Crackpots, geniuses, and how to tell the difference

By Maggie Koerth-Baker

Over at Download the Universe, Ars Technica science editor John Timmer reviews a science ebook whose science leaves something to be desired. Written by J. Marvin Herndon, a physicist, Indivisible Earth presents an alternate theory that ostensibly competes with plate tectonics. Instead of Earth having a molten core and a moveable crust, Herndon proposes that this planet began its existence as the core of a gas giant, like Jupiter or Saturn. Somehow, Earth lost its thick layer of gas and the small, dense core expanded, cracking as it grew into the continents we know today. What most people think are continental plate boundaries are, to Herndon, simply seams where bits of planet ripped apart from one another.

The problem is that Herndon doesn't offer a lot of evidence to support this idea.

Once the Earth was at the center of a gas giant, Herndon thinks the intense pressure of the massive atmosphere compressed the gas giant's rocky core so that it shrunk to the point where its surface was completely covered by what we now call continental plates. In other words, the entire surface of our present planet was once much smaller, and all land mass.

I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation of this, figuring out the radius of a sphere that would have the same surface area as our current land mass. It was only half the planet's present size. Using that radius to calculate the sphere's volume, it's possible to figure out the density (assuming a roughly current mass). That produced a figure six times higher than the Earth's current density — and about three times that of pure lead. I realize that a lot of the material in the Earth can be compressed under pressure, but I'm pretty skeptical that it can compress that much. And, more importantly, if Herndon wants to convince anyone that it did, this density difference is probably the sort of thing he should be addressing. He's not bothered; the idea that the continents once covered the surface of the Earth was put forward in 1933, and that's good enough for him.

Herndon's book came out with the help of a vanity publishing house and Timmer uses it as an example of why peer review is important—it forces scientists with interesting ideas to actually present evidence and go through a process of answering questions about and explaining holes in that evidence. Even though peer review can be flawed, it's a much better system than not having any kind of vetting process available.

I noticed something else here, as well: The similarities in the way different kinds of badly done science often work. Even though Herndon can't present evidence supporting his theory, he can tell a good story about it. If I'm honest, the idea that, once upon a time, Earth was a gas giant is pretty appealing. As a story. It makes our planet seem more impressive. It gives a sense of a secret history known only to a few. It connects to familiar sounding things: Gas giants and Earth. And, if you don't know all the astronomical background that Timmer does, it sounds plausible.

That reminds me of something Pesco posted about recently: Creationist textbooks that teach kids that the Loch Ness Monster might be a surviving dinosaur and therefore evolution must be wrong. I learned high school biology from one of these textbooks. (In fact, that such arguments exist is one of those facts I have forgotten is not widely known information. My reaction when Pesco posted that story was to think, "Oh, right. I guess most of our readers don't know that already, do they?")

In a lot of ways, the Loch Ness Monster hypothesis is a lot like Herndon's Gas Giant Earth hypothesis. They both have storytelling appeal, especially a great sci-fi hook. They both offer access to secret knowledge. They both propose a connection between familiar ideas—a tactic that makes these hypotheses seem more accessible to lay people than the ideas they propose to replace. They both do a lot of hand-waving and mumbling when you start asking questions about the details.

I think that it can be legitimately really hard to tell the difference between science and pseudoscience. We want to know about the world around us. We often need scientific data to make useful decisions in our lives. But we can't just go out and do all the research ourselves because we have other stuff to do. We're each busy with our own area of expertise and don't have time to become experts in every question we're ever going to need an answer for. Specialization of labor is a bitch like that. At a certain point, we have to trust people who are experts in a given field to tell us what they've learned.

So how do we know who to trust?

I don't think I have a perfect answer for that, but looking at books like Herndon's and those Creationist biology texts, I have a couple suggestions:

1) If it makes a really nice story, ask for the details. (Good science usually makes a bigger deal out of the evidence than it makes out of the story. In fact, that's actually a problem many legit scientists have—they're better at talking about the details and data then they are at telling stories. But most of us respond to stories better than we respond to details and data.)

2) If the proof seems self-evident (i.e., it's just good common sense), ask more questions.

3) If believing the idea will make you smarter than the official experts, be suspicious. Experts aren't always right. But they do know their fields and experience does matter. Chances are, you're an expert in something. Say you knew how to bake pies really well. You'd be pretty suspicious if somebody who didn't bake (or didn't even really cook much) told you that you were making pies all wrong—and that they had a secret pie recipe that was better than yours. They might be right. It's worth taking a look at their evidence. But it also worth being skeptical.

