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How to Avoid Crackpottery

  1. Feb 9, 2010 #1
    Being an undergraduate, it's difficult to simply read a paper or book and be able to label it as crackpottery, as I'm attempting to learn what's in the paper or book itself. I read a bunch of physics blogs, which makes it even harder, as they're usually radically opinionated. I just finished reading this hitpiece on Smolin and Woit written by Lumo at "The Reference Frame." Woit seems pretty coherent in http://bigthink.com/peterwoit" [Broken], and is a mathematical physicist at Columbia. Apparently he's a complete joke in the physics community. I was just about to read Lightness of Being, but what's to stop me from finding out Wilzchek isn't off his rocker. How do I avoid crackpots in modern physics discussions?
     
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  3. Feb 9, 2010 #2

    Ivan Seeking

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    Soon after finishing my degree in physics, I made an effort to determine the current state of "the measurement problem", from quantum mechanics. What I discovered was that there were many schools of thought. Members of one school were often considered to be crackpots by people from other schools of thought. As near as I could tell, "crackpot" is an expression that is used far too often. At times, it seems to be used to describe anyone [physicists] with a different point of view. Still, there are plenty of crackpots out there.

    My suggestion is to look for published papers on the subject and the number of times a paper is referenced by other scientific sources. If you find that an author's views arse limited to pop science reading, then it would be best to take those views lightly until better information is available. If, on the other hand, a pop science book [lectures, videos, etc.] merely attempts to explain mainstream ideas and published hypotheses, then there is a far better chance that the information is reliable.
     
    Last edited: Feb 9, 2010
  4. Feb 9, 2010 #3
    Verlinde's paper was cited over 200 times apparently but he is labeled as a crackpot in "The Reference Frame." I agree, that word is used way too often, many times in place of an expanded account of why it is believed that the person is a 'crackpot'.
     
  5. Feb 9, 2010 #4

    turbo

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    Lubos is quite free with over-the-top criticism, as you would know if you have followed his blog. That doesn't make him right or "more accurate" in his assessments, just a lot more vocal. There is little to be lost in theoretical physics by blindly embracing one approach and rejecting another. Rivalry is one thing. Name-calling is quite another.

    When you encounter such nasty attacks against fellow professionals, you need to take the time to investigate the attacker as well as the target. "Crackpot" used in such a context is shorthand for "I am right, and that guy is clueless and hopelessly wrong." It is pretty ridiculous to find that term used by researchers in highly theoretical fields like cosmology and quantum gravity, since applying any degree of "certainty" to them is more akin to faith than to reasoned understanding.

    Here is an example of how researchers can alienate one another with over-the-top claims. Bee is pretty level-headed and well-respected, but this IS her blog, so you might want to log in and read some of her other posts to see if her evaluation of others' works seem reasonable to you.

    http://backreaction.blogspot.com/2007/08/lubo-motl.html

    There is no "master list" of crackpots, BTW. I'm fairly certain that some professionals have managed to classify Stephen Hawking, Roger Penrose, and other well-respected theoreticians in that bin, though.
     
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  6. Feb 9, 2010 #5
    Thanks, there seems to be a little more politics in physics than I realized, especially on the cutting edge of research where people's opinions can be pushed in the absence of hard data.
     
  7. Feb 9, 2010 #6

    turbo

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    You're welcome. BTW, I highly respect Woit, in large part because he is able to seperate politics and cheerleading from research. Theoretical physics is a dicey field, with little to hang your hat on in some sub-specialties. Woit seems to be able to span the gap between math and physics (similar to Penrose, IMO) and identify opportunities (some would call them weaknesses) where possible advances might be expected.
     
  8. Feb 10, 2010 #7

    Chronos

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    Personalities do matter, as turbo noted. People who spend years following a line of research do not surrender their belief systems easily. And it is rare that any particular point of view is wholly refuted by new observational evidence. A theology of science thing, I suppose. Knowing when to stop is more difficult than knowing when not to start an argument.
     
  9. Feb 10, 2010 #8

    f95toli

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    Penrose is also a good example of someone who everyone agrees is an excellent physicists, but who at times is advocating ideas that is at least on the verge of crackpottery.
    And he is definitely not alone, I can think of quite a few physicists -including a few Nobel laurates- who late in their careers became -at least to some extent- crackpots.

    My point is that no scientist is immune to strange ideas.
     
  10. Feb 10, 2010 #9

    Garth

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    Try the Crackpot Index!

    I prefer the term http://www.scribd.com/doc/18037521/Fred-Hoyle-Musings-of-a-Maverick-Cosmologist [Broken]

    Garth
     
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  11. Feb 10, 2010 #10
    I think I made Baez's crackpot index on point 16.

    "10 points for arguing that a current well-established theory is "only a theory", as if this were somehow a point against it."

    All theories are nuts. This places me at a round 5 points on the crackpot index. All theories are nuts--some more interesting than others.
     
  12. Feb 10, 2010 #11
    It'd be interesting to analyse some of the ID literature with that index.

    To the library ...
     
  13. Feb 10, 2010 #12

    FlexGunship

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    "Crackpottery" as I understand it, is essentially anything with the quality of (1) being a claim, and (2) being false. (I avoid the word "wrong" because people are often make wrong claims by mistake, making a "false" claim has a different connotation.)

    You should build for yourself a filter that works for you. Anytime I suspect "crackpottery" I first make sure that there is a claim. If someone is just rambling, then you can't really call them a crackpot. They might be crazy, but without a claim, that's all they are.

    Once you have determined that they are making a claim. Immediately decide what realm it lies in: physics, math, geography, biology, etc...

