Amateur scientists vs. cranks


This is the video of a talk, given last year by David Dixon, assistant professor of math, science and engineering at Saddleback College in California. He used to work in the Physics Department at California Polytechnic State University, which, like many physics departments around the world, received loads of correspondence from non-scientists who thought they… READ THE REST


Sometimes, the cranks get a whole community behind them, at which point they become harder to either ignore or dissuade. Intelligent Design is probably the best-known example of this. Plasma Cosmology is one that comes up in my field. It's tough, because there's even a couple of legitimate scientists with both of those who seem to be on board. Sometimes they aren't, really, but that doesn't stop them from being cited. But, you can find websites for both that provide lots of arguments that seem to tear down the standard objections. They all then get to feed into the popular cultural meme of the lone genius bucking the system that has its blinders on. ("Everybody who's wrong thinks he's Galileo" is my way of describing this.) That becomes self-reinforcing, because those who dismiss the crank theory, even though it's already been roundly dismissed and found to be vacuous by scientists at large, can now be said to be "closed-minded" and "refusing to quesiton the mainstream dogma".


Must Not Paste Into Search Bar.


I disagree with your example. I think homeopathy, vaccine scares, Hollow Earth, or breatherism would have been better examples. Intelligent design isn't an argument from stupidity that ignores all the data. Instead, it is an argument from religion (where the conclusion has to be right) that is disguised as an argument from stupidity that ignores all the data.


Intelligent Design is assuredly motivated by religion. If you look at what they actually argue, though, they try to make it sound like science. It's Creationism dressed up to make it sound like it could be consistent with science. As such, it really is a crank form of science.

If you look at their core arguments, they're in fact arguments from ignorance-- explicitly so. The notion of "irreducable complexity" is basically "I can't imagine how this could have evolved, so therefore, scientifically, we've disproven that it could have."


Somewhere I've seen - and it may have been here - a short list of "symptoms" of crank science. It takes more than merely being wrong; a crank usually has feelings of grandeur and persecution. Also, it's not enough to just offer a new theory; a crank will usually try to upend all of science, proving Einstein and Planck were both idiots and they alone have the truth.

By this measure, "Intelligent Design" per se wouldn't really qualify, but it would be a great foundation for a Quack Theory of Everything.


Ganked off Usenet back in the day:

"They know the truth but cannot get recognition; those in power conspire to suppress them; anyone who disagrees is deluded or lying. If you argue against them, you're shouting them down (which proves their point); if you dismiss them as crackpots, you're resorting to name-calling for lack of a better argument (ditto.) If you're educated on the subject, you're part of the conspiracy, which explains why you disagree. The more effort you expend on them, the more they are supported, because you're demonstrating how hard the conspiracy is working to cover up the truth." -- Andrew Plotkin


Just last week someone posted a short article about plasma cosmology here. I browsed around learned all I could about it in a few hours. It leads to some strange places: the "Velikovsky affair," steady-state cosmological models, scalable plasma experiments, non-cosmological red shifting, catastrophism and so on. I love "fringe" scientific theories, so it was good entertainment, at the very least.

The archetype of the lone, heroic scientist standing up against a moribund scientific establishment is there for a reason of course--many times in the history of science such "cranks" have turned out to be right. Wegener's theory of continental drift may be one of the best known examples: he was bullied for decades by establishment geological circles.

Of course, this doesn't mean that plasma cosmology (or any other "crank" theory for that matter) is right, or has the right to lay claim to such martyrdom. But while plasma cosmology (or steady-state cosmological theories) may be wrong in the main, they may yet lead to some interesting avenues for discovery, I wouldn't be surprised in the least. During my lifetime (I'm 38) the attitude towards some ideas (once thought to be silly, ignorant, or antiquated) have actually made a bit of a revival...the ideas of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (inheritance of acquired characteristics) being a notable example. And I could think of a few more--multiverse theory, panspermia, both of these ideas seem to be gaining some traction.


This is a fascinating video, and the associated thread @ Ask Metafilter (and MetaTalk) are also great. What I am worried about, though, is someone coming along and telling me that John Titor wasn't a real time traveler.


These are all interesting conversations, but notice that people who talk about cranks tend to not talk about the other side of the equation: The danger of dogma within our scientific institutions.

Joseph Novak is an education researcher who is most known for having invented the concept map. He has tirelessly advocated for a distinction to be made in science education between rote memorization and meaningful learning. Meaningful learning involves attaching new concepts to pre-existing ones (a concept which I'm sure Cory is familiar with, as it is routinely practiced by Tim O'Reilly), whereas rote memorization tends to result in many disconnected knowledge structures which can be observed to fade from memory far faster due to their disconnection.

