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The psychology of labelling others as crackpots

  1. Dec 27, 2007 #1
    It seems to me that many scientists are very quick to apply the crank and crackpot labels to each other and especially to anyone who proposes an idea which is too far out of the mainstream. People who are not affiliated with a known university are almost dismissed out of hand. It seems to me that there is a sense of hostility behind this. It is after all an insult to label someone in that way.

    Obviously, many ideas are just wrong and have been proven so experimentally. We should always retain the proper level of skepticism, but why is there such a level of animosity toward the people who propose these ideas? They are not doing so in order to annoy the "real" scientists. They are seeking to understand the world. Their idea might be very wrong, but why not explain to them why it is to help them out? Shouldn't we be encouraging people to come up with theories instead of slamming them?

    What is the motivation behind this?
    Last edited: Dec 27, 2007
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 27, 2007 #2


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    Actually, scientists very seldom label anyone as being crackpots, mainly because crackpots are seldom taken seriously by any scientific community (and this by itself drives crackpots up the wall) and their existence are seldom detected.

    When they do come up by somehow contacting a few scientists directly, one can easily apply a set of criteria to detect such crackpot. You can judge for yourself if these criteria are reasonable to be applied to such people.


    Motivation? There usually is none. In many cases, these crackpots are the ones asking for it by either contacting scientists to "validate" their work, or intrude into forums such as this where they are clearly not welcomed (read the PF Guidelines). Why? Because only via "free advertisement" on the net can their ideas see the light of day, since obviously they can't make it into respectable peer-reviewed journals. So the only way they can get any form of notoriety is for you and I to continue to talk about it.

    The the daily workings of scientists, the issue of crackpottery by these crackpots very seldom creep up because they have practically no bearing on the process of science.

  4. Dec 27, 2007 #3
    Those are indeed reasonable criteria. My beef was with those who don't bother to check someone against them, or those that use the label in a knee-jerk fashion for someone who really doesn't fit the critieria simply because they are angry. Take Motl's criticisms of Lisi for example. Lisi has repeatedly claimed that he may be dead wrong. He acknowledges the problems in his theory. The real cranks usually don't do that. Being too quick with the label has a chilling effect on those that have different but legitimate ideas. They may hold back for fear of being branded and I don't think that's a good thing.

    By the way I also found this, but I think he goes too far on a couple of points:

    One of the ones I disagree with is this:
    "1 point for every statement that is widely agreed on to be false."

    ---Ok...but as we've all seen, the majority can often be wrong. It's an ad populum fallacy. At least he only gives it one point.
    Last edited: Dec 27, 2007
  5. Dec 27, 2007 #4

    D H

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    A handful of points on the crackpot scale does not make one a crackpot. Theoretical scientists need a tinge of the crackpot gene to succeed. On the other hand, a person who claims to have surpassed Einstein, Darwin, and Godel by disproving relativity, evolution, and P!=NP in one swell foop most certainly is cracking ceramics.
  6. Dec 27, 2007 #5


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    Good reference to keep pinned on the wall. I did raise an eyebrow on #21:
    There shouldn't be, and in best practice their probably is not, but the establishment is the elephant in the room hiding itself most often under the otherwise valid guise of 'collaboration'. 100 author papers?

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  7. Dec 27, 2007 #6


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    1. There are a large number of them out there!
    2. Experience shows that they rarely admit to being wrong.

    No, we should not be encouraging people to come up with theories. We should be encouraging them to first learn the existing science rigorously before attempting to theorize. Many of us attempt this repeatedly...but eventually, we run out of time, energy and patience.
  8. Dec 27, 2007 #7
    If someone came up to you, and told you they owned the Brooklyn Bridge, or they can time travel---what would you think?

    Sometimes, the information presented is immediately recognizable as being 'not right'. Sometimes the 'theory' has some aspects they may seem more plausible, until the reasons, or what the theory is based 'on' is found to have no foundation.