    Now, let's imagine you have a "physics claim." Check for the following three things (these work for other claims, of course, I'm just using physics as an example):

    (1) Does it violate any known laws on which OTHER fact hinge (i.e. disputing gravity), without offering an entirely seamless replacement?
    (2) Is the claim too abstract to make sense? (i.e. body auras channel energy from the Earth... or other blather)
    (3) Is there a high density of science-sounding words without valid adjectives? (i.e. "the energy flows through the conduit from the source" as opposed to "once the electric potential difference is established, a net displacement of ionic charge propagates through the wire")

    I pretty much ignore anyone who says the word "energy" or "quantum" when talking about biology. That's just a rule I've come up with.
     
    Last edited: Feb 10, 2010
  14. Feb 10, 2010 #13

    Doug Huffman

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    Believe nothing you read or hear without verifying it yourself unless it fits your preexisting worldview. Though crafted for political discussions, that aphorism is a fine guide to skepticism that is at the heart of science. If it ain't falsifiable then it ain't science.
     
  15. Feb 10, 2010 #14
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  16. Feb 11, 2010 #15
    Why should you be concerned about wether someone is a crackpot, if you don't have stuff to tell if they are or not? If there is a logical flaw in there reasoning, and you can tell, then you can call them a crackpot. If you don't have the stuff to evaluate for yourself, and must rely on rumors and here say as to who is a crackpot and who isn't, then what's the point. I think the opinion you should have in this case is none. Just better always be prepared for your world to be turned upside down. The best way to bypass logic is to result to group thought and name calling. So when you read people labeling someone as a lunatic and a crackpot, without any logical reason as to why they're leaking water, guess who the crackpots are?
     
    Last edited: Feb 11, 2010
  17. Feb 11, 2010 #16

    Ivan Seeking

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    That may work if you are qualified to have an opinion on the subject. The problem is that most people are not qualifed to have an opinion in such matters. Obvious shams and hoaxes may be easy to detect, but fraudulent arguments pertaining to complex subjects are another matter altogether. Some crackpot claims are only detectable or debunkable by credible experts. Most casual readers would have no way to know if an argument, hypothesis, or claimed "theory", is credible or not.
     
  18. Feb 11, 2010 #17

    turbo

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    Yep. There are all manner of "credible" arguments that have not been properly vetted, yet are accepted as "fact". Einstein bemoaned this situation long ago in his memoriam on the death of Ernst Mach. The lack of rigorous epistemology can let assumptions poison "knowledge" in ways that may not be reversible for a very long time.
     
  19. Feb 11, 2010 #18

    russ_watters

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    ....um.....that's not what Ivan was getting at at all, turbo-1.
     
  20. Feb 11, 2010 #19
    http://insti.physics.sunysb.edu/~siegel/parodies/atchoo.html" [Broken].
     
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  21. Feb 11, 2010 #20
    Well, now I know to take most of what he says with a grain of salt, although I was really trying to get at the broader point of figuring out how to identify nonsense physics being masqueraded as cutting edge research if you're not an expert in the field yet, as well as nail down the connotations of 'crackpot'.
     
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  22. Feb 11, 2010 #21

    turbo

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    Perhaps not, and apologies to Ivan if so. However, the interesting parts of "what we know" aren't necessarily in the wonderful precise predictions and verifications, but in the mysteries. Borrowing from Penrose, the magnetic moment of the electron has been observed to agree with the value predicted by quantum electrodynamics to one part in 1011. An amazing degree of accuracy. How about the expected energy of the quantum vacuum? Oops. We're apparently 120 OOM off on that one. Now where is the best opportunity to make fundamental improvements in our theories? I suggest that it is in just the areas in which large disagreements (or highly improbable observations) arise.

    According to Penrose, the initial state of the universe pre-Big-Bang must have been special indeed, and he calculates the probability of such a special state as one part in 10^10^123. Yes, that's a double exponent - the only practical way of expressing such a large number. I haven't seen any recent presentations by Penrose, so I don't know where he is headed with his cosmological musings, but it seems that by 2004, he was prepared to constrain at least some feature of commonly-understood BB cosmology out of possibility.

    Epistemology is still needed - perhaps more than ever.
     
  23. Feb 11, 2010 #22

    f95toli

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    You can't. That is why it is usually best to go with the majority view and never rely on a single source, or, when possible to not have an opinion at all.
     
  24. Feb 11, 2010 #23
    "usually best to go with the majority view" -- is that true? Depending on the historical period, the majority may believe in witchcraft or slavery or all sorts of things. Why not just say that the reasoning has to be logical, or hypotheses must agree with empirical data, etc.? Why mention the majority at all?
     
  25. Feb 11, 2010 #24

    Ivan Seeking

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    Because in science we look for a consensus opinion in matters that most people are not qualified to judge. Again, unless you are already an expert, your ability to judge what is or is not logical is often irrelevant. For example, how can one reason whether a mathematical proof is logical or not? Doesn't one first have to understand the math? If one is incapable of following the math needed for a proof critical to a theory in physics, how can it make sense? If a proper understanding of a subject requires ten years of dedicated study, then would you suppose that you can go marching in and start arguing against the prevailing wisdom without first becoming an expert? What sort of logic justifies that position?

    Slavery is a moral issue, not a scientific one. Witchcraft has never been a subject of modern science. You are calling on ancient mysticism as evidence that one should ignore the experts in science. How ludicrous is that? Modern science is what has put much of mysticism to bed. When the plumbing doesn't work, do we call a priest or a plummer?
     
    Last edited: Feb 12, 2010
  26. Feb 12, 2010 #25

    Ivan Seeking

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    The problem with cutting-edge work is that we often have no consensus. In that case, no one really knows the right answer; least of all of the casual readers.
     
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