Gleaming the Time Cube
May 22, 2009 11:16 AM   Subscribe

Pascal Boyer explores the field of crackpottery in his article How I found glaring errors in Einstein's calculations. "For some time now, I have been an avid reader and collector of webpages created by crackpot physicists, those marginal self-styled scientists whose foundational, generally revolutionary work is sadly ignored by most established scientists. These are the great heroes, at least in their own eyes, of alternative science."

The featured crackpots include:

The Physics of Bruce Harvey


Grand Unification

[T]he really interesting crackpots are the ones trying to really, seriously do science, because their productions and their failures tells us important things about science itself. Most of my “informants” are committed to the standard scientific way of doing things. They accept that their theories should be coherent, clearly expressed, grounded in explicit mathematics, consistent with the evidence, compatible with other established (and empirically grounded) frameworks, etc. They accept that theories should be discussed, tested, and discarded if they are redundant or trivial.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing (46 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Alternative science is very much like alternative medicine - if it worked it would not be “alternative” anymore.

What of those "alternatives" that are brought into the fold of known/ condoned medicine? Kind of like how "alternative rock" isn't so alternative any more (my science background is weak, so I'll go with what I know).
posted by filthy light thief at 11:34 AM on May 22, 2009

I had to "double check" the first link since "he" starts off writing as a crackpot, and is quite convincing. I think it's the "liberal" use "of" quotation "marks" that made it so "spot on".
posted by anti social order at 11:35 AM on May 22, 2009

But I thought that Einstein sucked at math! Jeepers, I owe some high school teachers an apology that's about a quarter of a century late.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:37 AM on May 22, 2009

Thanks for this. Boyer's work is really really neat, and I can't speak more highly of his book Religion Explained. This cognition and culture blog has a lot of neat stuff as well.
posted by farishta at 11:52 AM on May 22, 2009

Oh, crackpots. Is there anything they can't do?
posted by slogger at 11:57 AM on May 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

This American Life had a great segment on a guy who also believed Einstein was wrong.

A Little Bit of Knowledge, Act Three: Sucker MC-Squared.
posted by mattdidthat at 11:57 AM on May 22, 2009

Don't forget Stephen Wolfram lol.
posted by delmoi at 11:59 AM on May 22, 2009 [4 favorites]

Now consider psychology or other social science fields.

Yes, yes, go on...

Obviously, we do have our our own fully-fleged cranks. A few years ago, Sokal and Bricmont could make fun of such luminaries as Regis Debray telling us about the “Gödel theorem of society” (entirely sic) and other egregious examples of (mostly French) high idiocy. But these are peripheral to serious scholarship.

posted by phrontist at 12:08 PM on May 22, 2009

My old boss is on those lists! I was a secretary for a certain Dr. Brown during college. I helped build that website. Ah, memories....
posted by domo at 12:12 PM on May 22, 2009

Is there a reason he hasn't included Nassim Taleb yet?
posted by FuManchu at 12:14 PM on May 22, 2009

Intelligent design. Hello?

My favorite is Frank Tipler.
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 12:30 PM on May 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

I love crackpots. I really, really do. It's fun to see where they're right and to think about how things went horribly, horribly wrong.
posted by zeek321 at 12:43 PM on May 22, 2009

Physics doesn't really have an equivalent of placebo effect.
posted by Artw at 12:44 PM on May 22, 2009

I was a secretary for a certain Dr. Brown during college. I helped build that website.

Did you help him build the flux capacitor, too?
posted by Faint of Butt at 12:46 PM on May 22, 2009 [3 favorites]

And this comes from legitimate scientists who are sometimes crackpots in their own right. I mean, lets take something we can't see, can't measure, but because it makes our equations right it must exist, and call it Dark Matter and Dark Energy because I'm a crazy mad astronomer and Star Wars was a pretty cool flick.

-Signed, Crackpot
posted by banished at 12:49 PM on May 22, 2009

This is like an endless font of timecubes. Thank you for ruining my weekend, precious Marisa.
posted by rokusan at 12:55 PM on May 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Cool article; thanks for sharing this.

What concerns crackpots and social sciences, I think the most attractive field for crackpots is history. The reasons for this are pretty much the same why physics attracts so many crackpots: just like crackpot physicists, crackpot historians think they have found an explanation for everything. They don't settle for solving minor questions, oh no; they tend to go for big ones, like what was the cause of all historical events. Of course, they are greatly influenced by textbook history (hence the fixation with chronology and primary causes). And of course their theories are always very intuitive and easy to understand (the idea that "the Jews did it" is a lot easier to grasp than the complex interplay of politics, religion, culture etc).
posted by daniel_charms at 12:56 PM on May 22, 2009

No Sarfatti?
posted by msalt at 1:10 PM on May 22, 2009

No Sarfatti?

Sarfatti's website - Stardrive - is included in the massive DMOZ alternative physics directory that Boyer points to at the end of his article.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 1:18 PM on May 22, 2009

Oh, this is wonderful, thanks!
posted by Dumsnill at 1:21 PM on May 22, 2009

"...but because it makes our equations right it must exist, and call it Dark Matter and Dark Energy because I'm a crazy mad astronomer..."