4) If the studies used to prove it are really old, or if there's only a few of them, dig deeper. What looks like truth when you look at five research papers can very quickly become completely untrue when you look at 500. What sounds like a good idea when presented by it's originator can turn out to be terrible when you talk to a few other people. Try to get a sense of what the bulk of evidence is saying.

5) If you're told you can't trust any other sources of information (especially because of Big Conspiracy, or because so-and-so expert is a bad person in other areas of his or her life), be cautious. Replication is a powerful tool. It helps us get past accidental and intentional biases to see something closer to the truth. Suppressing replication is also powerful, because it leaves you with no way to check against bias.

Obviously, all these rules come with caveats. But I think they're a good place to start.

Read John Timmer's full review of Indivisible Earth at Download the Universe

Image: Cracked pot, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from bonitalabanane's photostream

Published 2:10 pm Tue, Jul 10, 2012

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About the Author

Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at From August 2014-May 2015, she will be a Nieman-Berkman Fellow at Harvard University. You can follow Maggie's adventures in the Ivory Tower by subscribing to The Fellowship of Three Things newsletter.

79 Responses to “Crackpots, geniuses, and how to tell the difference”

  1. Mark Dow says:

    6) Short stories are more plausible than long stories, if the plot/pot holds water.

  2. LYNDON says:

    I have a book somewhere based on the thesis that the earth is not, as has hitherto been believed, a solid sphere, but is hollow and habitable on the inside with holes at either end. The book’s structure is characterised by extended quotes from other people who thought this (often repeating each other), followed by an almost complete paraphrase of them, followed by  an assertion that this all goes to support the thesis (stated in full). Which, even allowing for advances in general knowledge of geography since, is a bit of a giveaway on the crazy stakes.

    • Warren_Terra says:

      I don’t know if it’s the same book you read, but this is one of several stories in the extremely enjoyable essay collection Banvard’s Folly.

    • phuzz says:

       My favourite bit of that theory is when they show maps that do not cover the poles (and therefore show it as a blank space), and put it forward as being an official confirmation.
      Whilst searching for an example of such an image, I found this website:
      which is a great example of someone taking an idea they like, in this case ‘hollow earth’, and selectively finding evidence that might support it.

      • Antinous / Moderator says:

        Planetary goatse. And the auroras are flatulence.

      • LYNDON says:

         I so love that central sun. There was much loving explanation as to how something in the middle could stay up because of squares of the distance and balanced forces and so on (akin to the electrical effect of a Faraday cage), missing the point that if that were the case there’d be no gravity *anywhere* in there.

        • hypnosifl says:

          In Newtonian physics it should be possible in principle to have a sun surrounded by a hollow shell–that’s basically a small-scale Dyson sphere, and if the shell were spherically symmetric, the inner sun would feel no pull from the shell (thanks to the shell theorem) even if it drifted away from the center, and likewise the shell would feel no net pull from the inner sun (since forces must be equal and opposite). Problem is such an arrangement wouldn’t be stable, so if the central sun had even the slightest drift relative to the shell, it would eventually collide with it (though I wonder if radiation pressure would counteract this, since if the sun began to move off center, the part of the shell closer to it would experience a stronger outward force, and if the shell were rigid there’d be no net gravitational pull to counteract it). Anyone inside the shell would feel no gravitational pull from the shell but they would feel an inward gravitational pull from the inner sun (the shell theorem says that for anything inside the shell, gravitationally it’s just as if the shell isn’t there at all), which means hollow-earthers wouldn’t be able to walk around on the inner surface.

    • robdobbs says:

      That sounds like what The National Inquirer used to do to manufacture stories.

  3. Jesse says:

    With all the exoplanet news as of late where there are lots of Gas Giants close to their star, I think it’s not a bad suggestion to look into whether or not we might have started in a similar way. But the way to go about that isn’t just to say so. I wonder if other star systems are posted as possible evidence?

  4. Boundegar says:

    This is so helpful and well written.  Thank you!

  5. pKp says:

    That pie-making example is just great for those people who say they “don’t trust the experts”.

    Problem is, they tend not to be experts at anything except conspiracy theories and crackpot science. Sigh.

    • Bill Beaty says:

      Unfortunately, where the (rare) revolutionary breakthroughs are concerned, the experts actually can’t be trusted.  Also the scientific community really does suppress the eccentric voices, since those voices are usually wrong.  Yet lone revolutionaries have occasionally been correct while the mass opinion was not.  That’s what crackpots are always going on about: insisting that they are wrongly-suppressed revolutionaries like the many historical examples, rather than being correctly-suppressed crackpots like the far more numerous examples.

