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Cranks and Physics

by Steven Novella, Jan 09 2012

A  “crank” is a particular variety of pseudoscientist or “true believer” – one that tries very hard to be a real scientist but is hopelessly crippled by a combination of incompetence and a tendency to interpret their own incompetence as overwhelming genius. In a recent article in Slate (republished from New Scientist) Margaret Wertheim tries, for some reason, to defend those cranks who believe they have developed an alternate theory of physics. In the article she does a good job of painting a picture of what a crank is, but it seems almost incidental as the main thrust of her article is to criticize science for being inaccessible. The result is confused and misleading.

In order see exactly why a crank is a crank one needs to have a clear idea of how mainstream science works and why (something that cranks often lack themselves). Science is often portrayed in popular culture in the quaint manner of the lone genius working away in their lab and developing ideas largely on their own. Further, any true advance is met by nothing but scorn from their colleagues and the scientific establishment. This view may have been somewhat relevant in the 19th century and earlier, but rarely has any relevance to modern science.

Science has progressed in most areas to the point that a large body of knowledge needs to be mastered before meaningful contributions are possible. New ideas and information are shared with the community throughout the process of research and discovery, in papers and at meetings, and ideas are criticized and picked over. Each component of a scientific theory needs to be experimentally or observationally established, and there should be good reasons to distinguish one theory from another. Any viable theory needs to at the very least account for existing evidence and should be compatible with well-established theories or facts, or have a compelling explanation for why they aren’t.

By this process a picture of how the world works is slowly being developed, as a community effort, with occasional stars standing above the crowd. The need to convince the existing scientific community that your ideas have merit is very useful – it weeds out ideas that are fatally flawed or just hopelessly nonsensical. In other words – it weeds out cranks. Of course, cranks don’t like this, so they wail against the mainstream.

Like any human institution or endeavor, the process of sifting out the wheat from the chaff is not perfect. Some chaff gets through, and some wheat may be prematurely removed. But science is also self-corrective, and there is always the possibility of correcting for past mistakes. Good ideas in science have a persistent advantage over bad ideas – they actually accord with reality and so the process of experiment and observation should favor them over time.

With all this in mind let’s take a look at the activity of cranks. Wertheim gives a very good description, talking about the main subject of her piece, and “alternative scientist” by the name of Jim Carter.

Carter’s ideas are not taken seriously by the physics mainstream. He does not have a Ph.D. and has never had any of his work published in a scientific journal. He has just a single semester of university education, which was enough to convince him that what was being taught in physics departments was an offense to common sense.
In response, Carter went off and developed his own ideas. Five decades on he has his very own theory of everything, an idiosyncratic alternative to quantum mechanics and general relativity, based on the idea that all matter is composed of doughnut-shaped particles called circlons. Since the 1970s he has articulated his ideas in a series of self-published books, including his magnum opus, The Other Theory of Physics.

So Carter lacks a formal education in physics and cosmology, something he no doubt considers an advantage. His profound arrogance is in evidence by the fact that after one semester of undergraduate study he felt confident in thinking that he was smarter than all working physicists, including luminaries like Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman. He could not wrap his mind around what was being taught as mainstream physics at the time, and rather than concluding that he needed to work harder to understand it, he decided that the problem was not with him but with physics. Physics did not make sense, so he replaced it with his own version.

This casual assumption of both one’s own genius and the idiocy of mainstream scientists is a core feature of the crank. Although it must always be considered that overwhelming arrogance can be a cover for crushing insecurity. In either case, the end result is an extremely childish approach to science. Carter feels he has not only turned over one concept in physics, something that, if true, can establish a career, but rather that he has replaced all of modern physics. He did this working by himself without testing his ideas with others, having his ideas reviewed by the community, or doing any research that could convince the scientific community that his ideas have merit. He did it, in fact, without ever fully studying the ideas he was rejecting. In short, he just made stuff up and then whined about the fact that his ideas were not recognized for the absolute genius that they were. Again, the problem (from his view) must not be with his ideas, but rather with the scientific community. They simply are too closed or to dumb to recognize his genius.

