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Martin Gardner’s Signs of a Crank

by Brian Dunning, Jul 08 2010

When recreational mathematician Martin Gardner died earlier this year, he left us a huge number of books. One of these is called Fads & Fallacies in the Name of Science. In his first chapter, Gardner went into some depth on characterizing cranks. Cranks are folks whom I encounter quite frequently in my work on Skeptoid; not only from the side promoting pseudoscience, but also from the side of skeptics. I find that a few skeptics are little different methodologically from the pseudoscientists they so fervently argue against, and so I believe it’s of great value to everyone to familiarize himself with Gardner’s list.

My fellow blogger Michael Shermer wrote a column recently in Scientific American that discussed this in somewhat more detail, and if you’re not a subscriber, you can get his article online here. It rang quite true with me, so I wanted to take a look at Gardner’s thesis from the perspective of being a science outreach professional.

Gardner didn’t really put his points into the form of a list, so I’m taking some liberties here and rearranging them into bullet points. So here are the things you need to make sure you’re not doing:

  • Cranks tend to work in isolation from their colleagues. This is conducive to drifting far afield. If you want to stay abreast of the latest developments, you usually want to be part of the community. If you’re not, you proceed unchecked, and you lack the checks and balances and corrections of peer review. Isolation is rarely or never the best way to insure that your work is on track.
  • Cranks tend to be paranoid. They worry that their important discoveries are being spied upon, that evil forces are out to destroy their reputations, that colleagues are conspiring to suppress their discoveries. Nobody doing legitimate science, or working within the scientific method, has any plausible reason to be paranoid about such things. Can any legitimate scientist recall the last time they conspired to suppress good work?
  • Cranks tend to consider themselves geniuses. Cranks tend to learn early on that their work is pretty unique. For some reason they often fail to consider the possibility that this uniqueness is for any reason other than its utter brilliance. “I’m the only one smart enough to see this” a pretty clear red flag. Beware of anyone who claims unique insight.
  • Cranks tend to regard their colleagues and critics as stupid. The Dunning-Kruger effect (no relation to me) is expressed when people of mediocre ability are unable to perceive their own mediocrity, and unable to comprehend that others may be smarter or more capable than they. When a crank sees a colleague doing different work or coming to different conclusions, it may well be that his own incompetence prevents him from understanding that it’s possible for others to be smarter. Therefore, the colleagues’ different conclusions can only be due to their stupidity.
  • Cranks tend to believe there is a conspiracy against them. Why will nobody publish their paper or invite them to speak at conferences? Is it because their work is poor? No, it must be a conspiracy to protect to status quo and to suppress innovation. A crank is so convinced of his own correctness that there doesn’t seem to be any rational reason for the community to dispute his work, therefore a conspiracy seems to be a better explanation.
  • Cranks tend to criticize the work of big names in science. Einstein is usually the favorite. When a good scientist finds a flaw in established theory, that theory rarely happens to be from one of the big names in science; not because the big names are special or infallible, but simply because the huge number of scientists in the world dilutes the big names down to a tiny percentage. Cranks probably tend to go after big names because their own limited expertise makes them more familiar with the big names than with the actual science being done in the field. Have you ever doubted Einstein, at a time when you could genuinely claim to have a thorough understanding of all the work done since his time?
  • Cranks tend to invent their own terminology, sometimes their own sciences, and tend to write in their own overcomplicated jargon. Beware of the article that discusses a science with terminology not found on Wikipedia. Beware of any scientist that invents his own name for a new science. Obviously all new sciences do originally need to be named, but the number of crank theories with made-up names is much, much larger. And beware of any article that is written with such jargon in an overcomplicated way that makes no sense. Don’t jump to the conclusion that the author is smarter than you; he may simply be a crank.

So really, folks, keep an eye on yourself. Gardner’s list is a good one. Do you ever feel yourself traveling down one of these roads? Don’t let it happen. Every crank out there started out as a little bit of a crank, and then a little more of a crank, and eventually becomes a full-blown crank if unchecked. Identifying with the “skeptic community” in no way makes you immune.

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27 Responses to “Martin Gardner’s Signs of a Crank”

  1. Steelsheen11b says:

    every time I read or see Gardner’s “rules of Cranks” I can’t help but think he’s talking about almost every Officer I’ve ever met in the service.

  2. Max says:

    Would real geniuses qualify as cranks according to these criteria?

    • Max says:

      One thing that distinguishes geniuses from cranks is that geniuses know the CURRENT paradigm better than most scientists, while cranks usually don’t even get the basics. The test is whether they can describe the scientific consensus in a way that other scientists consider accurate.

  3. Max says:

    “Beware of the article that discusses a science with terminology not found on Wikipedia.”

    Something tells me this didn’t come from Martin Gardner.

  4. Archie Pittman says:

    I was reading /. today and I found this: Pixel inventor goes back to the drawing board
    Also, this article has a somewhat unfortunate title. For a moment I thought you were calling Martin a crank.

  5. Cambias says:

    It’s a bit depressing, but useful, to apply this same list to people outside the sciences. It fits far too many politicians, pundits, business gurus, educators, and the like. The only big difference is authority figures (like Einstein or Darwin). Where the scientific crackpot attacks the Big Name, the non-science crank tries to co-opt authority and borrow its mantle. (Which is why everyone makes up bogus quotes from Jefferson or Churchill to support their political positions.)