By "equations" you mean reproducible measurements based on observations of every galaxy we can see, right?

Who is crazy - The scientist who can look through a telescope and calculate mass and velocity? Or someone who rejects anything new in science without bothering to even know what it is?
posted by y6y6y6 at 1:49 PM on May 22, 2009 [5 favorites]

Why am I not on here? I invented and discovered everything, but the government stole them all away and redivided my discoveries across the scientific community to justify the existence of the NSF. I have the restaurant receipts and towelette stains to prove it.
posted by TwelveTwo at 1:52 PM on May 22, 2009

I can't believe no one's mentioned Tesla yet.
posted by tommasz at 2:04 PM on May 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think most of what most people think they know about almost everything is probably wrong, especially when you get to foundations. Science, History, Religion, Math, whatever. Particularly if all you know about it, you learned from reading text books.
posted by empath at 2:07 PM on May 22, 2009

Good post, but needs a "psychoceramics" tag.
posted by bonehead at 2:16 PM on May 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

If you're thinking about posting your own revolutionary theories, you might want to read this first: "the alternative-science respectability checklist" [via Cosmic Variance].

In all seriousness, crackpots kind of make me happy. The idea that someone has spent loads of their spare time (because these guys are almost never professional scientists; they're engineers or doctors or accountants who took some nifty science classes once upon a time and have been fascinated with Einstein ever since) trying to construct a "scientific" theory of something -- or really, the idea that they're doing that instead of watching TV or walking the dog or any of the bazillion other things that compete for your time and attention in every single day -- seems beautiful to me, even if the results of their labors are sometimes terribly, hilariously wrong. There's a yearning for explanation there that is moving and wonderful. I only wish we trained people people better at sorting out how to actually find those explanations.
posted by chalkbored at 2:43 PM on May 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

I think most of what most people think they know about almost everything is probably wrong, especially when you get to foundations. Science, History, Religion, Math, whatever.

Math? Really?
posted by decagon at 3:30 PM on May 22, 2009

A lot of legitimate scientists were/are crackpots at the same time. They are legitimate in their field. Then they decide to opine on a completely different field, and often crackpottery occurs.

This of course is not limited to physics. How about crackpot ideas on race genetics? Shockley and Watson made news recently, but this stuff is endemic.

Then there are cases of folks who are distinguished in one field, but for some inexplicable reason think they should "take over" other fields. W.E.B. DuBoise in his later years decided to set up a physics lab, at a time when physics was getting a lot of press. It was embarrassing. However, unlike a garden variety crank, because of his stature, he managed to get a hearing from top physicists. He took it into his head that it was actually he who first discovered that e=mc[squared], and started corresponding with Einstein to get his claim recognized. Einstein very kindly responded with great interest, asking where he could read that. DuBoise's response consisted of citing a text he wrote somewhere stating that matter is really energy. When Einstein pressed him for the math, DuBoise responded haughtily that math was not necessary and distracting "since you can prove just about anything with mathematics". At that point, Einstein no longer responded.

So yeah, the journey to crackpottery has a lot of famous and distinguished people on it.
posted by VikingSword at 5:11 PM on May 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

And one would be remiss to not mention Linus Pauling. If ever there was a distinguished, genuinely brilliant scientist, it was Pauling. Yet he was a total crank when it came to medicine. The difference is that he was able to leverage his credibility and influence, and be taken seriously by a great many people, he even established research labs where he conducted semi-legitimate research. To this day, there are many people who take mega doses of vit. C to prevent/cure cancer and assorted diseases.
posted by VikingSword at 5:16 PM on May 22, 2009

Previously: Everyone's a scientist.
posted by Chuckles at 5:18 PM on May 22, 2009

Yes, "everyone is a scientist". This brings to mind a remark by Walter Lippmann that a grocer usually has very clear ideas about political conflict in Europe and the Far East. He is less certain about groceries, because he knows firsthand how complicated the subject can be.
posted by VikingSword at 5:25 PM on May 22, 2009 [5 favorites]

Crackpots absolutely fascinate me. You can tell that they are following the scientific method to the strictest letter, but they have failed to notice one single, yet critical flaw, which is making their results go all loopy. It's like they're following the recipe for cheesecake, and they're doing so properly, except they've somehow failed to notice that they've used Koosh balls instead of the cream cheese or something.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:41 PM on May 22, 2009 [4 favorites]

Tesla and Edison could totally have a weird-off against each other - I think to a certain degree folks from the 19th century were just like that.
posted by Artw at 5:48 PM on May 22, 2009

Tesla and Edison could totally have a weird-off against each other - I think to a certain degree folks from the 19th century were just like that.

I actually like Wilhelm Reich a lot. Everyone generally seems to agree that he DID go crazy -- but no one seems to be able to agree on WHEN.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:55 PM on May 22, 2009 [3 favorites]

They laughed at Galileo! They laughed at the Wright Brothers!

