I Don’t Get Crackpots

[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.

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For example, why do they always wear funnels on their heads?

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.

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40 thoughts on “I Don’t Get Crackpots

  1. Wyrd Smythe

    Just write a post about Cantor’s proof of the uncountability of the reals. Apparently it’s the most hotly contested of the hotly contested!

    (It helps if people notice… I’ve written about Cantor a couple of times, but no one noticed. 😮 But I did have a few go-arounds with a guy when I wrote a series on S.R. last spring for Einstein’s birthday. He had a website claiming S.R. wasn’t right, but both he and his website were so incoherent I never really understood what he meant.)

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    1. 4gravitonsandagradstudent Post author

      Haven’t run into Cantor crackpots yet, but the SR ones are definitely familiar.

      I think the weirdest aspect of those sorts is how they take a science communication piece, like yours or mine, and attack it like it’s some sort of political polemic.

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      1. Wyrd Smythe

        As your post suggests, there’s something extra “special” about such folks. They live in a self-centered world were it’s possible for them to clearly see something that’s escaped every expert in the field. (That it isn’t absolutely impossible for that to happen enables the view.) That so many verge into conspiracy territory says something about their perception of the world.

        The only time I’ve ever tried to do battle with kooks was when I took on the 9/11 conspiracy nuts. Complete waste of time. You can’t dent such certainty. Yet the simplest of logistics analysis shows the impossibility of such a plot. (And those who think the whole thing was just to take out WTC-7 have really gone off the chain!)

        WRT Cantor, it’s weird! Some folks just can’t accept the idea of uncountable. People are absolutely convinced they’ve discovered a way to enumerate the reals, often through some kind of tree structure. (“Then just enumerate the tree!”)

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        1. Carl

          It is not so much that I “just can’t accept the idea of uncountable”. I just don’t know what it means to say “all infinite sets are endless, but some are more endless than others”. It just sounds like Orwellian 1984 double speak.

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            1. Carl

              Okay, if you want to say that Cantor’s multiple infinities are true by definition, then that is fine. Then Cantor’s theory has nothing to do with reality, it is just convention. And, if someone defines the opposite, she is just as right to say that there is only one size to infinity. In other words, there are NO right or wrong definitions, there is only what works for you.

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              1. 4gravitonsandagradstudent Post author

                It’s not about what works for you, it’s about what works for mathematicians.

                You can certainly define one of uncountable and countable infinity to not actually be infinity. Call it Bob, or something. But if you do, mathematicians will end up using Bob in the same way they were using the old term.

                Alternatively, you can refuse to draw a distinction between countable and uncountable. But if you do, mathematicians will still draw the distinction, because it’s useful to them.

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                1. Carl

                  Okay, it is because it’s useful to mathematicians. It is NOT because it’s true. So the “crackpots” are not wrong to say that Cantor’s multiple infinities is NOT true.

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                  1. 4gravitonsandagradstudent Post author

                    Mathematics is all about discovering the consequences of axioms. There just isn’t some sort of independent “true meaning of infinity” beyond the definitions that end up being mathematically useful. That’s what the crackpots misunderstand. I talk about the relevant misunderstanding more in this post.

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                    1. Carl

                      You have a good point, “Mathematics is all about discovering the consequences of axioms”. Yet when Cantor’s diagonal argument is presented, no mention is made of the axioms that are invoked. (if there is a presentation of the argument from axioms, I have not seen it)

                      Then it is easy to see why the “crackpots” go wrong, the rules that govern are not explicitly declared or stated.

                      I, for one, don’t know which axioms Cantor invoked.

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    2. Carl

      “I’ve written about Cantor a couple of times, but no one noticed”.
      I looked for your post, could not find it at your blog site, can you provide a link to it (them) and I will explain to you where you went wrong 😉

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    3. Carl

      @Wyrd Smythe, I found one of your posts.

      https://logosconcarne.com/2014/06/24/sideband-54-cantors-diagonal/#more-5375

      And, here is your error,

      Imagine a list of all the numbers you can make with a decimal point followed by two digits 0.xx
      (there will be 100 of them) Then mutate the first digit of the first row and the second digit of the second row, and the number you create will not be in the first two rows (but, it can be in rows 3 to 100)

      Imagine a list of all the numbers you can make with a decimal point followed by three digits 0.xxx
      (there will be 1000 of them) Then mutate the first digit of the first row and the second digit of the second row and the third digit of the third row, and the number you create will not be in the first three rows (but, it can be in rows 4 to 1000)

