How I found glaring errors in Einstein's calculations

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 [2] 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.

Comments (31)
Early crackpot-science studies
Olivier Morin
Wednesday, 01 April 2009 11:44
Thanks a lot, Pascal, that\'s a fascinating issue, and post !

My first encounter with scientific crackpots was through an unlikely source : writer Raymond Queneau\'s work on \"litterary madmen\". On the face of it, you would not guess that Queneau\'s work actually deals, for the most part, with scientific madmen, and that his scholarship is not bad at all. He unearthed an impressive collection of circle-squarers, alternative cosmologists, conquerors of Fermat\'s theorem, climatology-foundationalists, etc. from the French XIXth century.

My personal favorite is the mathematician who built a sort of model that explained how waves and tides are caused by the oscillations of fishes\' tails and fins (obvious, once you think of it; one wonders how scientists could have neglected such obvious causal factors, and favored obscure notions that smell of astrology, like the influence of the moon, instead). There is also a remote cousin of aquatic-ape theorists who showed that Man was descended from frogs. And many, many more.

Queneau\'s analysis has many affinities with yours (if you except his occasional fit of psychoanalytical speculation) : according to Queneau, being a crackpot is almost entirely a matter of sociological integration. Your average crackpot is ingenious, talented even, and appeals to evidence and objectivity in a sincere and somewhat honest way. According to Queneau, what defines a \"litterary nuttie\" is the fact that he does not belong to any current, movement or subculture, does not look for any kind of interaction with fellow-mavericks - and to wrap it up, is utterly and completely alone. And of course, they\'re all males, but in the context of XIXth century France, this is not exactly a surprise.

(bibliographical note): Queneau\'s study on \"litterary madmen\" took place at the Bibliothèque Nationale in the 1930s (at the time, he was hoping to unearth some unknown geniuses), but it was only recently published. Some fragments of the book he was intending to write on the topic are included in his excellent novel, \"Les Enfants du Limon\". His work was pursued by his friend André Blavier, who published an Encyclopédie des Fous Littéraires, devoting large sections of it to scientific cranks.
Psych/Cog Sci Lecturing Professor
Bowser
Thursday, 02 April 2009 21:51
CERN and DARPA created the internet? Excuse me?

It seems you have never heard of a university called the University of California, Berkeley. The very first work with networking between computers was done there, as far back as the 60\'s. It was the work done by the Berkeley folks that created the internet, not CERN, and especially not DARPA.

I laud that you\'re getting back to the original sources, but in this case, you should have done a bit more homework.
Quantum Consciousness
An English Major, For What It\
Friday, 03 April 2009 06:18
Just so you know, real work is actually being done by real scientists in the realm of quantum consciousness.

I\'m not saying I believe in it, but it\'s there: Check JohnJoe McFadden and his CEMI Field Theory of Consciousness, which is, to me, the most plausible theory I\'ve heard and does not exclusively rely on quantum mechanics to do its work, or check in on any of the scientists who had their papers published in [i]Emerging Theories of Consciousness[/i], as published by Springer Books.

And, as a final note, though you may look down your nose at the social sciences, know that most of the productive work done in cognitive science today is neuroscience and systems theory, which both fall firmly outside the bounds of the social sciences so far as I am aware.

P.S. Within English Studies there is also a significant amount of crackpottery going on any given point in time, a fact usually freely acknowledged by those working in the field. What is most intriguing about this situation is that it seems one must be even more in-line with current/popular literary theories in order to avoid being labeled as a crackpot. This leads to rather interesting phenomenon, such as the fact that work was done using Freudian psychology in literature long after that paradigm had been discredited in Psychology itself. It would seem that the social sciences are often - due to the uninformed nature of their practitioners - the gibraltars and australias of species of thought on their way out, evolutionarily speaking - the neanderthals and koala bears of thought.

How do they get away with it all? In this I believe my social science crackpots have something in common with your variety - they obfuscate their writing with verbose, extenuated, and almost unfailingly vague proclamations. This thick epidermis of wording is the perennial adaptation of the bullshitter, enabling him or her to retort back at their antagonists: \"no, you just don\'t understand postmodernism,\" or the like.