Then they laughed at Lister, and Semmelweis, and Hans Alfven, and Robert Goddard, and Wegener, and Maiman, and Prusiner, and Thomas Gold, and Nottebohm, and Margulis, and Galvani, and Krebs, and Arrhenius, and Harlen Bretz, and S. Chandrasekhar, and Robert Folk, and Barry Marshall, and Barb McClintlock, and van't Hoff, and Peyton Rous, and Fritz Zwicky.

But they showed 'em. They showed 'em ALL!!!!!!!
posted by billb at 6:00 PM on May 22, 2009 [3 favorites]

posted by JHarris at 7:07 PM on May 22, 2009

Sort of like historical revisionism, legitimate cracks pots are fine and harmless and occasionally one turns out to be right. It's those who are purposefully misrepresenting science, such as many of the climate deniers, or smoking/cancer deniers, who profit by being contrary. They are in the same league as holocaust deniers.
posted by stbalbach at 7:22 PM on May 22, 2009

Is there a reason he hasn't included Nassim Taleb yet?

I wouldn't say that Taleb is a crank himself as much as he's an enabler of cranks. He has a disdain for the attempts at understanding and modeling a small aspect of reality and instead respects only those who like to look at the "big picture." And what is the #1 feature of cranks, according to the link?
1 All crackpottery is foundational. Crackpots do not go for the small problems, for what Kuhn called the puzzle-solving of normal science, they invariably shake the foundations of modern physics. They provide a new structure for the atom, a new unified theory of field and energy, a complete alternative to general relativity, an entirely novel cosmology, etc.
Any cranks reading "The Black Swan" are going to instantly see themselves as the outside-the-box thinking heroes like Mandelbrot and the fictional "Fat Tony" that Taleb admires.
posted by deanc at 8:20 PM on May 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

This is missing the batshitinsane tag.
posted by Nattie at 10:54 PM on May 22, 2009

Another set of characteristics of cranks, from Martin Gardner [wik]:

  • The pseudo-scientist considers himself a genius.
  • He regards other researchers as stupid, dishonest or both. By choice or necessity he operates outside the peer review system (hence the title of the original Antioch Review article, "The Hermit Scientist").
  • He believes there is a campaign against his ideas, a campaign compared with the persecution of Galileo or Pasteur.
  • Instead of side-stepping the mainstream, the pseudo-scientist attacks it head-on: The most revered scientist is Einstein so Gardner writes that Einstein is the most likely establishment figure to be attacked.
  • He coins neologisms.

  • posted by FuManchu at 1:52 AM on May 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

    I think that the reason why there are so many engineers among crackpot physicists and mathematicians, is because a certain degree of knowledge is needed even to get it wrong in those fields.

    In my line of work, I'm sometimes confronted to *ahem*eccentric*ahem* inventors. You know, the makers of perpetua mobilia, reactionless engines, and so on. They rarely have an engineering degree, never mind a PhD. Indeed, they are to the engineer very much what the crackpot physicist is to the CERN alumnus. But they do have a lot in common with these crackpots:

    a) An extraordinarily high opinion of themselves. Not to them the daily toil of solving small engineering problems, no sir: it's the salvation of Humanity or nothing. When it's pointed out to them that millions of other people, usually better qualified than themselves, are working on the same problems and can only offer gradual improvement, they either feel comforted in their genius, or start explaining conspiracy theories ("You know, the oil industry is covering this up...")

    b) Extraordinary ignorance, or rather, misguided knowledge. If they'd spent half the time studying from reputable sources, as they do reading up conspiracy theories and bad science, they wouldn't be trying to build one of those contraptions. Because, contrarily to what the first link says, crackpots do not really ignore each other: indeed, they happily pick (wrong) ideas from each other all the time. However, because of a) they rapidly manage to forget that they stole that from somebody else. The idea becomes their own, and no amount of evidence will undo their successful self-delusion. The cognitive dissonance may sometimes be jarring, but their whole inflated self-esteem depends on maintaining this.

    c) Yes, they are always men. Again, this has all to do with self-esteem: they are all vying for an alpha-male position. And, please note: they are not all losers. Indeed, the most persuasive among them can be surprisingly successful in attracting attention and financial investment in their schemes. These ones are, I dare say, particularly aggressive when the feasability of their inventions is challenged...

    d) Yes, their writing style, and HTML skillz are very characteristic...
    posted by Skeptic at 4:02 AM on May 23, 2009

    They laughed at Galileo! They laughed at the Wright Brothers!

    They also laughed at Melon Balls McPherson, Coconut Hyphen Peebles and Hindmost Jules van ButterTart.

    Those were great times.
    posted by storybored at 10:41 AM on May 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

    Newton was absolutely potty!
    posted by fcummins at 12:16 PM on May 23, 2009

    "Alas, to wear the mantle of Galileo it is not enough that you be persecuted by an unkind establishment; you must also be right." -- Robert Park, of the American Physical Society
    posted by Legomancer at 3:44 PM on May 23, 2009 [3 favorites]

    They won't be laughing when I get my re-bigulator up and running...
    posted by Joseph Gurl at 8:10 PM on May 23, 2009

    Aye, well, but they said Crippen was crazy, didn't they?
    posted by Chrysostom at 1:39 PM on June 2, 2009

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