Wertheim goes on to discuss that, now in the age of the internet, cranks around the world have been able to form their own “alternative” community, publish their own journals, and have their own meetings. There is just one requirement in this alternative community – acceptance. All ideas are accepted (there is no chaff, all is wheat), that is except for one. Whatever is accepted by mainstream science is wrong. That is “the one ring” of crank mythology, that brings all crank theories together and in the darkness of their community binds them together. Otherwise they are largely mutually incompatible. Each crank’s “theory of everything” is a notion unto itself, and is mutually exclusive to every other crank’s own theory of everything (unless there is some incidental overlap). So they get together, present their theories without criticism, and all agree that the evil conspiracy of mainstream science must be taken down.  Of course, if any of them got their way and their ideas became accepted, they would instantly become rejected by the rest of the crank community as mainstream physics.

Wertheim strangely makes a leap from the crank community to the notion that modern science is inaccessible to the public. This is strained point, to say the least. The gulf that separates those with formal education in science from those without is not the source of cranks, it is their particular personality as described above. They are the equivalent of the American Idol rejects, those who got through to the judges just so they could make fools of themselves, who, once rejected, proclaim their own vocal genius and the many inadequacies of the judges. But Wertheim thinks that cranks should be taken seriously and not rejected out of hand. She concludes:

While we may not agree with the answers outsiders give, none of us should be sanguine when some of the greatest fruits of science are unavailable to most of humankind.

This is a massive non-sequitur. The concern she raises, however, is legitimate – it just has nothing to do with the crank phenomenon.

On the real issue of science being accessible to the public, this is a complex issue and Wertheim does nothing to explore these complexities. Yes – advanced physics requires advanced mathematics. There is no way around this. Despite the assurances of cranks, mathematics is the language of the universe, and anyone hoping to make real contributions in physics will need to be fluent in this language. Otherwise you might as well study French literature and not learn how to read or speak French and whine about the fact your ideas are not taken seriously by the “priesthood”.

There is a difference, however, in being a working physicist and being a non-scientist who understands the concepts of modern physics (if not the more complex underlying equations). There are many works that popularize science, and physics and cosmology in particular. You can grapple with the strange and beautiful ideas of physics as a lay person, you just can’t check the math for yourself or fiddle with the equations. If you want to do that – learn the math.

Perhaps that is another feature of the crank worth pointing out. There is a great deal of popular works for the non-scientist to satisfy their curiosity about modern science and to understand the ideas, findings, process, and controversies of modern science. But the non-scientist has to be content sitting in the bleachers as a spectator. Cranks are not content to be spectators. They want to be in the game, but they don’t want to learn to rules, or earn their way onto a team through work and talent. They want to change the rules to suit themselves.

40 Responses to “Cranks and Physics”

  1. Somite says:

    This describes to the T most outspoken climate deniers like Watts, McKitric, McIntyre, Monckton, etc. Lindzen has the closest to a legitimate degree but it is in meteorology, not climate.

    • Trimegistus says:

      Watts is a meteorologist.

      And what, exactly is Al Gore’s degree in?

      • tmac57 says:

        And between those two,who is it again that listens to the mainstream scientists?
        Go back and reread the article.(Hint:It’s about cranks thinking that they know better than the mainstream scientists).

      • Max says:

        Gore used to be a journalist. As such, he reported the scientific consensus. He doesn’t pretend to be a scientist.

      • Janet Camp says:

        Al Gore does not claim to be a scientist or disagree with mainstream science. He only promotes their ideas so that they are accessible to a wider audience. You seem to have missed the point entirely–but perhaps you are a crank?

      • Somite says:

        Anthony Watts was a television meteorologist. He does not hold a post-graduate degree as far as I can tell.

      • MadScientist says:

        You mean the news weather man, not a meteorologist.