To my eyes, this adaptation and the extremes to which it is currently attaining in many areas of academic discourse should be studied carefully, the better to combat it.
Re: Early crackpot-science studies
Thomas M.
Friday, 03 April 2009 23:12
[quote]My personal favorite is the mathematician who built a sort of model that explained how waves and tides are caused by the oscillations of fishes\' tails and fins (obvious, once you think of it; one wonders how scientists could have neglected such obvious causal factors [...] [/quote]

Very well chosen reference for last Wednesday, but there is a typo above : \"cau[u]d[/u]al\" !
Professor of Economics
Jim Devine
Saturday, 04 April 2009 17:39
Has anyone looked at the link between \"crankery\" and Asperger Syndrome (high-functioning autism)? I know it\'s very common for engineers (and accountants, computer scientists, etc.) to have AS; AS is also more likely to affect males. Folks with AS are usually very smart but connect very poorly with society.

According to my shrink, I have mild AS and thus have a \"crank\" theory (that \"dark\" energy and \"dark\" matter are different manifestations of the same underlying phenomenon, something that I don\'t know) but since I my AS is mild, I don\'t push the theory.
Jim
Dan Sperber
Saturday, 04 April 2009 21:59
Great post!
Here is a minor observation. Pascal writes: \"[i]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[/i].\" This could be an essential traits of these cranks that coheres with the other traits Pascal mentions. Or it could be that those cranks who happen to go on and read recent publications and in particular journal articles are overwhelmed and give up, thereby vanishing, not quite as dinosaurs did, but still for almost accidental reasons.
Taking Science Studies more seriously
Christophe Heintz
Wednesday, 08 April 2009 19:24
Pascal’s post is, once more, raising an issue that is at the heart of my own interests: here, the development and prospects of an epidemiology of scientific representations (I cannot abstain from saying that this was the topic of my Ph.D dissertation). I just wanted to write a note on science studies, which Pascal dismisses, I think, too quickly.

Science studies is generally underestimated by those who do not want to buy the relativist position that it is supposed to convey. Yet, there are many kinds of relativisms in science studies, some of them not so appalling as one might think. It is worth shopping around science studies, since there is a good probability that one will find some important and relevant work even outside of the power relations thematics. I would even think that a cognitive anthropology of scientists and of science could not do well without a careful look at what’s already been done in science studies.

For instance, here is an old list (not updated since 1996) of key references on “assumptions [in science] that are widespread but only indirectly communicated” (quote from Pascal’s post).
These are references on tacit knowledge: Collins (1974), (1985); Collins & Kusch (1995), (1998); Collins and Pinch (1993); Kuhn (1962); MacKenzie (1990), (1996); MacKenzie and Spinardi (1995); Pinch (1986); Polanyi (1958); Ravetz (1971); Rouse (1987) (1995); Shapin and Schaffer (1985); Turner (1994).
The list has been compiled by M. Kusch and is available, with full references, here: [url]http://www.hps.cam.ac.uk/research/ssk.html[/url]
Note also that the very notion of ‘paradigm’ appeals to the existence of implicit assumptions.

Admittedly, the psychological underpinning of tacit knowledge is not given due attention in social studies of science. But the psychological underpinning of all social phenomena is not given due attention according to cognition and culture research.

Another point in favour of social studies of science:

Although one can study the personality of crackpots (personality psychology of scientists is a ‘standard’ field of research), social studies of science would also want to look at the ways through which crackpots come to be labeled as such and what are the consequences. It is doubtful that there are necessary or sufficient conditions for being a crackpot. So how are these judgments done? The issue is all the more important that, as Pascal Boyer says, “there is something crackpottish in any attempt to push the envelope of not-so-successful science”. Newtonian mechanics did enjoy a huge amount of confirmation before it was cracked up with the theory of relativity.

