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Pathological Physics: Tales from "The Box"
April 30, 2013 4:03 AM   Subscribe

This is a talk I gave on June 1, 2012, about the numerous crank physics letters and books that had been sent to, and saved by, the Physics Department at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, CA.
Don't believe the apparent video length, the talk is 41 minutes long and the camera sticks around for about 20 minutes of the awesome Q&A afterwards.

You will also need to forgive the ideosyncratic theories of videography and sound capture on display, but it is totally worth it.
posted by Blasdelb (67 comments total) 52 users marked this as a favorite

 
I think using this stuff to teach undergrads what science is, and, isn't, is a great idea.

Do other fields get this stuff? I know math departments get manuscripts from circle-squarers and arc-trisecters. Are there cranks in biology, anthropology, or linguistics, convinced that their genius is obscured by a conspiracy of academic charlatans?

Physics seems to be the king - perhaps it appeals to the desire to swing for the fences and produce a theory of everything.
posted by thelonius at 4:25 AM on April 30, 2013


Bookmarked to watch tonight.

I remember hanging out in the student union at MIT one evening, years ago, and somebody with disheveled hair and hard-worn appearance, and only one bow on his eyeglasses, buttonholed me to share his theories regarding some aspect of particle physics I just can't remember any more. I wasn't even an MIT student (or faculty, or otherwise engaged with education or research there).

There is a particular kind of crank that attaches themselves to their own idiosyncratic vision of what science ought to be, and I sometimes wonder whether it's an unfortunate side effect of general science education plus a popular cultural notion of self-determination that leads a lot of people to conclude they will be more intelligent through their autodidacticism than any school could provide. (That this can be true for a few individuals doesn't really contradict the its use to illustrate crankhood). Some people who get really, really, really attached to their theories end up working hardest to use their research to back up their ideas in repudiation of the mainstream science community rather than try to come to terms with it, and some people, like the guy I mentioned, seem to find themselves forever outside the gates pleading to be let in.
posted by ardgedee at 4:34 AM on April 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


I think philosophy departments may be at the center of some massively intersecting Venn Diagram of crank solicitations. We get a lot of this stuff.
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:36 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


How do you tell the difference? sorry
posted by thelonius at 4:38 AM on April 30, 2013 [6 favorites]


How do you tell them appart from your regular correspondence?
posted by Dr Dracator at 4:39 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


You have to snatch the low-hanging fruit very quickly, Dr Dracator!
posted by thelonius at 4:41 AM on April 30, 2013 [16 favorites]


I don't care, according to my theory there is an infinite number of universes where I was first.
posted by Dr Dracator at 4:43 AM on April 30, 2013 [28 favorites]


"Do other fields get this stuff? I know math departments get manuscripts from circle-squarers and arc-trisecters. Are there cranks in biology, anthropology, or linguistics, convinced that their genius is obscured by a conspiracy of academic charlatans?"

Biology is filled with our own equivalents to cranks, though they tend to be less pure crank and significantly muddled with quack along with often legitimate complaints hidden underneath the theories. Unfortunately, unlike physics, there is a significant amount of money to be made in convincing people that you have a universal theory of what makes them sick. While any properly constructed taxonomy of biology cranks/quacks would be related to Dr. David Dixon's model it would have to be fundamentally different. In addition to the stubborn, the naïve, and the crazy, Biology also gets the desperate, the mercenary, the charismatic, the enabling, and those legitimately oppressed by medical misogyny or callousness who go forth to predictably bad results.

To my understanding anthropologists get the racists, the Ancient Alien'ed, the Mormon, and the otherwise deeply religious.
posted by Blasdelb at 4:47 AM on April 30, 2013 [5 favorites]


> Do other fields get this stuff?

In biology, it's usually something like "I know what causes/I know how to cure cancer (or some other disease), and the reason legit researchers don't take me seriously is that then it would be cured & they'd be out of a job! [SILENCED ALL MY LIFE]" There's also chemtrails, vaccines-cause-autism, .... In anthropology and history, you get people saying they can prove historical events are hoaxes, people claiming evidence of religious miracles, and racists who want to prove that their hatred is justified.

