# How do you deal with crackpots?

1. Dec 24, 2011

### bigfooted

Hi!

I was on a forum recently where I saw a typical message from what some people would call a crackpot.
These people are usually easy to identify:

• The message is full of spelling errors.
• The message usually starts with the claim that a great discovery was being made.
• They never use math beyond high-school mathematics.
• They address people like Einstein as Dr. Einstein.
• They respond very aggressively to friendly but skeptical replies.
• They never use standard mathematical notation.

Although my first impulse is to try to help these people, I usually find that they are beyond help. The discussion becomes grim very fast, most of the arguments are ad hominem ("You do not accept my new theory because you belong to the establishment") and I always hope the topic dies before it reaches Godwin's law.

My question to you: what would you do? Try to help them? Ignore them from the start? When is enough enough for you?

2. Dec 24, 2011

### Ryan_m_b

Staff Emeritus
There are many other subtle ways to tell. Whilst many crackpots usually join the site and post with "i thnk iv made a spaceship lke dr. einstein" some simply post normally but then slowly over time start introducing innocuous yet crazy ideology into their posts.

Sometimes I do try to help people, I try to break down what the believe and why (break down as in lay it out in fundamentals, not destroy) and address each point. However almost always eventually it comes down to an almost religious belief in whatever pseudo-science they are peddling.

Last edited: Dec 24, 2011
3. Dec 24, 2011

### I like Serena

I help people who want to be helped.

If people show they don't want to be helped, or at least not by me, I move on.
I don't like to be dragged into endless fruitless discussions, so I usually quit responding after a couple of posts.

Sometimes it takes an effort to distance myself, but there are other people around that I'd rather help.

4. Dec 24, 2011

### phinds

I take Ryan's observation a little further and say that such folks are usually, in at least some very real sense, religious fanatics and there is absolutely no point whatsoever in trying to reason with them. I Like Serena has the right idea ... helping folks is a good thing but as soon as you realize that you are doing what the military call "pissing up a rope" it's time to move on.

5. Dec 24, 2011

### lostcauses10x

"How do you deal with crackpots?'

depends on how the crack pot idea is presented. Strangely enough this can fall under the social system due to the aspects of mankind's past.

For the most part any thing you try and tell them is pointless due to they "BELIEVE" they are right and every one else is wrong. It is also the motivation behind the presenter that can be a problem. Some ideas are to make nothing more than money off some fool.

If some one is questioning the belief, then you may be able to present facts and help them. Regrettably that is the rare case.

I deal with a lot of the free energy garbage out there. It will surprise you what people can be convenience of, that they will waist money on.
It is easy to confuse an individual and then show some alternative idea as being right. From there, correcting such an "idea" becomes a problem.

Good luck with such.

6. Dec 24, 2011

### Ivan Seeking

Staff Emeritus
I think a lot of debunkers have unrealistic expectations. If a person has been led down the garden path of silliness, it may take some time for them to get their bearings. Don't expect to change any minds with a single argument. These things need time to sink in. And there is often an emotional investment, which takes even more time to get past. My approach was to present the best information available and let the chips fall where they may. Once the answer or information is out there in cyberspace, it is there for all to see who wish to see it. I always tried to view this more as a library than a forum. The goal was to present the information, not to prove it to anyone.

If a person is genuinely deluded or irrational, then an argument isn't going to change that anyway.

7. Dec 24, 2011

### Pengwuino

Exactly. A lot of people don't realize that for many crackpots, their belief in their idea is as deeply engrained as our own beliefs in mainstream physics/science. What sort of evidence would it take for all of us to no longer believe in Physics? How long could that take? Is it possible in a single argument? Of course not, so why many people feel they can convince crackpots that they're wrong is beyond me. It's not like you're talking to another physicist and trying to convince someone the lowest energy state of a quantum SHO is ${{1}\over{2}}\hbar \omega$ and not $\hbar \omega$ where they just need to find the small error in their calculation. You're talking typically talking to a non-scientist that has no understanding of how science works in the first place.

