The (but I’m Not a) Crackpot Style Guide

Ok, ok, I believe you. You’re not a crackpot. You’re just an outsider, one with a brilliant new idea that would overturn the accepted paradigms of physics, if only someone would just listen.

Here’s the problem: you’re not alone. There are plenty of actual crackpots. We get contacted by them fairly regularly. And most of the time, they’re frustrating and unpleasant to deal with.

If you want physicists to listen to you, you need to show us you’re not one of those people. Otherwise, most of us won’t bother.

I can’t give you a foolproof way to do that. But I can give some suggestions that will hopefully make the process a little less frustrating for everyone involved.

Don’t spam:

Nobody likes spam. Nobody reads spam. If you send a mass email to every physicist whose email address you can find, none of them will read it. If you repeatedly post the same thing in a comment thread, nobody will read it. If you want people to listen to you, you have to show that you care about what they have to say, and in order to do that you have to tailor your message. This leads in to the next point,

Ask the right people:

Before you start reaching out, you should try to get an idea of who to talk to. Physics is quite specialized, so if you’re taking your ideas seriously you should try to contact people with a relevant specialization.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: your ideas are unique, no-one in physics is working on anything similar.

Here, it’s important to distinguish the problem you’re trying to solve with how you’re trying to solve it. Chances are, no-one else is working on your specific idea…but plenty of people are interested in the same problems.

Think quantum mechanics is built on shoddy assumptions? There are people who spend their lives trying to modify quantum mechanics. Have a beef against general relativity? There’s a whole sub-field of people who modify gravity.

These people are a valuable resource for you, because they know what doesn’t work. They’ve been trying to change the system, and they know just how hard it is to change, and just what evidence you need to be consistent with.

Contacting someone whose work just uses quantum mechanics or relativity won’t work. If you’re making elementary mistakes, we can put you on the right track…but if you think you’re making elementary mistakes, you should start out by asking help from a forum or the like, not contacting a professional. If you think you’ve really got a viable replacement to an established idea, you need to contact people who work on overturning established ideas, since they’re most aware of the complicated webs of implications involved. Relatedly,

Take ownership of your work:

I don’t know how many times someone has “corrected” something in the comments, and several posts later admitted that the “correction” comes from their own theory. If you’re arguing from your own work, own it! If you don’t, people will assume you’re trying to argue from an established theory, and are just confused about how that theory works. This is a special case of a broader principle,

Epistemic humility:

I’m not saying you need to be humble in general, but if you want to talk productively you need to be epistemically humble. That means being clear about why you know what you know. Did you get it from a mathematical proof? A philosophical argument? Reading pop science pieces? Something you remember from high school? Being clear about your sources makes it easier for people to figure out where you’re coming from, and avoids putting your foot in your mouth if it turns out your source is incomplete.

Context is crucial:

If you’re commenting on a blog like this one, pay attention to context. Your comment needs to be relevant enough that people won’t parse it as spam.

If all a post does is mention something like string theory, crowing about how your theory is a better explanation for quantum gravity isn’t relevant. Ditto for if all it does is mention a scientific concept that you think is mistaken.

What if the post is promoting something that you’ve found to be incorrect, though? What if someone is wrong on the internet?

In that case, it’s important to keep in mind the above principles. A popularization piece will usually try to present the establishment view, and merits a different response than a scientific piece arguing something new. In both cases, own your own ideas and be specific about how you know what you know. Be clear on whether you’re talking about something that’s controversial, or something that’s broadly agreed on.

You can get an idea of what works and what doesn’t by looking at comments on this blog. When I post about dark matter, or cosmic inflation, there are people who object, and the best ones are straightforward about why. Rather than opening with “you’re wrong”, they point out which ideas are controversial. They’re specific about whose ideas they’re referencing, and are clear about what is pedagogy and what is science.

Those comments tend to get much better responses than the ones that begin with cryptic condemnations, follow with links, and make absolute statements without backing them up.

On the internet, it’s easy for misunderstandings to devolve into arguments. Want to avoid that? Be direct, be clear, be relevant.

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8 thoughts on “The (but I’m Not a) Crackpot Style Guide

  1. Lubos Motl

    I completely agree with that. First, such an outsider-genius has to be different from the hordes of obvious crackpots who are spamming our mailboxes, physical and electronic ones, with self-evident garbage.

