Quantizing cranks: what really makes a crank, a crank?

As editor of The Quantum Times and chair of my department, I get a lot of mail from cranks (once I became chair my colleagues decided that dealing with cranks was one of the duties of the chair – hmmm).  Some of the more interesting cranks I’ve heard from have included

  • the guy who claimed to be on the verge of a major discovery in quantum gravity and needed to take a class from me in order to learn a bit more quantum field theory, but, on the advice of his lawyer, couldn’t tell me more (I can spot three problems here.  How many can you spot?);
  • the documentary filmmaker who followed around a suburban housewife who claimed to have proven that Einstein was wrong;
  • this guy, of whom I can’t really say much other than, “read this exchange with Skeptico;”

There’s no denying that these guys are cranks or, in some cases, in need of a good therapist.  Despite not being scientists, they make claims that, were they true, would have enormous implications for exceedingly complex physical systems (almost always quantum mechanical and/or relativistic ones).  In most cases they fail – miserably – to understand the basis of the scientific method.  The last guy actually said, in reply to Skeptico, “Please understand that in the book I do not use just logic to explain why “time” does not physically exist, but also explain exactly what all that is physical is physically made of, and why from that it all physically behaves as it does.”  So logic and rational thought aren’t exactly their forté.

But then there are the cranks who are actually scientists.  The trouble here is that there is a continuous spectrum of “crankiness” and it is sometimes difficult to pick out the true nuts.  Instead of talking about the cranks themselves, let’s instead talk about their theories since, in some cases, some prominent scientists who produced legitimate work also produced work that has been called “cranky” (e.g. David Bohm who is well-respected for a lot of his work but was derided when his work started to get a little mystical – Steven French, while grilling me in the oral defense of my PhD thesis, referred to this the “mad Bohm” stage).

So I would put these “cranky” theories into five categories, roughly speaking (it is possible theories could fall into multiple categories):

  1. the speculative;
  2. the uninformed;
  3. the unrefined;
  4. the willfully contrarian;
  5. “pass the LSD.”

The questions I have are whether all theories that fall into one or more of these categories are actually “cranky” and are we doing a disservice to science in the way in which we treat the people who come up with these theories (i.e. as cranks)?  In order to address these questions, let me first expand on the categories.

Speculative theories to me are those that are based on solid science but are far enough out of the mainstream that in-grained personal convictions often stand in the way of an objective evaluation of the work.  In its earlier stages, string theory  often met with this kind of response.  More recently, work by two friends of mine  initially met with a similar response.  Each was able to publish in Foundations of Physics, but the latter has sometimes been derisively labeled a second-rate journal (even though many excellent physicists have published – and continue to publish – in this journal).  In response to one of them, a reviewer actually said “I couldn’t find any flaws but it just can’t be right.”  Sometimes, the people who come up with these types of theories are just slightly out of the mainstream community of scientists.  Perhaps they’re from smaller institutions, don’t have large research budgets, or work in organizations only tangentially connected to the research itself.  Sometimes, however, these theories can come from famous scientists.  Julian Schwinger’s “source” theory comes to mind.  I won’t touch on the cold fusion debate other than to point out that the 2006 APS March Meeting in Baltimore included a Cold Fusion session roughly 15 years after Schwinger resigned from the APS due to what he felt was the rude way in which a paper of his on the subject was rejected by PRL.

Uninformed theories are those from legitimate scientists that contained known flaws based on a lack of knowledge in some pertinent area by the individual proposing the theory.  Sometimes theories in this category suffer from interpretational flaws, i.e. there is an inconsistency or mistake in the connection of the mathematics to the physical process under consideration.  Sometimes theories in this category suffer from simple mathematical blunders.  Usually there’s an error somewhere in the theory that can be attributed to a lack of knowledge on the proposer’s part.  While I am not proud of it, in my younger days I produced something that fell into this category (the original has been lost to the dustbin of time, but at least you can see I withdrew it).