      That’s why we employ expanded criteria for sorting the seeming crackpots from the actual ones.   Crazy ideas are usually wrong and crackpot, but if we automatically discard them without careful unbiased inspection, then we’ll discard papers from this one particular 1905 patent clerk as well.

      A symptom not explicitly mentioned here is a negative one: missing self-criticism.   Examine your crackpot carefully while seeing whether they launch attacks upon their own position.  Are they silently avoiding self-criticism?

      Feynman discusses this in his “Cargo Cult Science.”  Proper science includes quite brutal self-appraisal, so if our crackpot is ferreting out their own possible flaws while pointing out easy experiments which could bring down their whole house of cards  …perhaps they’re a revolutionary after all.

      What many crackpots don’t understand is that science, done right, includes a global invitation for everyone to come attack their ideas.  When it happens, the crackpots get defensive and try to distract attention from their flaws, while the ideal scientist is clearly a traitor to their own cause:  announcing their weakest spots while handing weapons to their enemies.

      • wysinwyg says:

        Unfortunately, where the (rare) revolutionary breakthroughs are concerned, the experts actually can’t be trusted.  Also the scientific community really does suppress the eccentric voices, since those voices are usually wrong.  Yet lone revolutionaries have occasionally been correct while the mass opinion was not.  That’s what crackpots are always going on about: insisting that they are wrongly-suppressed revolutionaries like the many historical examples, rather than being correctly-suppressed crackpots like the far more numerous examples.

        There’s another facet to this dilemma.  There’s a definite pattern to which “revolutionaries” are able to make a respectful and respectable case against the mainstream and which flame out in utter crackpottery.

        The first class are inevitably humble and invite careful scrutiny of their arguments and results by other experts in the field.  The latter class are almost always cranks who insist that their genius is being repressed by a jealous or threatened orthodoxy — words like “priesthood” and “ideology” get tossed around a lot by these types.

        I’m sick of Einstein’s name coming up in these conversations.  There was huge uptake of his ideas within a few years of his publishing.  The reason above is part of it — he didn’t set up his new theory adversarially as the Newton-killer.  He presented it as a hypothesis that would resolve several long-standing philosophical objections to Newton’s law of gravity.  And to focus only on relativity is to ignore another reason for the acceptance of his ideas: that his paper on special relativity came out the same year as his analysis of Brownian motion and interpretation of the photoelectric effect.  The Brownian motion paper was pure statistical mechanics, completely in line with what other theorists were working on at the time.  The photoelectric effect explained what appeared to be an anomalous experimental result which Einstein resolved by invoking a theory already advanced by some of the biggest heavyweights in theoretical physics at the time.

        Part of Maggie’s warning signs for crackpottery is storytelling.  Well this “Einstein was on the line between crackpot and revolutionary” stuff is the exact same kind of storytelling.  I’d actually call it “myth making”.  This myth does not realistically reflect the attitude of Einstein towards established science or vice versa.

        • Bill Beaty says:

          Was Einstein *not* a lone revolutionary? (i.e. didn’t he have new ideas blindsiding the entire community?)  The evidence looks quite strong that he actually was, and anything different itself may be attempts at myth-making.

          Actually this messes with the minds of the crackpot community, since half want to include Einstein as a fellow maverick outsider, while the other half wants to attack him as being wrong.


          Were Einstein’s ideas taken up by the community almost immediately, without objections?  Nope.  The switchover from Newtonian mechanics and aether-belief and the acceptance of SR took far longer than you think.  Clarke’s First Law is no joke.  True, the cleaned-up mythical history found widely in pop culture and in grade school textbooks makes it appear that the Aether supporters vanished without a fight, and that Einstein was welcomed by all, with no raging controversy, no anti-Einstein petitions being circulated by enemy groups.  Yet in fact his work was revolutionary enough to inspire decades of widespread controversy, not a rapid and silent acceptance.  If you go try digging dirt on how the research community actually responded to Einstein, you’ll find quite a bit more there than is commonly discussed.  I suspect it’s the George Washington cherry tree effect:  the usual historical dirt seems to mysteriously vanish when it involves tarnishing all of our glowing descriptions of Science we learned early on.