(On non-preview, what Blasdelb said.)
posted by Westringia F. at 4:55 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Archaeology: aliens. Jesus going places. Alexander going places. Also a lot of racially-oriented theories, I guess they'd be called? Not just religious, but outright re-writing the evidence to suit someone's views on their heritage.
posted by jetlagaddict at 5:04 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


See also Blasdelb's previous comments on cranks in a MeTa thread.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 5:05 AM on April 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


How do you tell the difference?

A friend of mine had his first letter about his work while we were finishing our PhDs. He wasn't sure whether it was worthwhile or crank until someone pointed out the letter writer had referred to "my laws of thermodynamics"
posted by biffa at 5:14 AM on April 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


My favorite math cranks are people who think they have an elementary proof of Wiles' Theorem (ie Fermat's Last Theorem). My least favorite math cranks are people who don't believe Cantor's Diagonalizaton Argument and people who think .9999999 ≠ 1.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 5:15 AM on April 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


"disheveled hair and hard-worn appearance, and only one bow on his eyeglasses" -ardgedee
This describes a family member who is a mathematician fairly well. He breaks his glasses with amazing frequency, hates getting hair cuts, and tends to have ink stains in the pockets of all of his shirts.

I love my dad.

(can't watch the video until tonight; my apologies for not WTFV before commenting)
posted by sciencegeek at 5:17 AM on April 30, 2013


I was given a handwritten manuscript on a bridge in Luxemburg by a mad man. He urged me to get it to the President of the United States. I tried explaining that I was a Canadian, and didn't have access to the President. He mumbled something about the end of the world and ran off. When I read the handwritten pages it contained French gibberish and a few badly drawn charts and formulas. I never did get it to the President, but since (at the time) it was George W Bush, I'm glad because he may have used it as an excuse to invade Europe...
posted by blue_beetle at 5:21 AM on April 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


In biology, they are called creationists.
posted by notme at 5:27 AM on April 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


Geology get a whole lot of cranks. One of the reasons, I think, that it took so long for plate tectonics to be accepted is that geologists instinctively close ranks in reaction to any radical theory, and I can't say I blame them.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 5:31 AM on April 30, 2013


My brother's a mathematician. He regularly gets loads of this rubbish from sadly neglected geniuses.

Better yet, however, my former wife worked at the Bureau of Meteorology. They keep a crank file. I wish I had photocopied it. Opinions on mathematics or physics are more or less rare. Everybody has an opinion on the weather. So the crank pool is enormous, and extremely cranky.
posted by Wolof at 5:31 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm in psychology-- cognitive neuroscience of memory. The problem there is that everyone has a memory (or has had; sorry, HM), and has some introspectionist concept of how it works. He field, however, moved away from introspection as a legitimate method of study with Ebbinghaus a hundred years ago.

Our lab publishes a lot of our data. So the cranks we get think they've found some nugget of undiscovered truth that proves their theory of human memory. Usually, they've analyzed it wrong, or are making ridiculous inferences with 50-year-old data. Or they bug me to find out weird parameters of the experiment: "How much did the subjects eat for breakfast, though?!"
posted by supercres at 5:44 AM on April 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


I might have mentioned this before here, but when I was doing my PhD I got an email from a crank who was absolutely convinced that quasars were powered by supermassive black holes.
The rest of the department had also got the email but had hit delete before reading it, so they missed out on getting to make the one reply guaranteed to shut up someone who is seeking to overthrow physics:
"Yes, we know."
posted by edd at 5:49 AM on April 30, 2013 [24 favorites]


This post on my library's blog about a Shakespeare-denialist crank got the most comments of any post in the history of the blog... all from Shakespeare denialists.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 5:58 AM on April 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


> This describes a family member who is a mathematician fairly well.

Sure! This particular dude, on the MIT campus, did not stand out as much as I make that sound. His personal hygiene was definitely better than some acknowledged MIT residents I'd encountered at the time. The mannerisms set him off, and what he had to say set him apart moreso -- but it still took me a few minutes to grok that he wasn't faculty or research staff.
posted by ardgedee at 5:59 AM on April 30, 2013


I once met an interesting Physics crank: a Canadian fellow by the name of Scott Starson. He had turned up at a Physics conference at Imperial College (I was working in their summer accommodation centre at the time), where he cut an incongruous dash among his fellow-delegates by virtue of his immaculate grooming and formal attire: he wore a suit & tie and carried a shiny black briefcase. He handed me a copy of the paper he was presenting at the conference: a highly speculative document which touched upon ball lightning, black holes, and vacuum cleaners—I wish now I had held on to it. He assured me that he had previously co-published a paper with an eminent nuclear physicist. And yet his manner, and the slightly disconcerting gleam in his eye, made me wonder about his mental well-being.