The way in which science tends to be taught today -- through lectures and problem sets -- tends to invite students to rote-memorize the materials. Needless to say, rote memorization does not activate the same cognitive circuitry that thinking like a scientist or critical thinking does. Eric Mazur has demonstrated that even in a Harvard undergrad physics class, it can be shown that when the problem sets are asked as conceptual questions -- oftentimes called force concept inventories -- it becomes apparent that many students who rely upon rote memorization cannot actually answer basic conceptual questions about what they claim to "know".

This presents the flip side of the "crank" coin: The persistence of dogmas within our scientific institutions. What I try to remind people as often as possible is that there is no sense to talking about crankism without also mentioning the problem of dogmatism. And this is unfortunately where most science journalism today fails to meet the needs of the public: The journalists tends to shine far more light on the easily-observable problem of cranks than on the much more complex problem of dogma. This creates a secondary byproduct phenomenon of pseudo-skepticism: Skepticism applied towards all ideas which compete with conventional theories, but not also towards conventional theory itself. The idea here is that authentic skepticism should be applied towards both.

The dogma problem is very, very tricky because it would seem that part of the PhD training is to "enculture" grad students into "thinking like a scientist". So, what does it mean to think like a scientist? Is it that the person agrees with what would seem to be consensus views -- the fundamental claims of scientists? What happens to grad students who challenge the work of other professors in their university? Are some questions simply out of bounds?

Jeff Schmidt -- author of Disciplined Minds -- claims to know the answer. He suggests that the weeding out process in the PhD programs is NOT politically neutral. In fact, he observed that those physics grad students who stopped to think about and possibly question what it was that they were memorizing would become bogged down, and would eventually either drop out, or be kicked out.

So, this raises what might turn out to be the most important question related to dogma: Is the way in which we've been teaching science creating some of the agreement (aka consensus) we see in our scientific institutions? In other words, have we in some cases failed to effectively teach scientists how to question their own discipline's theory?

The question will certainly be more relevant for some disciplines than others. I would propose that where disciplines are empirically challenged -- as in cosmology and astrophysics, for instance -- the seriousness of the problem will predictably rise.


"There's some religious stuff, not much. People in biology get it much more than we do." HA!

Too bad the video didn't cover the whole Q&A but I love the cadre of "old guys" that look like they're about to go have a beer.


Its not just physicists that get these "game-changing" ideas in their inbox. I've worked for almost 20 years as an HVAC & refrigeration engineering researcher for a major University that was also under contract with a major research organization. Over the years I've received "ideas" from 6 continents, from inmates, from cranky old men, from conspiracy theorists and even some otherwise normal people. Every single one had some idea that was going to revolutionize the building industry. Oh yeah, they were also usually looking for funding.

One inmate in Texas wanted to build a 4 acre greenhouse that could be held just above freezing so he could study the effects of cold weather on plants.

Another had a revolutionary product that would replace the electric involved expanding steam onto a set of fan blade to make them spin. (Yeah, he invented the steam turbine.)

Another wanted a grant to prove his theory that water could be cooled below freezing without actually solidifying. This technology would prevent burst pipes in unheated structures. It involved wrapping wires around the piping that would carry an electrical current. Even though it sounds like heat trace, he claimed it was actually the electricity re-aligning the water molecules that prevented them from freezing. As proof of his genius, he told me he was the guy who invented the moving red light on the front of KITT from the Knight Rider TV show.

On the other hand, I remember the stares I received when we showed up at the Grand Forks Home & Garden show with a microwave clothes dryer. We wanted to get the public's reaction...maybe I was a bit too dismissive of some of the ideas.


One interesting aspect of scientific dogma and its expression in scientific discourse: "conventional wisdom" tends to be formed by processes that are political in nature, and these processes are in large part dictated by the greater political structure of the society. So in Soviet Russia, Lysenkoism found a foothold in an authoritarian scientific establishment, Nazi racial hygiene found the same sort of purchase, and so on. And we here at the end of history aren't immune from this process: think of the debates concerning GMO food or the health dangers posed by cell phone use--are the debates not informed by the larger political process (notably the influence of large multinational corporations?)

In large part, we may think of contemporary science as being democratic to some extent (Pluto being voted off of the planet list, for example.) The political framework of global governance has informed the scientific consensus that has arisen around global warming (administered by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.)

But scientific truths are not exactly amenable to democratic processes. Democracy is certainly better suited as a way of doing science than authoritarian systems, but it is slow and messy, and leaves all types of room for error. What's the quote from Einstein, "If I were wrong, one would have been enough!" When I hear "scientific consensus" I turn very skeptical, for this reason...


The Electric Universe and plasma cosmology debates should be recognized as legitimate scientific controversies. The world's first laboratory astrophysicist -- Kristian Birkeland -- as well as the inventor of the most commonly invoked cosmic plasma models -- Hannes Alfven -- have made important contributions to the against-the-mainstream side of this debate. This debate has gone on for approximately half a century now. The number of papers, books and videos published on it is enough to keep somebody occupied for a lifetime. Plasmas are a very complex subject which present an incredibly challenging situation for modelers, as well as those who try to explain them. Alfven would commonly comment that the plasmas appear to not realize how beautiful the plasma model equations are.

