how cranks and mad scientists are born

Scientists and engineers don't turn into cranks overnight. It's a process that usually starts by not knowing when to cut one's losses...
mad scientist in lab
Illustration by Mathieu Beaulieu

The term crank is often thrown around quite freely on skeptical blogs, including this one, under the somewhat general guideline of “if the shoe fits.” We know how to tell whether someone is a crank and there are even full blown lists of warning signs and red flags when it comes to detecting crankery. But while identifying cranks and criticizing their claims is all well and good, sometimes it’s helpful to take a look and ask how cranks are born and why they persist without resorting to a shrug and a circular platitude. Certainly, some of them come from a religious background that emphasized personal beliefs over logic and evidence and so they can’t even imagine the need for consensus or real research. Others find fame and fortune in simply espousing what an unusually naive audience wants to hear. But those aren’t the cranks I want to talk about. Instead, I want to give you an idea of how a perfectly reasonable person can slowly descend into denialism and pseudoscience.

Let’s say you’re a graduate student working on an idea that you think may change something in your field. You quickly become convinced that your work could be something radically new and excitedly proceed to spend a grueling month buried in research papers and academic tomes on the subject. Meetings with your adviser go very smoothly and he doles out some measured praise for your outline so far, encouraging you to proceed. As you keep going, however, problems start coming up. You hunker down and keep working through them, sure that you’re on to something great and profound. Then, after many months of late nights fueled by adrenaline or energy drinks, you present your work to academics. And it doesn’t go well. They have issues with you premise and your methodology, they want more tests and more experiments, they criticize the technical details, and do all the other nitpicky things academics tend to do. So you keep on working to address their challenges. After a few more exhausting months, you try again. Sadly, your second presentation doesn’t fare better than your first, and in fact, your fellow academics are now saying that the idea isn’t all that original in the first place.

Now, you’re at a crossroads. You could just cut your losses and call it a day. After all, for every theory that does work out, there are at least a few thousand that never make the cut. Lesson learned, right? But wait a second, you think. How about I give it one more try. Just one. I already spent so much time working on this thing, I can’t just give up. And so you try yet again, and yet again find that your idea just isn’t up to snuff. Your peers keep on suggesting that you try something new, or take your research in a different direction. By this time, you’ve been so wrapped up in your work and dedicated so much time to it, every suggestion prompts you to refine what’s already been done “just one last time” once again, and you keep on stumbling. Finally, resentment begins to set in and you begin to think of all the great minds whose ideas were at first denied. Surely, these academics who were reviewing my work don’t get it, you conclude. They must be threatened by your work. Worse yet, they probably wanted to scoop your paper. That’s why they keep criticizing it. What a fool you were! You were doing their work for them and didn’t even realize it all this time. How much did they already see? Well, doesn’t matter because they’re not going to see any more of it until it’s good and ready for publication!

And that’s when you begin to enter crank territory. Maybe your colleagues weren’t as helpful as they should’ve been, maybe some of their criticism was unreasonable, but how do you know your work was up to snuff? Are you not a pretty biased judge since it’s your work you’re evaluating? Talk to any parent and you’ll find out that a whole lot of kids today are bratty, spoiled, way too pampered, and need some good, old-fashioned, strict and consistent parenting. But not their child. No, their child is pretty much perfect. Just like your paper, right? When you don’t know when to cut your losses, invest far too much time in an idea for which there’s not all that much potential, and start rationalizing continued failures to maintain your peers’ general positivity towards what you research, you could find yourself slowly but surely turning into a crank. If you let those feelings of obsession, rejection, and frustration linger, taking them more and more personally each and every time, paying little or no regard to whether the critique was really personal or not, you may find yourself trying to use the web to bypass peer review all together, claiming that your work “must be seen by the people against the wishes of those dull and shortsighted oppressors in the academic establishment.” And soon after that, you may find yourself and your paper a topic right here on WoWT and other skeptical blogs. Who dissect your claims and refer to you as an attention-craving crank while you foam at the mouth at how “skeptical thugs” are “attacking your work…”

# science // cranks / pseudoscience / scientific method / skepticism

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