And yes, cranks are right: there is also a question of power there. Cranks are deprived from the means of communication that are reserved to successful scientists. But this does not mean that it is bad for science! This depends on the answer you give to questions such as: should we be grateful that the journals Science and Nature do not publish crackpots? Or should we promote a ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ epistemology?
However, independently of this normative question, there is the research that can be done on the epidemiology of ‘crackpot’ as a stigmatizing term. In order to do that, a touch of methodological relativism may be needed: one need to abstain from letting one’s judgment about who is a crackpot enter into the causal analysis and describe how the agents themselves come to form their judgments. My guess is that the citation pattern is, indeed, an important cue used by scientists when judging works that claim to be scientific.

Finally, it seems to me that the goal of understanding “how specific epidemiological processes lead to productive science, to more knowledge” falls outside of an epidemiology of scientific representations. Methodologically, it is better not to have prejudice about what is productive science and what is not. One main achievement of science studies was to distinguish normative epistemological judgment from the naturalistic enterprise of describing how science is done and evolves. The subjects of study, therefore, are those processes that are deemed scientific by the scientists themselves. And be prepared to consider that the basis of the judgments may vary over time and across disciplines.
What are we to do with string theory?
Alex Fabijanic
Wednesday, 08 April 2009 21:42
Indeed, crackpottery is abundant. However, mainstream science is not entirely innocent, either. Think, for example, Gallileo\'s embarassing explanation of tides in his argument with the Catholic Church. A contemporary example is the string theory. I am far from being versed into all the intricacies of it but as an interested observer, I perceive it to be in the same category with \"Iraqi Freedom\" operation and government financial bailouts. The scientific community has gotten itself entangled without end in sight. Instead of taking a step back, re-considering and re-thinking, ever more complicated new conjectures are stubbornly introduced to prevent it from crumbling. Not even the non-falsifiability has shaken the mainstream physics community in its endeavor. And if you happen to doubt it, you\'ll be ostracized.

Lee Smolin and Peter Voit have written excellent books about the topic:

http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/

http://www.thetroublewithphysics.com/
re: Psych/Cog Sci Lecturing Professor
jb
Friday, 10 April 2009 15:31
[quote=Bowser]CERN and DARPA created the internet? Excuse me?

It seems you have never heard of a university called the University of California, Berkeley. The very first work with networking between computers was done there, as far back as the 60\'s. It was the work done by the Berkeley folks that created the internet, not CERN, and especially not DARPA.

I laud that you\'re getting back to the original sources, but in this case, you should have done a bit more homework.[/quote]

Saying Berkeley (not DARPA) created the Internet is like saying Berkeley also invented Linux. They may have laid the foundation, but really, DARPANet was a huge advance from what Berkeley had and is closer to what we see today. CERN\'s (Benners-Lee\'s) addition of hypertext is what gave crackpots a voice - the point of that paragraph.
Human
Rob Jordan
Friday, 10 April 2009 17:53
The more dangerous issue is the establishment of non-scientific crackpot theories and beliefs as part of the officially blessed knowledge of some disciplines. If crackpots can attack physics, image what they can accomplish in fields with less-established foundational information, restrictions in what can be studied, and a built in biases that go way beyond a bad feeling about time dilation. Humans have a large set of intuitive biases about humans. Much of the body of knowledge in the field is based on non-scientific theories and many in the field are not all that clear about so-called scientific method.

In psychology some theories are clearly unscientific and yet guide research. Many psychology graduate students believe it is beneficial to have multiple contradictory theories (\"so you can choose the one that works in a particular situation\") and that that human behavior is \"too complicated\" to be explained with a single theory. Many in the social \"sciences\" have adopted unscientific (or even anti-scientific) paradigm and perspectives. (e.g., critical theory). Post modern philosophy has challenged the scientific perspective whithin this field.

Perhaps a better understanding of how crackpots come into being and operate will improve scientific endeavor in general, but it is unclear how crackpots can be removed or discredited when they are the ones holding the positions of professor, journal editor, and revered theorist.
potential crackpot
eric
Friday, 10 April 2009 17:54
I guess I\'m a potential crackpot (male, engineer, Ph-D, committed to scientific methodology, I ignore crackpots of course they are crackpots ... but I don\'t have a theory (ouf) )

I\'ve read years ago \"et l\'homme créa les dieux\", that has open vast new fields for my own crackpottery.