      • BillG says:

        Having an advanced degree doesn’t disqualify you from being a crank, charlatan or the effects of delusion.

        Frank Tipler – physics and respected author(for many), has speculations that are no less tame than “alternative scientist” and sans degree, Jim Carter.

      • Somite says:

        True. Neither does not having a degree. However, not having a degree likely increases the likelihood that your claims are that of crank.

  2. tmac57 says:

    …based on the idea that all matter is composed of doughnut-shaped particles called circlons.

    Wait a minute! He stole that theory from Homer Simpson!

    • Dave says:

      Not quite. Homer hypothesized that the universe might be doughnut-shaped, and Steven Hawking considered stealing his theory…:)

  3. John K. says:

    Talk about not understanding what science is! If someone was able to come up with a useful “theory of everything” all on their own that was indeed better than all known theories, it could very well be accepted by mainstream science, only if it actually works though. If you can make predictions with your theory that nobody else can, and run experiments that verify your predictions, you are “in”.

    The problem is that the current volume of knowledge is built on the backs of so many consecutive giants that all the” low hanging fruit” has long since been taken. Any honest discovery made by a single person that has not studied all the pre-existing literature is only going to get a “we already knew that” response in a best case scenario.

    If you really are smarter than all the primitive detractors, all you need to do is apply your theory and produce an extraordinary result. The “natives” may not be able to understand electrical or battery theory, but shine the flashlight you built around and they will have to admit that you are on to something. Authority is important for laypeople to understand advanced scientific concepts, but up in the big leagues it gets you nowhere. Everyone needs to produce the “flashlight”.

    • newtspeare says:

      I have tried introducing my Squish Theory, in which all particles are collections of positive and negative charges locked together in a solid spherical lattice, but I have found physicists totally disinterested. I guess the prospect of relinquishing all their imaginary beings like quarks, gluons and Higgs particles is just too awful to contemplate.

      When I explained how the interactions of surface charges, unified the strong nuclear force with the electric force, I did actually get the response ‘it has been tried before’. But when somebody asked for a link, the guy did not respond. It just goes to show that physicists, like other humans, will tell any sort of ridiculous lies when they fear their belief system may be threatened.

      The point about a searchlight is very true; physicists declared aeroplanes impossible, but presumably changed their minds when they saw them flying. Theoretical physics is not so easy to disprove, which is why physicists are free to believe just about any nonsense they choose. For instance, how would one go about proving that time travel is nonsense?

  4. Astrogarden says:

    I have always wondered about the driving force behind cranks. I suspect it is the same or similar to whatever drives all manner of fringe activity, from conspiracy nuts to UFO dudes.

    Have any psychologists studied these folks? Admittedly hard to do as like many people with psychological issues, they do not see themselves as anything but perfectly normal (in fact, often “better” than normal), but I suspect they all share some pathologies.

    Being an avid amateur astronomical imager, I have had the occasional
    encounter with some of these. In my case they mostly have their own home-brewed cosmology. I have found that on a practical level the only real problem is to get them to go away and leave you alone but I am always left with the feeling that what they really need is professional help and perhaps the appropriate medication. Kinda sad people, really.

  5. CountryGirl says:

    You are absolutely right, and you are wrong. Most science as it is today is an orthodoxy where any attempt to disagree with the majority or the annointed theories will get you excommunicated. Most break throughs will in general come from those thinking outside the box. Skeptics have stated that our multi-decade long almost entirely fruitless effort to cure cancer is failing simply because the orthodoxy rejects unapproved theories in favor of long held theories of the older more influential “leaders” who continue to get the lion’s share of funding while producing little except hope. The only way to end the funding stream for one of these dead end theories is when the scientist dies and the remaining high priests of the orthodoxy fight over the funding for their own dead end theories. At this point it seems likely that any “cure” for cancer will either be the result of an accidental discovery probably from a unrelated field of research or from an independent “crank” working alone.

    • Chris says:

      Most break throughs will in general come from those thinking outside the box.