      Imagine a list of all the numbers you can make with a decimal point followed by n digits 0.xxx…
      (there will be 10^n of them) Then mutate the first digit of the first row and the second digit of the second row and the third digit of the third row, and so on, and the number you create will not be in the first three rows (but, it can be in rows n+1 to 10^n)

      Let n be infinity, then for your theory to work, one of your axioms has to be…

      Axiom 1:
      Infinity = Infinity + 1
      Infinity = n * Infinity
      Infinity = Infinity ^ n
      Infinity = 10 ^ Infinity

      So, if your axiom says that Infinity = 10 ^ Infinity then your conclusion can’t be…
      Infinity < 10 ^ Infinity

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      1. Wyrd Smythe

        Carl: Firstly, continued discussion about Cantor would be best moved to the post of mine you cited. We’re guests on this blog and shouldn’t clutter up the comment space with a side discussion. Secondly, I’m afraid the error is yours. Essentially you’re thinking that “infinity” is an actual number. It isn’t. It’s… call it an idea or process.

        All the equalities you listed under “Axiom 1” are essentially correct (see a detailed explanation of “The Hilbert Hotel”). If you have an infinite list and you insert some items, your list is still infinite. If you take two infinite lists and begin to interleave them, the resulting list is… still infinite. And since infinity is infinite, it’s not possible to use relational operators (less-than or greater-than).

        The only distinction here is between a countable infinity and an uncountable one. The difference is simply illustrated:

        If I tell you any natural number, be it “3” or “3,573,192” or whatever, you can easily name the next number. No matter what number I name, you can name the following natural number. Thus the natural numbers are countable. It takes forever to count them, but they can be counted in virtue of the fact that you can always name the number that comes next.

        But if I give you a real number, say “0.0” “1.5” or “pi”, you cannot tell me what the next real number is. For any given real number, there is no way to name the next real number in succession. You can never name the number that follows. This makes the reals uncountable — a different brand of infinity.

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  2. anon

    I think there is room to be considerably more empathetic to at least some examples of crackpottery, that is, those forms that originate from the exact opposite experience: the crackpot asks an intelligent question that represents a real but subtle misunderstanding, and receives only flippant, ultimately inadequate responses, which appear to miss the point. The crackpot gets the impression that the responders are arrogantly refusing to make the attempt to probe their own understanding on a sufficiently deep level to make contact with their point. And I think in some cases they are correct. I think the “twin paradox” is a perfect example of this, in that I think most online and textbook “resolutions” of the paradox are inadequate, and don’t address the crackpot’s core conceptual confusion, which is that relativity is not Machian. This is an understandable confusion for the crackpot to have, because many texts and instructors are muddled on this point, since Einstein’s own thinking was strongly influenced by Mach, though general relativity is ultimately not at all Machian. This is just one example, but it makes me worry that in many cases there is a communication problem in which the physicist is not altogether blameless, possibly the result of being philosophically flippant or naively instrumentalist.

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    1. 4gravitonsandagradstudent Post author

      So I definitely think this does happen a lot, and that people who have this kind of experience can often be misperceived as crackpots when they really are misunderstanding something subtle.

      I’m not sure it’s quite the same people that end up as persistent crackpots, though. It’s one thing to get flippant answers from scientists, and be convinced they’re missing something important. It’s another to take that as a mandate to build your own complicated “theory”, with reams of disjointed writing on it, or to promote that theory everywhere you have a plausible excuse to do so.

      I can respect “I don’t think the experts know what they’re doing”. I can’t really respect following it up with “but I do”.

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      1. anon

        I pretty much agree, especially regarding the “but I do” part, but I will say that I think there is room for what I’m describing to be persistently perceived as at least borderline-crackpot, owing to systematically coming at problems from a more philosophical angle and this rubbing up against a “shut up and calculate” attitude. At least I felt this way a lot in grad school — I was surprised that most of my colleagues didn’t seem to care at all about quantum interpretations, for example, and the flippant “naive copenhagen” responses that we were taught (which I think most philosophers of physics agree are not logically consistent, so here would be another place where a QM-resistant crackpot might be morally correct). In any case I agree this is different from a lot of what you are referring to, but it might be interesting to see it as a “limiting case” in the spectrum of crackpottery.