I\'m now reading \"la religion comme phénomène naturel\" ( much harder to read). And it gives me tools to build my new crackpots (concept, potentiel inférentiel, schématisation ...).

Just can\'t see a cat, and tell my kids \"c\'est un chat\" in the way I used to.


Just a way to say thank you for this two fascinating books.
Defining cranks as antisocial?
Adam Ierymenko
Friday, 10 April 2009 18:41
\"I am far from being versed into all the intricacies of it but as an interested observer, I perceive it to be in the same category with \"Iraqi Freedom\" operation and government financial bailouts. The scientific community has gotten itself entangled without end in sight. Instead of taking a step back, re-considering and re-thinking, ever more complicated new conjectures are stubbornly introduced to prevent it from crumbling.\"

I\'ve had the same conclusion in casually examining string theory, though I reserve full judgement since I\'m not a deep expert in the field.

Another tipoff to me that something is bogus with string theory has been the \"ad campaign\" that has relentlessly pushed it. Slick documentaries, slick books, lots of press, buzz words, etc. I remember the huge ad campaigns that accompanied relativity, the DNA structure, etc... (not)

I agree with much of what was written about cranks, but I really disagree with the idea that the defining characteristic of a crank is a lack of social integration. Mainstream science seems able to occasionally embark upon a cranky line of thinking collectively in much the same way that an individual can embark upon crankery alone. The checks and balances in science make it perhaps somewhat less likely, but it can happen. Eventually it usually gets corrected. Sometimes more honest or sane individual cranks will realize that their line of thinking has major issues and abandon it voluntarily as well.

Defining crankery by reference to social integration comes perilously close to the (cranky IMHO) notion that the universe or perception is socially constructed.

No, there seems to be something about how cranks (whether individuals or collectives) think. I disagree that cranks are truly following the scientific method properly. They might pay homage to it and even try to follow it, but most cranky ideas I\'ve read about seem to fall down in the areas of falsifiability or have confirmation bias issues.
Dangerous crackpots
Rob Knell
Friday, 10 April 2009 18:51
In the life sciences crackpots are sometimes lethal. The Duesberg hypothesis about the cause of HIV certainly fills most if not all of the criteria for a crackpot idea. The consequences of this idea being embraced by the government of South Africa are yet to be properly assessed but a conservative guess would put it at hundreds of thousands of deaths. See also anti-vaccine campaigners and the peddlers of alternative \"remedies\" for dangerous illnesses that are anything but.

It would be very interesting to compare these biological crackpot ideas with the ones from physics discussed above: why are silly biological ideas often willingly embraced by large numbers of lay people when silly ideas in physics are not? At a guess it\'s probably because they\'re a) easier to understand than special relativity and b) seen to be directly relevant to people in a way that theoretical physics isn\'t, but this is only a guess.
they should be called the \"social disciplines.\"
James Devine
Friday, 10 April 2009 18:57
Rob Jordan writes:
>The more dangerous issue is the establishment of non-scientific crackpot theories and beliefs as part of the officially blessed knowledge of some disciplines. If crackpots can attack physics, [imagine] what they can accomplish in fields with less-established foundational information, restrictions in what can be studied, and a built in biases that go way beyond a bad feeling about time dilation. Humans have a large set of intuitive biases about humans. Much of the body of knowledge in the field is based on non-scientific theories and many in the field are not all that clear about so-called scientific method.<

As a professional social researcher, I know from long experience that the problem is not about being clear about the \"scientific method.\" There\'s a lot of nonsense -- it would be wrong to call it \"crackpottery\" because it is believed in by the majority of my profession -- that is all dressed up in \"scientific method.\" I\'m surprised that some economists don\'t wear white coats like the \"scientists\" in old cigarette commercials! Some of the \"scientific\" economics that brags about being the most \"scientific\" (e.g., much of so-called \"laissez-faire\" view) is also the most based on value judgments and political attitudes. It\'s somewhat analogous to the \"scientific socialism\" pushed by Stalinists during the last century.