    Second, he has to find relevant people who might be interested. If he’s convinced that no physicist in the world could possibly be good enough to care about that ingenious insight, it’s almost certainly a fault of the proponent of the idea. The potential endorsers have to have a pretty good specialization so that they’re interested in the new idea. If the outsider-proponent of the new idea doesn’t have a clue who could be the right men with the right specialization, it’s almost certainly because he doesn’t have a clue about the actual scientific status of the questions themselves, either.

    And then just be direct, clear, relevant, honest about sources, and all things like that.

    Most of the people who are contacting are hopelessly stupid. But many of them have amazing ideas about the degree of dishonesty that is just OK. I regularly get spammed by people who basically want to circumvent peer review or get some paper published somewhere by using my authority – even though they don’t even know me. So I often have to explain basic things, e.g. that I don’t have the authority to circumvent some peer review etc., and even if I had this power, I wouldn’t be using it.

    This sounds shocking to most of those people – they’re basically mentally living in a completely corrupt, garbage pseudo-intellectual world and can’t even imagine that something with higher standards exists.

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    1. Mr. Eldritch

      For what it’s worth, I find it very difficult to read your posts because you’re constantly pinging the crackpot meter. Not being personally familiar with string theory, or really advanced enough in mathematics or physics to claim any understanding of it, I kind of need to fall back on the crackpot meter as one of the heuristics needed to judge what sources on it I should take seriously.

      The constant (constant!) vitriol tends to pattern-match to stuff like Time Cube’s ranting about how only indoctrination and the fundamental incompetence and stupidity of humanity stops them seeing the blind obviousness of his ravings; the absolute arrogance that comes with the assurance that your field of research is self-evidently the correct approach and that everyone who does not find it obvious is blind, stupid, or deluding themselves also pattern-matches to any number of fringe theorists.

      I’m well aware that you’re in fact a respected academic working in a fairly mainstream avenue of research that has much to recommend it, so the crackpot meter is almost certainly going off erroneously, but it is very distracting and makes it difficult to treat you as an authoritative or even reliable source.

      Could you please try to tone it down a bit? You’re really not helping, and tend to make your opponents look less fringe simply by the contrast with you.

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  2. David Bartell

    I wrote a very short satire, “Armchair Scientist”, on this very topic for the Probability Zero feature in Analog: Science Fiction Science Fact. It’s free at: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/122665

    This discussion adds some things I hadn’t thought of. Perhaps I should spam a bunch of scientists to collect material for an updated version! 🙂

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  3. Giotis

    Don’t raise too many hopes though.

    It is more likely hell freezes than an outsider making a significant contribution to cutting edge theoretical Physics research.

    Paraphrasing dear Lord, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than an outsider to enter the kingdom of high energy Physics revelations.

    And this is from an outsider like me (Electrical Engineer) who is studying physics for his own pleasure at his own free time for many years now.

    But of course: “you never know”, “never say never”, etcetera etcetera ☺

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    1. JollyJoker

      I’m under the impression Philip Gibbs of Vixra fame did some real physics. Rare but far from impossible.

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  4. Ulises

    A few years ago I was a crank. I began to study physics, I am not a crank anymore, I think.
    I will be working in string theory and/or QFT when I began the thesis, that’s the next year. My natural language is spanish, I learned english reading papers and using “google translate”, I’m sorry if I had writen in a horrible, unspeakable and sacrilegious way this paragraph.

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  5. Tom Andersen

    Thanks for the article.

    Its hard to tell crackpottery from real science sometimes. Its also impossible to say that there are no tenured full on crackpot theoretical physicists out there. That’s a fact that every graduate student knows.

    Yet there is not enough ‘anything goes’ in theoretical physics, which in my opinion is holding it back. I think there is progress, though. I recently watched a Perimeter video about an alternative quantum theory that is almost certainly wrong. Too bad you need to be an ‘elder in the community’ to be brave enough to give a talk on something that is both likely wrong and also not popular.

    With the impasse that theoretical physics is at today it seems to me more likely that some ‘silly physics’ talk will spark a real advance, rather than beating on the doors we have already opened. People think of the weirdest things.

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