  6. GoneWithTheWind says:

    It is the content and persuasiveness of their arguement that should be the criteria not who they are or if they work alone or not. The scientific community does not have a good track record for being correct or for recognizing those who are correct if they are not a member of the club. There is very little that we believe to be correct today that was not at one time contrary to the popular opinion of the “experts”. And there is much that we believe to be correct today that is under assault and any honest observer would have to agree the generally accepted “truth” appears to be false. The last straw for me was the obvious fraud in the AGW camp and the whitewash by the investigators.

  7. Geoff says:

    http://www.newsciencebybob.com

    we should tell all the juggalos, bob has a chapter on how magnets work…

  8. Chris says:

    From the comments: “The last straw for me was the obvious fraud in the AGW camp and the whitewash by the investigators.”

    And from the article: ““I’m the only one smart enough to see this” a pretty clear red flag. Beware of anyone who claims unique insight.”

  9. XauriEL says:

    ^^ Has failed to understand the lesson

  10. Chris Howard says:

    As has been said before, the difference between a Crank, and a visionary/genius, is that the visionary/genius, ends up being right, not becasue their theory was unique, but becasue it provides a better, more accurate understanding of any given area that it is designed to address. Whereas the Crank, even after being soundly proved wrong, won’t accept the fact that they could have made a mistake. In other words, the crank is close minded, and egotistical, and has way too much “invested” in his/her theory.

    I have friends who would fall into this category, the other thing I would ad is that they don’t have a very good understanding that science, at its best, is provisional knowledge, subject to change with new evidence, and they tend to see that as a weakness, rather than a strength.

  11. greg says:

    Unfortunately, in the effort to identify cranks, false positives can be extremely costly to humanity. The rare genius with a radical-but-correct theory will probably display one or more of these traits, and thus will trigger our “crank filter” if we’re not careful.

  12. Antigone says:

    This article sets a dangerous sentiment – the type unfortunately endorsed by non-critical thinkers who are much more comfortable following lists of inane rules than doing creative thinking themselves.

    You will find revolutionaries in many fields do share several of these traits. Often those who make great breakthroughs are those who have devoted a good part of their lives in their field of expertise. Such people, especially when endowed with a healthy ego, rightfully see many of their colleagues as stupid. In doing so, they alienate those colleagues and end up working in relative isolation from their colleagues. Likewise, it’s not paranoid if people ARE out to get you. Many geniuses are suspected Aspergers, with poor people skills but absolutely exceptional abilities in their area of expertise. Such people don’t play the political games necessary to get grant funding and have papers published. Such people often get marginalized, both in spite of and because of their genius. This isolation naturally lends itself to generation of unique jargon etc.

    So, while it’s tempting to blindly apply these “crank rules” to people whom you suspect of being a crank, do so with care. Those “cranks” may really be on to something…

  13. chris ellison says:

    Craig Venter fits the “crank” description nicely.

  14. Larch says:

    some time ago I was struck by the the image of Krankatoa, which is an epic eruption of Crankitude (think Glenn Beck)

  15. Eric says:

    Most of those bullet points fit Stephen wolfram and his new kind of science.

  16. steelsheen11b says:

    Larch I had the same experience only it was with Al Gore.

  17. drbunsen says:

    There will, of course, be isolated inquirers whose work is recognised as significant after a long period in the wilderness, even after their death. Newton had to invent a wholly new notation for the calculus. The trouble is that for every Ramanujan or Burkhardt Heim, there are a thousand Time Cubes – and they ALL think they are That One Guy.

    *NB, it remains to be seen whether Heim’s work is significant, but it has attracted serious interest.

  18. MadScientist says:

    Yeah, I find myself being isolated which is why I plan to leave Australia – too few good brains to eat^H^H^H engage with.

    I wouldn’t say I’m a genius; I tell people that there’s a fine line between genius and madness and one day I hope to cross over to the genius side.

    I tend to agree with Craig Venter: don’t worry about people stealing your ideas – if they’re any damned good you’ll have to ram it down their throats. Then again I’ve had some less-than-honest scientists steal some ideas.

    For a typical example of Crank, just have a look at Rupert Sheldrake’s rubbish which pollutes some book stores (but don’t buy it) – or just take a look at his website. Isolated? check. Makes up his own words or uses words to mean something else? check. Mad as a hatter? check. Crazy as a loon? check.

  19. Micko says:

    Oliver Wendell Holmes I think it who said in conversation
    ‘You may of course be a superb genius,sir. The contrary is however..probable’

  20. John Jones says:

    WITTGENSTEIN!

    Wittgenstein had no knowledge of his subject (philosophy). He was a logician and regarded by most academics as the greatest philosopher and thinker of the 20th century. His ideas were unique. He had “the devil’s own pride”. But then thinking and philosophising are activities that don’t require knowledge.

    The definition of a crank breaks up under the onslaught of counterexamples and no longer becomes useful; except perhaps in one respect: we can use the term “crank” to package a list of human failings. But like the cartoon Mr. Men, I don’t think the definition is workable or insightful. It might even be dangerous.

  21. Stuart says:

    Good to see Rupert sheldrake mentioned in the comments. I’d like to suggest Alex tsikiris (from the skeptiko podcast) and any of the guests he’s interviewed that support his belief in the conspiracy by mainstream science to suppress his beloved “new science of consciousness”