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  3. Giotis

    Why you can’t understand crackpots?
    Being a crackpot is a natural state for a human.
    If you leave people on their own devices they will become crackpots, it’s human nature; on the contrary you must be educated/trained not to become one and even then there are no guaranties.

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      1. Giotis

        I’m not talking about Physics only, I’m referring to “crackpotism” as a general tendency. People have strong uneducated opinions on almost every issue. This tendency has its route in our enormous ego. For the same reason we must be educated to be able to form functional societies by suppressing at some degree our ego, we must be educated to supress the crackpot we are hiding inside us.

        A proof of that is my comment itself. I mean listen to me, I have a strong uneducated opinion on an issue that belongs normally to the realm of psychology or sociology on which I have no training whatsoever, yet in my mind I’m absolutely sure I’m right (and I consider myself “normal”) 🙂

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        1. 4gravitonsandagradstudent Post author

          I see what you’re getting at, but I think even there you’re talking about something that exists in degrees, not a human universal.

          Take food as an example: there are plenty of people who have very strong opinions about food. Certain food is “disgusting”, and no-one should ever eat it. Other people, though, are willing to try pretty much anything, and recognize that others have different tastes. Most people are somewhere in between.

          Crackpots seem much closer to one end of that scale than the general population, and that makes me uncomfortable dealing with them.

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  4. David Bartell

    I recently spent hours trying to talk a friend down from his classical “theory” of gravity. He had high school physics, at best, but reads a lot of SF. He actually had some thought-out ideas, but was reluctant to delve into known physics. I think this is the mode of a person who wants to be smart, and probably is, but knows they’ll never measure up in a rigorous way. So they get lost in motivated reasoning, protecting their ego by attacking others, being anti-establishment, inventing their own math instead of learning any, etc. I suspect that to penetrate this, one must go some way to stroke the ego, to get a foot in. For example, “You’re smart, so you’ll certainly understand THIS logical argument…” And yes, as someone above said, the actual experts are often partly to blame, by being unwilling or unable to communicate clearly to the lay crackpot.

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  5. Yes, that Kevin . . . .

    First of congrats on being able to afford an education. Some people can’t but find themselves in a beautiful word and aspire to ponder its inner workings. They were not fortunate enough to be accelerated through fountain of knowledge in the standard 8 to 10 years. You should not abuse your privilege for social acceptance. Let them question, if you don’t want to give answers don’t. Mental illness is not a joke. If you are subject to certain conditions, you too will be mentally unstable. I find your remarks without class and taste. What you have achieved, the PhD , and accolades is great, but be careful about how you classify people. I am not picking a fight, I just need you think. I am sure you think a lot about your science, but you should consider what you write, especially since you have the luxury of not being mentally unstable. It’s obviously a “free world” and you can say and write what you wish. Not everyone is fortunate, to train for what you do. Not everyone is fortunate to have mental stability. Not everyone is fortunate to enough to have basic articulation skills. Not everyone is fortunate to be taken seriously. I liked some of the Wikipedia links in the blog, and generally like some of the former content. I don’t like your confidence about what you think the problem is, or how you choose to associate a group of people with a medical condition as an insult to people with a linguistic and knowledge barrier to function at your level. Discussions about what to do with “crank” obviously have a place in the modern zeitgeist of the scientific enterprise or blog about personal preferences, but suppressing that sane scientific mind when smiting the cranks is dangerous. Like I said, you can write and say anything, but I would call for a bit more restraint.

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    1. 4gravitonsandagradstudent Post author

      First of all, I certainly don’t think mental illness is a joke. If crackpots were just mentally ill, I’d be much more inclined to treat them kindly, and much more understanding of how they behave. But again, I doubt that’s what’s going on, at least in most cases.

      Your point about education is more relevant, but still, lacking the right foundations isn’t all that’s going on here. It takes immense luck to end up as a physicist, true. It takes even more luck to end up as someone who can design and manufacture smartphones. You don’t see people around the world without that luck convinced that they can make a smartphone to rival Apple’s in their backyard.

      I think it’s important for people to be curious, and I get that it’s very hard to satisfy that curiosity for the vast majority of people. I just think that becoming a crackpot takes more than that. There seems to be a requirement, not merely to not understand the details, but to assume that they’re trivial: to think that the world is small and familiar, that the biggest problems can still yield to amateur gumption.

