Call me radical, call me a maverick. Rather than slavishly swallowing the scientific orthodoxy from establishment textbooks, I decided to go back to the original papers. I have identified several embarassing errors of mathematics and physical reasoning in Einstein’s original 1905 paper on the “Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies”, the alleged beginning of “special relativity”, one of the main tenets of standard modern physics (despite its manifest absurdity). Once Einstein’s errors are corrected, we can establish a new foundation for physics that is consistent with commonsense experience, and does not require fancy mathematical tricks. Not surprisingly, I have been thwarted in all my attempts to publish these findings in scientific journals, which is why I have decided to post them on the Internet.
Or rather, I have not, but I know lots of people who have. For some time now, I have been an avid reader and collector of webpages created by crackpot physicists, those marginal self-styled scientists whose foundational, generally revolutionary work is sadly ignored by most established scientists. These are the great heroes, at least in their own eyes, of alternative science. In pre-Internet ages, these people routinely sent sheaves of notes and articles to established physicists and mathematicians, warning them that the papers contained proofs of Goldbach’s conjecture or Fermat’s theorem, or revolutionary models of gravitation and the atom. Scientists would just as routinely consign all this brilliant stuff to the wastepaper basket.
But then a miracle happened - CERN and DARPA created the Internet… and crackpots now all have their webpages! The whole world can benefit from exposure to alternative science.
Not all nuts are good crackpots
There is of course a practically infinite amount of drivel on the net. Only serious crackpots are interesting - and relevant to your common cognitive anthropologist. In my informal ethnography I have ignored many sources of Internet nonsense that are of no relevance to important epistemological questions. I have no time for religious fanatics, for people who find proof of the Bible/Qur’an in particle physics/Fermat’s theorem (or vice-versa), or for New Age crystals, waves, mental energy, spiritual forces, auras, quantum consicousness and hidden dimensions of being. No, the really interesting crackpots are the ones trying to really, seriously do science, because their productions and their failures tells us important things about science itself. Most of my “informants” are committed to the standard scientific way of doing things. They accept that their theories should be coherent, clearly expressed, grounded in explicit mathematics, consistent with the evidence, compatible with other established (and empirically grounded) frameworks, etc. They accept that theories should be discussed, tested, and discarded if they are redundant or trivial.
And then something goes terribly wrong…
I emphasize the crackpots’ commitment to the procedures of science (apart form publication in peer-reviewed journals) because the results of their efforts are dismal. Alternative science is very much like alternative medicine - if it worked it would not be “alternative” anymore. The grandiose claims invariably accompany theories that most physics undergraduates can puncture in a few minutes. The new particles proposed are of no explanatory value. The new forces postulated are generally irrelevant to experimental phenomena. To the extent that the crackpot’s contributions are congruent with established science, they are redundant. And when they diverge from it, they are generally grounded in nothing more than the author’s intuition that this must be the miraculously simple solution that the benighted scientists failed to see.
Are they simply deranged?
One may consider that these people fail in their scientific work, and fail to understand their own failure, simply because they are unhinged. In which case there would be no point in studying them. Like most (good) null hypotheses, this one has a lot of prima facie support. Signs of pathology are everywhere to be found - which of course is part of the fun of crackpot-watching. Consider some fairly representative examples of alternative scientists giving us a candid assessement of their work:
The ideas in these pages are extremely revolutionary. I am asking the world to throw out long established beliefs. Men have been born, become professors of physics and died within the time span that these errors that have been perpetuated. A large number of Nobel prizes of have been awarded for work which history may one day come to regard as the twentieth century's great blind alley of science. [Source here]
All the proposals I have made in the last thiry years were muffled by censors […] To anyone who knows sciences and the history of science, it is quite obvious that each one of my discoveries would have been worth a Nobel prize - if its author had been a recognized member of the scientific community. But there’s the snag. I am not in the circle, they keep me out because I am a gadfly… [my translation, original source here]
Since May of 1965, I have known that there is a form of physics based upon something which has been denied by the physics community for over a century. It is not really a theory, but a working truth. It successfully explains all forms of physics and chemistry. [Source here]
The "Holy Grail" of physics has been to unify all areas of physics into one simple equation just one inch long. I believe I have successfully done just that. [Source here]
But I think there is more to physics crackpottery than just folie de grandeur and assorted psychoses. To some extent, crackpots are delusional, to be sure, but psychiatric labelling does not purchase much of an explanation, especially in cases of intellectual pathology, for which it is not quite clear what norm of reason is being violated or what process is dysfunctional. Also, narcissistic personality disorder is common - but it is the scientific version of it that is of interest here, its specific features.
Features of crackpot science
To get further, let me list some common aspects of the phenomenon:
1 All crackpottery is foundational. Crackpots do not go for the small problems, for what Kuhn called the puzzle-solving of normal science, they invariably shake the foundations of modern physics. They provide a new structure for the atom, a new unified theory of field and energy, a complete alternative to general relativity, an entirely novel cosmology, etc.
2 Most physics crackpots are engineers. More than 95% of my sample boast engineering degrees, or combine an undergraduate maths/physics degree followed by an engineering PhD or equivalent. This is not too surprising, as this may be the only kind of cursus that provides one with enough math background to understand the equations and formulae in the textbooks without actually studying maths and physics - which would show the crackpot why he’s misguided.
