Amateur scientists vs. cranks

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

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


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

(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

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

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.

Well, to be honest, the way in which we educate astronomers and astrophysicists today basically deprives them of the opportunity to make a decision about their own personal beliefs on this issue. When a student is basically told to learn this very lengthy series of compounding speculations – or, hey, you can alternatively just drop out of the program, with devastating consequences – at what point have they willingly bought into the ideas? I think – given the extraordinary evidence which is constantly accumulating on this important issue from such an incredible diversity of sources – that the public has every right to question the very meaning of the various consensuses that we observe within these disciplines.

At some point, learning to “think like a scientist” in the physics PhD program came to also involve adopting a very specific worldview about how the universe works in order to fit into the culture of astronomers and astrophysicists whose ideas – conveniently enough – already dominated that culture. This is really not that complicated to understand, and the fact is that I’m not at all the first person to say it.

Check out the YouTube interview of Peter Woit titled “Piling Conjecture Upon Conjecture”. At 12:27, the transcript reads …

“Our fundamental problem with unification is that a certain number of
ideas have been tried out which all have well-known problems – and
string theory is now one of them. But there’s a lot of things that
haven’t been tried
… If you start to get to know the subject, you
realize the number of people working on the subject … It’s a fairly
limited community. It’s a few thousand people … And … most of them
are kind of following the lead of a fairly small number of people.
The number of actual different ideas that people are trying out is
actually quite small … There’s a much larger array of ideas out there
which nobody has taken the time to look into because the way the field
… These things are very difficult. You would have to go spend
several years of your life doing this, and if no one else is
interested in what you’re doing (and most likely, whenever you’re
trying out new ideas, it’s not going to work anyways). The way the
field is structured, it’s kind of very very hard to do that kind of
work, because it’s likely to damage your career. If you’re trying to
do it when you’re young, you’re gonna very well end up not having a

Jeff Schmidt’s book, Disciplined Minds, makes a very similar claim. Neither of these guys have anything to do with the Electric Universe, nor with each other, btw. From

MR: When you first thought of writing this book, you were in graduate
school, right?

JS: Yes, that’s right. I got interested int he topic when I was going
to professional training myself, getting a PhD in physics at the
University of California, Irvine. It seemed like the best of my fellow
graduate students were either dropping out or being kicked out. And by
‘best,’ those were
the most concerned about other people and seemed
less self-centered, less narrowly-focused, most friendly people…they
seemed to be handicapped in the competition. They seemed to be at a
disadvantage not only because their attention was divided, but because
their concerns about big picture issues like justice and the social
role of the profession and so on, caused them to stop and think and
question, whereas their unquestioning gung-ho classmates just plowed
right through with nothing to hold them back.
As I mentioned, there’s
about a 50% drop-out rate for students entering University programs in
all fields; and what I found was that this weeding out is not
politically neutral. To put it bluntly, the programs favor

Fred Hoyle from the Cosmology Quest video, who again – for those that don’t know – had no affiliation with the Electric Universe …

I’ve always said that the cause of the trouble is the American
graduate school
… You see, when we had graduated first degree, we
were independent. We could thumb our noses at the professor. And in
fact the best way to get ahead was to do something that all the people
didn’t agree with … But, in the graduate school, you all have to
learn what the professors are teaching you.
And then, those people go
out and get jobs and they go to their own graduate school … You get
a few places like CalTech or like Harvard, and they set the fashion

for [all the rest] …

You can continue to propagate the false image for people here that astronomers and astrophysicists actually choose their beliefs irregardless of the culture inherent to their discipline, or we can have the more productive conversation regarding how to fix this insane system which deprives our most talented physics specialists from the right to actually diverge from conventional wisdom.

The well-being of the discipline that we both love is on the line. Is this another problem that we’ll simply punt to the next generation?

This is certainly the conventional view. But, the question is: Do the students of physics arrive at their views on these topics on their own accord, after digging into the arguments, evidence and history? Or, are certain key details which might alter a student’s educational trajectory simply left out of the picture painted for them? To what extent are physics students told to simply learn how to solve these particular problems, even when “real scientists” have disabused themselves of the methodology? And what impact, over time, might the repeated filtering of this kind of context have upon the students’ ability to question the validity of the things they are memorizing?

