why you shouldn’t sing praises to a crank

January 11, 2012 — 2 Comments

Nowadays, thanks to media policies and the abuse of internet podiums, we have a crank problem. Since so many of these cranks get lavished with attention and praise for saying what people want to hear, offering very simple solutions to very complex problems despite the fact that their oversimplifications will never work, we’re probably not going to be served well by encouraging them to keep at it as Margaret Wertheim does in her ode to the proud and arrogant know-nothing. According to her, it’s perfectly fine that a trailer park owner who had less than a semester of physics decided that he knew more then enough to crack cosmology once and for all while the rest of the physics world is still struggling with some fundamental questions. She’s also more than happy that over 2,000 similarly minded cranks created their own alternative symposium where they present a series of their latest random meanderings as serious alternatives to the work of tens of thousands of highly educated expertsand pats them on the head as hard-working mavericks. She couldn’t be more wrong.

You’re probably familiar with the now classic statistic that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to become a genuine expert at something, and depending on the topic, it may take much more. However, the quality of this practice is also very important. If you spend 10,000 hours solving math problems incorrectly, you’re not going to become an expert mathematician by the end of your exercise, despite fancying yourself as such. But that is exactly that one of the primary characters in Wertheim’s story, the trailer park cosmologist Jim Carter, did with his education. The reason why Wertheim writes about him so prominently is because she’s trying to sell her book, in which Carter is the David taking on the Scientific Goliath. After taking a look at his utterly backwards description of gravity, I doubt the man has ever bothered to read the simplest, most layman friendly primers on general relativity. And yet he considers himself capable of tackling the biggest questions in physics. Now, were Wertheim not interest in promoting Carter’s crackpottery for financial gain, she could’ve used him as an example of arrogance of ignorance. But she does, feeding us with with pseudoscientific canards such as…

They are unanimous in the view that mainstream physics has been hijacked by a kind of priestly caste who speak a secret language – in other words, mathematics – that is incomprehensible to most human beings… In their militantly egalitarian opposition to what they see as a physics elite, [Natural Philosophy Alliance] members mirror the stances of Martin Luther. Luther was rebelling against the abstractions of the Latin-writing Catholic priesthood and one of his most revolutionary moves was to translate the Bible into vernacular German. Just as Luther declared that all people could read the book of God for themselves, the NPA today asserts that all of us ought to be able to read the book of nature for ourselves.

Hmm, not sure I’ve seen someone say "math is hard, screw it" in such grandiose terms and then defend this notion in the historical context of a religious schism. Luther was a believer whose opinions were based on a personal ideology and worldview so his split with the Catholics can be viewed as one worldview coming into conflict with another. Science is based on reams and reams of evidence and having random cranks whine at length about how complex this evidence is and how it must be just a way of keeping their brilliance out of the ivory towers so the scientists can keep all the Nobel Prizes to themselves, is not a conflict of worldviews. It’s a case of sour grapes and a textbook one at that. Put off by the amount of effort it takes to be a real physicist but desperately craving to understand how the universe works, they decided that the mathematics involved in the interpretation of the evidence and observations must be wrong anyway and the physicists are pretending that their data is somehow meaningful, just like the proverbial fox decided that the grapes out of its reach must’ve been rotten, otherwise they’d be low enough to pick. That’s not how science works. Sometimes it’s very hard, and it requires a lot of effort and study. Real scientists know their limitations and work hard to understand the fields they chose. Cranks substitute knowledge with conviction and volume, then go preach their gospel.

[ illustration from a promotional poster for Dr. Steel ]

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  • Jypson

    Not sure if you’ve seen this comic by SMBC, but it’s a brilliant depiction of your point.

    http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=2475#comic

  • Bill

    I’d never expect boffins to be much of a threat as a group (Mad Scientists Unite!). You should know though that your comment section could easily be hacked so that unknown geniuses can claim our rightful place. :)