    Hey, I consider myself to be very open minded, but.....I will still continue to think that MWI is a crackpot idea, no matter how much math is done to 'support' it.--just my opinion.
  9. Dec 28, 2007 #8


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    Rating a speculation

    I think this tangents to the concept of rating speculations and use that for decision making.

    Technically even many "proven" theories are speculative, but so to a very low degree. Other ideas are clearly highly speculative. When all other options run out, even the highly speculative ideas becomes attractive, because we would go to extremes to survive.

    But when a new idea arrives, one has to make some sort of premature judgement, based on incomplete information as wether to invest more in testing the idea, or to abandon it right away (taking the risk of missing an option of course), to pursue more promising ideas. This is simple logic since no-none, or no-thing has infinite resources. So we have to make choices and place our bets according to our estimated gain/loss ratings. Noone can know the gains and losses, because they are always based on incompete information, that's the whole point. The gain is the estimated benefit if the idea turns out fruitful, and the loss is the resources invested in evaluating the idea that is possibly wasted.

    I think anyone who wants to the opinion of their ideas from someone else, is asking this someone to invest their time and attention, so it seems to be basic psychology that the must first present a motivation for this investment. And this "motivation" can not be 80 pages because I doubt anyone would read it.

    If I am to read 80 pages of ANYTHING, I want maximum a few pages quick reading that explains to me the possible benefit of reading further. Just like one would expect that before investing x years of reasearch based on a particular idea, one would want to be able to motivate the investments, so that alone the way one is always making the best investments. But placing all money on the best option probably isn't wisest either, placeing hte bets according to their rating seems best, because diversity is known also from biology to be healthy. In a crisis a small population% of "deviates" may show to be the key to survival.

  10. Dec 28, 2007 #9

    Ivan Seeking

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    Like this:

    So according to Motl, Smolin and Lisi are both crackpots. Isn't that interesting.
  11. Dec 28, 2007 #10


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    This makes sense if you note that the same person also wrote:

    "string theory is nothing else than the crown, unification, or culmination of modern theoretical physics and all of its crucial results, insights, methods, principles, and values"

    -- http://motls.blogspot.com/2007/03/einstein-may-have-started-rot.html

    I don't follow any blogs regularly but judging from a few posts without knowing the history if this guys was personally attacked by Lisi only his tone of reasoning seems very categorical with a strong out of proportion focus on non-constructive feedback on other peoples ideas, rather than presenting new own ideas?

  12. Dec 28, 2007 #11
    Something I hadn't thought of----for at least, from a personal point of view---rate a theory for its possibility with an actual number.

    Some of the 'rating' also has to deal with the ability of the 'present' technology of the 'time' of the presentation of the 'new theory' in respect to the time scale of what the 'present technology' can offer to solidify the 'new theory' (not necessarily prove)--that is, if the present technology isn't ready for the new theory--just how long, and how much would it take to get 'some' results to make the theory be more plausible.
  13. Dec 28, 2007 #12
    Yeah...that does make sense. I can see how it would become a waste of time with people who won't listen.
  14. Dec 28, 2007 #13


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    Just to clarify a bit, some people have crazy ideas and are receptive to criticism and want to learn. Others have crazy ideas and are utterly closed-off to the possibility that they are wrong. That's part of what defines them as crackpots, and after seeing a lot of both (and we do here), it gets relatively easy to tell the difference. In fact, to a large extent, if one is proposing something unusual/ far outside the mainstream and is over the age of 16, chances are pretty good that they are a crackpot because by then they should have the tools necessary to learn on their own. Kids, on the other hand, just direct their ideas to the nearest adult for comment (which is fine).
  15. Dec 28, 2007 #14
    What is the staff's opinion about the independent research forum? Does it qualify as crackpottery?

    It was a small moment of understanding for me, when I witnessed one physicist labeling the independent research forum as crackpottery within few seconds after seeing it. It must be frustrating keeping up a good reputation in the internet.
  16. Dec 29, 2007 #15

    Ivan Seeking

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    My understanding is that the IR forum's submission and review process is intended to filter out the crackpottery. The rules have been revised and we have a talented and highly motivated new moderator - M.S. nuclear engineer, Astronuc - who has the help of many other very talented and knowlegible members and staff. There is also constant pressure to improve and refine the standards in the IR forum as well as in all other forums, so PF just keeps getting better. And, trust me, many highly qualified people - more every day - work very hard to make this all happen.