3 All crackpots are male. There used to be the one lady valiantly posting ‘quantum physics disproved’ webpages but she recently died. Perhaps this extraordinary sex-ratio is explained by point  above.
4 Crackpots ignore other crackpots. For a long time, physicists pursued by cranks used the time-honored strategy of forwarding those messages to other ones, in the hope that the cooks would exhaust their energies in reciprocal refutations. In fact, practically none of the websites in my collection makes any mention of any other one. In the crackpot’s worldview, there is ego (with an enormously important discovery) vs. the monolithic community of “establishment physics”, and that’s it.
5 The crackpot theory is invariably more intuitive than the standard one. The alternatives to special relativity (which is a favourite crackpot target - about 4/5 of my sample are about that) are invariably “better”, at least in the eyes of the authors, in that they do not result in deeply non-intuituive notions, eg time-dilation. Similarly, alternatives to general relativity eschew the notion of time-space distortion as an account of gravitation. Alternative to the standard model of elementary particles are generally fonded on material particles with known or knowable position and velocity, rather than the standard uncertainty picture.
6 In the same way, the crackpot alternative is, almost universally, less mathematically challenging than the standard account. For instance, tensors and other complicated tools of SR are replaced with college-level calculus, and in many cases with high-school algebra.
7 The crackpot theory is based on textbooks. Most of my cranks cite virtually no recent publications in physics. Almost all of them rely, for their understanding of modern physics, on what is in the textbooks. This explains some quaint, often comical aspects of their prose. For instance, the sites I observed contain extensive and meticulous analyses of the famous Michelson-Morley experiment, demonstrating identical speed of light in all directions, often cited as the princeps refutation of the notion of ether and vindication of relativistic models. The cranks go on and on about possible aspects of that particular study that standard physics may have neglected. Or they fill pages with the 1919 eclipse and the demonstration of Einsteinian “light-bending” by gravity, trying to show that the observation was not so conclusive, etc. The reason for this obsession with particular studies is that those are invariably cited by textbooks - and that is where the cranks get their scientific training.
Science beyond the textbooks
As I said, crackpots are all committed to the principles of sound science - and they have done their homework. So where did it all go wrong? The textbook problem is in my view the crucial clue. Crackpots devote entire sites to discussing the Michelson-Morley experiment. To most physicists, such discussions are largely irrelevant, as these classic experiments were only the first ones in a long series of tests that showed the complete agreement between observations and predictions from special relativity. Also, the crackpots are generally not aware that every day, in thousands of labs all over the world, people are performing experiments that require special relativity, and that these experiments turn out all right because relativistic principles are included in people’s computations.
So the specific dysfunction of crackpottery points to the notion that you cannot do science by just studying the right books, having the right mathematics and being commited to (some form of) “scientific method”. What you ned, over and above all that, is constant social interaction with other practising scientists. Oral tradition and daily exposure to other scientists’ everyday decisions are indispensable, and only a very small fragment of that makes it way to the scientific journals. This, incidentally, may be why cranks do not read the journal articles - simply because most of these must be totally opaque to them. Understanding them requires not just technical expertise but also all the implicit assumptions that are shared by the community at a particular point in time. (That is also why it is so difficult to understand old articles - try reading cognitive psychology from the 1970s…)
Where is the cognitive anthropology of scientists?
I have been (repeatedly) told that the above point is utterly banal: “we all know that social interaction is crucial to the making of science”, “were you asleep in the last twenty years when ‘science studies’ developed?”
Well, up to a point, my lord. What I am talking about is a complicated epidemiological process (what else?) whereby people’s perception of what makes sense, what is the right problem to pursue, what is sound and unsound in one’s reasoning, largely depend on assumptions that are widespread but only indirectly communicated. I am not aware of many meticulous studies of this particular cognitive process from “science studies”. Indeed, most of that field seems focused on power relations, social forces, institutional arrangements that are common to science and other social phenomena. But that’s the easy part. Of course science interactions are in many ways like other social interactions. Much more difficult is to understand how specific epidemiological processes lead to productive science, to more knowledge.
There but for fortune…
Why are crackpots fascinating (well, to some of us)? The poor fellows I mentioned here are of course outliers - but that is mostly because the field they wish to join is so compact, so highly consensual. Now consider psychology or other social science fields. Obviously, we do have our our own fully-fleged cranks. A few years ago, Sokal and Bricmont could make fun of such luminaries as Regis Debray telling us about the “Gödel theorem of society” (entirely sic) and other egregious examples of (mostly French) high idiocy. But these are peripheral to serious scholarship.
More interesting is the fact that there is something crackpottish in any attempt to push the envolope of not-so-succesful science. In the understanding of human behavior, many of the established models are somewhat ropey. The cumulative progress, inasmuch as it occurs, is generally obscured by endless definitional disputes and frequent paradigm clashes. It is quite clear that beneficial change will probably come from new foundations, or new general causal models for observed phenomena. In this context, even modest proposals may sound to most practitioners very close to crackpottery…
Further reading (for the really committed crackpot watcher)
Your first stop on the road to crackpot collecting should be John Baez’s crackpot index, a wonderfully funny instrument for evaluating the crackpottishness of your own revolutionary physics. A great website is www.crank.net, unfortunately a bit out of date. The D-Moz open directory for alternative physics will point you to the main players, so to speak, in the field.