Please Don’t Be a Crackpot

I would say many if not most physics professors and researchers are the occasional recipients of unsolicited email messages, letters, pamphlets, or (in extreme cases) books outlining brand-new “theories”. I’ve collected a fair number of these over the years, and many of my colleagues confess that they’ve done the same. They vary a lot in content, but the basic outline is similar.

They mostly claim one or more of the following:

  1. To “prove” that Einstein was wrong about something fundamental
  2. To “prove” that quantum mechanics is wrong in some way or other
  3. To unify the fundamental forces of nature

These “theories” almost never have any actual equations in them or specific predictions, and often are based on thought experiments — many of which are contradicted by the results of real experiments. The author of the message often will challenge the recipient to prove them wrong, and will regard any lack of response as an indication that physicists can’t find anything wrong with their theories. Sometimes there will be accusations of suppression, that the mainstream journals won’t publish their work because they know it’s right and will put a lot of physicists out of work.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. A theory to a scientist isn’t a collection of random guesses based on sitting and thinking, but a robust framework of ideas that can be tested against experiments or other observations. The myth of the solitary genius who is able to come up with brilliant ideas in total isolation is just that: a myth. When Einstein worked on relativity while employed at the Swiss patent office, he was in contact with a number of other scientists and kept up with the scientific literature — hardly a man hiding out from the world.

I’m obviously focusing on physics crackpotism (to coin a term); John Baez has an extensive and wonderful checklist of crackpot symptoms if you want more. I’m interested in seeing the types of crackpots that exist in other disciplines; I guess that physics, being a heavily theoretical science, might attract more cranks than geology, which is less focused on grand formal structures. However, I know that cranks and trolls are not the exclusive property of physics — Christina Pikas has suggested studying patterns in crackpotism across disciplines, something that definitely is worthy of study.

But if I were to give advice to would-be scientists: read the symptoms and avoid being a crackpot. Please. All of us thank you for that.

5 Responses to “Please Don’t Be a Crackpot”

  1. 1 Steven Schimmrich April 17, 2011 at 10:14

    Geologists get crank emails all the time – they’re from young-earth creationists who believe the earth is only 6000 years-old. Of course, it’s not just geology they dislike, it’s all sciences.

    • 2 Matthew R. Francis April 17, 2011 at 14:03

      It’s interesting how some young-Earth creationists do fall strongly into the category of crackpots — arguing that radiometric dating methods are totally flawed, and (in the case of Jason Lisle) coming up with whole new “theories” of star formation and evolution. In a way, though, I think creationists fall into the category of “pseudoscience” rather than “crackpot”, though perhaps it’s a distinction without a true difference. It certainly deserves more thought.

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