      But they are usually real scientists and/or engineers who have had much more than one semester of a college education. If you know of a breakthrough from someone completely outside of his/her field in the last ten years who did not any related education, please share.

      At this point it seems likely that any “cure” for cancer will either be the result of an accidental discovery probably from a unrelated field of research or from an independent “crank” working alone.

      Which cancer? Since that is a word that is applied to hundreds of different diseases, do you have a particular one in mind? Speaking of which, one of the first useful treatments for childhood leukemia was from a discovery that you described, which I read about in the book Emperor of All Maladies.

      Speaking of “unrelated field of research”, this NY Times article is specifically about that. But do note, everyone in that article have had more than one semester of college.

      • Janet Camp says:

        I recently read “The Emperor of All Maladies” as well and immediately thought of it while reading the comment you responded to. Most people simply don’t “get” that there will not be one single “discovery” in a lab somewhere that “cures” and one of the hundred or so cancers that are, in a way, just part of our biology (I probably didn’t say that last bit correctly, but read the book! It is very accessible even though some bits are a little hard for the non-scientist to follow).

    • MadScientist says:

      Having trouble publishing your genius ideas?

  6. schenck says:

    “Cranks are not content to be spectators. They want to be in the game, but they don’t want to learn to rules, or earn their way onto a team through work and talent. They want to change the rules to suit themselves.”

    They’re the “Happy Gilmore”‘s of the science world; obsessively focused on one aspect of the game-play and generally incompetent and angry.

    It’s unfortunate Wertheim doesn’t talk more about why science is difficult for the general public to access. Surely a lot of it has to do with education, a lot of the students that we get at our campus’s, after having gone through years of high school, where the focus now is on AP and college credit classes, they come to us needing something like a year of remediation.

  7. Max says:

    Cranks are at the peak of Mount Stupid.

    That graph needs a third “Arrogance” dimension that makes Mount Stupid even taller and closer to the origin.

  8. Max says:

    They laughed at Dan Shechtman, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering quasicrystals. His research group kicked him out for “bringing disgrace” to its members, and Linus Pauling declared at a conference, “Danny Shechtman is talking nonsense. There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists.” Ironic, coming from Pauling.

    I wonder how many Nobel laureates had to endure ridicule. I think Saul Perlmutter, who discovered the accelerating expansion of the Universe, was treated better, and it’s good to see physicists taking a serious look at “faster-than-light” neutrinos instead of laughing it off.

    • Janet Camp says:

      But the point is, that people who may get laughed at initially are able to prevail as their work is confirmed by others. It is unfortunate that this may slow progress and hinder professional advancement, but that is a side issue that can be worked on. The self-correcting aspect of the Scientific Method works and will do so for the FTL neutrinos as well. It speaks to the truth off what I just said that serious people are checking out the initial reports.

    • tmac57 says:

      Well,it’s a lot easier after the fact to see how a scientist was mistreated by ‘the system’,but these are probably outliers,instead of the norm.My guess is that for every Shechtman story,there are a hundred or more stories of scientists who really were talking nonsense,and were rightly dismissed.But as Janet pointed out,the real system,works,if imperfectly.Shechtman had his day in the end.

      • Max says:

        Shechtman had his day in the end because he didn’t give up. Consider how many scientists were on the right track but gave up prematurely.

      • Pete says:

        Shechtman also was not a total outsider, if I recall correctly. He was also not upending all of materials science. He found an unusual result and followed it.

      • Max says:

        His discovery did challenge the conception of the very nature of matter, but yeah, he’s not a crank, yet he was still ridiculed. Fortunately, he had the persistence of a crank.

      • tmac57 says:

        Still,don’t you think his case was more of an anomaly outside the usual back and forth that occurs in science? Or do you think that there are scads of valid scientific discoveries that are foundering under the oppressive thumb of the status quo?

