Jan 09 2012

Cranks and Physics

A  “crank” is a particular variety of pseudoscientist or “true believer” – one that tries very hard to be a real scientist but is hopelessly crippled by a combination of incompetence and a tendency to interpret their own incompetence as overwhelming genius. In a recent article in Slate (republished from New Scientist) Margaret Wertheim tries, for some reason, to defend those cranks who believe they have developed an alternate theory of physics. In the article she does a good job of painting a picture of what a crank is, but it seems almost incidental as the main thrust of her article is to criticize science for being inaccessible. The result is confused and misleading.

In order see exactly why a crank is a crank one needs to have a clear idea of how mainstream science works and why (something that cranks often lack themselves). Science is often portrayed in popular culture in the quaint manner of the lone genius working away in their lab and developing ideas largely on their own. Further, any true advance is met by nothing but scorn from their colleagues and the scientific establishment. This view may have been somewhat relevant in the 19th century and earlier, but rarely has any relevance to modern science.

Science has progressed in most areas to the point that a large body of knowledge needs to be mastered before meaningful contributions are possible. New ideas and information are shared with the community throughout the process of research and discovery, in papers and at meetings, and ideas are criticized and picked over. Each component of a scientific theory needs to be experimentally or observationally established, and there should be good reasons to distinguish one theory from another. Any viable theory needs to at the very least account for existing evidence and should be compatible with well-established theories or facts, or have a compelling explanation for why they aren’t.

By this process a picture of how the world works is slowly being developed, as a community effort, with occasional stars standing above the crowd. The need to convince the existing scientific community that your ideas have merit is very useful – it weeds out ideas that are fatally flawed or just hopelessly nonsensical. In other words – it weeds out cranks. Of course, cranks don’t like this, so they wail against the mainstream.

Like any human institution or endeavor, the process of sifting out the wheat from the chaff is not perfect. Some chaff gets through, and some wheat may be prematurely removed. But science is also self-corrective, and there is always the possibility of correcting for past mistakes. Good ideas in science have a persistent advantage over bad ideas – they actually accord with reality and so the process of experiment and observation should favor them over time.

With all this in mind let’s take a look at the activity of cranks. Wertheim gives a very good description, talking about the main subject of her piece, an “alternative scientist” by the name of Jim Carter.

Carter’s ideas are not taken seriously by the physics mainstream. He does not have a Ph.D. and has never had any of his work published in a scientific journal. He has just a single semester of university education, which was enough to convince him that what was being taught in physics departments was an offense to common sense.
In response, Carter went off and developed his own ideas. Five decades on he has his very own theory of everything, an idiosyncratic alternative to quantum mechanics and general relativity, based on the idea that all matter is composed of doughnut-shaped particles called circlons. Since the 1970s he has articulated his ideas in a series of self-published books, including his magnum opus, The Other Theory of Physics.

So Carter lacks a formal education in physics and cosmology, something he no doubt considers an advantage. His profound arrogance is in evidence by the fact that after one semester of undergraduate study he felt confident in thinking that he was smarter than all working physicists, including luminaries like Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman. He could not wrap his mind around what was being taught as mainstream physics at the time, and rather than concluding that he needed to work harder to understand it, he decided that the problem was not with him but with physics. Physics did not make sense, so he replaced it with his own version.

This casual assumption of both one’s own genius and the idiocy of mainstream scientists is a core feature of the crank. Although it must always be considered that overwhelming arrogance can be a cover for crushing insecurity. In either case, the end result is an extremely childish approach to science. Carter feels he has not only turned over one concept in physics, something that, if true, can establish a career, but rather that he has replaced all of modern physics. He did this working by himself without testing his ideas with others, having his ideas reviewed by the community, or doing any research that could convince the scientific community that his ideas have merit. He did it, in fact, without ever fully studying the ideas he was rejecting. In short, he just made stuff up and then whined about the fact that his ideas were not recognized for the absolute genius that they were. Again, the problem (from his view) must not be with his ideas, but rather with the scientific community. They simply are too closed or too dumb to recognize his genius.

Wertheim goes on to discuss that, now in the age of the internet, cranks around the world have been able to form their own “alternative” community, publish their own journals, and have their own meetings. There is just one requirement in this alternative community – acceptance. All ideas are accepted (there is no chaff, all is wheat), that is except for one. Whatever is accepted by mainstream science is wrong. That is “the one ring” of crank mythology, that brings all crank theories together and in the darkness of their community binds them together. Otherwise they are largely mutually incompatible. Each crank’s “theory of everything” is a notion unto itself, and is mutually exclusive to every other crank’s own theory of everything (unless there is some incidental overlap). So they get together, present their theories without criticism, and all agree that the evil conspiracy of mainstream science must be taken down.  Of course, if any of them got their way and their ideas became accepted, they would instantly become rejected by the rest of the crank community as mainstream physics.

Wertheim strangely makes a leap from the crank community to the notion that modern science is inaccessible to the public. This is a strained point, to say the least. The gulf that separates those with formal education in science from those without is not the source of cranks, it is their particular personality as described above. They are the equivalent of the American Idol rejects, those who got through to the judges just so they could make fools of themselves, who, once rejected, proclaim their own vocal genius and the many inadequacies of the judges. But Wertheim thinks that cranks should be taken seriously and not rejected out of hand. She concludes:

While we may not agree with the answers outsiders give, none of us should be sanguine when some of the greatest fruits of science are unavailable to most of humankind.

This is a massive non-sequitur. The concern she raises, however, is legitimate – it just has nothing to do with the crank phenomenon.

On the real issue of science being accessible to the public, this is a complex issue and Wertheim does nothing to explore these complexities. Yes – advanced physics requires advanced mathematics. There is no way around this. Despite the assurances of some cranks, mathematics is the language of the universe, and anyone hoping to make real contributions in physics will need to be fluent in this language. Otherwise you might as well study French literature and not learn how to read or speak French and whine about the fact your ideas are not taken seriously by the “priesthood”.

There is a difference, however, in being a working physicist and being a non-scientist who understands the concepts of modern physics (if not the more complex underlying equations). There are many works that popularize science, and physics and cosmology in particular. You can grapple with the strange and beautiful ideas of physics as a lay person, you just can’t check the math for yourself or fiddle with the equations. If you want to do that – learn the math.

Perhaps that is another feature of the crank worth pointing out. There are a great deal of popular works for the non-scientist to satisfy their curiosity about modern science and to understand the ideas, findings, process, and controversies of modern science. But the non-scientist has to be content sitting in the bleachers as a spectator. Cranks are not content to be spectators. They want to be in the game, but they don’t want to learn to rules, or earn their way onto a team through work and talent. They want to change the rules to suit themselves.

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