Amateur scientists vs. cranks

What “HannesAlfven” is doing here is EXACTLY what I was talking about in my first comment, and why the cranks represented by the Plasma Cosmologists are so bothersome on the Internet.

All of this plasma cosmology stuff, and especially the wackiness that is Velikovsky, has been soundy and roundly debunked elsewhere, but they don’t stop, they don’t go away. It’s the “Stubborn” type from the talk linked in the original article.

While I agree the laughter is mean, going down the path of “explain and reply” is fruitless. As they explained, if you don’t agree 100%, the “crank” will find a reason to discredit you either as part of the conspiracy/establishment/anti-establishment/big money/going for the same money/hundreds of other reasons.

Assuming they are reasonable and do listen to you, then you find them sucking up all your time with their passion and you have no time to do your own job. Just when you get rid of them, the next one comes along. Then when you think you are free of them all, the internet comes along and they start calling you at home on a Saturday morning at 5:00 am because 1.) you are the only person in the world with your unique name and 2.) they don’t understand or care about time zones. After you tell them off, they randomly travel a thousand miles or more to show up at your office on a Monday morning…

Yeah…true story. Luckily it wasn’t the convict. It was a guy who wanted to turn old refrigerators into solar water heaters with the inside of the refrigerator holding the warm water. These would be left on the street so the homeless would be able to hop in for a warm bath at any time.

Seriously, even today the biggest “cranks” aren’t found on the internet. They still send letters.

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The reason for this correlation would likely have to do with the fact that engineers are generally not taught philosophy or even history of science. They accordingly imagine that they can judge constructs without the context, with unfortunate results.

Unfortunately, it would seem that the engineers are simply a subset of a much larger problem on this point – as we also have respected theoreticians like Stephen Hawking suggesting that “philosophy is dead”. He seems to not even care that philosophy was used by those before him to produce the very theories which he advocates for.

Outsiders theorists who become fluent in philosophy and history of science – and who then use that knowledge to decide which arguments to follow in more depth – can become incredibly powerful contributors to scientific discourse, if they are somehow able to procure funding for their ideas.

Those who would suggest that outsiders have no claims to make about science would seem to be vastly over-simplifying the complexity of science. The astrophysicists responded to claims that the Milky Way was emitting radio waves with suggestions that it was either a hoax or a mistake. Scientific authorities of the day ridiculed the inventor of the laser for even daring to suggest that such a device was possible. Outsider Michael Faraday laid much of the groundwork for James Maxwell’s equations. The outsider, Kristian Birkeland, turned out to be right in his debates with scientific authorities over the causes for the aurora.

In fact, there appears to be a book written on this subject titled “It Doesn’t Take a Rocket Scientist: Great Amateurs of Science”

Anthony Watts is a first rate corporate crank, probably funded by the fossil fuel industry. As ArrowofSine points out above, the weather station siting issue was settled by multiple publications in the scientific literature to the opposite of what Watts and his minions claimed; urban stations are actually a bit cooler than rural ones. Another major embarrassment for him was the Berkeley Earth Temperature Project, which he touted as bound to show no global warming; it showed the opposite, global warming in parallel to the other indices (http://berkeleyearth.org/). I noticed just this week that one of his posts was eviscerated for being mathematically and statistically stupid. Check it out (http://davidappell.blogspot.com/2013/06/wuwt-ocean-misunderstanding-and.html).
The problem with Watts is the same as with all of the cranks, he and his minions work backwards from the desired answer, cherry picking into superficial analysis, always confirming their desired answer. Watts censors comments, so you have to go to other sites to learn the bias and errors of postings there.

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It makes me uncomfortable how they’re laughing at and mocking people who are obviously just mentally ill.

Except they were. The genetic proof is everywhere, now that we’re able to read it.

Despite what I’ve said above, I don’t mean to discount the idea that certain natural catastrophes were large enough that groups in different areas all came up with similar stories to try to explain what happened because in fact they had all experienced the same thing.

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This notion that we can “debunk” everything that a person ever said based upon their weakest claims is very problematic. There has never been a perfect theorist, and neither should we demand it. Making mistakes is part of the learning process.

The idea that cranks are the only problem we face ignores the problem of dogmatism in science, which is far harder to observe and recognize. There is no sense to focusing exclusively upon cranks without also talking about the dogmatism, for the public is caught in the middle of both threats. When cranks become the focus of the conversation, it tends to direct skepticism away from conventional theory. Some would call this pseudo-skepticism, for we have sufficient reason to be skeptical of all claims in science. Pseudo-skepticism is skepticism without philosophy; it’s ideologically-driven skepticism.