When I googled his name years later I was sad to learn he had been committed to a psychiatric institution for threatening to kill his neighbours, and had subsequently become embroiled in a legal struggle, culminating in an important test-case to 'refuse to consent to the course of medications that his physicians recommended, for fear that it would diminish his thinking.' Apparently he claims to be ‘17 billion years old, immortal, engaged to Joan Rivers, and about to publish groundbreaking physics research about the speed of light, the mass of the Earth, and the temperature of the universe’ and considers himself ‘the world’s official “top scientist.”’
posted by misteraitch at 6:00 AM on April 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


One physics department where I spent some time seemed to get a TON of cranks; far more than anywhere I've worked since, even though it wasn't a very prominent place. This included personal contacts instead of mass emails, and even cold calls from time to time. The entire department dealt with them in a uniform way: "Sounds interesting! It's a bit outside my field, but my colleague S---- is an expert".

As far as I know, S---- could never figure out why they kept calling him.
posted by Pre-Taped Call In Show at 6:05 AM on April 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


related: the Museum of Jurassic Technology's "No One May Ever Have the Same Knowledge Again: Letters to Mount Wilson Observatory, 1915-1935"
posted by mwhybark at 6:06 AM on April 30, 2013 [6 favorites]


One of my treasured possessions is a proof of Fermat's last theorem in 8 or so pages utilising only high school maths that I intercepted in a maths department I was working in. The correspondent was from far north Queensland and spent much of the cover letter complaining of how difficult it had been to type up because there had been a rhinoceros beatle (sic) scuttling around in the workings of the typewriter. Beautiful. I always thought it wonderful that these people took an interest in these abstract problems and put so much effort into solving them with the tools that they had to hand. Who knows what they might have done if they had had access to better or more sophisticated tools.
posted by drnick at 6:10 AM on April 30, 2013 [7 favorites]


There was a big sheaf of these on the bulletin board in the Harvard math department when I was a graduate student. I remember a very poignant one, form a guy in India who said he had worked out solutions to many of the major outstanding problems in number theory as a teenager, but hadn't written them up formally, and then, at 21, he masturbated for the first time, and all his ability to do mathematics and all his memory of the proofs instantly vanished.
posted by escabeche at 6:11 AM on April 30, 2013 [15 favorites]


17 Billion years old? Remember that mefi Mayan thread with the NASA (?) video explaining their calander and timing system, and there were periods that lasted billions of years, some longer than the age of the universe, and we all wondered why....

Also from misteraitch's link "I am Professor Starson. That’s title and name,” he said. “Scott is not my name. That was a given name. [He was born Scott Schutzman, but legally changed it. He is not a professor.] "
posted by marienbad at 6:12 AM on April 30, 2013


This video is, by the way, from Mefi's starkeffect
posted by thelonius at 6:12 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


"...The entire department dealt with them in a uniform way: "Sounds interesting! It's a bit outside my field, but my colleague S---- is an expert".

As far as I know, S---- could never figure out why they kept calling him.
"
I've heard from various people that one popular way to deal with cranks in the pre-internet era was to save their contact information and forward it to future related cranks, introducing them as experts who were better qualified to engage the ideas involved.
posted by Blasdelb at 6:15 AM on April 30, 2013 [19 favorites]


I have to deal with the cranks that tell me the plane on the conveyor belt won't take off you know who you are.
posted by backseatpilot at 6:29 AM on April 30, 2013 [8 favorites]


I remember reading an article about the overwhelming stacks of crank correspondence to some math or physics department in one of the popular science mags, like Discover or Scientific American. There was some passage in the article about how the reviewers knew that nothing groundbreaking was probably going to come from looking at it, but they felt they had a duty to look just in case.

Was that linked from the blue?
posted by ArgentCorvid at 6:50 AM on April 30, 2013


With regards to Cantor's diagonalization, I like Raymond Smullyan's approach to explaining it.