Unrefined theories are those that actually might have some merit but, when written up by the proposer(s), are rough around the edges.  They often appear on the arXiv or are submitted to journals in a form that, to others might look like the early stages of a theory rather than the finished product, but the proposer(s) may not realize this.  In other words, these theories suffer from a lack of refinement (hence the name) but often possess potential.  There is often a really good idea at the core but the details may suffer enough as to cause it to take on the air of “crankiness.”  I’ll have more to say about this later.  Suffice it to say I think some of my papers fall into this category for a variety of reasons.

Willfully contrarian theories are those proposed by actual scientists, who ought to know better, that defy logic, reason and rational argument.  The best example I can give is the recent motion by APS councilor and Princeton biophysicist Robert Austin (with the support of five other physicists) that called for a change to the APS’ official statement on climate change.  The open letter (not to mention the APS’ reply and official statement) ignores a basic quantum mechanical fact (CO2 and water vapor absorb IR while O2 and N2 do not – see a detailed argument here).  People like Austin ought to know this.  Another even weirder example is the case of Gerardus Bouw who, despite having a PhD in astrophysics from Case-Western Reserve University, believes in a geocentric universe.  The people who come up with these theories are an abnormal psychologist’s dream come true.

“Pass the LSD” theories are theories from actual scientists that are just “out there.”  Early in its history (i.e. 2006 and 2007), the APS GQI’s Foundations sessions at the APS March Meeting included a lot of talks on these types of theories (peruse this list for some examples, notably toward the bottom – one can also check out the somewhat strange physical theory underlying this guy’s noble goals).  I would say that in most of these cases, the theory is so bizarre it’s hard to prove or disprove.

The case of Schwinger is interesting.  If I knew the details it might be a bit disheartening as well, not from a scientific standpoint, but rather from a sociological and possibly psychological one.  What I can say is that, in the long-term interest of science, our treatment of both legitimate cranks as well as those who produce theories that fall into one of the above categories needs to change.

In regard to legitimate cranks I am acutely aware that it is simply impossible to reason with many of them.  I have tried.  But when I do try, I attempt to be as courteous as possible.  I will freely admit that I have failed in this regard more than once when the frustration of talking to a brick wall overcame my sense of decorum.  Nevertheless, initially treating these people with some courtesy would, in my mind, help relieve some of the sense among ordinary people that scientists are arrogant SOBs who are above them since at least some of these legitimate cranks are actually nice people and/or control the purse strings (e.g. perhaps they are elected officials).

With that said, we most certainly need to do a better job dealing with the people whose theories fall into one of the above categories, especially the first three (the latter two may be a bit like actual cranks in that reasoning with them can be difficult).  There are numerous reasons for this not the least of which is that these theories often come from people on the so-called “front lines” of physics.  In the 2007-2008 academic year there were 762 schools in the United States that granted physics degrees.  509 of them granted only Bachelor’s degrees (see AIP data).  If we want physics to be properly communicated to these students, simply shunning their teachers due to speculative, uninformed, or unrefined ideas seems counterproductive.  Wouldn’t it be better to work with some of these people to help them refine their ideas into publishable form?  Aside from being the “nice” thing to do (I realize that “nice” is passé in the 21st century), it seems to me as if it would greatly improve the science.  It would certainly make it less insular and open to new ideas.  Otherwise, the field gets stale and we open ourselves up to further criticism from non-scientists who will jump at any chance they get to undermine science and question its objectivity.  I’m sure some scientists simply don’t care.  What these people fail to comprehend is the integrated world in which we live.  Gone are the days (if they ever existed) when our ideas didn’t have some impact on people’s lives.

The two main objections that I personally hear to this type of suggestion is 1) there’s not enough time and 2) if these people could do the science to begin with they wouldn’t be in the position they’re in.  As Matt Leifer once said, “not everyone can do [quantum] foundations work.”  My response to the first is that people make time for the important things and this needs to become an important part of doing science.  It needs to become a higher priority to leading researchers.  My response to the second is that, while Matt may ultimately be correct, at least in a very general way, how do you truly know?  People are where they are due to a range of circumstances.  How do you know you’re not missing an opportunity to find someone with some deeply profound ideas that could really contribute something to the field?  We need to make the time and not sell people short.

