[Paleopsych] SW: On Crackpots in Science

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Tue Oct 11 23:56:32 UTC 2005

On Crackpots in Science
ScienceWeek Message Board
Name = Igor

    Crackpots in science are of interest to anyone who thinks about the
    sociology of the scientific enterprise. Crackpots usually have formal
    training in science but are often unattached to any university,
    college, or research institute, and they usually reach a point where
    their papers and commentaries are refused by standard scientific
    journals as of no interest to anyone. They form a "fringe" in any
    field, and it's often difficult to distinguish crackpots from bona
    fide scientists who hold minority views because the distinction is
    usually based primarily on behavior rather than on scientific
    contributions. The consequence is that a bona fide scientist with a
    minority view is unfortunately sometimes called a crackpot merely due
    to peculiar or disruptive behavior. Here are what I think are some of
    the distinguishing characteristics of crackpots in and around the
    struggle to understand the real world:
    1. The crackpot has usually lost interest in new experiments and will
    defend to his death his theory or viewpoint that has been rejected by
    the scientific community as invalid or useless. Any objective view of
    reality is no longer important to the crackpot; the only possible view
    of reality is his personal view.
    2. As a consequence of continuing rejection by his peers, the crackpot
    becomes more and more strident with advancing age, until eventually
    one finds him doing vigorous vocal battle in fringe arenas, open
    forums, anti-science mailing lists, and magazines devoted to fringe
    ideas and readers who thrive emotionally on fringe ideas.
    3. In any serious discussion of a scientific issue, the crackpot will
    usually offer polemics rather than reason, invective rather than fact,
    and a harangue that he's a "revolutionary" against an "establishment".
    Sometimes he makes accusations of a conspiracy against him. At other
    times, the accusation is of "social control" of the minds of
    scientists. He appoints himself as the avant-garde of a "paradigm
    shift", when usually there is no "paradigm" in any Kuhnian sense, but
    merely a consensus view about a small scientific question. One basic
    philosophical failure of the crackpot is the failure to understand
    that "paradigms" and "paradigm shifts" are usually recognized after
    the fact by historians and almost never during the time of the shift,
    and secondly that paradigm shifts are almost always the work of
    younger scientists and not of older scientists. But of course all of
    this is beside the point to the crackpot, since the crackpot will hold
    his views until death no matter what the presentation by his critics.
    4. Many crackpots, for one reason or another, have no physical access
    to the current scientific literature, and the result is a shutting out
    of any new input. New results are unimportant to the crackpot: he will
    say the case was closed years ago, or tell you the results are
    meaningless without his even reading the new paper, or tell you he
    knows of the group that did the work and he doesn't trust their
    laboratory. It's all settled, the crackpot says; I proved it years
    ago, and if you want to learn about this, you can dig up what I've
    said about it and find the truth!
    I don't think it's possible to have an enterprise such as science
    without fringes in various fields, and in the fringes there will
    always be some who slip over the line and get labeled by their peers
    as crackpots. It's all unfortunate; there's often a great deal of
    talent going to waste. But scientists, after all, are human beings,
    with every human foible that can be catalogued. The trick is to
    understand that when there's a public dispute about a scientific
    question, the foibles may smother reality. If several generations of
    scientists, spread out over a dozen or so different countries, hold
    what appears to be a consensus view of a scientific question, it's
    extremely rare that they are all wrong. Sometimes it happens. But the
    demonstration that they are all wrong must be experiment (or rigorous
    mathematical proof) and not argument, because that's the essence of
    science, and if we give that up we have nothing.
    (Caution: I make no accusations against any specific person living or
    dead here, and certainly none against anyone associated with this
    message board.)

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