With regards to:
 _
.9 ≠ 1
I had a CS professor who did a little exercise in the programming language Scheme, which he called Medusa numbers. They could represent repeating decimals with finite memory. He called them Medusa numbers because if you tried to look at them, you'd lock up the system (ie, turn to stone). His canonical example was to create a Medusa number of 1 ÷ 3, which if you looked at it, gave you a decimal point followed by a series of 3's. Then he'd add two of those together which gives you another Medusa number which was a decimal point followed by a series of 6's. Then he'd add three of those together and you'd get 1. Just like you're supposed to.
posted by plinth at 6:51 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


So, why *are* they all engineering graduates? Theories anyone?
posted by pharm at 6:52 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


When I was still in physics, we had plenty of cranks. A personal favorite was an entire book, gorgeously illustrated, by an optician of some sort. The theme? Electrons are square-bottomed pyramids. Beautifully-drawn square-bottomed pyramids, but pyramids nonetheless. An entire bound book displaying the electromagnetic fields given off by these zippy pyramids. Not even a nice Platonic solid. I used to get the same sorts of things in physics channels on IRC.

Much of your crankyhood comes from similar approaches:

1) I don't have any math for this. The math is mostly irrelevant. Einstein said so. Why can't I get a physicist to do the math for this for me? (Answer: the math is everything. If you have no math, you have almost nothing to with which to work. Einstein is taken out of context, often.)

2) I have this theory, why can't I get someone to pay attention to it? The scientific community is inaccessible! (Peer review. We're busy. Our resources, like all resources, are limited; a system of allocation naturally arises. You need to climb the ladder before trying to get something in front of Murray Gell-Mann. Also, you don't have a theory. You don't even have a testable hypothesis. Shoo.)

3) An obstinate distaste for conservation laws and things like the FTL barrier. We should be able to do anything we can imagine! Nothing is impossible! (Laws prevent everything from happening all at once. Also: I just used a rubber band, a 9V battery, a wad of tinfoil, and a fridge magnet to go back in time to the beginning of the Universe and change the laws of physics such that some things are impossible. You did say "anything.")

They all want someone to do the homework for them and shoot right to the top. They want to break the mold, bust through the you can't. I think the vision of the lone inventor has hung on, for far longer than it ought to have, combined with the sense that one only needs vision and a touch of genius. Scrappy underdogs. That discoveries in physics are now done in harness, like teams of sled dogs, has not sunk in yet. And most people still think that the math is somehow like showing your work when you already know the answer.
posted by adipocere at 7:04 AM on April 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


So, why *are* they all engineering graduates? Theories anyone?

The explanation which makes the most sense to me1 is it's a combination of two factors. First, engineers don't fear equations — your average nascent crackpot might not have as much quantitative literacy, and so when they hear a physicist say something like, "of course, you really need to do the math to make any predictions with [quantum mechanics/special relativity]", they're more likely to give up and say, "well, OK, I guess I'll have to trust you because I can't be bothered to relearn all my college math." The engineer is more likely to persevere and try to tackle the math.

Second, engineering shares with physics a reductionist sort of philosophy: the idea that it should be possible to boil any problem down to an easily understandable essence, from which all other conclusions can be built up. The flip side of this is that if you can't understand the "essence" of, say, special relativity as physicists think about it, you're more likely to conclude that the entire enterprise is fundamentally flawed.

1Which I may have cribbed from this very talk when I watched it a few months back, I can't recall
posted by Johnny Assay at 7:13 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]




So, why *are* they all engineering graduates? Theories anyone?

Technicians, most notably machinists, create things from scratch but live in a world of accuracy and precision. Machinists make jokes about the difference between 0.01", 0.001" and 0.0005" and other machinists laugh at them. Scientists also live an die by measurement and usually get that 4.72, 4.517 and 5.02 might all be the same number depending on the system they're dealing with. But there is a sweet spot where you can be all about calculating things based on "known values" instead of measuring existing things and and occasionally an engineer will go down that rabbit hole.