The problem with \"social science\" is that the field is so complex (because it involves many interactions between heterogeneous people, each of whom is complex, and a historical process) that it is extremely [i]difficult[/i], if not impossible to do social \"science.\" It\'s only when we deal with relatively simple phenomena such as supply and demand in markets that economists can approach being scientists.

Even when dealing with supply and demand, economists employ idealized \"models\" which employ all sorts of simplifying assumptions which arise from basically ideological conceptions of [i]perfect [/i]markets. The use of such assumptions opens the door for political attitudes and value judgments to play a largely covert role in \"science.\"

This does not mean that we should give up on \"social science.\" Commitment to the scientific method (even if its realization is impossible) is extremely important as a way to discipline thought, among other things to filter out the value judgments. If we can\'t be true scientists, at least we can jettison the pseudoscience. In fact, we should use the term \"social disciplines\" instead of social sciences.
Jim
re:
Jon Hendry
Friday, 10 April 2009 21:34
[quote=Dan Sperber]Great post!
Here is a minor observation. Pascal writes: "[i]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[/i]." This could be an essential traits of these cranks that coheres with the other traits Pascal mentions. Or it could be that those cranks who happen to go on and read recent publications and in particular journal articles are overwhelmed and give up, thereby vanishing, not quite as dinosaurs did, but still for almost accidental reasons.[/quote]

Another likely reason is that journals have tended to be expensive, and I don\'t think the cranks tend to be flush with cash.

It\'ll be interesting to see if, in the next ten years or so, the rise of free online journals results in cranks spinning off of recent work.

(Then again, one advantage to avoiding recent publications is that the scientists you\'re trying to contradict are a) famous and b) dead. It wouldn\'t satisfy the ego to contradict an obscure current postdoc\'s paper, and said postdoc is able to argue back.)
At the library...
J
Friday, 10 April 2009 21:42
...we occasionally here from these sorts. Since I specifically work at an engineering and physical sciences library, I sometimes have to field phone calls from backwoods gentlemen who have something \"amazing\" to reveal to me. In our case, it tends to be crackpot *inventions* rather than theory. It\'s rarely as out-and-out improbable as perpetual motion or water engines . . . but it\'s close. There\'s a guy who I happen to KNOW rides the bus who proudly brags about his home-built hydrogen fuel cell car that he built \"For just $150 bucks!\"

Aside from provoking my general indifference, these guys also irritate me because A.) they seem to think I, a librarian am somehow in a position to help them disseminate and publicize their findings or B.) that we, the engineering and science librarians, are somehow the gatekeepers and arbiters of scientific Truth (well, we sort of are, but not at all in the way they think).

Crackpots of this sort view the library as a sort of soccer (sorry \"football\") goal-crease wherein, if they can convince us to catalog and shelve their poorly edited, self-published monographs, they will THEN be taken seriously. Like maybe students will pick up their book from among the half-million other ones down there and have their world rocked, right?

Ugh. I wish there were and engine that ran on Stupid and Crazy as fuel.
R Hampton
Friday, 10 April 2009 21:51
Well, to be honest, Einstein was wrong! The equation can only be properly understood in this reformulation:
mc2 = E
Once you realize that he had it backwards, then everything else falls into place.
Sincerely,
Mr. Chip D. Vessel
Dr
John S. Wilkins
Saturday, 11 April 2009 02:58
On Usenet, in a group devoted to crackpottery, many years ago, one Bruce Salem came up with the [url=\"http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salem_hypothesis\"]Salem Hypothesis[/url] (it was named later) that if a creationist has an advanced technical degree, it will be in engineering. Lately there have been a number of dentists as well, although nine out of ten dentists recommend the theory of evolution...
Radiation physicist
Ray Ladbury
Saturday, 11 April 2009 03:27
Back in the 90s, I was an editor for a physics trade publication. I guess because I have a patient manner, I was given the unofficial task of dealing with crackpots who showed up at the door to deliver a dog-eared manuscript that invariably overturned special relativity. The authors ran the gumut--from homeless veterans to practicing attorneys in NY. Some were obviously mentally ill, others merely obsessed.
Some odd observations--it was always either Einstein\'s special or general theory of relativity or the 2nd law of thermo that the tomes purported to overturn. Never quantum mechanics, although the implications of that theory are far stranger and more disturbing. So, while Darwin and Einstein are continually beseiged by crackpots, Niels Bohr and even Werner Heisenberg remain unmolested.
These days, I run into quite a few crackpots and conspiracy theorists who are convinced that they\'ve cracked the climate change issue and vindicated Carbon dioxide. Invariably, they are just as wrong as the other crackpots.

