Are You Following a Crank?
It is despairingly often that I receive an email from some unknown person inviting me to check out their revolutionary work in some scientific field, or read their book, or watch their YouTube video, that I might learn the errors made by mainstream science, and gain a corrected and especially enlightened version of that science to report on Skeptoid. My reply is always the same. I thank them for the suggestion, but my show does not report on new or unproven or fringe theories, but on solidly-evidenced mainstream ones; and if they wish for their theory to be reported on Skeptoid, then their task must be to promote it not to me but to the scientific community, and sway them instead. If this fringe view proves correct, it will no doubt eventually win over the mainstream, at which point I will take pleasure in reporting it on Skeptoid. The reaction? Inevitably, and predictably, outrage. Name calling, obscenities, frustration. I have just had just another close encounter with that denizen of the dark underbelly of the scientific fringe: the crank.
I want to be clear that when I talk about a crank, I don't mean to be insulting; and while that obviously sounds like a contradiction in terms, I honestly mean no more or less than the word's legitimate dictionary definition, which is (from Merriam-Webster):
Or from Wiktionary:
An early author on such people was Martin Gardner, who in his important 1950 article "The Hermit Scientist" used the term self-styled scientist; but when he greatly expanded this article into his 1952 book In the Name of Science, he called a spade a spade, and went with crank.
Referring to someone as a crank is not saying anything about the person so much as it is about their process. Crankery is where all the worst misinformation germinates and flourishes. Crankery is devoid of rigor, of peer review, of critique, and of expert analysis. Crankery thrives due to its isolation from challenge. Crank ideas are constrained by nothing at all, so they tend to make whatever claims or conclusions their creators want. One need only turn to the back pages of any magazine to find advertisements for products that epitomize crankery: magically easy solutions to difficult problems, conceived in the minds of cranks, developed and sold without scrutiny, purchased without skepticism.
But cranks are often persuasive. Many have slick pitches. Although many remain hermit-like, some achieve significant commercial success. We all have to be on the lookout for the possibility that our newest hero might be a crank -- just look at the impact a crank like Gwyneth Paltrow can suddenly produce. And so, inspired by Gardner's writings, and refined by other authors and bloggers in the years since, I present my own list of red flags for identifying whether that person you're following might be a crank:
1. Cranks tend to work in isolation.
This is far and away the most defining characteristic of a crank. They tend to have no formal education in whatever field they are claiming superior insight and expertise. They do not work in that field. They are not personally acquainted with anyone actually in that field. They have never shared their work, or worked collaboratively, with anyone in the field. Yet they see themselves as having a unique acumen.
Being completely removed from a legitimate field of expertise is conducive to drifting far afield from its true knowledge base. If you want to stay abreast of the latest developments, you usually want to be part of the community. If you're not, you lack the checks and balances and corrections of peer review. Isolation is never the best way to insure that your work is on track.
2. Cranks tend to be paranoid.
They worry that their important discoveries are being spied upon, that malicious forces are out to destroy their reputations, that scientists or corporations or governments 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?
Why does the crank come to such conclusions? When a crank does attempt to get his paper into a conference or a publication, it is inevitably rejected because of its quality. But 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 to protect the status quo and to suppress innovation seems to be the more probable explanation.
3. Cranks tend to consider themselves geniuses.
Sooner or later a crank learns that his work is at odds with the work done in the scientific community. Part of what makes him a crank is his tendency to rationalize this by seeing himself as the one who's able to work outside the box, who approached the problem in a new way, and who came to a conclusion nobody else was bright enough to see. His work is different not because it is wrong and because he lacks the relevant knowledge; it is different because of its utter brilliance. "I'm the only one smart enough to see this" is a pretty clear red flag.