For example, a friend of mine was telling me a story about her physics class where they had to calculate things like Kirchoff's law problems out to some silly number of decimal places (I seem to recall six or nine digits). I'm not a EE, but let me point out that her instructor was an idiot. Normal resistors have a tolerance of 5%, or you can spend a little more and get resistors with 1% tolerance or you can be this guy and design a clock radio that will cost a $100000 and still keep time differently on warm days than on cool days. Once you start believing your own calculations for four or five more digits than humanity can measure how hard can squaring the circle be?
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:11 AM on April 30, 2013 [3 favorites]




I have a "time machine" that runs on "anti-energy" on my office door. It looks remarkably similar to a frozen heat exchanger I had to deal with in the real world at about the same time. A hoot.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 8:20 AM on April 30, 2013


Well, there's anti-matter, right? And matter can be converted into energy? QED - there must be anti-energy. It is simple logic really.
posted by thelonius at 8:27 AM on April 30, 2013


I can't be the only one wanting to hear a joke about the difference between 0.01", 0.001" and 0.0005". I'm not a machinist so I might not laugh at it, but my curiosity is piqued.
posted by TedW at 8:36 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Engineers are prone to crankitude, I think, because we learn a lot of tools and techniques that are very reliable and accurate, yet counterintuitive and with very sketchily explained underpinnings. (Because in order to re-derive such-and-such equation, you'd need a degree in materials science, then quantum mechanics, then abstract mathematics; and you'd never get around to learning how to build a bridge. Or, occasionally, there are complex empirically-derived relationships we still don't have a physics-based explanation for.) So we're primed to believe that if we come up with a new plausible-sounding theory, it doesn't need any more justification than the sketchy explanation we got for some turbulent flow thing or Laplace transforms or whatever.
posted by hattifattener at 8:37 AM on April 30, 2013 [5 favorites]


What a wonderful talk. I think there are some interesting similarities and differences to a certain class of cranky legal writing, of which I have read lots and lots that partakes of some mixture of craziness, naiveté and stubborness. (I have also noticed that several of the more imaginative ones have penned by engineers, and yet only rarely do I see them attempt the kind of mechanistic/reductionist loopholing that I was expecting to see from them/computer scientists.)

I was going to write a lot here about how those three factors manifest in certain distinctive ways in legal writing (particularly how naïveté has combined with computer databases of case law to create a renaissance of quote mining), but I'm not sure it would be of interest to anyone who doesn't share my fascination with self represented litigants and the distinct but also interesting class of vexatious litigants. So I will just make two observations.

One of the Q&A questions asked about why the outsiders don't experimentally verify. The law establishment has an advantage here - unlike the physics cranks, law cranks can and usually must veer into the concrete, erecting and then boiling down elaborate conceptual edifices into arguments about how, for example, why they shouldn't have to pay their carpenter, and willing to raze the law to its foundations to reach the conclusion they are looking for. These theories are subject to experiment - they go before a judge and are decided upon, with the unhappy innovator often limping away with not only a "No!", but a costs order made against them. It doesn't seem to deter though, and the only long term effect seems to be the mysterious addition of a "the courts are a disgrace" / "judges are idiots" plank to their platform the next time they are in the building.

Second is that Australia has the dubious distinction of having a dual class law/math & physics crank. Behold, Theodore Rout [archive of website]. Pretty neat, eh?
posted by curious.jp at 8:50 AM on April 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


Where there is room for interpretation, and where things are known to be true despite not being directly observable, there will always be people who feel something that makes sense to them must be just as valid and true as the facts that other people are always claiming are true -- because from their vantage point, those other people are just making it up, too.
posted by davejay at 9:19 AM on April 30, 2013


So, why *are* they all engineering graduates? Theories anyone?

Remember the kid in college who learned about the oppression of Native Americans, was shocked by it, got all worked up over it (despite being of european descent) and wouldn't shut up about how terrible Thanksgiving was? Engineers don't have large circles of friends willing to listen to them spout nonsense, but they're just as likely to get worked up over random things as anyone else. So they express it via math and send it to people who understand math as their way of getting the "truth" out. It's the same drive, though, I think.
posted by davejay at 9:22 AM on April 30, 2013


Not that the oppression of Native Americans is nonsense, of course, but that as a college student of european descent this news is an OUTRAGE and they're not going to go home for Thanksgiving this year that that if we all did that it would SHOW THEM and so on.
posted by davejay at 9:23 AM on April 30, 2013


So, why *are* they all engineering graduates? Theories anyone?