          So, which one is the myth: that SR, photons, etc. were easily and quickly accepted by the physics community, while aether supporters didn’t fight?    Or was it that SR etc. only won out after decades of major mud-slinging battle and putting rout to a large population of hot-headed enemies?  Perhaps the sources claiming the latter were just wrongly exaggerating the “embattled revolutionary” aspect.  Maybe the ones claiming the former are trying to paint a sanitized (mythical!) picture of a Science which never irrationally resists any revolutionary ideas.

      • Chris Specker says:

        That’s how my personal crackpot detector works.

        If the person I’m dealing with says “No one else understands my genius/The truth is being suppressed”, that person is almost always a crackpot.

        If they say “Think about this for a bit and tell me if it still sounds like a crackpot idea”, they may just be a genius.
        It’s not 100% perfect, but you’ll be amazed how far it can get you.

        • Bill Beaty says:

           Hmm.  That would also point out a possibility of the most dangerous crackpots of all: the ones who are genuinely insane, but have developed the trick of remaining steadfastly reasonable and self-critical, and never yelling in all-caps Help Help, I’m being repressed.

  6. ifriit says:

    Item 3 I might expand to “flattering the audience,” which seems in my experience to be a common feature of crackpottery.  When it is suggested you are a special person for considering the idea, or that you are mentally or perceptually better than other people who are unable (or unwilling) to see the plain truth of it, that usually sets off my crackpot alarms.

  7. awjt says:

    How do we know that plate tectonics aren’t going on INSIDE gas giants??!!  We have NO idea, that’s what.

  8. MonkeyBoy says:

    I wonder how the book would score on John Baez’s crackpot metric.

    One thing I recall (but am too lazy to dig up and link) is that most crackpots have technical training but don’t fully understand science. The largest source are engineers, who can apply scientific results but think they are just as good as “real scientists” in coming up with them.

    When the crackpot is a scientist that is recognized in his/her field they think their expertise transfers to any form of science. Herndon may be a decent physicist but I doubt he has had much training in geology, planetology, etc, and thinks he doesn’t need it because his simple physics explanation might explain something

  9. Sign Ahead says:

    I’m working on the literature review for my master’s thesis and I’ve discovered a couple other items that set off my crackpot alarms. Sadly, all three of these make it through peer review very frequently:

    Uneven presentation of data – If some of the data is highly detailed and exhaustively presented and some of it is not, ask questions about the “fuzzy” sections of the data. In my area of research this seems like a common practice of careless or ideologically driven authors.

    Statistical analysis without data – When a writer presents evidence of a significant correlation between two variables, but doesn’t present the actual data, ask why. Knowing the actual data helps us put that correlation into context. Does the author want to prevent us from doing that?

    Making it personal – I see this way too often when one author responds to another. Instead of addressing content, they make ad hominem attacks on each others’ character. Whenever I see this, I ask myself “Is the writer trying to add to the body of knowledge, or is he or she just trying to win an argument?”

    • MonkeyBoy says:

       I don’t think your criteria are diagnostic of crackpottery – just of shoddy science that tries to be mainstream even to the extent of making up data to pad out sloppy work to fit the conventional wisdom.

      True crackpottery  involves working outside of the mainstream most often using “facts” or theories that are just plain wrong or not even understandable in the mainstream consensus.

      To some extent really bad science and crackpottery may seem the same but the crackpots often emphasize how much better their approach is than the stupid conventional scientists – a personality that may verge on megalomania.

      • Sign Ahead says:

        Fair enough. But that means I have to rename my Crackpot Alarm. Maybe I’ll call it a “Quack Klaxon” instead.

        Edit: Or possibly a “Duck Call”

  10. Chris Fleming says:

    What’s even better is that Immanuel Velikovsky, another, even more amazing crackpot, already came up with the ‘planet-out-of-gas-giant’ idea. And told a wilder story to boot.

    • malindrome says:

      My favorite Velikovsky reference is when, in the 1978 “Invasion of the Bodysnatchers”, one of the podpeople recommends “Worlds in Collision” to one of the humans as a great book.  It works as a title gag, but also on a deeper level: as an alien, he must know it’s baloney, but if it clouds the minds of the humans then all to the good.

  11. timquinn says:

    When I worked in the hardware store so many years ago I would reply to people asking if a particular tool was any good that it was very good at the job it was intended to do which was find its way into a bag and out the door. Otherwise most of the tools in question had only a passing resemblance to what they claimed to be. Our culture has become swamped by this phenomenon.