Certainly some of my comments are born out of my own frustration in trying to find people to help refine my own ideas, something that has been well-documented on this site.  Let’s face it.  To some folks I’m a either a speculative, uninformed, or unrefined crank.  But this isn’t meant to be a whiny post.  So let me mention another frustration I feel that could also be turned into an opportunity.

As I mentioned, I’m the chair of my department.  We’re located in Manchester which is the largest city in New Hampshire with a population of just under 110,000.  I deal with state (and sometimes local) government regularly (much to my dismay) and sometimes field quantum physics and cosmology-related questions from the public, particularly since there aren’t many physicists in New Hampshire (there are only three institutions in the state that grant degrees in physics – us, Dartmouth, and UNH – and the latter two are quite a ways away from Manchester).  There are a lot of people out there like me – the lone representative of some sub-discipline in some small town (or, in my case, medium-sized city) outside of the headlines, in the trenches, as it were.  We’re the face of physics, at least in small-town America and probably elsewhere as well.  Marginalizing these people (us) only turns them (us) into greater cranks which, in turn, has the potential for producing even more legitimate (non-scientist) cranks.

So I call on physicists in particular to do the following three very simple things.

  • Devote some attention to mentoring those people who produce theories that are speculative, uninformed, or unrefined.  But don’t simply critique their work.  Collaborate.  Be willing to stick your neck out there and slap your name onto something.  If you think an idea has some merit, give it – and the person who came up with it – some of your time (and don’t simply pilfer the idea without proper citation which has happened to me).
  • Be open to new ideas and new ways of looking at the world.  Don’t let yourself get stale and locked in some worn out paradigm.  Sometimes these supposed “cranks” have really interesting and unique ways of looking at things.  They may have unique backgrounds that give them a fresh perspective on certain topics including the science itself.  Don’t ever reject an idea simply because “it just can’t be right” even if you can’t find anything logically wrong with it.  Be more daring and encourage journals to print more speculative papers.
  • When reviewing a paper for a journal that you may not agree with, even if it was written by a well-known and established colleague, be civil, polite, and even encouraging in your remarks.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that people can be downright nasty in their reviews.  Whatever happened to being nice?  You can get your point across either way but you’re doing less psychological harm to the other person if you do it in a nice way.  Think of it like breaking up with someone.  You can let them down easy and maybe part amicably or you can be nasty to them and increase your chances of gaining an angry stalker.
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2 Responses to “Quantizing cranks: what really makes a crank, a crank?”

  1. You can learn the details about Schwinger. He described the reasons he quit the APS in a lecture here:

    http://lenr-canr.org/acrobat/SchwingerJcoldfusiona.pdf

    His ideas did not start with theory, but with experimental data. He said “have we forgotten that physics is still empirical?” (personal communication).

    There have been a number of other cold fusion conferences since 2006. There was one last month in Rome, Italy, sponsored by the ENEA (the Italian DoE), Italian Physical Society, the Italian Chemical Society, and The National Research Council (CNR). It featured a report from the U.S. NRL. They have replicated the Arata effect several hundred times in a row successfully. This is gas loaded cold fusion that produces only heat, with no input power.

    I have a large collection of cold fusion papers, including 1,200 from peer-reviewed journals that I copied from the library at Los Alamos. You will find about a thousand papers here:

    http://lenr-canr.org

    For a recent evaluation see the paper featured on this page, published on Nov. 13 by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. Several dozen experts contributed to it, from the departments listed on p. 6.

    There are roughly 2,500 cold fusion researchers. They include many distinguished people like Schwinger, such as the former Chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission. In the opinion of the researchers, and in my opinion, they are normal, and those who claim that cold fusion does not exist are cranks and crackpots.

  2. quantummoxie Says:

    Jed, thanks for the links and the clarification. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that I think this research constitutes “crankiness.” If it’s good enough for an APS March Meeting session, then that’s good enough for me. Honestly I simply don’t know enough about the topic to make an informed judgment either way. On the other hand, the way it has been handled over the past twenty years seems rather abysmal to me. Physicists like to claim they are rational thinkers, open to new ideas that are at least well-supported. Sometimes I wonder.

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