Oct 28 2022

An Open-Letter to All Cranks

I get lots of e-mail, sometimes from people who want to convince me that their pet theory has merit – in explicit hope that I will champion their cause and spread their theory. They are always disappointed. The exchange is always the same, almost eerily so, as if they are all following the same script. I think to an extent they are – they are all absorbing the same narrative from the culture. So here is my generic response to all cranks, past and future.


Dear Crank,

I use that term not as a personal attack, but as an accurate description of your behavior. I want you to understand why that behavior is not serving you well, and what you can do the escape from a cycle of self-destructive, and frankly annoying, behavior. Hey – you e-mailed me, you jumped up in front of me waving your hands in order to get my attention. Well, you got it. And now I am going to do you a massive favor. I am going to give you a tiny slice of the attention you are so clearly desperate for and explain to you why you are a crank.

I understand you have a theory with which you are very impressed, and it includes a lot of math and facts and details. You may even have some scientific education and background. But if you think you have somehow seen through the fog, and have proven that the world’s scientists have all been hopelessly wrong for the last century or so, then you are likely suffering from not only a lack of proper humility, but overwhelming hubris. You may think that you have proven with one devastating argument that evolution is impossible, or global warming is not real, or that you have created free-energy, cured cancer, or changed everything we thought we knew about history (or whatever), but you haven’t.

What you apparently don’t understand is that the odds of such a thing are so vanishingly small, given the mountain of existing evidence, that it is overwhelmingly likely that you have simply made an error. Even in the extremely unlikely event that I am wrong, you are still not going about it correctly.  You now have one of two basic options. Option A, which you have apparently chosen so far, is to simply assume that you are an epic genius, far surpassing Galileo or Einstein, and that those who reject your brilliance are either too ignorant to understand it or too corrupt to admit it. But this is a dark path, and never leads anywhere good (whether you are ultimately right or not).

If you persist down this path what will happen is that scientists and scientific institutions will reject you, for no other reason then because you refuse to play by the rules. You may think this makes you a maverick, but it really only ensures your failure. Scientists will either ignore you completely, or engage briefly with you until they see that you are a crank, or use you as a cautionary tale to educate others about crank science. You will never convince the scientific community of your ideas, and this will make you increasingly desperate and frustrated. As solace you will cloak yourself in a narrative of victimhood – you are being unfairly dismissed, you are the victim of a conspiracy, people are being mean to you and call you names. To compensate, your bravado will grow, as will your disdain for those who reject you.

You will likely also find solace in a fringe community of similar cranks. Here you will find acceptance, attention, maybe even minor celebrity. You will think you have finally found what you were looking for, but it’s a trap. Publishing in fake science journals, speaking at crank conferences, publishing books to the public and bypassing peer-review, will give you only temporary gains. But you are also dooming yourself and your ideas to ultimate obscurity, except as a footnote in writings about pathological science. You will not change the world or ever gain widespread acceptance.

Do not fall for the delusion that the geniuses we admire today (like the aforementioned Galileo) were rejected as cranks in their time. This is not true, and is just another self-delusion and part of the typical victim narrative. Galileo and his ilk were serious scientists, publishing and communicating with the mainstream community of their day. Also, if you have to reach before 1900 for your example, that’s because science was still in its infancy then, and many new scientific ideas were radical to the pre-scientific culture. That is no longer true. Radical ideas are not springing up into a relative vacuum, but have to deal with a long history of scientific research that came before them. Also, this perspective is an illusion of survivor bias. For every Galileo there were countless actual cranks whose names you never heard of and only persist as those footnotes in skeptical writings.

But there is an option B. This will not be easy, but it is the only path to any semblance of legitimacy. It begins with humility. First, you have to admit the possibility that you are wrong. It’s possible that the reason all those scientists and science communicators are rejecting you is not because you are brilliant and they are morons, but because you have simply made an error. That is the simplest explanation, favored by Occam’s Razor. Remember those scientists who thought they detected faster-than-light neutrinos? They assumed they made and error, and they were right. They were humble, and behaved like real scientists.

What you should be doing is humbly asking experts to explain to you what you have gotten wrong. That is how science is supposed to work anyway – you should be trying to prove your own theory wrong, not just proclaim a revolution. This means you have to work at explaining the essence of your theory in a coherent manner. Failure to do that is a massive red flag – it often means your theories are not coherent in the first place. Scientists are also much more open to this kind of exchange, rather than opening up with, “I have proven all of science wrong.”

In the extremely likely event that you have made an error, then you will learn what that is, and you can then go on with the rest of your life. If in the unlikely event you are correct, this is still the path you want to follow. In trying to show you where you went wrong, someone will realize that you may be right. You may even find a collaborator. You then have to do the hard work of carrying out experiments or observations trying to prove your theory wrong, to see if it survives. You can then seek to publish your results in the peer-reviewed literature.

I know this is all hard, and tedious, and you will have to deal with rejection and criticism. Welcome to science. If you truly think you may be onto something, isn’t it worth it though? If you are correct, then this path leads to ultimate acceptance, perhaps even a Nobel Prize. So whether you are right or wrong, path B is the better option. Path A only leads to ultimate obscurity, a cautionary tale of a pathetic crank doomed by their own hubris.

The choice is yours alone. My small contribution is perhaps helping you understand the real choices before you. And, if you choose path A, getting you to leave me alone.


Steve Novella

No responses yet