If you're an engineer and trained as such, you're probably quite a smart, bright person, smart enough to see through pop-science explenations of things like climate change or special relativity. Unlike humanities graduates, who are also smart and bright but not so much into the whole hard science / maths of things, engineering graduates have just enough knowledge of science and maths to be dangerous outside their speciality.

Combine these two, add a bit of hubris and a bigger helping of Dunning–Kruger and you have your classical crank. This process accelerates if you're of a rightwing/conservative bent. (leftist failure modes are different and tend to involve more unhealthy obsessions with vegetarianism, crystals and pseudohistory of the Black Athena kind.)
posted by MartinWisse at 9:42 AM on April 30, 2013


Oh man, you guys need to read the Theodore Rout link posted by curious.jp, above. Even now, I am not shure what is going on, but it made me laugh. Surreal.
posted by marienbad at 9:47 AM on April 30, 2013


I just used a rubber band, a 9V battery, a wad of tinfoil, and a fridge magnet to go back in time to the beginning of the Universe and change the laws of physics such that some things are impossible.

We could have a universe with hyperspace and Jedi knights and chock full of aliens we can go have dinner with and probably reproduce with, and where Minds were more than just fiction, and we could have antigravity powered flying cars with huge chrome fins, and instead we get... this.

You, sir, are the universe's greatest asshole.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:06 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've heard this tendency called "engineer's disease" before.

Personally I sort of viewed the first crank emails I got as a right of passage; I think being a grad student at Berkeley means we got them a little earlier. I vividly remember a prof of mine in undergrad standing at the fax machine grumbling about some doofus sending her "their theory of everything"-- which apparently consisted of pages and pages of Sierpinski triangles. I'm glad today we get emails-- so much less of a waste.

I always liked 't Hooft's response to this sort of thing, here.
posted by nat at 10:07 AM on April 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


Geology and Biology departments also get a fair number of, "Look at this thing I found" inquiries.

The ones who just want help figuring it out what it is are harmless or even fun (especially if they're kids), but then there's the ones who are convinced they found something significant.
posted by straight at 10:30 AM on April 30, 2013


Well, finding a dog jawbone and thinking it is a dinosaur is part of the fun of childhood. So maybe some of those inquiries are parents humoring their kids.

No, who am I kidding.
posted by thelonius at 10:53 AM on April 30, 2013


Greetings. Been a while since I was last on MeFi.

I also wrote a companion piece to my talk, as a contribution to a series on skepticism and education for the James Randi Educational Foundation. At some point I'll write up an academic paper on the subject as well.

(Sorry again for the video quality-- it was all I had to go with.)
posted by starkeffect at 10:57 AM on April 30, 2013 [11 favorites]


Philosophy has it the worse in my opinion as far as cranks go. The general public by and large can separate between legitimate science and crank science, but they think that crank philosophy is what legitimate philosophy is.
posted by SollosQ at 11:04 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


The talk slides (or at least some version of them) are available here.
posted by pjenks at 11:34 AM on April 30, 2013


Doctor… we have this pet physicist, and… something's wrong. It keeps babbling about linguistics and neurology and climate science.

posted by zamboni at 11:18 AM on April 30 [+] [!]
Am I the only one who read that and thought of crank(y) Noam ?
posted by k5.user at 11:45 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Engineers are prone to crankitude, I think, because we learn a lot of tools and techniques that are very reliable and accurate, yet counterintuitive and with very sketchily explained underpinnings. (Because in order to re-derive such-and-such equation, you'd need a degree in materials science, then quantum mechanics, then abstract mathematics; and you'd never get around to learning how to build a bridge.

I studied to be an electrical engineer for a while and this drove me crazy. I didn't know at the time that I should've been studying something more pure.
posted by Jpfed at 11:47 AM on April 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm less interested in true cranks than I am in fringe science. People actually trying to do science, but without the baggage of the university system. Anybody can point and laugh at the crazy guy... Anyway, here's a previous post on the subject: everyone's a scientist. Oh, and here's another post: Science and Pseudoscience (apparently I thought it was great 6 years ago, but I have no recollection ;P)

After the first ten minutes of the video, I was really losing interest. The only reason I kept going was to see if he'd site the guy I mention in that everyone's a scientist thread. I'm still only 20 minutes in, but I'm shocked at the tangent he's taken--a tangent that he has in common with some comments I've seen on MetaFilter recently too--what's the matter with engineers! (WTF?!)