I usually send them to see this cartoon:

http://xkcd.com/54/
Phony vs. Crackpot: The case M. S. El Naschie
RodN
Saturday, 11 April 2009 03:37
Back in 2008-11 John Baez blogged at [url=http://golem.ph.utexas.edu/category/]the n-Category Cafe[/url] the entry [url=http://golem.ph.utexas.edu/category/2008/11/the_kind_of_email_i_dont_need.html]The Kind of Email I Don’t Need[/url] in which he discussed some recent mail from crackpots.

Part of the discussion morphed into a discussion of M. S. El Naschie and the Elsevier journal he edited called [url=http://www.elsevier.com/wps/find/journaldescription.cws_home/967/description#description]Chaos, Solitons and Fractals[/url], where it was alleged that his theories were crackpot and he mainly published his own papers and only other papers that agreed with him.

The upshot of this seems to be that Elsevier would \"retire\" El Naschie. However he seems to be fighting back with libel suits which may explain why all the followup threads, such as [url=http://golem.ph.utexas.edu/category/2008/11/the_case_of_m_s_el_naschie_con.html]The Case of M.S. El Naschie, Continued.[/url]were removed from the site.

(ummm. you really need a preview option on your site)
Re String Theory
P. Perez
Saturday, 11 April 2009 05:22
@ Adam and Alex

I\'m no expert in string theory, but it\'s not really crackpot science. My understanding is that string theory is very orthodox, and it\'s constructed in pretty much the same way as any quantum field theory would be derived, except that the fundamental particles are taken to be extended bodies instead of points--which seems like a perfectly reasonable assumption. Sure, they also have to postulate a few extra dimensions to make it work, but they say they can hide them, and otherwise string theory doesn\'t violate any of the important physical laws.

And most experts seem to agree that string theory is something like true, but so far it isn\'t useful. The crux of the critique is not that string theory is probably wrong, [i]per se[/i], just that it\'s exceedingly general. I haven\'t read Smolin\'s or Voit\'s critiques, but I think I\'ve seen Smolin more or less say that string theory and, for example, loop quantum gravity don\'t necessarily conflict, they could just be different ways of describing the same thing. And in particular, the more popular way, string theory, hasn\'t been empirically fruitful. But then, neither has any other approach to quantizing gravity.

I don\'t have an opinion on whether or not string theory is sucking physics department resources from more promising hypotheses, but it really isn\'t a crackpot theory. The distinction seemed important to me, anyway.
Foundations: math vs physics
RodN
Saturday, 11 April 2009 09:02
In mathematics most practitioners regard foundational issues as a necessary evil - a set of rules about obvious thoughts that turn out to be incoherent. For example one cannot postulate the [url=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Set_of_all_sets]set of all sets[/url] because it leads to the [url=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russell%27s_paradox]Russell paradox[/url]. This means that practicing mathematicians can be forced to use ways of talking about a hierarchy of notions of sets and infinity that avoid such problems, but mostly they don\'t. Current workers in foundational mathematics or its meta-theories generally only produce results relevant to foundational issues that are mostly irrelevant to mathematical practitioners and can usually be safely ignored.

