[Note: not an April fool’s post. Now I’m wishing I wrote one though.]
After the MHV@30 conference, I spent a few days visiting my sister. I hadn’t seen her in a while, and she noticed something new about me.
“You’re not sure about anything. It’s always ‘I get the impression’ or ‘I believe so’ or ‘that seems good’.”
On reflection, she’s right.
It’s a habit I’ve picked up from spending time around scientists. When you’re surrounded by people who are likely to know more than you do about something, it’s usually good to qualify your statements. A little intellectual humility keeps simple corrections from growing into pointless arguments, and makes it easier to learn from your mistakes.
With that kind of mindset, though, I really really don’t get crackpots.
The thing about genuine crackpots (as opposed to just scientists with weird ideas) is that they tend to have almost none of the relevant background for a given field, but nevertheless have extremely strong opinions about it. That basic first step, of assuming that there are people who probably know a lot more about whatever you’re talking about? Typically, they don’t bother with that. The qualifiers, the “typically” and “as far as I know” just don’t show up. And I have a lot of trouble understanding how a person can work that way.
Is some of it the Dunning-Kruger effect? Sure. If you don’t know much about something, you don’t know the limits of your own knowledge, so you think you know more than you really do. But I don’t think it’s just that…there’s a baseline level of doubt, of humility in general, that just isn’t there for most crackpots.
I wonder if some fraction of crackpots are genuinely mentally ill, but if so I’m not sure what the illness would be. Mania is an ok fit some of the time, and the word salad and “everyone but me is crazy” attitude almost seem schizophrenic, but I doubt either is really what’s going on in most cases.
All of this adds up to me just being completely unable to relate to people who display a sufficient level of crackpottery.
The thing is, there are crackpots out there who I kind of wish I could talk to, because if I could maybe I could help them. There are crackpots who seem genuinely willing to be corrected, to be told what they’re doing wrong. But that core of implicit arrogance, the central assumption that it’s possible to make breakthroughs in a field while knowing almost nothing about it, that’s still there, and it makes it impossible for me to deal with them.
I kind of wish there was a website I could link, dedicated to walking crackpots through their mistakes. There used to be something like that for supernatural crackpots, in the form of the James Randi Educational Foundation‘s Million Dollar Prize, complete with forums where (basically) helpful people would patiently walk applicants through how to set up a test of their claims. There’s never been anything like that for science, as far as I’m aware, and it seems like it would take a lot more work. Still, it would be nice if there were people out there patient enough to do it.