Cranks, Crackpots, and Aquatic Apes

(My alliteration engine broke while writing the title. I’ll try to fix it before my next post.)

During a discussion on Twitter about crackpot theories, there was some minor speculation over what some differences may be between purveyors of crackpottery in physics as opposed to other areas. I’m most familiar with physics crackpots, so that’s sort of my frame of reference to understand crackpots in other disciplines as well. I certainly welcome comment and correction from biologists, geologists, etc.

A few years ago at a conference, I fell into conversation with a science writer there whose name unfortunately escapes me. (On the slim chance you’re reading this, please accept my apologies and please leave a comment or send me a message and reintroduce yourself!) There were a few people at this conference trying to gain attention for their highly questionable “theories” — one in particular had sent his book around to almost every participant to prepare us — and so this writer and I were discussing what turns someone who might be very intelligent into a crackpot. His view was that, on some level, those who promote crackpot ideas simply passed beyond their educational background and couldn’t understand why some theories and theorists are successful, yet they are not.

I think there is certainly some merit to that: after all, physics is tough for many — perhaps most — people. Especially when faced with the “Great Man” stereotype of science history, in which a lone genius by dint of pure intellect comes up with a groundbreaking theory out of the blue, it’s understandable why someone might think “Hey, why not me?” Of course, the “solitary genius” view isn’t really correct; even very reclusive scientists like Henry Cavendish (who made the first precise measurements of the gravitational and electrical forces in the 18th century) didn’t work in complete isolation.

One thing that strikes me about crackpots as opposed to the usual practitioners of pseudoscience I write about here is the community aspect — and the general lack thereof among crackpots. (The Cold Fusion conferences still seem to be going on, but another example isn’t occurring to me.) If you are working to solve the problems of the universe and subscribe to the Great Man view, it’s likely the last thing you want is a group of people who might steal your ideas. On the other hand, pseudoscience practitioners find community with each other: homeopaths and other alt-med purveyors form a very tightly-knit group, with news sources and discussion groups unique to their perspective.

That’s not to say there isn’t some overlap in terms of method. Both pseudoscience practitioners and crackpots promote their arguments through debate and proselytization — which can be an effective tactic, after all. I know I’m not a very good debater, so if I found myself in a forum where I was forced to debate someone, I might lose even if the evidence is on my side, which might convince observers that my position is the wrong one. If your goal is not to understand the evidence but to gain converts, debate is a far more effective tactic than study and reasoned discourse.

I had an interesting encounter with someone today promoting a fringe evolutionary theory known as the “aquatic ape hypothesis“, which postulates that human ancestors went through an semi-aquatic phase. (The idea is that an aquatic ape would lose its body hair and develop buoyant breasts as flotation aids. Interesting ideas, but when faced with the evidence they don’t really hold water, if you’ll pardon the expression.) I didn’t engage the person directly, but it occurred to me how much of a futile endeavor that was: I’m not a biologist, so my opinion about the veracity of this hypothesis doesn’t really bear much weight. Also, because I’m not a biologist, I’m going to tend to trust what my colleagues in the biology, anthropology, and paleontology communities say.

It does seem interesting that the aquatic ape hypothesis is of a similar form to fringe “theories” in physics, though: a straightforward explanation of something which sounds reasonable on the face of it, though quite evidently false when looked at through the eyes of an experienced specialist. Beyond that, I hesitate to go, but I’d be interested in hearing what my colleagues in evolutionary biology have to say.


2 responses to “Cranks, Crackpots, and Aquatic Apes”

  1. […] (This almost is a series now! Read “part 1″ and “part 2″.) […]

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