I would think that crackpots in foundational mathematics are fairly rare because because they are irrelevant - most mathematicians can proceed regardless of what the official foundation is.

However in physics, foundational issues are supreme. In the best case somebody has distilled a bunch of behavior down into a few coherent equations.

Often, from outside, such theories make little sense. E.g. How dare Newton postulate some \'force at a distance\' for gravity when \'force at a distance\' makes no sense.

Thus one finds the pre-occupation of crackpot theorists with theoretical physics. Newton\'s theory or Einstein\'s relative or general theories don\'t make sense because they a just a bunch of equations that are hard to understand.
Yes, CERN did invent the internet
mclaren
Saturday, 11 April 2009 09:32
...If by the internet you mean the HTTP URL protocol, the web server, and the rest of it. If you don\'t believe, here\'s a picture of the world\'s first web server. It ran at CERN on a NeXT box.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/sbisson/298158373/

Probably Bowser takes exception because DARPA funded the original development of the TCP/IP protocol, and a lot of that work went on at UC Berkeley. But TCP/IP is necessary but not sufficient for the internet. That\'s like saying that the guy who invented the wheel created the first car. Nice try, but no cigar.
re: Re String Theory
Alex Fabijanic
Saturday, 11 April 2009 10:45
[quote=P. Perez]Sure, they also have to postulate a few extra dimensions to make it work, but they say they can hide them, and otherwise string theory doesn\'t violate any of the important physical laws.[/quote]

The real problem, as I understand it, is that string theory in the end predicts anything (thus nothing) and, as such, can not be falsified. Those extra dimensions are the financial bailout equivalent - let\'s randomly throw in something and see what happens.

[quote=P. Perez]I haven\'t read Smolin\'s or Voit\'s critiques[/quote]

There\'s no room here to elaborate, but the main flaw basically boils down to taking space as an immutable \"scene\" where physical events take place. As Einstein figured out long time ago and experiments proved over and over, space is not at all like that. It\'s not even an entity of it\'s own.

[quote=P. Perez]And in particular, the more popular way, string theory, hasn\'t been empirically fruitful. But then, neither has any other approach to quantizing gravity[/quote]

Unfortunately, two wrongs don\'t make a right.

[quote=P. Perez]I don\'t have an opinion on whether or not string theory is sucking physics department resources from more promising hypotheses[/quote]

According to some people from the community, it does.

[quote=P. Perez]but it really isn\'t a crackpot theory. The distinction seemed important to me, anyway.[/quote]

Time will tell. It always does.
El Naschie was an engineer
RodN
Saturday, 11 April 2009 19:13
I forgot to mention that El Naschie [url=http://jatkesha.wordpress.com/2008/11/14/el-naschie-revolution-in-hep/]started off as an engineer[/url].
[quote]Professor El Naschie was trained initially as an engineer and worked extensively in Structural Engineering and Applied Mechanics. After becoming full Professor of Engineering he followed his inclination towards theoretical subjects and moved first towards Applied Mathematics and later on Nuclear and High Energy Physics. His research interests include: Stability, Bifurcation. Atomic-engineering, Nonlinear Dynamics, Chaos, Fractals, High Energy Particle Physics, Quantum Mechanics and E-infinity theory.[/quote]
El Naschie
Jason
Sunday, 12 April 2009 03:38
I see you\'re talking about El Naschie. I have a blog devoted entirely to El Naschie\'s crackpottery, affiliational arrogation, etc.

[url]http://elnaschiewatch.blogspot.com/[/url]

Jason, blog proprietor
El Naschie
Jason
Sunday, 12 April 2009 09:21
By the way, the quote above states that El Naschie became a full professor of engineering. He [i]does[/i] make that claim, but it\'s a lie.

[url]http://elnaschiewatch.blogspot.com/2009/04/liar-liar-pants-on-fire.html[/url]

Also, RodN above was upset to observer that John Baez has pulled down the El Naschie material from hin n-category cafe. Fortunately, I have it all archived for your enjoyment on my blog, along with lots more fun stuff.