Last edited by a moderator: Jan 22, 2012
8. Dec 24, 2011

### Ryan_m_b

Staff Emeritus
I have a quibble with this; belief in pseudo-science and acceptance of science are generally not comparable. If the only reason someone accepts a pseudo-scientific proposal is that they think the burden of proof has been met then they can be corrected simply through educating them of the actual status of current evidence (this may be a challenge because of how educated they are in logic and epistimology). However the majority of the time in my experience people do not accept pseudo-science because they have seen and accept evidence but because there is some sort of emotional and ideological dimension. People accept things like healing crystals, psychic powers, alternate planes of existence etc because they have a religious belief in these things and then retrospectively tack any science they think supports it.

As an example of this a few years ago I was hitch-hiking and was picked up by a man on his way to Glastonbury Tor. He told me he was a spiritual healer and that someone from his pagan group had told him if he went to the Tor that night and ascended through the seven gates he would meet a goddess who would grant him a new power. I didn't really want to be kicked out of the car so I had to be more timid than I usually am in these conversations; when I asked him why he thought he had powers, what evidence he had of them etc he would respond with things like "well physics shows there are 10 dimensions which is similar to the number of spirit realms" and "Auras have been scientifically proven; did you know that the human body has a magnetic field and that our DNA emits photons?" Pretty much everything he said was a massive distortion of real science because he had taken something he didn't understand, identified some vague semantic resemblance to his belief (i.e. dimension and realm) and dragged it through an ideological filter to construct some sort of justification for his belief. Note though that he had no need of such a scientific justification, all he was doing was reaffirming his belief.

This type of crackpot is the one that is near-impossible to educate because all information presented to them is not taken on it's own merits but instead distorted and altered until it fits within their world view.

9. Dec 24, 2011

### I like Serena

I've observed that well educated science people can become pretty emotional about what for instance a word means exactly.
It the other party is a supposed crackpot, scientific people join in an emotional fight to put the supposed crackpot down, which can become pretty ugly.
It seems to me that it borders on religious fanaticism.

10. Dec 24, 2011

### Ivan Seeking

Staff Emeritus
I agree with everything except the near-impossible part, which gets back to my point that this can't be viewed over short delta Ts. Over a period of years, people can make a complete 180. I've seen it happen many times.

Truthfully, I never worried much about the individual arguments. I wasn't going to worry about changing the mind of some guy in Jersey who's been drinking too much. To me the point here was more a matter of information flow. In the short term it seems that chaos is winning the information war. But there is the underlying belief on my part that with time and the free flow of information, the truth will sort itself out and the masses will follow. Just don't expect a watched [crack]pot to boil.

11. Dec 24, 2011

### Chronos

I have engaged in many such arguments, probably due to my dogmatic, mainstream views. They usually call my bluff. I then admit their logic is irrefutable and move on. But, I am satisfied with having implanted a seed of doubt that will infect the body of their argument.

12. Dec 26, 2011

### Ivan Seeking

Staff Emeritus
The same technique was used by Janeway to destroy the Borg.

Last edited: Dec 26, 2011
13. Dec 26, 2011

### jim hardy

an empty head is not really empty, it's stuffed full of rubbish.

if the post is an honest request for explanation of something i'll try

a discussion is an exchange of facts
but an argument is an exchange of ignorance where silence is golden.

14. Dec 26, 2011

### Pengwuino

Sorry, I didn't mean to say they've gone through the proper checks to convince themselves of their beliefs in the way that we do. I think most people have their own beliefs system that has its own way of distinguishing right and wrong. For a lot of people, they believe nothing except what their own eyes see and what they "feel" the right answer is. You can throw textbooks at them, lecture them for hours, bring up a dozen examples, but in the end they'll never be convinced unless they see it for themselves because that's how they convince themselves.

I actually think that's the big problem. It's impossible to convince people of something. People must convince themselves of things :)

15. Dec 26, 2011

### Ivan Seeking

Staff Emeritus
How about this one: Most people aren't geared to be scientists or engineers. In many cases, people simply choose to believe what makes them happy. In fact this probably applies to everyone to some extent. While it isn't appropriate to allow faith-based, unscientific, or pseudoscientific beliefs to be posted at a place like PF, perhaps fantasies are what allow people to function. What if, on the average, most people need fantasies? Perhaps this is simply human nature and a defense mechanism that is necessary for most people to cope with a hostile and confusing world?

What if by proving a person's beliefs to be wrong or fallacious, you are actually inflicting psychological damage? Do we know if this is possible?

I would bet that it is. That is to say, they will be less happy and it won't improve their life in the slightest.