    • bkad says:

      When I shop for things on which I am not an expert (tools being an example) I will feign ignorance about a detail I know in order to get a read on how how helpful/knowledgeable the staff is about what I REALLY want to ask.

  12. Marja Erwin says:

    At times, though, good science can violate those principles.

    Alfred Wegener’s theories about continental drift explained some geological and biogeographical similarities between paired continents, but contradicted then-current geophysics. His mechanisms did not work. His ideas still proved productive.

    Milton Diamond’s work ran into, and eventually uncovered, John Money’s fraud.

    And there were conspiracies to conceal the effects of lead tetraethyl, tobacco, etc.

    • Which is why I said “caveats”. But, I’ll point out, with the conspiracies you cite, the bulk of the scientific evidence said those things were dangerous. The conspiracy wasn’t of scientists, but of corporate communications—a trick that worked at a time when it was very difficult for the general public to find information on what the bulk of scientific evidence said. That’s much less true today. 

    • bkad says:

      Sure, as the original poster said, there are caveats. But people need good heuristics. How do you evaluate science that you know nothing about? 

      Heck, it’s not just a science thing, it’s a general ‘source evaluation’ question. I read an article, maybe in a paper, or on a blog, or in wikipedia, and I have to decide how likely it is to be true. These are not bad ideas.

    • penguinchris says:

      In Wegener’s case it really wasn’t as dire as the story is usually told. Science may have moved particularly slowly in that case, but it worked as designed and there wasn’t a conspiracy against him. He wasn’t a crackpot and had real evidence – just not enough to convince many of the blowhard conservative types that led the field at the time (though he did have many supporters).

      It’s an oft-cited case because it’s easy to think that an idea proposed in 1912 and only kind of reluctantly accepted (so the story goes) in the 60’s (because techniques to gather the required evidence were not invented until the 50’s) must have been suppressed by “the man” or something. Many early geologists were conservative idiots, yes, but without any way to produce concrete evidence – despite continual attempts – a paradigm-shifting theory like that isn’t going anywhere in any field. Once the evidence was available, it was accepted quite quickly and with no reservations (there were of course a few hold-outs, at least at first). That’s just how it works.

      I’m not sure if it’s because of this history, but plate tectonics in particular draws a ridiculous number of crackpots. If you look, there are dozens of alternate theories on the internet. I once had the clerk at an army surplus store explain his own tectonic theory to me when I told him I was a geologist (he asked what my major was, the store was near the university and I was obviously a student). They must draw inspiration from Wegener’s case, but again, that’s misunderstanding the history (and how slow science sometimes works – and the need, crucially, for solid evidence to support your theories).

      • Marja Erwin says:

        I agree that Wegener wasn’t suppressed in any way. I’m just saying that his theories had a lot of problems but still proved constructive. It’s to the credit of the field that even constantist geologists addressed the issues, and many changed their views as they encountered additional evidence.

        • penguinchris says:

          I just wanted to clarify for anyone unfamiliar with the story that Wegener was not in any way a crackpot :)

          My broad specialty within geology is plate tectonics and structure, and I wrote a 30-page “history of science” type paper about the development of plate tectonic theory as an undergrad, and I take any chance I can get to spout off about it ;)

  13. bkad says:

    When I was in school this ‘crackpot index’ circulated around.

    It’s not as funny as I remember it, but it reflected the types of actual crackpots I would get emails from while I was working on my graduate degree. Like Sign Abroad, I think true crackpottery shows itself in the crackpot’s relationship to others. Do they compare themselves favorably to Einstein or Newton? Do they compare the mainstream that disagrees with them to Nazis? Do they claim endorsement by or secret support by scientific leaders who are unlikely to dispense such approval? Do they they speak constantly of conspiracies of other scientists, governments, and corporations working against them? Do they let their emotions show in their ‘professional’ writing?

    • Marja Erwin says:

      If one side is arguing for clitoridectomy to eliminate certain sexual minorities, I think it’s appropriate, if slightly hyperbolic, to compare them to the Nazis.

      • Jerril says:

         There are times when it is absolutely appropriate to compare and contrast groups or organizations to the Nazis. (Blatant example: Neo-nazis)

        It’s less legitimate if you just call them Nazis, in the traditional “internet argument” way.

        Simply throwing the word out there without doing something to justify the comparison should be considered a warning sign. Even a more thought-out comparison should probably be examined a little more closely.

        These are all warning signs, not guaranteed 100% accurate and precise tests. “Please remember to engage your critical thinking skills.”