[url]http://elnaschiewatch.blogspot.com/2009/02/that-hard-to-find-baez-material.html[/url]

Jason

[url]http://elnaschiewatch.blogspot.com[/url]
Sure sign of a crackpot.
Kasei Valles
Sunday, 12 April 2009 10:28
I have found that the best way to identify a potential crackpot website is by outstanding web designs! The extra large fonts, the liberal use of the [b]BOLD[/b] attribute, and the wonderful colour combinations. Let\'s face it, the sight of bright [color=lime]green[/color] on a [color=yellow]yellow[/color] background screams scientific validity like nothing else.

Spending a couple of quid on a Web Design primer must undermine the scientific basis for any good idea.
Guest
Zwielicht
Monday, 13 April 2009 01:18
Alas, none of this is too new. For further reading:

Gardner, Martin. [b]Down with Einstein ![/b] in [u]Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science[/u], 1950.

Kahn, Jennifer. [b][url=http://discovermagazine.com/2002/apr/featnotes]Notes from Another Univers[/url][/b] in [u]Discover Magazine[/u], April 2002.
A linguistic crank
Stuart Brown
Friday, 24 April 2009 13:45
Bizarrely received a link to this in my mailbox the day after reading this entry:

[url]http://voicespec.com/board.cgi?id=test2&action=view&gul=47&page=1&go_cnt=0[/url]

[quote]I now find that current/modern world/university phonetics is naively primitive/fake and that most theories of linguistics can\'t help being inevitably equal to or not above the level of concocted/adorned unreasonableness/absurdity/fake.

Believe (it) or not, the vocabularies and grammar(s) of all (modern and Inca/Maya-like-disappeared-antique) languages (including their dialects) are already stored in human brain at birth (and now in your/my brains also). That is, I mean not that POTENTIAL to learn any language is there as an innate HUMAN ABILITY, but that your brain now has the vocabulary and grammar of Korean language (and Chinese, Japanese, etc. included) and my brain also now has the vocabulary and grammar of *** language (and German, French, etc. included). We only do not have effective/efficient experience/chance to use them.

That is, ALL FOREIGN LANGUAGES with their words (except some special words/neologisms like \"NATO\") and grammars are inside a newborn\'s head.
[/quote]

I think he successfully ticks all your crank boxes.
On Being a Scientific Change Agent
Steven Bryant
Wednesday, 10 February 2010 12:09
Thanks for your article, which I found very interesting. I think that it is easy to label anyone who challenges established theories as \"crackpots.\" Unfortunately, this labeling can often bias us against seeing any positive merits of their messages. Even if 99% of what they say is wrong, 1% could be very interesting and lead us to new and significant discoveries. However, by labeling someone as a crackpot, we must inherently say that there is nothing of value that they can do to extending the body of accepted scientific knowledge. This is a bias I think we should actively guard against.

Your article mentioned the Internet as a preferred communication channel, but fails to mention that independent researchers are making inroads by having their material published in peer-reviewed journals and by speaking at scientific conferences; such as those sponsored by AAAS. These are important findings to share, since it has been traditionally very hard for most of these authors to share their findings using traditional channels. Lastly, you offer John Baez\'s Crackpot Index as a reference to those looking to identify possible crackpots. In response to his index, I offer 39 Rules For Being a Scientific Change Agent to anyone who is serious about their research and communication: http://www.relativitychallenge.com/archives/597.

As a parting thought; I suggest we agree on the rules we will use to \"judge\" emerging scientific proposals. When possible, the criteria should be straight forward: Does it (the proposed model) produce mathematically better results? That\'s all. (Note: \"Better\" means smaller error or it means the ability to make an accurate expeimental prediction that the prevailing model cannot make.) If yes, then it should be considered for further investigation; regardless of whether it agrees with the prevailing theories. If it does not produce better results, then he who crossed the finish line first won; and that would be the prevailing theory. I think that \"crackpots\" would do well to understand that their findings will be judged using this criteria, and \"crackpot hunters\" would do well to explore new possibilities when an emerging model meets this threshold.

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