    Rome wasn't built in a day. :biggrin:
    Last edited: Dec 29, 2007
  17. Dec 29, 2007 #16
    I look at it, in a way, as a chart--with the idea of 'Diminishing returns' charted against 'logic' to form one like 'supply and demand'.


    I think a lot of people here would like to 'figure something' out that would make a 'difference'. Some have on various scales, and that's why a lot here have the 'start to finish' concepts of what is needed to do it. It's a sign of intelligence to take suggestions and advice, to a large extent, as to not repeat other people's fail steps (not saying that some failed steps aren't important, either, to the learning process--like Fleming's 'mold'.)
    Last edited: Dec 29, 2007
  18. Dec 29, 2007 #17
    I think it's worth distinguishing between the sincere recognition of true crackpots (and we all seem to agree that they are out there), and the rhetorical device some physicists use. There are those who love to dismiss even their own colleagues as fools, ignorant of all Physics, insane, or what-have-you, just as a stylistic manner of discourse.

    I recall that in the 90's when a lot of Physicists from the former Soviet Union began to have a large presence in the U.S., there was a bit of a culture shock. In the U.S. there were conventions applied in professional discourse ("I'm sorry, perhaps I'm not understanding your point, but it seems to me that you're being inconsistent.") that were at odds with the style of the Eastern Block scientists ("What?? That is nonsense! You are clearly an idiot and understand nothing of Quantum Theory!!!") They actually weren't challenging anyone any more strongly, that was just their style for having a "rousing" discussion.

    We see that kind of thing here and on the various blogs, where people jump down each others' throats as soon as they see anything they disagree with. It strikes many of us as rude, but I suspect they might just say something along the lines of "if you can't take the heat, get out of the lab." After all, does Mr. Motl really believe that the researchers he attacks are truly idiots, or does he recognize that they are competent scientists but believe that they are simply mistaken?
    Last edited: Dec 29, 2007
  19. Dec 29, 2007 #18


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    There is nothing wrong with some good hearted harsh humor or harsh and straight style of communication. But the communication protocol and style is still mutually emergent, there is no single person who decides it.

    Except for the various apparent "personal attacks" (which may be left as social issues), the other things that strikes me is the apparent categorical reasoning. And overly categorical and narrow minded reasoning to me at least, doesn't comply with my ideals of science. Science should be open minded and self critical? I wonder if these guys are similarly categorical in their research methods.

    To me an apparent categorical statement does not give a serious impression, but this might well be cultural as well and I'm swedish. What comes to my mind is the american style of aggresive marketing as compared to Sweden at least.

  20. Dec 29, 2007 #19


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    And what do we make of people who like to play crackpots?
    One day, after reading the crackpot scale, I posted an offer to donate $5 to the forum fund for every facet of the expanding universe theory which I could not find a plausible alternative explanation. I figured I would be out maybe 10 or 20 bucks, for a good cause, and have some fun at the same time. I only had one taker. I assume everyone else thought I was lying about the $5. In their defense, it is an incredibly small forum compared to PF. I think I would go broke if I tried that little stunt here.

    In another science forum a few years back, we were discussing whether or not a photon could have a rest mass. In my typical crackpotian style, I stated that if it did, it's mass would become infinite, it would suck up the whole universe, and we would all be dead. The moderator stated that this was nonsense. It would be another 10 years before I would figure out how I, and apparently a lot of people, had a misconception about Einstein's change in mass with velocity equation.

    But I guess that disqualifies me from being a true crackpot. The ability to learn and admit ones mistakes.

    Never mind.

    ps. I liked the note from #24 on the quack list:
  21. Dec 29, 2007 #20
    yeah--I liked that one too
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