    • paradijin says:

      “They laughed at Galileo. They laughed at Newton. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.” (Carl Sagan)

  9. Astrogarden says:

    I think Carl Sagan’s quote said it best when he said: “It pays to keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out.”

    It is all about a bit of common sense. Some “crank” theories may be worthy of investigation. Most are clearly just products of demented
    nutcases. It is up to those in the field in question to sort that out – who else is qualified?

  10. Retired Prof says:

    No doubt one of the cranks Margaret Wertheim collected is a friend of mine who came to his theory of space-time-matter by fiddling with thermodynamic equations first, rather than through pure cogitation. In his Navy career he did both experimental and theoretical work in physics. He worked for a time at Los Alamos. However, his degree is MS, not PhD, and it is not in physics, so he is still a classic outsider.

    It would take someone with training in math and physics to judge whether his ideas are even rational or not, and I am helpless in those fields. I don’t want to sound like a shill for a friend’s book, so I won’t give a link. However, his basic premise is intriguing. He uses a 5-D model for the universe, with the 5th dimension being–get this–mass density. It sounds totally counterintuitive, but then so did the 4-D matrix when I first tried to wrap my mind around it.

    He claims his thermodynamic equations explain the motions of galaxies without the need to posit dark matter, and also do a good job of making dark energy superfluous. I lean toward thinking he is a crank (even though I like him a lot), but his book intrigues me just enough to wish a physicist would review it, since I am too ignorant to do so myself.

  11. Loren Petrich says:

    As Bertrand Russell had noted, “There are infinite possibilities of error, and more cranks take up unfashionable errors than unfashionable truths.”

    Physics crackpots usually aren’t very fun, though George Francis Gillette with his “spiral universe” was an exception. “All motions ever strive to go straight–until they bump. … A mass unit’s
    career is but lumping, jumping, bumping, rejumping, rebumping, and
    finally unlumping. … Gravitation is the kicked back nut of the screwing bolt of radiation.”

    I remember tangling with a gentleman who calls himself Farsight. He claims to be restoring the physics of Einstein and Maxwell, as opposed to crackpottery like supersymmetry, monopoles string theory, multiverses, etc. He also claimed that mathematics cannot describe underlying physical reality because one must define one’s terms. He claimed that while space is a primary physical feature, time is not, and that motion is instead primary.

    He argued much like some sacred-book thumper. He’d quote Einstein, and ignore Einstein quotes to the contrary, like where Einstein described space and time as part of a space-time continuum. He’d even thump Wikipedia about the Einstein-deHaas effect, which he claimed was proof that all angular momentum is classical-limit-style objects rotating. That was “evidence” that electrons are really circling photons. He also claimed electron pair production and annihilation as evidence of that.

    He’d posted his theories on several messageboards, and I’d tangled with him on a few of them.

  12. Chris says:

    There is a fun book on math crank: Mathematical cranks by Underwood Dudley. I read it because Dr. Mark Crislip of the Science Based Medicine blog mentioned it a few times. Now I wonder if there is something equivalent for physics cranks.

  13. d brown says:

    With out comment, I will say that a ex-Los Alamos prize winning scientist has stopped research because time on the needed equipment is so expensive that its limited. You must have the approve of the people in charge. and it must be what they think is right. Say what you are going to find and find it to be allowed to keep playing. If you find something new that’s not predicted you are not allowed to waste time any more. He said that’s why nothing big and new has been found for decades. And there is more than one saying that.

    • tmac57 says:

      Sounds like you are talking about particle physics research,and what I have always heard,is if they truly found something not predicted,that they would be tremendously excited and eager to probe deeper,not dismiss it.That story just doesn’t add up ,on the face of it.

  14. Buff primer says:

    I feel your pain newtspeare, i tried to introduce my grand unified theory of buffness that explains how my braininess and awesomeness is in fact the central source of beauty and wonder in the universe and invited physicists to marvel at my grace and excellence in all fields of science. That hawking guy never even replied to my letter despite me using my best crayons, the big fat fraud.