Amateur scientists vs. cranks

This is video of a talk given last year by David Dixon, assistant professor of math, science and engineering at Saddleback College in California. He used to work in the Physics Department at California Polytechnic State University, which, like many physics departments around the world, received loads of correspondence from non-scientists who thought they had come up with earth-shattering, game-changing hypotheses that needed to be shared.

Now, sometimes, laypeople come up with good ideas that should be explored. But many of these letters are better classified as the work of cranks — folks who had big ideas, cared deeply about those big ideas, but who were dead wrong ... and utterly impervious to the idea that they might be wrong.

In this talk, Dixon delves into the collection of crank letters received by California Polytechnic State University over the years to explain the hallmarks of crankitude, the behaviors that raise red flags for professional scientists, and what we can actually learn about real science by studying fake science.

YouTube says the video is over two hours long, but that's apparently inaccurate. The actual talk is an hour long and just somehow got loaded twice into the same video.

If this is a topic that interests you, I'd also recommend reading this MetaFilter thread, where scientists explain to a poster why the poster's friend is setting off crank red flags with scientists whose attention he's trying to capture. It's a fascinating look at what to do and what not to do if you have a hypothesis you want to share.

Notable Replies

  1. rknop says:

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

  2. Ganked off Usenet back in the day:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  5. rknop says:

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

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

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

Continue the discussion

53 more replies