prapdipta Mohapatra about the “SPACE MIRROR MYSTERY”?

IANAP. But we used to get some good ones at the production offices of the house organ of a certain professional society dealing in large scales. For some reason, these guys are able to figure out the universe but not the submission instructions.

One of the most recognizable characteristics of a crank, crackpot or quack (CCQ) is that they never give anyone any credit. Isaac Newton was a nobleman nerd wrapped up in his own fanciful symbolic wishlist. Albert Einstein was a failure who couldn’t qualify for a regular teaching job. Jonas Salk was a parasite from the pharmaceutical industry.

The cynicism of CCQs is boundless. One of the worst is Kevin Trudeau. If his critique of the medical profession, drug companies and our governments was true, world civilization should have collapsed centuries ago. One has to wonder: Why?

I think it is because cynics are always profoundly unhappy. They may have been betrayed by life so that they feel that their only recourse is to betray life in return. So, they lie.

The hype that they invent in order to justify their lie is so artful that they begin to believe it themselves. The Communists and the fascists believed their own propaganda. It is what led to their demise.

But CCQs are as perennial as the grass. As one ages and fades or is “eliminated”, there are three more to take his or her place. The cure is education.

Pure learning will inoculate us all against lies of all kinds, not just pseudoscience. We must never cut, but we must support education above all else.

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