A relevant case in point is the story of Hannes Alfven. From David Talbott’s excellent biography of Alfven in Edge Science titled “The Plasma Universe of Hannes Alfven” …

Through much of the 19th and 20th century, most astronomers and
cosmologists had assumed the “vacuum” of space would not permit
electric currents. Later, when it was discovered that all of space is
a sea of electrically conductive plasma, the theorists reversed their
position, asserting that any charge separation would be immediately
neutralized. Here they found what they were looking for in Alfvén’s
frozen-in magnetic fields and in his magnetohydrodynamic equations.
Electric currents could then be viewed as strictly localized and
temporary phenomena—needed just long enough to create a magnetic
field, to magnetize plasma, a virtually “perfect” conductor.

The underlying idea was that space could have been magnetized in
primordial times or in early stages of stellar and galactic evolution,
all under the control of higher-order kinetics and gravitational
dynamics. All large scale events in space could still be explained in
terms of disconnected islands, and it would only be necessary to look
inside the “islands” to discover localized electromagnetic events—no
larger electric currents or circuitry required. In this view,
popularly held today, we live in a “magnetic universe” (the title of
several recent books and articles), but not an electric universe. The
point was stated bluntly by the eminent solar physicist Eugene Parker,
“…No significant electric field can arise in the frame of reference of
the moving plasma.”

But the critical turn in this story, the part almost never told within
the community of astronomers and astrophysicists
, is that Alfvén came
to realize he had been mistaken. Ironically—and to his credit—Alfvén
used the occasion of his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize to
plead with scientists to ignore his earlier work. Magnetic fields, he
said, are only part of the story. The electric currents that create
magnetic fields must not be overlooked, and attempts to model space
plasma in the absence of electric currents will set astronomy and
astrophysics on a course toward crisis, he said.

Alfven gave his Nobel lecture in 1970. And yet, we still see papers written by people who exhibit no affiliation to the theories under discussion, that criticize the ways in which the MHD equations are being applied.

From “Why Space Physics Needs to Go Beyond the MHD Box” by George K Parks in 2004:

Magnetohydrodynamic (MHD) theory has been used in space physics for
more than forty years, yet many important questions about space
plasmas remain unanswered. We still do not understand how the solar
wind is accelerated, how mass, momentum and energy are transported
into the magnetosphere and what mechanisms initiate substorms.
Questions have been raised from the beginning of the space era whether
MHD theory can describe correctly space plasmas that are collisionless
and rarely in thermal equilibrium. Ideal MHD fluids do not induce
electromotive force, hence they lose the capability to interact
electromagnetically. No currents and magnetic fields are generated,
rendering ideal MHD theory not very useful for space plasmas.

Observations from the plasma sheet are used as examples to show how
collisionless plasmas behave. Interpreting these observations using
MHD and ideal MHD concepts can lead to misleading conclusions.


Serious objections have been raised from the beginning of the space
era about the application of MHD theory to collisionless space plasmas

(Chamberlain, 1960; Lemaire and Scherer, 1973; Heikkila, 1973, 1997;
Alfvén, 1977; Scudder, 1997; Lui, 2001; Song and Lysak, 2001).
Although it is well-known that MHD theory is applicable only to a
restricted class of plasma problems of which collisionless plasmas are
not a part (Krall and Trivelpiece, 1973), MHD and ideal MHD theories
have been used in space without due regard to these restrictions.
theory is useful in the lower ionosphere and lower solar corona where
plasmas are collision dominated. However, plasmas in the solar wind
and magnetosphere are collisionless […] MHD theory will not describe
the physics of these plasmas correctly.

Another issue in space physics is treating MHD fluids as ideal
(Parker, 1996). Ideal fluids have infinite conductivity (zero
resistance) and the implicit charge mobility prevents them from
supporting any electric field.
The ideal fluid was originally
conceptualized by Alfvén (1953) to study how MHD waves would behave if
conductivity were imagined to be infinite. In such an ideal limit,
magnetic fields would become frozen in the fluid. However, the
frozen-in-field concept requires the strict criterion E · B = 0 which
is not always satisfied in space
(Alfvén and Fälthammar, 1963; Alfvén,
1977; Fälthammar, 1989).

It seems to me that the “long-discredited idea” is the ways in which these cosmic plasma models continue to be applied. Unlike the “new things – which real and respectable scientists do all the time”, there is no risk that we might be wasting our time by modeling one of the universe’s fundamental states of matter more accurately, and in accordance with our observations of laboratory plasmas. This is not a gamble, and there’s very little mystery about the implications for some of us.