      That’s the aspect I have a problem with, because that mindset terrifies me. A large fraction of the evil in the world, from the grand to the petty, seems to come from people who assume that they, or what they care about, is the biggest thing out there, that nobody knows more than them or cares about different things than they do.

      I know almost nothing. I discover I’m wrong about something almost every day, not just in science, but in my personal life as well. I expect it. And I have a lot of trouble trusting people who seem like they don’t.

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  6. John McVirgo

    “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”

    Yet, take someone who has stomach pains, goes to the doctor and is told it’s indigestion but doesn’t believe the diagnosis of an expert. Researches the symptoms over the Internet, and comes up with their “crackpot” theory that they have the symptoms of cancer of the pancreas:

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2238909/I-told-stomach-pain-indigestion-In-fact-lethal-cancer.html

    I would therefore define a “crackpot” as: A person who is psychologically attached to their belief, and therefore can’t let go of it without causing them considerable distress and upheaval in their lives.

    Hence the large number of retired engineers on sci.physics.relativity excited about their genius being above that of Einstein’s and also above that of today’s most brilliant, highly educated physicists fresh out of graduate school with their hard won PhDs. It makes it easier for them to wake up in the morning with a sense of purpose, meaning and self-worth to their otherwise empty lives.

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    1. 4gravitonsandagradstudent Post author

      I wasn’t trying to provide a definition, merely a common trait (and one that makes it hard to relate to them). I agree that crackpots as a rule are also quite attached to their beliefs, though I’m not sure it’s inevitably distressing when they let them go. If you read maffblogger’s link, it does sound like approaching crackpots in the right way (“you have rediscovered an interesting approximation, well done!”) can lead to positive outcomes.

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  7. Anonymous

    I wish there was a place to put crackpot ideas. Started writing books a few years ago to fill in the free time I had after giving up a bad habit I had (booze). I always hated the crappy magic systems in fantasy books so I made up a simple one for the books I wrote. Never gave two thoughts about it until that whole ER=EPR crap showed up. “Hey that’s like my simple magic system”, I remember thinking. Anyway as a lark I started using the system to try and create particles being pretty sure I would get nowhere. Anyway the simple magic system got way more complicated then I could ever figure out and I started to get some very odd results. I can’t help feeling that it may be important but there is no where to put it so a rational scientist can look at it (and rule it out). Ended up just publishing it (its all wormholes now) Its free if anyone’s interested.

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      1. 4gravitonsandagradstudent Post author

        Do non-crackpots actually check viXra, though? I think what that Anon wants is not so much a place to put crackpot ideas, as a place where some exceptionally patient experts would read and critique said ideas.

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        1. ohwilleke

          Some non-crackpots do actually check viXra (probably a number of non-crackpots somewhere in the low double digits) and some people who check viXra do read and critique some of the ideas (a number probably in the high single digits that does not fully overlap with the non-crackpot readers). It certainly isn’t a perfect solution. But, it is by far the best one out there. And, it has the virtue of being an open discussion, unlike the historical norm of private correspondence between the most ambitious of non-professional scientists and recognized leaders of the scientific community that have long been maintained by people like Nambu, while he lived.

          Stack Exchange offers a place where ideas can be posed by relative novices and get critiques (as do bulletin board formate sites like Physics Forums). But, patient critique tolerance varies.

          viXra is really the only place that tolerates full length expositions of non-professional theories that are far from the mainstream and there is a demand for that. And, while the garbage to insightful ratio is even lower than arXiv (which isn’t all that great at times, particularly in certain subfields), there are occasional gems. I sift through it two or three times a year in search of any interesting ideas to blog about, and every now and then I do find something interesting enough to discuss.

          Another really useful aspect of viXra is that by looking at the overall output and adjusting for the fact that some authors upload papers that are slight refinements of previous ones while others upload a basic idea only once, the distribution of topic areas shows what topics capture the imagination of amateurs with a serious interest in fundamental physics.

          The perception of this group of contributors about what is important, for example, quite reasonably focuses more on questions like possible theories that could point to the relationships and source of the fundamental constants of the Standard Model, while being much less taken by SUSY as a promising avenue for speculation. It wouldn’t hurt more mainstream investigators to ask themselves if some of the topic areas that are perennial areas of interest on viXra don’t deserve a little more attention from the professional physics community using more mainstream and informed approaches than they receive today.