        • wysinwyg says:

           This is a wonderful and sensible internet policy towards the use of the terms “Nazi” and “Nazis”.

    •  Sounds like the current Voynich Manuscript studies mailing list. Once, they were a genial group of scholars, retired spooks, cryptographers, Jesuits, and similar thinkers who pooled their knowledge to unravel the mystery of the world’s toughest translation job.

      Now, we’ve got a bunch of Dan Brown fans, conspiracy buffs, and fluffy Wiccans, all convinced that they’ve got a book with a) an “unbreakable code”, which will become the default encryption for all communications, b) herbal bath concoctions that will cure any disease, and c) the eye-opening evidence of Tuscan hermaphrodite worship, which if followed today, will instantly cure all our environmental woes. If only they could actually read it! Pesky big bad governments, keeping the VM secret….

      • AnthonyC says:

        As for (a)… do they not notice that 
        1) If you don’t know how to decipher it, it can’t be used in communications
        2) If you ever decipher it, it is no longer unbreakable

  14. Years ago I had a dear friend who was Director of the CFA up at Harvard. He had a whole drawer in a filing cabinet devoted solely to letters from self taught “astronomers”. Made for some awesome reading. I always told him there were several good sci-fi films in there waiting to be released.

    • awjt says:

      In the old days (not the old old days, just the 80’s and 90’s), people with crackpot theories would go on alt.sci and post what-have-you and stir those cracked pots.  It all sounds so quaint now, but let me assure you, it would REALLY rile people up.  The interwebs had smaller tubes back then and there were a lot of serious scientists online exchanging information, and here were these effen WEIRDOES getting online and posting every crazy thing that got into their heads.  Now, there were some amazing GENIUI too who came off the USENET groups…  Man, those were the days.  Sometimes I miss them, and mostly I don’t.

      Nowadays, those same crackpots are just *out there* somewhere on the web, not concentrated in the same bullring with all the pros.  Now there are so many fora and places for ideas, that you can’t get that same mix of super-crazed, middlings, yearlings, founders, emereti, etc.  That’s been lost to history now.

      When we invent the next-gen, totally-free internet III, maybe we’ll see a new way to re-congregate all the science fools and veterans.

      Until then… LUDWIG!  PLUTONIUM!!!

      • Steve Taylor says:

         And Doctress Neutopia, let us not forget.

        • Clifton says:

          I see your Doctress Neutopia and Ludwig Plutonium and will raise you an Alexander Abian. 

           The moon must be destroyed to yield a more perfect Earth! Time = Mass!

          Ah, the glory days of sci.physics.

  15. pjcamp says:

    One of my prize possessions is a book sent to me (for “preservation”) by an Italian guy, written the thoroughly cracked English, that proposes to derive the ephemerides of the 10th through 12th planets using astrological means. It seems they were necessary to bring some consistency to the predictions.

    There was also the time I served as a birthday present for an old guy who wanted to explain, to a real physicist, his theory about how the universe is expanding on one side and contracting on the other. He showed up at my office in a Donald Duck hat.

    • Jerril says:

       I have to ask: Who gave that particular birthday present?

      • pjcamp says:

         His son, who was a local dentist.

        I made $600 for two hours of diplomatic discussion.

        • DeeJay says:

          I think I like you – more if you did it for free. 

          • pjcamp says:

             Well, he asked me how much I wanted. I said “Hell if I know. 30-40 bucks?” I was thinking beer money, because beer is one of the two essential fluids of physics. That’s when he told me he was a dentist and wrote out the big check.

  16. Dan Jason says:

    I have found a good guide to ideas is first to examine the idea to see if it is appealing to you in some way. If so then be very careful.  This includes the ‘I got serkrit knowledge’ thing  that you wrote of but is a bit more broad. For example: global warming? sucks there for probably true; Nessie is real and a pleasaur? Awesome, there for probably false.  Now I am not saying reality never works out well, but you have to be extra cautious when it seems to.

  17. retepslluerb says:

    I thought the difference was math.

  18. Spessartine says:

    I wish you’d touched on the more dangerous aspects of crackpotism: that crackpots believe what they are saying is true and  (more importantly) valid, and that crackpots expect (and are sometimes successful at getting) other people to believe them.

    Without those beliefs, crackpot scientists are no more dangerous than the guys on street corners telling me the end is nigh: annoying, but ignorable.

  19. mudrummer012 says:

    Anyone who hasnt should read The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan.
    It does a great job of showing the logical fallacies of bad/psudo science.