A great number of lines of argumentation can be pointed to on this single topic -- and they interestingly all point to the same premise: that electricity can flow over enormous interstellar distances. There exists observable significant confusion on particular topics -- such as the meaning of quasi-neutrality. The models we use to describe cosmic plasmas would appear to differ in major ways with the laboratory models we use to make things with (like neon signs, fluorescent lights, arc welders, etc). And where astrophysicists can be observed to discuss this controversy (as on the old BAUT forum), it becomes readily apparent that they frequently ostracize all peer reviewed papers which are published in IEEE. That is particularly alarming, insofar as IEEE is one of the world's most successful scientific organizations. Keep in mind that IEEE is most known for making physical devices (like computers) which must work in order to be purchased. Contrast that with the "product" that we see generated by the Astrophysical Journal -- which is still struggling to identify 96% of the matter which can permit their 14 billion-year-old timeline to work.


This is a stimulating discussion, and brings to bear all sorts of problems in the history and philosophy of science (it's also good fun, see ddettmers' post above.) I wrote a short blog entry tying together a few themes on the subject of cranks and crackpots:

I've actually spent a couple of days now looking at the literature on "Morgellons disease," and I think that the debates about the condition and the communities that have grown up around the disorder are fascinating (not to mention bizarre.) I can't make heads or tails of most of it. But it's interesting, to say the least–I have always been fascinated with weird stuff like this.


The global warming science deniers are the prime example of present day cranks. In contrast to the lone visionary model featured in the video, the global warming science deniers have a huge following, support from the fossil fuel industry, and endorsement from the Republican Party.


Wegener should not be classified as a crank who turned out to be right. This is a common misrepresentation, because of course it seems like a great example of the lone scientist fighting "the man" when there are not actually very many (if any) examples of that outside of certain special circumstances (like Galileo and the church).

In truth, Wegener was a respected scientist who based his idea of plate tectonics on actual scientific evidence, and who went out to collect additional data and performed lots of legitimate research to see if he was right. He did not try to champion himself or his ideas beyond what is standard for scientific research - he was merely searching for the truth, as all good scientists do.

The fact that many of the influential scientists of the day were not particularly good scientists by that standard is important to note as well - they were more concerned with the status quo than anything else. Many probably did consider Wegener a crank, hence his lasting reputation, yet by today's standards they were the ones acting more like cranks.

This is markedly different from the scientific climate today, though true cranks would disagree - the scientific status quo is built on consensus built on evidence and good science, not strong personalities, conspiracies, or anything else. New ideas are treated fairly, but are held to the same standard as established ideas - a standard which is very, very high, based on solid evidence and good science.

You could call Wegener ahead of his time - the evidence he would have needed to convince people was unattainable (and practically unimaginable) until 20-30 years after he died. Once that data became available, the high standard new ideas must meet was reached and consensus in the geology community shifted almost immediately.

By the way, I am an academic geologist and my research interest is (broadly speaking) plate tectonics. I've been getting e-mails from cranks ever since I was an undergrad - it's amazing how they find you almost immediately once you're listed on a department website. I've also gotten caught in "conversations" with cranks in person once I let slip that I'm a geologist. I'm not sure if it's worse than in other fields, but to me it feels like it is - I think people consider geology to have a low barrier of entry because it's relatively easy to understand the basics, but it's often very difficult to wrap your head around the more complex ideas - so those prone to being cranks come up with their own theories instead.


I wish I still had my copy of Naomi Oreskes' The Rejection of Continental Drift, it goes into all the nitty-gritty behind the opposition to Wegener in the scientific community. It is true that Wegener was a legitimate scientist, and not a random amateur. But the opposition to his ideas was brutal and involved a lot of political maneuvering and muscle. But "crank" as you point out, is a relative term.


I'm guessing you get a lot of abiotic oil letters...


There definitely are corporations fueling money into the global warming debate. I would however advise against spinning all AGW skeptics as "deniers". Anthony Watts does a fairly excellent job on his wattsupwiththat blog of exploring the scientific arguments against AGW. Also -- and quite importantly -- it's important to remind people that many observable features of the Sun remain quite enigmatic. It seems that temperature measurements of the Sun's corona might be something on the order of 100x hotter than the Sun's surface -- which raises the obvious question of how the heat manages to move through the surface without heating it up. The solution that is commonly pointed to -- magnetic reconnection -- has been controversial itself.

There is also the mystery of the solar wind's apparent acceleration, which appears to fail to appreciably decelerate even as it moves past the Earth's orbit. The source of this acceleration remains a bit of a mystery.

What I'm getting at is that there is a very reasonable case to be made that since we still do not fully understand a number of fundamental features of the Sun that are directly relevant to the energy it emits, we cannot nevertheless claim to understand the climate so well that we can make predictions that will be accurate 10, 20 or even 100 years from now.