When recreational mathematician Martin Gardner died in 2010, he left us a huge number of books. One of these is called Fads & Fallacies in the Name of Science. In his first chapter, Gardner went into some depth on characterizing cranks. Cranks are folks whom I encounter quite frequently in my work on Skeptoid; not only from the side promoting pseudoscience, but also from the side of skeptics. I find that a few skeptics are little different methodologically from the pseudoscientists they so fervently argue against, and so I believe it’s of great value to everyone to familiarize himself with Gardner’s list.
Michael Shermer wrote a column in Scientific American that discussed this in somewhat more detail, and if you’re not a subscriber, you can get his article online here. It rang quite true with me, so I wanted to take a look at Gardner’s thesis from the perspective of being a science outreach professional.
Gardner didn’t really put his points into the form of a list, so I’m taking some liberties here and rearranging them into bullet points. So here are the things you need to make sure you’re not doing:
Cranks tend to work in isolation. This is conducive to drifting far afield. If you want to stay abreast of the latest developments, you usually want to be part of the community. If you’re not, you proceed unchecked, and you lack the checks and balances and corrections of peer review. Isolation is rarely or never the best way to insure that your work is on track.
Cranks tend to be paranoid. They worry that their important discoveries are being spied upon, that evil forces are out to destroy their reputations, that colleagues are conspiring to suppress their discoveries. Nobody doing legitimate science, or working within the scientific method, has any plausible reason to be paranoid about such things. Can any legitimate scientist recall the last time they conspired to suppress good work?
Cranks tend to consider themselves geniuses. Cranks tend to learn early on that their work is pretty unique. For some reason they often fail to consider the possibility that this uniqueness is for any reason other than its utter brilliance. “I’m the only one smart enough to see this” a pretty clear red flag. Beware of anyone who claims unique insight.
Cranks tend to regard their colleagues and critics as stupid. The Dunning-Kruger effect (no relation to me) is expressed when people of mediocre ability are unable to perceive their own mediocrity, and unable to comprehend that others may be smarter or more capable than they. When a crank sees a colleague doing different work or coming to different conclusions, it may well be that his own incompetence prevents him from understanding that it’s possible for others to be smarter. Therefore, the colleagues’ different conclusions can only be due to their stupidity.
Cranks tend to believe there is a conspiracy against them. Why will nobody publish their paper or invite them to speak at conferences? Is it because their work is poor? No, it must be a conspiracy to protect to status quo and to suppress innovation. A crank is so convinced of his own correctness that there doesn’t seem to be any rational reason for the community to dispute his work, therefore a conspiracy seems to be a better explanation.
Cranks tend to criticize the work of big names in science. Einstein is usually the favorite. When a good scientist finds a flaw in established theory, that theory rarely happens to be from one of the big names in science; not because the big names are special or infallible, but simply because the huge number of scientists in the world dilutes the big names down to a tiny percentage. Cranks probably tend to go after big names because their own limited expertise makes them more familiar with the big names than with the actual science being done in the field. Have you ever doubted Einstein, at a time when you could genuinely claim to have a thorough understanding of all the work done since his time?
Cranks tend to invent their own terminology, sometimes their own sciences, and tend to write in their own overcomplicated jargon. Beware of the article that discusses a science with terminology not found on Wikipedia. Beware of any scientist that invents his own name for a new science. Obviously all new sciences do originally need to be named, but the number of crank theories with made-up names is much, much larger. And beware of any article that is written with such jargon in an overcomplicated way that makes no sense. Don’t jump to the conclusion that the author is smarter than you; he may simply be a crank.
So really, folks, keep an eye on yourself. Gardner’s list is a good one. Do you ever feel yourself traveling down one of these roads? Don’t let it happen. Every crank out there started out as a little bit of a crank, and then a little more of a crank, and eventually becomes a full-blown crank if unchecked. Identifying with the “skeptic community” in no way makes you immune.
This was originally posted at SkepticBlog.