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What makes smart people become cranks?

  1. Dec 1, 2014 #1
    From what I'm noticing on the Internet, one of the things that no one ever really talks about in regards to being a scientist or professor is the torrent of completely unsolicited "theories" that pour in claiming to debunk relativity, solve a Millenium Prize problem, describe a perpetual motion machine, and every outlandish, bizarre, or just plain unworkable idea you could imagine.

    What I'm curious about is, what happens to these people? Now, to be sure, some of these people are just plain unhinged. But mental health problems wouldn't explain why some intelligent, competent scientists and engineers fall in with odd (or just outright delusional) ideas.

    Or, a bit more lightheartedly, where do mad scientists come from?

    And, moreover, what should aspiring scientists and engineers do to avoid becoming crackpots?
     
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  3. Dec 1, 2014 #2

    Bystander

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    Trisect a plane angle with a ruler and a compass --- that's usually enough to return feet to the ground.
     
  4. Dec 1, 2014 #3

    phinds

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    Being academically smart does not make one immune from the common human ailment of want to be ahead of the crowd and to know things that the less knowledgeable don't know, even if these things have little if any basis in reality. Not all conspiracy theorists are fruticakes (in the sense of being mentally unhinged), nor are all of the seemingly educated crackpots. There seems to be a level of insecurity that promotes the belief that one knows things that "show up the establishment" even when those things are not true.

    I have a nephew who is mathematically brilliant and has a PhD in engineering but firmly believes in creationism despite all evidence to the contrary. This kind of thing is sadly very common.
     
  5. Dec 1, 2014 #4

    StatGuy2000

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  6. Dec 1, 2014 #5

    Danger

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    I started as mad, am still mad, and am actively attempting to be a scientist as well. :devil:
     
  7. Dec 1, 2014 #6

    DaveC426913

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    It is not endemic to scientists, lots of people have this affliction. It's just that scientists have been given a tool with which they can cause more trouble.

    In my opinion, as a person who is close to someone with these traits, the primary factors are:
    1] a very high intelligence
    2] a lack of social immersion and/or social skills - they are isolated


    This allows them to
    a] come up with creative ideas and follow them much farther than most, and then
    b] not the have feedback from colleagues that acts as a compass to steer them away from dead-ends.

    The person I know is not a scientist, but he is highly intelligent yet unchecked by people around him. And what feedback he does get fuels his paranoia.

    I imagine there is a correlation between crankhood and ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). The science field will have a tendency to attract those who find more stimulation in a microscope than a crowd of people.
     
    Last edited: Dec 1, 2014
  8. Dec 1, 2014 #7

    WWGD

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    But there are cases, like that of sci.math's archimedes plutonium, who is a crank, but not too bright. Still, the king of circular logic.
     
  9. Dec 1, 2014 #8
    What makes crank turn smart people into dumb people?
     
  10. Dec 1, 2014 #9
    Forget about the crank, looks to me like Enzyte has turned you into a mad scientist.
     
  11. Dec 1, 2014 #10

    mheslep

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  12. Dec 1, 2014 #11
    I think you may have hit the nail on the head. You combine intelligence with a bit of pride and take away the checks that would keep their feet on the ground, and suddenly you've got a crazy person.

    My first roommate in college was ASD and was basically as you described. He was a mechanical engineering major and pretty smart, but full of himself. He kept trying to build engine parts in the machine shop someone let him use and was thrown out when he kept breaking tools and it became clear he had no idea what he was doing, much less how to build a working engine, but he was dead set on the idea that, as a freshman mechanical engineering student, he knew exactly what he was doing.

    But then again, I'm also ASD and I turned out mostly alright. Mostly.
     
  13. Dec 1, 2014 #12
  14. Dec 1, 2014 #13
    Yea, I guess if you mix in politics and religion, especially a faith system that so strongly emphasizes the "virtue" of unwavering belief, that could cause problems.

    As can heavy-handed attempts to explain concepts one isn't fully versed on, as you reminded me in that other thread :)
     
  15. Dec 1, 2014 #14

    WWGD

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    I think I read somewhere that this is how some rulers become dictators; no one ever disagreeing with them to their faces. This is necessary in all aspects of life, one would prefer to be told one is always right, to feed one's ego, but this is not a good idea in the long run, since then one learns nothing.

    EDIT: I think this is also the unconscious goal of self-deprecating humor --keeping one's ego from becoming too bloated.
     
    Last edited: Dec 1, 2014
  16. Dec 2, 2014 #15

    Danger

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    That's quite possible. Conversely,, it could be a sneaky way of fishing for compliments.
     
  17. Dec 2, 2014 #16
    That's not being a crank though. The issue here isn't a lack of scientific rigor, it's that the data he observed could lead to dangerous conclusions if analyzed in proper detail. In effect, it might lead to science being used (yet again) as a weapon towards people.
     
    Last edited: Dec 2, 2014
  18. Dec 2, 2014 #17
    Overconfidence in one's own skill/intelligence probably, eventually failing to apply the same reasoning faculties that got them so far academically to their own ideas/whatever crackpot idea they've acquired. This dissonance is not too uncommon, I knew an extremely intelligent double major (math+physics, now in grad school) who firmly believed she could see ghosts, no lack of social skills though.

    Plenty of well-respected scientists had some pretty out-there ideas that weren't terribly well-founded, Newton was an alchemist, Kelvin was a creationist despite being confronted with fossil records (he insisted his calculations of the Sun's lifespan (reasonable for the time) proved a young Earth).
     
  19. Dec 2, 2014 #18

    mheslep

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    Shockley was a world renown physicist who late in life turned to extensive discourse and interviews on eugenics. He sometimes started a discussion in front of adult audiences by holding up an all caps small sign with the single word "DYSGENICS". "Crank" is an understated label as applied to Shockley.
     
  20. Dec 2, 2014 #19

    Choppy

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    I think that confirmation bias - the phenomenon whereby people tend to seek, interpret or remember information in a manner that is consistend with their own hypotheses - plays a major role in defining crackpots.

    Confirmation bias, to my understanding, is a part of the human condition. As rational as we may believe we might be, we're all guilty of it to one extent or another. I would imagine that anyone who has a theory about a given phenomenon sits somewhere on a spectrum of greater and lesser degrees of confirmation bias. Crackpots are those that cross a threshold - likely well outside of a couple of standard deviations from everyone else.

    I can't help but wonder if crackpots or cranks are created when you have an individual who is (a) smarter than the average bear, and (b) is repeatedly confronted by less-than-average bears and eventually, as some kind of self-preserving behaviour, reinforces the notion that all bears have opinions that are not worth acknowledging. One can only be beat down by the system so much before one loses faith in it.
     
  21. Dec 2, 2014 #20

    DaveC426913

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    Does this fall under cranky though? There was a time when eugenics was popular, not just by him. It may have been debunked since then, but I wouldn't say that makes it cranky.

    A lot of Freudian psychology has been debunked but we don't call Freud a crank.
     
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