Urgh. I saw this post right after sending an email to a local science professor that I knew bordered on the cranky (I even admitted in the text, half-jokingly: the difference between a crank and an eccentric is usually money. Eccentrics have more and that buys some deference that cranks are denied :slight_smile: ). Haven’t heard from him, strangely enough.

I wasn’t talking about perpetual motion or reinventing the turbine, thank goodness.

It’s plain to see that many people on the Internet think that cranks are strictly a nuisance, and that the world would be better off without them. But, what these people appear to not realize is that “outsider amateurs” have already generated an enormous amount of important science and technology (See the book, It Doesn’t Take a Rocket Scientist - Great Amateurs of Science). And not only that, but we’re talking here about some of the most radical and reputation-threatening innovations in the history of science. They did their work oftentimes in the face of intense daily ridicule from authority, friends and even family. I’m skeptical that we’d even be having this conversation right now if there was a more widespread awareness of those stories, because these tend to be stories of people overcoming extreme adversity in order to make the world a better place.

The problem of the crank has been improperly defined. The problem of the crank is not that they exist and annoy others; the problem of the crank is that they are cognitive explorers who have yet to find their digital homes. While others choose to spend their time watching television or Facebook’ing, these people get bored if their mind is not engaged in some idea. To become annoyed with them misses the larger picture that they simply need a place to go online where their talents can be perfected; where they can collaborate with one another and basically learn from others who have a similar interest; and where they can be molded into people who can make useful contributions to the world of science.

Put in other words, we need knowledge technologies which are designed to produce economic benefits as well as job creation, using the pre-existing pool of resources. Oh wait, that would seem to more-or-less be the definition of a knowledge economy

The problem with science education which we are finally (seemingly) emerging from is that of education based upon one-way communication. The role of computers in science education is already undergoing a significant transformation: The traditional notion of teachers giving a one-way monologue which focuses almost entirely upon how to solve the homework problems is probably at this point on the way out as a model for science education.

Notice that this is largely being imposed upon the universities. If the existing professors had their way, they would continue to focus upon generating more research papers instead of better teaching – and that is in spite of the fact that there are already too many papers for people to review (There is a lesson to be learned here).

If science education research and big data trends are any clue, instruction is going to trend towards lessons that are customized to the students’ existing knowledge and skills. In theory, these sorts of systems could turn cranks into specialists.

Instruction based upon teaching scientific modeling in public school science programs is proving to double conceptual comprehension (as measured by force concept inventory testing). We’ll likely see more of it, and I predict that this will ultimately have a very grounding influence upon peoples’ beliefs about modeling and its role in science. It will also help people whose goal is to create new theories – such as cranks.

Concepts-based instruction has a very strong track-record. The edupreneurs will eventually notice the work of Joseph Novak, and there will accordingly emerge a competition to visualize the concepts and controversies of science. This will be especially helpful to those who wish to do interdisciplinary synthesis or theory creation.

Science education has a very bright future, largely because these force concept inventory (FCI) tests finally give education researchers a quantitative measure for determining whether or not a particular pedagogical technique is actually having a positive effect. Much time has been wasted debating various approaches to science education. It’s now finally possible to simply compare competing pedagogical systems using a uniform standard (the FCI).

Every single one of these changes portends a terrific future for cranks.

Cranks are simply people that are not willing to leave their educations up to others to figure out. For whatever reason, they believe they can do better. As a society, we’d be wise to simply help them out. This is free labor, people. Let’s create spaces online that take this cognitive energy and convert it into new and better scientific theories. It’s obviously a challenging problem to solve, but if just 1 of 10,000 cranks online turned out to be right, then a system designed to help them to elaborate their ideas, which scales, would be completely worth the effort – and in short time.

In one of Charles Ginenthal’s books, he told the story of the “Village Venus”. It’s basically the idea that a small boy living in a remote village will tend to consider the single girl his age the most beautiful girl on the planet. Then, one day, he’ll for the first time go to the city, and realize that he was being silly.

In this current incarnation of the Internet, we are all living with Village Venus syndrome in some regard. There is just far too much information out there for each of us, as individuals, to wade through it all. And these ideas are oftentimes in cryptic, highly mathematical formats, or dispersed in a thousand different places online. We are desperately seeking out ways to filter the bad and save the good. The problem is that if we aren’t conscientious with how we do this filtering, we can easily filter out the science which people do because they love it, leaving nothing but the science which corporations and governments do because we’re paying them money. Those two different approaches tend to generate very different science and technology.