  20. CH says:

    Um… unless I have completely missed the point of continental plates, the author of the article went into too much trouble. He could just have pointed out that earth, at this very moment, is covered with the continental plates… no need to shrink earth. And that the book author has apparently missunderstood continental plates completely, and thinks that they are the parts that are above water.

  21. Petzl says:

    For a great survey of the ersatz field of subduction denialism by a geology professsor, check out:

  22. privatedick says:

    Stan Lee (yes, that Stan Lee) has been working on a theory that’s similar. He states that the world is growing and hence the tectonic action. His reason is that the tectonic plates match up at all edges, not just interior ones; so rather than have Pangea in the middle of a global sea you can have a much smaller planet consisting of all the plates matched up edge-to-edge with no seas in between.

    • Jer_00 says:

      I don’t think that’s Stan Lee – I think you’re thinking of Neal Adams.

    • Marja Erwin says:

      It requires alternative explanations for older pre-Pangaean orogenies. It also requires a causal mechanism. Losing a gas giant atmosphere is a causal mechanism, but the breakup of Pangaea is a Mesozoic-Cenozoic process, and if Paleozoic and early Mesozoic forms had adapted to the pressures at the bottom of a gas-giant atmosphere, surely they would show some signs of it.

  23. rocketmunch says:

    Bit of a tangental connection to this article, but physicist Freeman Dyson wrote this really great essay/book review where he talks about his friendships with a a couple crackpot geniuses (the book under review is a history/exploration of fringe physics by Margaret Wertheim called Physics on the Fringe).

  24. Benjamin Eugene NElson says:

    Like this planet needs to be MORE impressive?

  25. nagmas says:

    That is rubbish.  Your argument and his both.
    Re-animate the corpse of Carl Sagan!

  26. Ken Sandale says:

    The author is unaware of how science is currently practiced, and just makes unjustified assumptions.

    She praises peer review, but also says real scientists do not like telling “stories”.  What happens when you submit a paper for peer review is that the “story” aspect is emphasized.  You are required to give an unnecessary historical overview and discuss how your work fits in with the story of the field.  Whatjpurnal reference  citations you give is also of utmost importance.  The actual physics is of considerably reduced importance.  One could not know this is the case without actual experience.  So the author has views not basded on experience.  Obviously, and ironically, not scientific.

    It wasn’t always this way.  Einstein used few references.  His papers today would be rejected without even being read–he would be viewed as a crackpot.  I’ve looked through old important papers from Einstein, Feynman etc, and they did *not* give historical overviews–they only discussed the important scientific advances they were making.

    Anyone can do the experiment–look at old important papers and note how different they are from the modern  stuff–few citations and none of the historical garbage.  “Physics” has become more social, and less scientific.

    • Ken, you’re being extremely condescending to me, particularly given the fact that you’re talking about an entirely different kind of story-telling than I’m talking about.
      I’ve read quite a few physics papers that have passed peer review in recent years. I’m sorry, but they are not told as stories in any way that a layperson would understand and be able to follow. Whether or not you have problems with the current peer review process doesn’t matter. (And there are problems with peer review, though I think from my experience interviewing many scientists there would be a healthy debate about whether the problem you cite here is actually a problem or not.) There is a difference between putting new theories into the context of what came before for an audience of experts, and being able to communicate well with the public. A does not equal B. 

    • wysinwyg says:

      Hey Smarty McSmarterson, the point is way over there. When they call this “A Compendium of Greasy Peccadilloes” they ain’t talking about your peccadilloes.

  27. Ito Kagehisa says:

    Maggie, I think you’ve skipped the step where you prove a genius has existed who wasn’t a crackpot.  I could not make that proof, personally.

  28. mherndon says:

    Download The Universe can make a valuable contribution. There is some craziness out there that a critical reviewer, such as John Timmer, might highlight. But the credibility of Download The Universe comes into question when he mistakenly paints an individual’s work with the wrong brush and in doing so does a disservice to the community and to the author involved. That certainly appears to be the case for Indivisible Earth: Consequences of Earth’s Early Formation as a Jupiter-Like Gas Giant. Timmer’s review might lead a casual reader to the conclusion that the author is attempting an end-run around peer review. That is simply not the case. In Indivisible Earth , my purpose was not to present new unpublished work, but to make understandable to the public some of the scientific work I have published in world-class, peer reviewed journals over a period of some 3½ decades; 13 of those articles I cite in that eBook. Timmer’s review unwittingly brings up the important question of science ethics. Does one make irresponsibly pejorative assertions, or go the scientific literature and refute work which might at first seem outrageous? To date, no one has refuted my work in the scientific literature. I have explained quite precisely the scientific considerations involved. In fact, the final sentence of the the eBook summary states: “Clearly, critical observational, experimental, and theoretical evaluation is warranted.” An objective reader should be able to follow the logic presented in Indivisible Earth, go to the cited scientific literature, and then decide for themselves whether the misleading, pejorative assertions made in Timmon’s review are warranted. –J. Marvin Herndon