Last edited: Dec 26, 2011
16. Dec 26, 2011

### Pengwuino

One of my students told me that learning about science is actually quite depressing. She said it took a lot of the mystery out of life and she said that in a kind of disappointing tone. I can imagine there exists a percentage of people who really do see the world as some sort of exciting fantasy full of mystery and that science is on par with world of elves of fairies. And why wouldn't they? For 18 years a child is bombarded with fantastic versions of reality on tv, books, and in theaters and is subsequently reinforced by parents whom, for the most part, don't think critically either. Why would they think science is the correct description of the world and not a single unicorn has ever existed..... outside of special ranch that I am forbidden to speak of?

Part of me thinks its less of a coping mechanism and more of simple upbringing issue. Then again, science is all about right vs. wrong, fact vs. fiction. Can it be that people are scared of being wrong and, since science is all about finding out what is right and wrong, are they subsequently scared of science?

P.S. I eventually rekindled my students interest in string theory (she said she loved that kind of stuff) at the end so it wasn't a totally depressing conversation.

17. Dec 26, 2011

### Bobbywhy

Ivan Seeking, I have experienced exactly what you describe here...some folks are so comfortable with their "unscientific beliefs" that they do not want to hear from some scientist that they are mistaken. Yes, it is possible to inflict psychological damage to them (their egos) if their cherished beliefs are attacked. I have noticed this more than once. You are exactly right in saying they will be less happy and it would not improve their life at all, so in some cases rather than trying to debunk someone's mythical belief it is better to just remain silent

As for the OP: I use two guides to help me recognise crackpots:

THE TEN QUESTIONS TO DETECT BALONEY, BY MICHAEL SHERMER
HTTP://HOMEPAGES.WMICH.EDU/~KORISTA/BALONEY.HTML [Broken]

CARL SAGAN'S BALONEY DETECTION KIT
http://www.carlsagan.com/index_ideascontent.htm

By the way, in these days of many different media newscasts, the above two sets of criteria help me sort out crackpot news from "more believable" news stories.

Last edited by a moderator: May 5, 2017
18. Dec 26, 2011

### nonequilibrium

But believing in wrong things can be harmful, for the person him/herself or others. Homeopathy is an obvious example, but even more harmless looking things as participating in the lottery: a lot of small bad choices (based on wrong conceptions or often even wrong chains of reasoning) can lead to a considerable harm in one's life.

Do others agree? And does it weigh into the consideration when deciding if to "convert" someone to reason?

19. Dec 26, 2011

### Pengwuino

There have been a few threads on the board that show how people can be physically and financially harmed by their ignorance. As an example you brought up, people spend roughly $300-$500 (depending on the source you look at) on lotteries per year. It's essentially an idiot-tax as people with lower education spend a higher portion of their income on them (an interview with TIME about a 2008 reported stated ~10% of their income: http://moneyland.time.com/2009/06/16/qa-with-the-lottery-wars-author-matthew-sweeney/ ). Even everyday things like getting your car maintained, spending money on electricity, buying new computers, can all result in people losing a lot of money because they can't critically think or are not knowledgeable about the world.

As George Costanza from Seinfeld put it in regards to mechanics: "Oh, of course their tryin' to screw ya. No one know what they're talkin' about! It's like, 'Oh, seems you need a new johnson rod.' 'Oh, a Johnson rod. Yeah, well, you better put one of those on!' "

20. Dec 26, 2011

### Bobbywhy

Mr. vodka and Pengwuino, thank you for your thoughtful comments and observations. I wrote in post #17 “in some cases rather than trying to debunk someone's mythical belief it is better to just remain silent.” Now you have raised doubts...maybe one should intervene if the other is engaging in harmful/unhealthful activities.

My neighbor is 72, lives on SS, drives a beater car loaded with defects, suffers from malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies, and has various medical problems. He watches a certain televangelist every day for hours and SENDS MONEY every month to “support the ministry”.

Now, it is clear that he would benefit if he would simply invest that donated money on some wholesome food. I have tried to convince him to stop donating his cash and instead come to the supermarket with me, where I would help him discover a more nutritional diet. He answers “But helping to spread the word of God is more important.”

Now I ask you, do you have any suggestions on how I might help him live a more healthy life? Does anyone think I should persist in trying to change his beliefs?