Crackpots: Humanity’s unappreciated resource

Crackpot taxonomy

In my view, there are two types of crackpots. There are those that have wild ideas stemming from ignorance. Conspiracy theorists often fall into this category. Crackpots of the second type have wild ideas because they reject commonly accepted wisdom.

Yes, the two types also have features in common. They tend to make grandiose claims in all caps: I HAVE DISCOVERED THE WAY THE WORLD WORKS. They are often outsiders not conversant with the accepted style, standard notation and terminology of the field.

The first type is always wrong. The second type is almost always wrong.

Perhaps presumptuously, if I have to be a crackpot, I fancy myself being the second type. I freely admit that my ideas may well turn out to be wrong, but I am convinced that they are worth investigating. The problem is that the academic world seems to be entirely geared towards gradual improvements to human knowledge. Crackpots of category 2 are facilitators of forward leaps. After all, all progress depends on new ideas and in my experience in just about any field the bottleneck is ideas. Should not all fresh ideas be welcome?

Examples

Examples always help to make a point. The theory of continental drift, which is of the same monumental importance to geology as evolution is to biology, was proposed by Alfred Wegener in 1912, but was belittled and ignored for decades because the most eminent scientist of the field attacked it. This is an example of a theory that was considered crackpot science, but turned out to be correct, in the light of evidence that was discovered much later.

Here is an example of an idea that is most likely incorrect, from another field: history.

Another German, Heribert Illig, came up with the rather stunning theory that a medieval emperor bumped the calendar for 300 years in order to reign in the year 1000, and invented a history for the missing years. According to Illig, Charlemagne is a fabricated character and the correct date now is 17something. This theory would explain some apparent historical inconsistencies, but has trouble in other areas and is most probably wrong.

We all agree that correct ideas are good, but I would also argue that both the ideas above have merit irrespective of their eventual correctness, which is not known at the time they were proposed.

In my opinion in a perfect world, instead of being attacked and ridiculed, Wegener and Illig should both have been thanked for their inspired and original ideas. In both cases evidence would eventually refute or confirm the ideas, and this ought to be received with the same good grace by the idea’s originators regardless of the outcome. Without shame if they turn out to be wrong, without gloating if they struck it lucky.

Unhealthy attachment to ideas

This blog entry has been prompted by a paper by Brian Martin: “Strategies for Dissenting Scientists”.

One of the points that the paper makes is how scientists become attached to viewpoints in which they have heavily invested and become unreceptive to ideas that would undermine their status and would make their lifelong commitment be apparently wasted.

In my view the same applies to crackpots. At some point some become so attached to their theories that they become impervious to counterproof, and so category 2 crackpots morph into category 1.

Not me though. I would welcome it if someone comprehensively disproved my ideas in a way that I can accept.

It sounds like a suspicious caveat to insist that I myself accept the counter proof, but several people have read drafts of my paper and pointed out perceived fatal flaws that are not valid in my view. While I realise that it is classic crackpot behaviour to reject critical peer reviews, I do think that a minimum of open mindedness is required.

Personal perspective

If in 1900 an inventor came to a patent office with a mechanical perpetual motion machine, the patent clerk could save the trouble of having to understand the machine by the shortcut of simply noting that the law of conservation of energy and the existence of friction makes it impossible. However the discovery of superconductivity provides a counter example to this strategy.

Similarly, there is a shortcut to dismissing my idea out of hand since it has a deterministic mechanism at its core. In my view though, the proofs that preclude determinism make the unspoken assumption of having a single time dimension. With only one time dimension the path of an electron can only be calculated as a probability and by taking all the possible paths it could take into account. This is an observer-centric way of looking at the world. I made the analogy of a geocentric world-view in my introduction. (It made me smile when I discovered that I get 40 points on my crackpot index for Copernican comparisons.)

With multiple time-dimensions there are many parallel and interacting copies of observers and electrons and the electrons actually do take all the possible paths. I am sorry, this still makes much more sense to me.

I have come across a paper by Max Tegmark that makes an anthropic argument for the existence of a single time dimension, but I object to his reasoning. I will deal with that paper in a future blog post.

