In my “Science Vs. Pseudoscience” class, I explicitly did not include crackpots in my definition of pseudoscience. As I defined it in the course, pseudoscience is something that claims either the banner of science — as with “creation science”, the IQ absolutists, or some kinds of astrology — or claims to be a valid alternative to science — psychics generally fall into this category. Crackpots do indeed do claim to be scientific, but one subtle difference that I alluded to in my earlier post is the aspect of community. My working definition of pseudoscience is of course my own, and selected for convenience to narrow the focus of the class. As it was we didn’t have time to cover every topic I would have liked!
Creationism is the area of pseudoscience I’ve spent the most time thinking about, mainly because Creationists and Intelligent Design advocates are the people I’ve encountered the most (or at least have been the most vocal about their beliefs to me). Although it doesn’t seem likely I’ll ever get a chance to teach “Science Vs. Pseudoscience” again, if I did, I might focus even more on that area, and not just because of the continuing battles over science education in America.
Crackpots and Creationists have a lot of obvious differences: to a crackpot, the ultimate authority is his (and it’s almost always “his”) own flawed understanding of science; to a Creationist, the ultimate authority is the particular interpretation of scripture. A crackpot will happily reject established results in science for the sake of revealing that their “theories” are right, while Creationists will happily reject results that contradict a young age for Earth (or that support evolution as opposed to a “designed” view). Both start from the same view — that standard science is somehow wrong — but the reasons for the rejection are somewhat different.
However, there’s a bit of similarity hiding among the differences. To be a Creationist who wants to find scientific support for a young Earth, you have to accept some crackpotty ideas — huge variations in the speed of light, or huge variations in the decay rate of nucleotides to allow the Earth to appear old while still being very young. Thus, someone like Andrew Lisle — a rare astrophysicist who is also a young-Earth Creationist — is forced into all sorts of convolutions to get to his foregone conclusion, and his “theories” look a lot like the crackpots’ “theories”. (Of course, another route is to say that all science is questionable, which is the “fraud” part of my Creationists’ trilemma.)
Another similarity lies in the methods: both Creationists and crackpots seem to think that science proceeds by argument and debate, rather than evidence and testing. Many Intelligent Design advocates understand that at some point they need hard evidence in favor of ID, rather than just negative arguments against evolution, but since there isn’t evidence for their position, they concentrate instead on trying to win debates. Similarly, crackpots — who often seem to have trouble understanding quantum physics or relativity — rely on arguments, since evidence is not on their side.
So once again, I beg you: please don’t be a crackpot.