There are very likely mistakes within our theories. Those of us who read press releases with a critical eye and an awareness of at least another competing paradigm, and who understand what an ad hoc model is, can see that cosmology and astrophysics – in particular – are struggling to explain what we are observing. This is actually part of what keeps so many cranks coming to those disciplines.

If you and others want to think that a 4% universe is a success story, then be prepared to live with that until your time is up. Some of us think that we can do better by starting from scratch, with a paradigm which is designed to fit modern observations which Einstein and the others were never even aware of. A lot has happened in the last 100 years. You’ve never bought 4% of a product; so, why is it enough to base a worldview upon? The resources that have already been thrown at the dark matter/energy problems are really quite astounding.

Part of the value of the Internet is in the long tail. Science has a long tail just like commerce. There are some good ideas embedded into it. It’s not all nonsense. However, the mere thought of wading through it causes some people to simply reject the entire tail. And yet, many realize that the importance of the tail is on the rise. It’s what makes the Internet special, and it’s why the Internet disrupts business models. Rather than reject it’s introduction to the world of science, we should devise systems which facilitate its mining.

Cosmology is the most empirically-challenged discipline of science, and it frequently resorts to metaphysical (metaphysics = “beyond science”) claims to make its case. There is no sense to treating it with the same level of confidence as a laboratory science.

A creation event is no less a creation event just because it happened 14 billion years ago. Creation events placed into models eventually become fudge factors. Once they become accepted as beyond questioning, they will then predictably be adjusted as necessary to simply make the model work. How many times, for instance, has the date of the Big Bang creation had to be adjusted?

The bulk of the crank phenomenon is very possibly an artifact of a dysfunctional educational process which invites students to memorize science as a collection of unrelated factoids. When people immerse themselves within the concepts, history and philosophy of science, and learn how those concepts are related to one another, meaningful opinions are possible about highly complex subjects like cosmology and astrophysics.

Those who imagine that they can decide controversies without actually engaging them are using non-scientific methodologies to judge scientific controversies. The human mind is most fundamentally a difference engine; it judges ideas on the basis of how much they differ from existing beliefs. Prediction serves an important purpose; it keeps us alive and healthy. But, science is a process of evaluating claims without bias towards our gut instinct expectations. The process that so effectively keeps us alive can also interfere with our ability to judge scientific claims.

It’s absolutely vital that those who go to the effort online of disagreeing with a theory should have also put some reasonable amount of effort into understanding what the theory says. If you don’t have a pretty good idea about what is being claimed, then you have no meaningful way of actually knowing if the theory you’re arguing against is succeeding or not. Learning about only the conventional theories does not qualify you to disagree with a completely different paradigm, and arguing against every idea which disagrees with conventional wisdom is not a philosophical approach, because you are bound to eventually be wrong.

Agreement is really quite overrated. Uncertainty cannot be completely eradicated, and neither should we think that this is the goal within an uncertain domain like cosmology. Learning to live with uncertainty is imperative if we wish to possess accurate beliefs, for critical thinkers are tasked with considering and evaluating many different competing ideas. There exists value to both breadth and depth of knowledge. If you know about something that I don’t know about, I’ll listen to you talk about it.

Do people really consider these to be the signs of somebody who has lost touch with reality? If the BoingBoing community prefers to align itself with whatever is conventional in science, so be it. I’m not here to force myself upon people. I’m here to critically think about science.

Well… they’re trying to upend all of biology, proving that Darwin was an idiot and they alone have the truth, and it’s usually accompanied by a persecution complex. So yes, ID qualifies by that measure. They’re not trying to rewrite physics only because they don’t care what physics says; rewriting biology and biochemistry is sufficient to their cause.

Just in case anybody thinks HannesAlfven may have something behind him when he tries to argue for plasma cosmology (and when he argues against nonbaryonic dark matter, although he cloaks it in the term “the 4% Universe”), he is, in fact, a crank, his claiming that there needs to be some balance between worrying about cranks and worrying about dogmatism is exactly the same thing as the climate denier insisting that there be balance between scientists who accept anthrogenic climante change and those who don’t. (Hint: there’s no balance. Nearly everybody who has thought about it seriously accepts the evidence for climate change, and those who don’t are a fringe minority. It’s the same thing for dark matter and standard cosmology.)