The cranks do it because they love it. Be very wary of just throwing that away.

Actually, what you’re doing here is following a script that generally goes like this:

(1) Person A mentions the Electric Universe online as a possible means of explaining an observation which is obviously enigmatic to conventional theory.

(2) Person B has previously observed some other person mention that the Electric Universe has already been rebutted by Tom Bridgman, so they pass on Bridgman’s URL. Note that neither person A nor person B has sufficient familiarity with the EU’s claims to judge the effectiveness of Bridgman’s rebuttal.

(3) Person B goes to Bridgman’s site, and sees that this is a complex debate. They quickly realize that a large time commitment is required to get to the bottom of it, and they make a snap judgment that Bridgman is probably right in order to avoid investing that time.

(4) At some future time, person B sees yet another person mention this “obviously false” theory called the Electric Universe. Person B then sends Bridgman’s URL to this new person, as proof that the issue has already been settled. Now, repeat.

The back-and-forth details of the actual claims, concepts and argumentation tends to get lost in this script.

Let’s look at what might actually be the most important example of Bridgman’s critique. This is not as complicated as people think.

There is a very specific claim being made by Don Scott and Wal Thornhill that has been very clearly stated: The mathematical models which are being used to model cosmic plasmas tend to treat those plasmas as though they have no electrical resistance, with the side effect being that those plasmas cannot sustain electric fields. This is one of the most important claims being made by the EU, so it’s very much worth the effort to correct the Internet mythology of scientific experts taking time out of their otherwise busy schedules to correct these obviously wrong notions.

This is, in truth, high school physics here, but in the guise of this plasma concept. An electric field is what one gets when electric charge of a particular sign finds itself bunched together. As everybody generally realizes, like charges repel one another, and this repelling force is called the electric field (or E-field).

A plasma is really just a gas that has some percentage of unbound charged particles. In the laboratory, it only takes a very small percentage (in some cases, less than 1%!) of unbound charged particles within a gas for the gas to begin to behave more as a plasma (subject to electromagnetic forces), than a gas or fluid (which would be principally subject to mechanical forces). But, there exists a continuum here when we are talking about “dusty plasmas”: Smaller particles and grains will tend to respond more to the electromagnetic forces, whereas the larger bodies (centimeter or more) will generally react more to gravity and viscosity.

So, what is the controversy here? The controversy is that astrophysicists tend to use approximations when modeling the cosmic plasmas which suggest that the plasma has no electrical resistance (as if it’s a superconductor). This necessitates that if the charge finds itself bunched up, there is no electrical resistance to slow its dispersion. In other words, it implies that any charge which happens to build up also, instantly disperses itself. Thus, no E-field ever has a chance to form in this scenario.

Bridgman initially appears to rebut this claim at

Many EU advocates try to claim that astrophysics ignores the effects
of electric fields and currents as possible drivers of astrophysical
phenomena. Once they do this, EU advocates try to hijack the
discoveries of legitimate researchers, claiming success for their
theories with any mention of currents in mainstream astrophysics.

Fair enough. It looks like we’re about to get an actual response here. Then, he changes the topic on the third sentence …

Yet electric currents and fields are discussed throughout the
professional astrophysical literature, predating much of the Electric

Suddenly, Bridgman is no longer talking about modeling plasmas as though they lack electrical resistance. He clarifies this towards the bottom of his “rebuttal”:

All these mechanisms create the charge separations and currents using
energy from other processes, usually gravity.
The charge-separation
itself is not the original energy process but can create non-thermal
distributions of charged particles.

What Bridgman has failed to tell his audience is that, if he were in a laboratory and needed to accelerate a charged particle, there’s a fantastic chance that he’d use the bunching up of electric charge (an E-field) on a plate of metal to do the job. An E-field is by far the easiest way to accelerate a charged particle. Bridgman doesn’t mention this important detail for his audience. In fact, he prefers that his audience focus upon other means of accelerating charged particles in space – which stem from gravity – even though these other means could not even be used to explain the aurora:

"Only electric fields can accelerate charged particles. Gravity is too
weak by several orders of magnitude, and collisions are much too rare"

(from Block, L. P., “Acceleration of auroral particles by magnetic-field aligned electric fields” (1988) Astrophysics and Space Science, vol. 144, no. 1-2, May 1988, p. 135-147)

An anonymous poster takes the entire “rebuttal” down in just one sentence:

Electric Universe people do not dispute that there are other theories
concerning electric fields and currents in space.