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        2. Lubos Motl

          Exactly. Or in other words, what Anonymous wants is to be as famous and as rewarded by the $3 million Milner awards as e.g. Maldacena by posting his crackpot ideas somewhere. I am afraid (and, more precisely and more honestly, I hope) that there’s no recipe to achieve this outcome yet. Anonymous may misunderstand why ER=EPR, AdS/CFT, or other things are extremely valuable ideas while his crackpot magic stuff isn’t, but there are actual experts who can see the difference.

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  8. ohwilleke

    FWIW, legal crackpots who are very similar in psychology and method to science crackpots do much more practical harm. While there are lots of bogus theories of everything or rejections of QM or GR out there, very few crackpots expounding them get anyone to take action in any manner of consequence based upon those theories, where legal crackpots can concoct horrible messes and paradoxically, can also lead to legal rules designed to address them that wreck havoc on the functioning of the legal system in cases where non-crackpots are trying to work, in a sort of legal auto-immune disorder (which reaches epic proportions are in areas of the law like post-conviction habeas corpus proceedings). One day’s work from a nut job can give rise to hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars of time and money wasted by his innocent victims.

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  9. algore

    4graviton,

    Certainty is the natural state of many humans (not all) throughout the ages. When some phenomenon remains the same for as long as one remembers, one “knows” that it must always be that way. Psychologists will tell you why, although they don’t know, so ignore them. But a little thought will convince you it’s true. Consider the legions of religious who have been (and are) certain. Consider that prior to the age of 20-something one more or less can’t believe that life won’t last forever. At age 18 a brave soldier can see his buddies dropping on all sides, and still can’t imagine it happening to him (for instance Audie Murphy). Ask any broker, he’ll tell you stories of first-timers who read a book on technical analysis and are absolutely certain that it will work; when he disagrees they pity his lack of vision. Can you imagine that someday your hair will turn grey and fall out; that you’d rather take a nice nap than go out clubbing? Of course not. Politics, even grooming habits … examples of crackpot certainty are uncountable, Aleph-naught (at least).

    One needs to get one’s nose rubbed in it a few times to know their fallibility. After a good crash like 2008, people finally learn to be wary of investment schemes. After a major illness or accident – for the unusually stubborn, it might take a few of them – one realizes one is mortal. And so on.

    So the essence of crackpottery – unjustified certainty – is a built-in feature of certain types of people, entirely normal. No doubt there’s an evolutionary reason for it.

    Of course you’re talking about physics-related crackpots, not putting it in a broader context, and probably can’t see why I’m doing so. That sort of tunnel vision is, indeed, a related psychological phenomenon. People tend to hang out with those just like themselves. That was true in the days of tribes consisting of 100 individuals, and it’s just as true today in grad school. To you, a shotgun-toting Southerner (I’m thinking you’re in the US?) is, I would venture to guess, not even human: a joke. You have absolutely no idea what makes him tick; don’t think he does; and don’t care. He feels the same about you. Everyone either of you knows is the same; you all reinforce each other’s opinions; the society is balkanized. If you spent a week with one of those good ol’ boys, crashed on a desert island let’s say, you’d each learn the other is as human as you are, and your crackpot certainties would be severely impaired – to your benefit. If you simply visited the other’s web sites a bit, your eyes would open. But – you don’t.

    Fortunately age normally cures such crackpottery and brings a wider view.

    Ok, let’s address physics crackpots. What I’ve said above is sufficient to explain why their existence shouldn’t surprise anyone. But the great thing about experimental science is that Nature teaches you humility, when done right. Your theory gets busted by stubborn facts. Computer programming, BTW, is also good for this. No matter how confident in your abilities and code you are, if it’s wrong it just doesn’t work, period. These disciplines soon teach an honest practitioner humility – which, indeed, is precisely the cure for a cracked pot.

    The problem is, too many crackpot physicists don’t believe in experiment any more! For one example (of many), David Deutsch. He absolutely knows that every time a photon might take two different paths, the entire universe splits! If he might have chicken for dinner, or fish, two DDs come into existence, one for each meal. Most physicists (and of course laypersons) tell him he’s wrong. His response? They’re guilty of “bad philosophy”. How can a scientist be this way? It’s because no possible experiment can ever contradict him! He’s in the position of a naive investor who believes some silly get-rich-quick scheme – but never puts it to the test. Another example, Lubos Motl and String Theory. He’s proud that his theory doesn’t predict known particles, only superpartners too heavy to detect. He is sorry for those who need “agreement with mere facts” to believe something. Believing in 6 impossible things before breakfast is proof of high IQ. This is what happens when science abandons experiment.