It’s not worth repeating all the evidence here, but if you’re interested in finding out why the “Electric Universe” and all of that is in fact a crank theory, and not a real theory, I point you to the following posts on Tom Bridgman’s blog, which does a nice job of summarizing some of the seirous problems with those notions:

It’s worth reading around his blog; he has other good information there about why EU theorists and such are not keeping up with science, and why they aren’t actually viable alternatives, the way folks like HannesAlfven claims.

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Here’s another link from Tom Bridgman’s blog:

Challengesfor Electric Universe Theorists

This one does the best job of summarizing why EU is not actually a viable theory.

Finally, if you’re interested in learning why it is that modern science believes that Dark Matter is assuredly real, I point you to couple of things:

Yes, you’ve found a handful of critiques. There are also many critiques of conventional theories. The most controversial thing here is your claim that – despite the fact that critiques exist on both sides – that this is nevertheless not a controversy.

We can get a better idea of the depth of thought that you’ve put into this by taking a closer look at one of your sources, while asking the question: How many additional controversies are you failing to mention for your audience?

From your source, “Convincing a Young Scientist that Dark Matter Exists”:

A classic example is Einstein’s theory of gravity, general relativity.
The big idea was that matter and energy curved spacetime, and that
this curved spacetime was the cause of all the effects we attribute to
gravitational force.

But it didn’t just explain all of the things that the old theory,
Newton’s gravity, explained. It also predicted an anomaly in Mercury’s
orbit, which had been observed but was hitherto unexplained. But
additionally, it also made a brand new prediction: that near very
massive objects, starlight would appear to bend!

This is unfortunately the textbook story of what happened. The more nuanced historical story which philosophers debate involves an additional photographic plate which was in conflict with Einstein’s prediction.

I learned how to measure the distances to different objects, both in
and out of our galaxy.

It’s worth pointing out that parallax only works to 1% the diameter of the Milky Way. Everything beyond that is inferred based upon the principles of the paradigm itself – in this case, redshift.

The conclusion drawn from that? The more distant objects were, the
faster they were receding away from us.

This seemed to be the story until it turned into a controversy. The documentary, “Cosmology Quest”, on YouTube runs through a small snippet of the timeline surrounding Halton Arp’s claim to discover all sorts of problems for the theory.

Although many alternatives are plausible based on Hubble expansion
alone, the Big Bang was the theory that made the correct predictions
for phenomena like the Cosmic Microwave Background and the abundances
of the light elements, while the alternatives fell by the wayside.

The idea that the CMB can only be explained with one paradigm is an extraordinary claim which Fred Hoyle went out of his way to disagree with …

“There is no explanation at all of the microwave background in the Big
Bang theory. All you can say for the theory is that it permits you to
put it in if you want to put it in. So, you look and it is there, so
you put it in directly. It isn’t an explanation.”

Jean-Claude Pecker agreed …

“Actually, the 3 degree radiation, to me, has not a cosmological
value. It is observed in any cosmology: in any cosmology you can
predict the 3 degree radiation. So it is a proof of no cosmology at
all, if it can be predicted of all cosmology.”

These would seem to be important arguments that have been completely left out here.

According to dark matter, there’s a diffuse, massive halo around every
gravitationally bound structure, while according to modified versions
of gravity, the laws only become different at very small
accelerations.

Both versions provide an explanation for rotating galaxies, and to be
completely honest, the modified gravity version is slightly better at
that. But how do we decide which one’s right?

If gravity is not the fundamental force, then neither is the case. That is the case being made by the EU: that filaments of plasma can exert an incredible force upon the surrounding matter, as a consequence of conducting charged particles. This is explained in depth within the Electric Universe Essential Guide. These are not exactly cosmological ideas; most of these ideas stem from observations which have been made within the plasma laboratory. Comparisons of large-scale plasma discharges to much smaller activity within Tokamak’s suggests that plasmas simply scale over enormous magnitudes.

Second, we can look at the large-scale galaxy distribution. How do
these galaxies cluster? There seems to be not enough mass to produce
the structures that we see, unless we either include dark matter or
modify gravity.

Actually, many people have noticed the similarity in the large-scale universe structures to that of neuronal networks within the brain – and possibly for good reason.

So I was in favor of dark matter, but I wasn’t entirely convinced. I
wanted a “smoking gun” piece of evidence for dark matter. Something
that was an entirely new prediction that we could look for — much like
that 1919 eclipse was for general relativity — and decide whether dark
matter predicts what we’re going to see.

The author then goes on to describe the bullet cluster inference for dark matter.

Let’s take a look at what the mass — due to observations of
gravitational lensing (a verified prediction of general relativity)
is telling us […]
This only works if there’s some extra type of matter that doesn’t
smash together and collide like normal matter (i.e., protons,
neutrons, and electrons) does.