So, has Tom Bridgman actually done people a service here? He seems to have avoided directly responding to the claim being made about the approximation within the cosmic plasma models. Instead, he has presented his particular worldview – that gravity is the fundamental force which leads to secondary electromagnetic side effects – as though it’s the only explanation worth paying attention to.

And yet, we need only look at the aurora to see that his worldview does not help us to understand it. If we go just a bit further out into the Sun’s environment, we see that the “solar wind” (a stream of charged particles) fails to appreciably decelerate even as it passes the Earth’s orbit (!). So, we should rightly ask: What is creating this acceleration at these enormous distances from the surface of the Sun? Is it possibly the bunching of charged particles – an electric field at the Sun?

Bridgman’s worldview would seem to simply preclude even asking the question. There are, of course, additional complexities to the debate which people should discuss. And it takes some time to map out all of the details. The point here is to show that Bridgman is not “the man who took the Electric Universe down”. He presents some arguments which we should look at and consider, but so does the other side.

That’s because it’s a controversy that demands more than just a dismissal.

I’m thinking at this point one signal that you’re dealing with a crank is massive, unwarranted tracts of text, in response to nobody in particular. The “bury 'em with prose” approach.

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“Unwarranted”? 99% of what we see with our telescopes is matter in the plasma state. How we model them should be a foundational question in science. One claim being made (by “cranks”) is that the disciplines of cosmology and astrophysics hinge almost entirely upon how these cosmic plasmas are modeled. It’s an excellent example to explore the topic of crankism. By actually digging into an example, we can stop speaking in generalities.

We’ve seen the claim made by an astronomer that those who question these models should be ignored. We’ve also seen a competing claim by Peter Woit that the very reason we lack a unified model in physics is because of the refusal to explore more than a small subset of the large variety of ideas which are out there.

I’ve presented reasons to suspect that it is the way in which we teach physics which undermines peoples’ abilities to critically think about the scientific theories they’ve learned (“meaningful learning” is very different from rote memorization). I then used an example from Tom Bridgman’s site to make the case that people who see cranks everywhere they look are mindlessly forwarding links, without exploring the arguments of those links.

People will turn on the television and spend an hour watching garbage about aliens and conspiracy theories on the “History” Channel. But, at the point where they are invited to think critically about what it is that they claim to already “know”, we see tldr complaints.

Nobody can convince those whose goal is to avoid reading and thinking of anything. And those who nevertheless try will simply be labeled as “cranks”. Some of these “cranks” will turn out to be right, if history of science is any guide. I’ve already shown that entire books have been written about it. You already use numerous technologies – like the laser – that were invented by “cranks”.

Is it the “crank” that is actually the problem here? Is the solution to ostracize them for the sin of trying to make us read stuff?

What has been completely lost in this debate over cranks is that the problems surrounding our processes for transforming ideas into theories isn’t simply centered around the persistence of cranks. The problem of dogma is actually the more serious problem, because it embeds itself into our institutions of authority – from which it becomes nearly impossible to both identify and root out.

The problem which leads to dogma is this widespread notion that only professional scientists have the authority to speak on topics of science. People have accepted this premise without critically thinking about what a “professional” actually is. The truth is that the premise of professionalism clashes with the public’s view of “thinking like a scientist”. Jeff Schmidt’s groundbreaking book, Disciplined Minds, exposed the root of the problem. The American Institute of Physics fired him for writing the book, and with Noam Chomsky’s support, Jeff’s case became the largest freedom-of-expression court case in the history of the physics discipline. It seems that while everybody has been so busy ostracizing the cranks, they’ve failed to notice both Jeff’s victory over the AIP, as well as the critical contents of this book.

Jeff’s claims about what it means to be a professional necessarily impacts our views of what it means to be a crank. After all, the crank is a “non-professional”, amateur scientist. So, what, then, is a “professional”?

