Amateur scientists vs. cranks

If it turns out that Schmidt and Woit are collectively right, then it becomes clear that the first step to unifying the theories of physics must necessarily involve either (a) reforming our university system of PhD qualifications as well as the peer review process, or the far better idea, (b) creating a secondary, parallel theory-production system for “cranks” which is funded completely separately, and according to criteria which are not designed to favor established theory. The existing system is designed to service the needs of corporations and governments rather than the public.

Whereas corporations and governments are inherently concerned with any science that can further their goals for self-preservation and profits, it’s the responsibility of the public to protect the purity of scientific inquiry into nature from that process.

An educational system that is fundamentally designed to produce ideologically obedient professional scientists for corporations and governments should not be expected to accidentally generate critical thinkers who can institute some Kuhnian paradigm change against the will of the entire society of physicists, like some superhero. The system cannot be two things at once; therefore, I believe we need two separate systems – the second being fundamentally designed to service the needs of the people in the specific instances when those needs stand in conflict with the needs of corporations and governments. It’s not going to happen by accident. People must educate themselves on the problem and demand change.

The public’s fascination with the cranks – to the exclusion of the dogmatists – ensures that these sacrificial lambs – which amount to almost half of all PhD candidates! – will never be noticed. Those who continue to engage the scientific community by speaking at conferences against the dogmas of science – such as the black hole critic, Stephen Crothers – are simply blocked from getting their credentials, blocked from the events they crash, refused publication and, from the perspective of students who enter the system later on, essentially disappeared, as though nobody ever filed a complaint. The scientific community has become incredibly effective at destroying the most critical thinkers we have for the very reason that the public remains distracted away from this problem. Were he alive today, it’s very clear that Socrates would simply be cast as a “crank”, ignored, ridiculed and in quick order, completely forgotten.

And it’s not entirely speculative to imagine that this problem – over time – will eventually come to impact the American and even global economies. Given a system which is almost perfectly effective at silencing its own best critics, and a public which is increasingly accepting of the mythology surrounding cranks, innovation can eventually become strangled.

Yet, every once in a while, somebody does notice that something very important and wrong is happening. On August 13, 2011, Neal Gabler wrote an astounding opinion piece for the New York Times titled, “The Elusive Big Idea”. I’m just hitting the highlights here to convince you to go to the site and read it yourself.


If our ideas seem smaller nowadays, it’s not because we are dumber
than our forebears but because we just don’t care as much about ideas
as they did. In effect, we are living in an increasingly post-idea
world — a world in which big, thought-provoking ideas that can’t
instantly be monetized are of so little intrinsic value that fewer
people are generating them and fewer outlets are disseminating them
the Internet notwithstanding. Bold ideas are almost passé.

It is no secret, especially here in America, that we live in a
post-Enlightenment age in which rationality, science, evidence,
logical argument and debate have lost the battle in many sectors, and
perhaps even in society generally, to superstition, faith, opinion and
While we continue to make giant technological advances, we
may be the first generation to have turned back the epochal clock — to
have gone backward intellectually from advanced modes of thinking into
old modes of belief.


In the past, we collected information not simply to know things. That
was only the beginning. We also collected information to convert it
into something larger than facts and ultimately more useful — into
ideas that made sense of the information. We sought not just to
apprehend the world but to truly comprehend it, which is the primary
function of ideas.
Great ideas explain the world and one another to


We prefer knowing to thinking because knowing has more immediate
value. It keeps us in the loop, keeps us connected to our friends and
our cohort. Ideas are too airy, too impractical, too much work for too
little reward. Few talk ideas. Everyone talks information
, usually
personal information. Where are you going? What are you doing? Whom
are you seeing? These are today’s big questions.


The implications of a society that no longer thinks big are enormous.
Ideas aren’t just intellectual playthings. They have practical


No doubt there will be those who say that the big ideas have migrated
to the marketplace, but there is a vast difference between
profit-making inventions and intellectually challenging thoughts.
Entrepreneurs have plenty of ideas, and some, like Steven P. Jobs of
Apple, have come up with some brilliant ideas in the “inventional”
sense of the word.

Still, while these ideas may change the way we live, they rarely
transform the way we think. They are material, not ideational. It is
thinkers who are in short supply
, and the situation probably isn’t
going to change anytime soon.

We have become information narcissists, so uninterested in anything
outside ourselves and our friendship circles or in any tidbit we
cannot share with those friends that if a Marx or a Nietzsche were
suddenly to appear, blasting his ideas, no one would pay the slightest
attention, certainly not the general media, which have learned to
service our narcissism.

What the future portends is more and more information — Everests of
it. There won’t be anything we won’t know. But there will be no one
thinking about it.

Think about that.