The author is making an incredible claim that there exist no unconceived alternatives, and to make that claim, there is a very delicate chain of cosmological claims which must each be individually true from start to finish – including galactic collisions, dark matter, gravitational lensing (which oftentimes, in turn, requires dark matter), as well as the notion that redshift is necessarily a reliable measure of velocity and distance. We are being asked to accept an elaborate, delicate structure of hypotheses as though it’s the result of experiment.

Left completely unmentioned is the alternative Arpian view for why lensing is invoked in the first place, from http://www.thunderbolts.info/tpod/2006/arch06/060904bulletcluster.htm

The Big Bang, which fails to take the electrical properties of plasma
into account, assumes that redshift must be an indicator of distance.
As a result, it projects the high-redshift filaments and arcs far into
the background. In order to account for the association of these
features with foreground galaxies, gravitational lensing must be
invoked to “explain away” the number of features as multiple images of
only one “distant” QSO.

There is enormous danger to building an elaborate theoretical structure, failing to inform your audience of the alternatives which are presented by critics, and then pretending that this is no different from doing laboratory experiments by failing to use words like “theory”, “hypothesis” or “interpretation”. The fact is that conventional thinkers desperately need critics to point out the controversies that they themselves have ignored.

This piece you’ve presented is exactly the kind of pseudoscientific journalism that the Thunderbolts group have very successfully warned the public of. We will simply not get to accurate theories in cosmology through this type of journalism. We must acknowledge the controversies where they exist, so that critical thinkers can make up their own minds.

False equivalency.

Wait, is that one on the poster?

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I’m eager to hear more. Please go on …

Nice read: Langmuir’s “Pathological Science” lays it out cleanly and concisely. Go to http://www.cs.princeton.edu/~ken/Langmuir/langmuir.htm

Ah, yes, " teach the controversy". Where have we heard that before?

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Actually, “teaching the controversy” is more-or-less the basis for an entire education reform movement called computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL), which advocates the construction of online systems which help people to better navigate complex controversies. When a subject becomes incredibly complex, I’m not quite sure that there exists an alternative which can support the formation of critical thinking (?). People need to be permitted to formulate their own meaning and opinions once arguments become sufficiently complex. That’s actually part of the message we see coming from the constructivist education reform movement.

Contrast that with Tom Bridgman’s approach, which is to convince people that since he has already determined for himself that the theory must be wrong, that the reader should not even bother to learn the Electric Universe. People generally use his website – which is strangely titled “Dealing with Creationism in Astronomy” – for the purpose of convincing others to be ignorant with them on the theory.

Is this the solution you’re looking for?

Bridgman’s fans seem to already be looking for a reason to avoid learning the theory and the arguments. They would rather somebody save them the effort of listening to both sides. The fact that there are rebuttals (by Don Scott) and then rebuttals to those rebuttals (and so on) should clue most people into the plainly obvious observation that this fits the concept of a controversy.

My guess is that many people simply get lost in the debate, become frustrated, and then give up. Probably many of those people do not actually understand what Bridgman was arguing in many instances, and I’m willing to bet that that is probably fine with Bridgman. Typically, when students don’t understand science, it’s considered the fault of the student. They must just be stupid. It seems that nobody stops to wonder if perhaps the arguments need to be presented better.

The critical thinker might begin to wonder if the apparent failure of the Internet to support complex debate might actually be having an influence upon peoples’ decisions to place faith in conventional theory which extends beyond their actual knowledge. The public, in that scenario, would generally tend to side on the “safe bet”, and that would tend to reduce the numbers of critics the scientists face in a general sense. If critical thinking was actually far more common than we see today, the education historian John Taylor Gatto has argued that at a certain point, this could actually become a destabilizing force for society.

There is a very thoughtful commentary on the “reasons for crankery” at http://www.ebtx.com/oats/cranknet.htm

(bold is my own emphasis …)

The advancement of science requires - absolutely - what I call
“forced” induction (as opposed to “free” induction - what animals do).
This requires that you go off on your own to think independently. The
extent to which you “go off alone” determines whether you will become
an acceptable scientist or what you call a “crank”. Unfortunately, the
originality of your ideas is tied inextricably to the measure of your
“aloneness”.

Other people act as guides and supports (a frame of reference) upon
which you can rely to “set you straight” when you stray into the realm
of the “illucid”. As I have said, “Self delusion is the bane of
induction”. I know this to be true from extensive personal experience.
It is a real struggle to keep one’s thoughts on track without the
assistance of other readily available opinion.