My thesis is that the criteria by which individuals are deemed
qualified or unqualified to become professionals involve not just
technical knowledge as is generally assumed, but also attitude – in
particular, attitude toward working within an assigned political and
ideological framework. (p16)

The qualifying attitude, I find, is an uncritical subordinate one,
which allows professionals to take their ideological lead from their
employers, and appropriately fine-tune the outlook that they bring to
their work. The resulting professional is an obedient thinker, an
intellectual property whom employers can trust to experiment,
theorize, innovate and create safely within the confines of an
assigned ideology.
The political and intellectual timidity of today’s
most highly educated employees is no accident. (p16)

Furthermore, professionals are the role models of the society toward
which we are heading, a society in which ideology trumps gender, race
and class origin as the biggest factor underlying the individual’s
success or failure. (p19)

This book’s analysis finds the supposed political neutrality of the
process of professional qualification a myth: Neither weeding out nor
adjustment to the training institution’s values are politically
neutral processes. Even the qualifying examination – its cold,
tough, technical questions supposedly testimony to the objectivity and
integrity of the system of professional qualification and to the
purity of the moment of personal triumph in every professional’s
training – does not act neutrallly. The ideological obedience that
the qualification system requires for success turns out to be
identical to the ideological obedience that characterizes the work of
the salaried professional. (p26)

The professional is one who can be trusted to extrapolate to new
situations the ideology inherent in the official school curriculum
that she teaches. (p32)

Professionals generally avoid the risk inherent in real critical
thinking and cannot properly be called critical thinkers. They are
simply ideologically disciplined thinkers. Real critical thinking
means uncovering and questioning social, political and moral
assumptions; applying and refining a personally developed worldview;
and calling for action that advances a personally created agenda. An
approach that backs away from any of these three components lacks the
critical spirit … Ideologically disciplined thinkers, especially the
more gung-ho ones, often give the appearance of being critical
thinkers as they go around deftly applying the official ideology and
confidently reporting their judgments. The fact that professionals
are usually more well-informed than nonprofessionals contributes to
the illusion that they are critical thinkers.

The much-touted “peer review” process does not usurp the power of the
program directors to serve agency goals. Peer review is the process
in which an agency asks outside scientists to give their opinions on
the scientific feasibility of proposed research; the screening by
outsiders leaves the agency with a long list of feasible projects from
which it chooses those that best further its goals. Peer review does
not reduce the program directors to nonprofessional poll takers: The
program directors select the reviewers, decide whose advice to follow
in light of the goals of the programs they manage, and monitor the
work of the scientists they fund. The program directors are the
at the money bin and therefore loom as important figures
for researchers, who if not worried about getting a grant, are worried
about renewing one. Physicists hoping for National Science Foundation
support, for example, are told that “while the advice of all reviewers
is taken quite seriously, the final decision for funding is made by
the Director and Staff of the Physics Division.” (p64)

Is this what everybody thought was going on within our physics PhD programs? Jeff Schmidt was known as a very talented editor at Physics Today for 19 years before he was fired for writing this book …

Beginning physics graduate students must devote an entire year or two
of their lives to homework. Indeed, the first part of physics
graduate school is well described as a boot camp based on homework.
One characteristic of any boot camp is that the subject matter the
instructors present in their day-to-day work is not really the main
thing they are teaching. Teaching the subject matter is certainly one
goal, but it is not the main one. In military boot camp, for example,
drill instructors make recruits spend large amounts of time learning
to dress to regulation, march in precise formation, chant ditties,
disassemble and reassemble rifles, carry heavy backpacks, and so on,
yet the main goal of all this is something much more profound: to
create soldiers who will follow orders, even to their deaths.
Similarly, the most apparent goal of graduate physics courses is to
indoctrinate the students into the dominant paradigms, or theoretical
frameworks, of physics. But the primary goal is to train physicists
who will maintain tremendous discipline on assigned problems.

At the end of the [qualifying examination] week the entire physics faculty gathers in a closed
meeting to decide the fate of the students. Strange as it may seem,
in most physics departments a student’s score on the test is only one
factor in the faculty’s decision as to whether or not that student has
passed the test. Students are not usually told their scores: this
gives faculty members the option of deciding that a student has failed
the test even if that student has outscored someone they are going to
pass. In arriving at their personal opinions on whether to pass or
fail a student, individual faculty members consider anything and
everything carried away from informal discussions with the student and
with others around the department.

A faculty member who talks informally with a student in the hallway or
at the weekly after-colloquium reception inevitably comes away with a
feeling about whether or not that student ‘thinks like a physicist.’
The student’s political outlook can easily make a difference in the
faculty member’s assessment. For example, in the usual informal
discussion of an issue in the news, the student who rails against
technical incompetence and confines his thoughts to the search for
technical solutions within the given political framework builds a much
more credible image as a professional physicist than does the student
who emphasizes the need to alter the political framework as part of
the solution. Indeed, the latter approach falls outside the work
assignments given to professional physicists in industry and academe
and so represents thinking unlike a physicist’s.

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.

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