    Einstein, when asked, “what if the experiment disagrees with your theory?”, said “I would be sorry for the Good Lord.” At least he acknowledged that experiments did exist, and had some meaning. But he incorrectly thought disagreement meant Nature was wrong, not him. IF God is as smart as Einstein, Motl or Deutsch, he’ll design nature correctly. If not, God, nature and experiment are pitiably wrong; throw them in the dustbin of history (I neglected to mention Marxists above, more great examples of crackpots).

    Given all the above, isn’t it obvious why some naive pseudo-scientist “knows” he’s right, no matter how much evidence to the contrary? It’s a natural human condition; and the scientists who should be showing him the correct attitude are worse than he is.

    As Voltaire said, tend your own garden (of science). Weed out the above-cited weeds and others like them, who have abandoned experiment for their fantasies. You’ll be amazed: all those psuedo-scientists will respond in kind and learn humility – as soon as you guys do.

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    1. Sean Corali

      Murray Gell-!Mann, in 1957, had a beautiful theory that was in strong disagreement with SEVEN, xount seven, different experiments. Guess what? ALL seven exoeriments were wrong-dead wrong. See? Disagreeing with experiment is a simplistid philosophy supported by Internet people.Thank God the people who discovered Neptune did not have that silly attitude. It is far more complex! Rather those people saw WHY it disagreed. Namely, because of their ASSUMORIONS there were no trans-Uranus planets. Feynman, I am sure knew this, despite his white lies told to students. Gell-Mann eventually could not stand Feynman,his ego, his obnoxious nature and lack of giving credit to others.

      Experimemt is not everything. Give and take between theiry and exoerimemt. Einstein, in response to those individuals citing fringe experiments and every little observation in disagreement with General Relativity”That will go away.” Einstein knew hetter.He did nothave a naive childish simplistic view of science. Rather, a very sophisticated one.

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  10. algore

    Sean Caroli: Experimemt is not everything.

    Neither is experiment! Not everything but very important – more important than mere theory.

    However the question can’t be resolved; it’s a matter of opinion, and you’re welcome to yours.

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  11. Sean Corali

    Murray Gell-Mann’s theory turned out to be right and it went up against seven experiments in contradiction. That is quite a few. Experiments are important, but it’s a” give and take between experiment and theory.” Most experiments are wrong the first time around says Lawrence Krauss in lectures. Most or much of the material in journals is wrong says Krauss during lectures. The underdetermination of theory is an issue that arises sometimes. Einstein was well aware of that. But if something disagrees with experiment it must be looked into very carefully. The experiment itself could be poor quality or different things left unconsidered. Look at the discovery of Neptune and the assumptions involved. I am sure Feynman knew this, but he kind of told white lies to students in introductory courses about “disagreeing with experiment.”

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  12. algore

    Sure I’ll give you that. Experiments can be wrong, for a while. That’s why we replicate them. If a theory disagrees with experiment it shouldn’t necessarily be thrown away. The experiment may be off, or the theory may be largely right except for this discrepancy, which can be fixed. If I over-emphasize experiment, it’s in reaction to those who ignore it (as I claim). Science certainly needs both experiment and theory.

    My complaint is not about gray areas, not about reasonable disagreements that might take a few years to iron out. There are physicists, and entire branches of physics, that simply ignore experiment entirely: treat it with contempt. What experiment can prove MWI – or disprove it? The interior of Black Holes is in principle inaccessible. Inflation assumes nearly infinite Universe beyond our own which can never be seen. String theory has no experimental validation at all and, it seems, never will. Dark Matter has failed to be found for more than 40 years. And so on. These are not minor points to be cleared up in a few years: they’re show-stoppers. Intuition and aesthetic appreciation (the equation is so beautiful it must be true!) will lead you far astray Note that any field which is immune to experiment is, for the same reason, useless: it’s too far removed from reality.

    While all this silliness consumes resources and pollutes the public’s perception of science, real science marches on. Non-linear optics, materials sciences, genetics, neuroscience are making huge strides, changing our lives dramatically; and they’re only warming up. That’s what happens when you stick to science which is guided by experiment. That other stuff is mere “mathematical philosophy” and breeds crackpots by the millions, which was my point.

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