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How to Spot a Crackpot?

January 29, 2009 on 1:24 pm | In Random Stuff |

Alright, here’s a quick bonus post for you all. As pointed out by Bad Astronomy, there’s an older article from the Chronicle that goes through the Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science.

While this is good general advice, I’d like to point out that many legitimate scientists frequently do these things too. In fact, when there’s a theoretical revolution, many of these things need to happen. What are the seven telltale signs, according to Robert Park?

  1. The discoverer pitches the claim directly to the media.
  2. The discoverer says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work.
  3. The scientific effect involved is always at the very limit of detection.
  4. Evidence for a discovery is anecdotal.
  5. The discoverer says a belief is credible because it has endured for centuries.
  6. The discoverer has worked in isolation.
  7. The discoverer must propose new laws of nature to explain an observation.

Now, some of these are almost always surefire signs of crackpottery. Specifically, numbers 3, 4, and 5. If you can’t measure a measurable effect significantly, you didn’t detect it. Go back and improve your experiment/observations until you can. (See N-rays for a classic example of this, or 1989’s Cold Fusion for a more recent one.) Evidence cannot be anecdotal, it must adhere to scientific rigor, and widespread belief is never a substitute for scientific evidence.

But numbers 1, 2, 6, and 7 are very grey areas. For example, consider Fritz Zwicky. Although he pitched his ideas to scientists and scientific journals, and his findings were published, there was a huge effort to suppress his work. Was it scientifically justified? Probably not. He worked mostly in isolation, he had to propose a new type of “invisible” matter, but his ideas were right.

Consider the Big Bang Theory. Due to the popularity of Arthur Eddington, no one could even seriously talk about this theory until after his death (in 1944), although people knew about an expanding Universe (and thus the possible validity of the Big Bang) since the 1920s. Akthough it isn’t my field, apparently his dogma in Stellar Astrophysics held sway with the field until his death also.

My point is not that crackpots don’t often do these things, since they do. It’s that legitimate theoretical advances that challenge the established order of things often have to go the same route. How can you tell the completely crazy from the idea that’s “out there” but could be right?

You need to find an honest expert. I’m happy to fill that role where I can, but I know that I have my limits to what I know and how “expert” my judgment is. There are plenty of scientists who are legitimate, good scientists that are working on theories that are not mainstream, possibly not free from errors, and probably not representative of physical reality, according to what we know at present. That doesn’t mean they aren’t right, and that certainly doesn’t mean they are crackpots. Some of them are people I really admire for the courage they display in supporting their own novel ideas, like John Moffat, Jakob Bekenstein, Bob McElrath, and Richard Woodard, to name a few theoretical physicists. They may be right, and for that possibility, their work is valuable. Perhaps they’ll someday be guilty of the sins numbered 1, 2, 6, and 7? And if so, you heard it here first that right or wrong, these people aren’t crackpots, and their ideas should be treated with respectful scrutiny. Just be aware that there’s a Universe of possibilities out there, and this is part of the process of figuring it out.


8 Comments »

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  1. Fritz Zwicky discovered Dark Matter over 80 years and coined the term itself. The scientific community rejected and suppressed his work in concert; yet his work remains the most important in cosmology today, Supernovae Search, Supernova his coinage, Gravitational Lensing, Sky Survey Technique and his Catalogue of Zwicky Galaxies and Compact Galaxies. His work continues to stand as restorative truth against all literary assault. The incessant falsehoods and embellishments have no credibility, coming from an incompetent and malicious scientific community consumed by their own professional jealousy.

    Comment by barbarina zwicky — January 29, 2009 #

  2. Dude! Calm down! I’m a scientist. I work in the scientific community. Not only do I respect Fritz Zwicky’s work, so do all the people I know who taught me the astronomy and astrophysics that I learned. It’s too bad I never got to meet him; I think I would’ve liked the guy.

    Comment by ethan — January 29, 2009 #

  3. I remember the cold fusion fiasco well.
    Are Fleischmann and Pons still at it? I can’t imagine it did their careers that much good.

    Comment by Tim — January 30, 2009 #

  4. From Wikipedia:

    Pons moved to France in 1992, along with Fleischmann, to work at a Toyota-sponsored laboratory; it closed in 1998 after a ₤12 million research investment with no results.

    Fleischmann went back to Southampton and the Naval Research Labs after that, I don’t know what Pons is doing.

    Comment by ethan — January 30, 2009 #

  5. […] a citizen of Switzerland, and did his best work at Caltech. (In fact, his daughter Barberina has noticed my old site!) Fritz was in the very tough spot of having a number of great (and correct) ideas […]

    Pingback by ScienceBlogs Channel : Physical Science | BlogCABLE.COM — June 17, 2009 #

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    Comment by Willy Cassagne — September 6, 2011 #

  7. suppresed? gee then I how did I find out about it decades ago? they didnt do a very good job
    or coudl it be it was NOT supressed!

    Comment by nick — October 17, 2011 #

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    Comment by Trinidad Norlund — November 22, 2011 #

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