I’ve started thinking about my next book. I’m not at the writing stage, or even the research stage; more like the brainstorming stage. I’ve been thinking a lot about crackpottery lately. Because I’ve been doing so much popular science writing and interacting with the public, I’ve started to realize that there’s an element of modern science, and physics, in particular, which seems like we’re making things up. I’m looking at you, string theory. The problem is that when science is explained in terms of plausibility arguments rather than with any rigor, it seems like any old thing might be correct, and who are we to believe one thing rather than another?

I’ve even started keeping unsolicited manuscripts and papers. It’s too easy to criticize non-specialists for the fact that their papers make no sense — well, not too easy; I plan on doing a bit of that. But I’m more interested in professional crackpot-ism. That is, the information is out there, a scientist could have known better, but decided to publish some crazy theory anyway because it was more in accord with their thinking about how the universe should work. Even the greatest thinkers (Newton, Einstein, Lowell) weren’t immune to this.

Do you have any favorites? Who should I look into?

By the way, it’s no fair simply taking potshots at the ancients. There’s nothing wrong with saying the world is made of 4 elements when you’ve got no real theory or way of figuring out what the world really was made of.


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8 Responses to Crackpots

  1. A. Holer says:

    You really ask who you should look into?

    1. you mentioned it yourself, and
    2. your second paragraph is a precise description of string theory – now for decades the perfect example of professional crackpotism (love the term!), coming with the biggest assembly of academically certified crackpots.
    With so much choice the hardest part will be deciding where to start.

  2. Kate says:

    John Cleves Symmes is my favorite. In 1818 he wrote a plea for funding and men to explore inside the earth, which he believed was composed of concentric spheres that were open at the poles and warm inside. His evidence included the observation of animals going north in winter and coming back shiny and happy and fat. I don’t know what observational methods he used. He didn’t find financial backing, but he did interest a reporter who championed the idea that the U.S. was recovered from the revolution, and we’d better show the world what we’re made of by funding this expedition. The reporter helped convince Congress that foreign exploration was the right and responsibility of the U.S., so they launched the U.S. ExEx, which circumnavigated the globe eight? times and brought back what became the founding objects of the Smithsonian Institution. So even crackpot ideas have their role. (In fact, we should start teaching the hollow earth theory in schools, because it too is a theory just like climate change.) The American Philosophical Society has the tract, letters, and some articles in its library. The letter he sent them with the tract has a postscript, “I’m sending this postage due because I don’t have any money.”

    For contemporary crackpots who choose to publish in the face of real science, are you looking at deniers of climate change and evolution?

  3. Jason says:

    If you don’t already read it, pick up a few issues of Skeptic Magazine, or Skeptical Inquirer. Plenty of fuel for the crackpot fire.

    Richard Hoagland is good.
    Gene Ray is always humorous, but probably doesn’t fall under your scope.
    Or, hell… anyone who suggests that hydrogen is going to solve our energy problems.
    As A. Holer mentioned, though, String “Theory” is as good a place to start as any.

  4. dave says:

    Excellent suggestions all around, though I don’t know that I put string theory under crackpottery as A & Jason do. The issue isn’t that it’s probably right or probably wrong. The issue, as you know, is that it’s almost certainly not testable at anything like the energies that we’ll be able to achieve in the forseeable future, and further, that there isn’t a single theory against which to test. That’s where the “not even wrong” moniker comes.

    I have been thinking of a sort of hierarchy of crackpots, though, and perhaps this might fall under one of them.

    1. People who really should have known better. The information was out there, but they were willfully blind to it.

    2. People who _could_ have known better, but didn’t learn the requisite material. I’m thinking of all the people who send me the “E=mc^2 is wrong” papers.

    3. People with theories that make no predictions, or whose theories are so vague that they make _all_ predictions.

    It’s not clear which of these is the most grievous, though.

    @Kate, you’re darn right I am.


  5. Hoppe says:

    If you’d like to see a whole collection of crazy try going around A site that boats “An alternative archive of 1098 e-prints in Science and Mathematics serving the _whole_ scientific community”. It’s basically the arXiv without all those pretentious ivy-league barriers in place

    For those not aware, the arXiv, while serving a tremendously useful niche in science (and especially so for some subfields), is not a peer reviewed process and the entry barrier is simply having published _anything_ at any point… or knowing someone who has.

  6. Lynch says:

    You gotta be able to find something good with Michio Kaku.

    Also. There was a movie made in 2004 called What the Bleep Do We Know which was basically just a new age exploration into spirituality. But they brought in a bunch of physicists to corroborate the idea that human consciousness is a natural consequence of quantum physics.

    I would look into those physicists. The most prominent one is John Hagelin who carried out an experiment that lowered the crime rate in Washington DC using transcendental meditation!

  7. PhilG says:

    @Hoppe. It is not true that you can get into arXiv if you have published something. I dont know where you got that idea from.

    The correct requirement is that you need an endorsement from someone authorised by arXiv to give endorsements. These are people in research institutions that arXiv approves of. Once you have an endorsement you still face the arXiv moderators who can turf your work out or move it to a category such as “general physics” that nobody looks at. Endorsers live under the threat of loosing their priviledges if they allow something in that is considered inappropriate by the moderators so they usually only endorse people they work with.

    This system means that some indepedent researchers who have published in peer-review journals cannot use the arXiv, yet some weird and wonderful papers from people who work in research institutions do make it in.

  8. Bob Berenz says:

    I am a crackpot as determined by physicists; it may be true, it may not. I have this status because I dared to ask questions no one does. For what it is worth, do not be too quick to rely on the “experts”; find out for yourself. Those who position themselves as authorities, shun me while they state there may be more than the three provable dimensions of space. It might be that physics has far more than its fair share of crackpots because the subject rests on the slightly skewed assumptions of the past. The easy thing to do is to quote the experts but, as history shows, the authorities do not always have it right.

    You can check me out if you like but be forewarned, I do not offer opinions, assumptions, or any wild ideas. I do however provide enough information to make the Mayan prophecy seem valid when it comes to the world of physics.

    Good luck with your next endeavor.


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