Thus, if a scientist at Cern has a really bad idea, he may mention it
to a colleague who says, “Did you slip on a bar of soap in the shower?
Don’t you remember the “X” factor we were just talking about last
week?” And then the first guy says, “Oh yeah, I forgot about that.
Forget it.” Now he’s back on track in less than ten seconds.

Someone alone however, may struggle for weeks in the same situation,
unable to see a simple thing that another disinterested person would
notice immediately. He may pursue the wrongheaded matter to some new
bizarre conclusion and believe that he has found the Holy Grail. And
the more effort he has put into it, the less he will be willing to
give it up.

Therefore, if you go off alone you tend to become a “crank”… but if
you remain with the herd you tend to discover nothing new, i.e. and
become a “pundit”.

There is a Gaussian distribution here.

There are perhaps five or six thousand individuals who actually try to
do “forced induction” at the highest level. Half of them fall on the
left 'crank" side of the distribution and half fall on the right
“pundit” side. Each half needs the other.

You could make the case that the “extremes” ought to be cut off. But I
would say, “Who is to decide the cutoff point?”. I certainly wouldn’t
want to make such a momentous decision. Hence, I don’t criticize other
people’s stuff in general since I understand how difficult it is to
produce anything at all.

The same applies in the larger sense to wide groups of individuals. If
the “ship of science” (or one of its smaller boats) decides to drop
anchor and wait for the truth to come to it … they will stagnate and
you will find that many more “cranks” pop up to point out the paucity
of perpendicular progress … at the same time offering new and
evermore bizarre solutions to present problems.

This is actually the present situation. The physics establishment has
decided that they can proceed by experiment alone (data gathering) and
that the data will tell them what to “induce” next.

In fact, it will.

But this is the method of the animal population … free induction. It
is highly accurate but it takes forever to get where you want to go.
Hence, humans have opted for “forced induction” (they try everything
and see what works … fast progress with lots of mistakes). So their
relative stagnation has engendered a new “raft” of adventuresome
“cranks”.

It really doesn’t matter though

As long as a free exchange of ideas is possible (in the political
sense), then I don’t see any need to protect anyone from either new
ideas or stultifying academia. The truth will win out easily and
eventually in an open forum.

You might think that you’ve managed to steer clear of the problem of crankism, but if society as a whole decides that crankism is the only real problem which must be solved in scientific discourse, then the ship of science can easily veer down a wrong path and end up in a stagnant harbor. Eventually, we’ll all die, and pass the remaining problems of science on to the next generation.

Success involves taking chances. Creativity in science is not a tumor which needs to be cut out. It’s the underlying force of change and progress which we must perfect in order to solve the most complex problems we face in science.

There is a different between trying new things – which real and respectable scientists do all the time – and continuing to beat the drum of a long-discredited idea (plasma cosmology) or an idea that was never worthwhile and that could be dismissed on the face of it in the first place (Velikovskian catastrophism).

It’s not worth inviting students to read and learn about plasma cosmology, because it will take them nowhere. It’s a dead end, something that doesn’t work and doesn’t have anything to offer. We have them learn a little about Aristotelean physics because that’s their intuition, and they need to learn that their intuition will lead them astray, and that they have to train themselves out of Aristotlean thinking. But there’s no need to teach them about plasma cosmology, or any of the other huge variety of other ideas that have been out there (better and worse) as alternatives to what has worked, if your goal is to help people share our best understanding of the Universe. Were plasma cosmology a viable alternative, then, sure, but it’s not. It’s just a waste of time. The only reason people like Bridgman deal with it (and with creationism in astronomy) is because there are people out there still selling creationism, and still selling plasma cosmology, and other people come along and get sucked in by it. I’ve seen some of my students stumble across a website or a YouTube video and think that there might be something to this plasma cosmology stuff. It’s a trap, that leads people astray, because it’s all very sexy and well-presented. As in any other field, there is a lot of wrong stuff on the Internet. While it’s pretty clear to an astronomer like me where plasma cosmology falls down and why it’s not worth the time, it’s not clear to students or to members of the general public. Hence, the only reason to tell them about it is to warn them about it-- innoculate them from it, as it were-- in case they stumble across it and may get sucked in by it.

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Hey, these kooks are giving natural philosophy a bad name!

Up until now, I’ve occasionally described myself as a natural philosopher, in order to emphasise my general, holistic interest and lack of specialisation, but I’m not sure that’s a good idea anymore… I certainly wouldn’t anyone to get the wrong of this stick.