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How one amateur enthusiast intends to avoid crack-pottery

  1. Apr 2, 2015 #1
    From my view point as an amateur enthusiast who has largely forgotten basic high school physics, mathematics, science, cosmology etc., as I find myself taking up a renewed interest in these topics, I'm astonished at how easy it is to wander into the mine-field speculative, crack pot theories. Whether on the internet or arising from my own mind, wild conjecture and crack-pottery seems an ever present and alluring path. So if I want to understand Science and get a general idea of Scientific discoveries being made today, I'll need a good compass, as well as a BS detector.

    I've noticed lately in my daily experience, that casual mention of anything to do with the cosmos devolves into all sorts of chaos. Folks have their presuppositions, and increasingly it seems the folks around me are largely informed by a pop culture that has given Science a back seat in favor of the fantastical, wildly imaginative, what-if realm of the uncertain. A few episodes of "Ancient Aliens" and away we go! Wheeeee!

    So, I thought to myself "What the hell is going on?", "What am I lacking?" , more to the point "What are people around me lacking?". It occurred to me that an understanding of the scientific method is what is lacking. I mean, I understand it in general, otherwise I wouldn't wince the least bit whenever I encounter wild conjecture and fantastical theories. But, does it inform my thinking? Probably only dimly, but a lay person and enthusiast doesn't normally practice within that framework. It's hard work.

    The good news is, I've found a decent pivot point, and a pretty darn accurate compass to go by....
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 2, 2015 #2
    Stick around here and you will improve day by day ;)
    Also, read about "the scientific method". Unlike some other fields of work, physics does not usually have much tolerance for groundless speculation. The ability to crudely discriminate between opinions and facts will only come with time. And anytime you read some law of physics, go for the actual content instead of someone else's interpretations of that content.
  4. Apr 2, 2015 #3


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    Just print out the crackpot index and go through it every time you think you have an original idea, or whenever you stumble upon one you're not sure about. :wink:

    But in all seriousness, I've found the best way to avoid and detect crackpottery is to make sure you don't pretend to know things you don't actually know.
    This might have the side effect of drastically cutting down the volume of what one says, but on the other hand, it leaves ample time to listen.
  5. Apr 2, 2015 #4
    That's really very good advice! Thanks, and I'll keep it in mind!
  6. Apr 3, 2015 #5
    When I first saw that link I thought "No, well that's unfair to Joan Baez, she's just a topical songwriter!" ... and then I clicked through and had a good laugh! It's so funny because it's so true! The thing I like best about these forums is that they are well moderated, and that keeps down the level of distortion and noise that gets created when you allow folks "pretending to know things they don't actually know" ... I'll do my best to avoid being one of those persons! That's really good advice, and something to think about.... "ample time to listen".
    Last edited: Apr 3, 2015
  7. Apr 3, 2015 #6


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    I think that's part of it.

    For whatever reason people will latch onto ideas that float past them. Sometimes they are ideas that are conditioned through childhood. Sometimes they appear due to recycling of audio and video clips. Sometimes ideas just randomly bubble up to the surface. And a simple understanding of what constitutes a credible source of information is often blurred for the general public.

    Then confirmation bias kicks in. People either consciously or subconsciously select information that confirms a pre-defined believe and discard anything that refutes it. Sometimes well-trained scientists are guilty of such behaviour, so it's not difficult to see how the general public will do it.

    This gets coupled with pressures from a person's ego and even social pressures. Most people want to believe that their understanding of how things work is correct. Socially we look up to and admire, and tend to offer elevated social status to those who are "in the know." And then there's the sunken cost effect, where there more time, energy or resources a person invests in something, the more difficult it is to let it go once it's clear that the idea is not going to work. All of this leads to people clinging to ideas, even when faced with contradictory evidence.

    So essentially I think you can have a population who understand the scientific method, at least in-so-far-as they could explain it. But it's putting it into practice and keeping it in practice that's the hard part.
  8. Apr 3, 2015 #7
    It's another topic altogether, but worth mentioning: Search engines like Google, Bing, Yahoo etc, filter search results based on our preferences. It's bad enough that we're susceptible to confirmation bias, nowadays we have to consciously avoid being stuck in an echo chamber.

    I wonder how far we've drifted from a population that understands the scientific method. At least in my lifetime, and I'm 41 years old, it seems there used to be a general acceptance of scientific discovery on authority. Then the internet happened and suddenly individuals get to experience a sense of doing their own research, unaware that much of their reading is fraught with ideology masquerading as science. The internet can be like a confirmation bias feedback loop sometimes.
  9. Apr 3, 2015 #8


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    There are only a small handful of scientific principles needed to be kept in the forefront of your thoughts to defend against most crackpottery. As a start, conservation of energy and momentum are biggies for defending against perpetual motion machines. For most other things, keeping an eye on how the scientific method was followed is a big help as well. And then there's the age-old anti-used car salesman defense: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
  10. Apr 3, 2015 #9


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    You did realize that the crackpot index is by John Baez, mathematical physicist and a professor of mathematics at the University of California, Riverside, not Joan Baez the singer, who is his cousin.
  11. Apr 3, 2015 #10
    I should've said "when I read the URL .. " home/baez/crackpot.html It struck me as funny when I first read the URL because I thought of Joan Baez, and since she is a topical singer-songwriter, some people on the right would say she's a crackpot ... what I didn't realize is that she is the cousin of John Baez.
  12. Apr 3, 2015 #11


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    Ah. :smile:
  13. Apr 4, 2015 #12


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    Hi osotou,
    I posted these links in another thread ("Fact checking - Scientific method"); a couple of texts on the scientific method and two so-called baloney detection kits:
    You may find them useful :smile:.
  14. Apr 4, 2015 #13
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