One would have thought that the mathematical part of my idea, rotational numbers, would be easy to prove or disprove, but I am having the same trouble there. All the criticism levied against it (apart from that due to fixable mistakes that I made) boils down to a rejection of an unfamiliar approach. So far at least.

Everybody has a world-view

So far this all sounds like an attack on the narrow-minded establishment that refuses to read my theory; but in reality everybody, me included, behaves the same way. Every person, and especially a scientist, has a world-view; some intuition that tells us how the world works. It is the same mechanism under which religious people operate. Some scientists are attached to religion in an unscientific way. Some others are attached to scientific theories in a quasi-religious way. If they encounter something that does not fit their world view, then it is rejected or ignored.

For me anything to do with superstition, UFOs or any religious arguments hit the instant-off button, because they have no legitimacy in my world-view. Can I really complain if physicists who worship relativity theory with religious fervor refuse to take seriously any theory where relativity is not built in at the base level, but is an emergent and approximate phenomenon?

The problem

The first half of the problem is the ratio of category 1 to category 2 crackpots. I have come across many crackpot theories on the internet. While there are a few where I get the sense that the originator has some intuitive feel for something or a novel insight, most seem to be very clearly crazy. The second half of the problem is that it is very hard to tell one from the other. I experimentally posted on an “against the mainstream” forum recently and was surprised how hard it was not to sound like another raving loony when forced to describe my idea in short forum posts.

If you look at the history of just about every single big idea you find the same pattern. Overwhelming hostility towards the originator of the idea, who then becomes engaged in a monumental struggle for acceptance which often only comes posthumously. This makes you wonder how many potentially world-changing ideas fall by the wayside because the inventors lack the stamina to pursue them.

There is a freakonomic perspective to this also.

Imagine a group of people testing thousands of rocks to find one gold nugget. If it is laborious to test each rock and costly to declare a false positive then the economically winning strategy for every member of the group is to reject all their rocks without testing, since in all likelihood they will all be duffers. The downside is that the one nugget will not be found. This analogy is not limited to the scientific world of objective measures. For example I think it also occurs in the book publishing industry.

So who owns the problem of sifting new ideas? Academics appear to think that this is not part of their job description. I wonder, if not them, then who? Academics are busy with their own projects, and there are strong disincentives for academics to even interact with crackpots. Furthermore, since the chances are against them encountering the one nugget, dealing with category 1 crackpots can be exasperating and offensive.

For example, Gerard ‘t Hooft, who already has a Nobel prize and so does not need to fear association with the wrong sort has been inundated with crackpot theories and has a big section of website devoted to them. Some physicists have extremely scathing sections on their webpages designed to repel purveyors of crackpot theories. This blog post is trying to come to the defence of at least category 2 crackpots.

Maybe someone should found a crackpot idea analysis institute. This would be a nice systemic solution, but what about me? What can I do right now? I am still hoping for some help from the academic community, hard as it is to come by.

To be clear, I only make a claim to category 2 status and to join the crackpots that enrich the world with new ideas. I can’t be sure that my idea contains a nugget, I merely believe that it is worth investigating.

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One thought on “Crackpots: Humanity’s unappreciated resource

  1. Marianne Talbot

    Hi Christian!

    A very interesting post. I object only to the sentence: “Academics appear to think that this (testing new ideas) is not part of their job description. “.

    I don’t think academics do think this. I think instead they think that they only have so much time to (a) develop their own new ideas (b) read about the new ideas being developed by those in their field, (c) do all their admin (d) prepare all their lectures (e) do all their teaching, (f) write all their funding applications and (g) write all their reports (or perhaps that is part of (c)).

    I am shocked, for example, to see that term is starting in a few weeks, and, apart from a week in Wales in June I haven’t even had a weekend off. Yet I still haven’t written the two lecture series I am giving this year.

    But I see this is not a response to your complaint – I am not sure there is a response to it. I think your ‘gold nugget deterctor’ is the best idea.

    Marianne

    Reply

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