    • wysinwyg says:

       Dead Dr. Herndon,

      This is exactly the attitude towards criticism that makes me think you are probably a crackpot.  Attacking your critics makes you look petty; worse, it makes you seem like you can’t actually make an argument for your case.  Support your argument, don’t attack your critics.

  29. Tim_Buck_II says:

    Are there any examples in the history of science where the crackpot’s idea ultimately proved to be correct?

    Galileo was accused of blasphemy because he was the first to see Jupiter’s moons – he was a nut. Surely, two bicycle mechanics who thought they could fly needed to be locked up. Steve Jobs and the Woz thought they could sell computers for home use and were no doubt regarded as harmless cranks. When the wheel and moveable type were first invented, was it really obvious to others – or to even the inventors – just how these ideas would change the world?

    I think we should encourage those who think differently. I wouldn’t want to have said to Edison: “Tom, give it up. You’ve already tried 999 different filaments and none worked. You’re an idiot if you think you can light up that carbonized thread.”

    • wysinwyg says:

      This is more myth making.
      Galileo was accused of blasphemy for engaging in theology (specifically, for saying that heliocentrism was really true rather than just an interesting theory).  Seeing the moons of Jupiter really did not factor into the case.  Very few people had a problem with his science per se, though some of his competitors argued that observations made through Galileo’s telescope could not be considered valid unless the principles by which the telescope operated were better understood (this, by the way, is an incredibly reasonable argument; consider my magical crystal ball that shows me what’s inside a black hole).  Also, nothing Galileo argued was particularly revolutionary (except that his telescope actually worked; more knowledge of optics was required for that).  The possibility of heliocentrism had already been considered since antiquity and his work on motion was just damned good science.  The only sense in which Galileo was a crackpot is that he tried to correct the Catholic bishops on the subject of theology — so not a scientific crackpot but a religious one (the Catholic church eventually came around to something like his view).

      Wright brothers, Edison, Jobs, and Wozniak — none of these people are scientists and none of them were advancing purely theoretical arguments while claiming to overthrow the scientific orthodoxy (which is the kind of crackpottery under discussion).  I can’t really think of any reason to consider any of these people crackpots whether we overlook this flaw in the comparison or not.  The Wright brothers had a tiny influence on science proper, basically by proving heaver-than-air flight is possible (which we already knew ’cause birds, duh) giving physicists a pretty good puzzle for a few decades figuring out how that flying contraption actually worked.  But I don’t think anyone seriously considered locking them up for putting their money where their mouth is by actually building the thing before screaming about the scientific priesthood suppressing their revolutionary ideas. I’d actually consider the Wright brothers the perfect example of how not to be a crackpot: demonstrate your idea is probably true before making a big freakin’ deal about it.

      We should encourage those who think differently…to put their strange new ideas to rigorous tests (like building a plane or a light bulb or a personal computer) rather than just wail about how their strange, brilliant ideas threaten established institutions and that’s why they’re being kept down.  Thinking differently is easy.  Thinking well is hard.

      • Tim_Buck_II says:

        Still, Professor Langley’s plane fell into the Potomac just before the bicycle mechanics’ plane lifted off.

        A perfectly absurd looking Swiss patent clerk came up with Special Relativity.

        The article mentions the Loch Ness Monster as an example of a crackpot notion because, obviously, it’s absurd to think there might be living dinosaurs. That notion becomes just a little less silly after a coelacanth swims by.

        It’s hard to guess who will have the next flash of insight or where it will come from. Today’s orthodoxy will be tomorrow’s dogma. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of the little mind.”

  30. Peter Yard says:

    Not the old “Expanding Earth” theory, and I use the word ‘theory’ in the layman sense. It should really be hypothesis. Because there isn’t much evidence for it and a lot against it.

    Also remember the venerable Crackpot Index. A good initial guide. Though I think the rules in this article are better but the Crackpot Index is funnier.

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