Shocked not because people are capable of irrational prejudice, that part is obvious. Shocked because I hadn't noticed that kind of marginalizing talk about engineers before now. We are all familiar with it when talking about other fields. Lots of people turn their noses up at social science, or economics, for example. I've heard a lot about the class distinction within physics, the theoreticians are 'better' than the experimenters. I have only recently seen this stuff about engineer ~= crank.

Are Engineers the new Gingers?

Anyway, I'll go back and finish I think.. I see that he is on "why does this matter", and I still have hope that the speaker will redeem himself. He really badly needed a sound engineer though!
posted by Chuckles at 11:55 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's not that engineer => crank Chuckles. Rather that if someone is a crank, they're more likely to be an engineer than you'd expect them to be based purely on the proportion of engineers in the population. Same goes for terrorism for some reason (various papers have been published on the topic).
posted by pharm at 12:20 PM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have only recently seen this stuff about engineer ~= crank.

I didn't notice anyone here claiming that engineering makes you a into a crackpot, rather that anecdotally, many cranks seem to be engineers. Even if it was true that many cranks are retired engineers, it doesn't necessarily follow that all engineers are cranks.
posted by zamboni at 1:25 PM on April 30, 2013


I can't be the only one wanting to hear a joke about the difference between 0.01", 0.001" and 0.0005". I'm not a machinist so I might not laugh at it, but my curiosity is piqued.

There is no way in hell I'd ever be able to find it at this late date. It was on some forum and it consisted of two columns - one labeled accuracy (or maybe precision) and a number of benchmarks. There were things like "Your wife is impressed", "your boss is impressed", "the other guys in the shop are impressed", "old timers are impressed" peppered with comments like "you should be asking for a raise" and comments about what you can build - a model steam engine, a a model internal combustion engine, a model turboprop that immediately seizes up, a model turboprop that explodes and a model turboprop that runs. I'm not doing the presentation justice, but it was followed by about fifty posts that basically said "this is so true".
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 3:07 PM on April 30, 2013


Civil rights lawyers, if they're famous enough (and on the side of the small person) probably also get a lot of crank letters, going by the archive of one such famous lawyer that I processed after he died and left his papers to the Columbia Law Library. His life spanned the century. Real victims of the McCarthy period sought him out as their defender, and so did cranks and clinically insane people.

Sadly, at that time there wasn't that much difference between what the government was doing to its suspected enemies and what delusional people believed it was doing to them. One insane letter-writer believed that the US government had formed a "Department of Harm" devoted to persecuting him alone. Another believed that Nazis (over a decades after the end of WWII) had inflitrated the walls of his house and were spying on him.

I confirmed that the clinically delusional really did use to type in single space to the very edges of the page. But these letters, really, they would make you cry.
posted by bad grammar at 7:07 PM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Here's another physics/computer science and lawsuit-obsessed crank.

On second thought, probably all law firms of any note can show their file of cranks and discerning the cranks and whether or not to accept their cases is a necessary aspect of legal practice. You may recall the notorious trousers lawsuit.
posted by bad grammar at 7:28 PM on April 30, 2013


Are there cranks in biology, anthropology, or linguistics, convinced that their genius is obscured by a conspiracy of academic charlatans?
Yes, and we like to stay up late posting comments on Metafilter.
posted by jcrcarter at 9:35 PM on April 30, 2013


5 Great Scientists Who Believed Wildly Unscientific Things
(Francis) Crick believed that life was seeded on Earth by intergalactic "sperm" on the tail of some comet or meteor. While his theory is not quite as scientifically respected as his double-helix model of DNA, most scientists agree it is likely the closest we'll ever come to a scientific equivalent of the Lil Wayne song "Fuck the World."
posted by Golden Eternity at 10:05 PM on April 30, 2013


I just remembered a weird example of crankitude from math: Serge Lang was an opponent of the "HIV causes AIDS" "hypothesis". Enough so that when he died, a non-trivial portion of the article in the Notices about his life was dedicated to a remembrance of him by Peter Duesberg. It was really weird.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 2:23 AM on May 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


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