Such a mind will commonly invoke the Galileo Gambit: they say that Galileo was persecuted for his science views of heliocentrism, and then it turned out he was right; thus, since his own science views are now being criticized, it will similarly transpire in the future that he will turn out to be right. Not only is this totally fallacious logically, it's historically untrue. Galileo didn't catch the flak from other scientists; heliocentrism was thoroughly established and accepted by nearly all secular astronomers. He caught it from the Catholic Church, for heresy, which has nothing to do with science.
4. Cranks tend to criticize the big names.
Right after comparing themselves to Galileo, we hear "Einstein was wrong", "Darwin was wrong". Why is it always Einstein who was wrong? Why not some random unknown physicist from CERN publishing results from recent collider experiments? The reason is that Einstein is the only scientist whose name the crank knows. The crank with the alternate theory of the universe is scarcely even aware that CERN exists or that real work is being done in the field by real scientists, and he certainly doesn't read about it or understand it. That's how he ended up in the position he's in.
In real science, we're always improving our theories and fixing flaws in earlier work. But those flaws are rarely the deepest fundamentals like general relativity. Usually it's something like discovering contamination in a sample from a molecular biologist at some lab, thus giving us a better understanding of some result. Boring stuff. Real stuff. Stuff where you have to actually understand what you're doing.
Trumpeting about having proven Einstein wrong is probably the surest sign of a crank.
5. Cranks tend to invent their own terminology.
Here are a few phrases you might have encountered in your life on the Internet: Time cube. Quantum jumping. Global consciousness. Backmasking. Energy medicine. Vortex mathematics. Morphic resonances. There are a limitless number of sciencey-sounding (and entirely meaningless) phrases out there, all invented by cranks who believe, in all earnestness, to have invented something new. And what does a new science need but a new jargon to go along with it.
Often, the crank will rejoice in his newfound jargon a little too much, and will write in it with such effervescence as to create paragraphs of impenetrable density and festoonery. Overcomplicated writing is, unfortunately, found just as often in good science as it is in bad science; but one effect it often has in either case it that it impresses unsophisticated readers. Dense paragraphs and big, unfamiliar words don't necessarily mean the article is smart or correct. It could mean nothing at all, and it often means little more than the author is a crank for whose ideas no intelligible language exists.
6. Cranks tend to get Stephen Hawking's name wrong.
I don't know why this is, but whenever I hear a pseudoscientist invoke the name of Stephen Hawking for any reason, they almost always get his name wrong. It's either Hawkin, Hawkins, or Hawkings; almost never do they get it correct as Hawking. Why? It's a mystery. Perhaps saying it right would burn their tongue.
Whenever I do get this email from a crank, wanting me to read his lengthy PDF tome on a new model of physics for the universe, or whatever it is, I reflect on what it was that made him think I was likely to be receptive to it. The answer is obvious: it's the association of the idea of skepticism with the title of the show Skeptoid. He figured that I, as the skeptic, am the adversary of the mainstream and the champion of the maverick, looking to tear down the dark-aged establishment using the radiance of new ideas as my weapon. This is kind of a half-right definition of skepticism. Yes, we do want to shine the light of science on the ideas around us to see what's true and what's not. The difference is that while the crank believes the fundamentals of basic sciences are wrong, those of us who live and work in the sciences know that the core fundamentals are the most thoroughly tested and proven ideas we have. Cranks believe scientists refuse to question the core fundamentals because of some quasi-religious dogma; whereas the real reason is simply that those questions have already been exhaustively asked and answered. Cranks don't know that because they haven't studied in that field of science, relying instead only upon their own notions, and think they are the first to ask these questions. So they seek out others whom they expect are ideologically aligned with them about challenging the dogmatically paralyzed establishment. So I get their email. And they get angry when they learn I'm not out to prove Einstein was wrong about gravity.
And so my caution to you is to be wary of whether that someone whose book you're reading, whose new diet you're following, whose get-rich-quick plan you're investing in, whose supplement product you're using, or whose intelligence-boosting scheme you learned about on TV, might be a crank. Those red flags we talked about are everywhere.
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