Crackpots Are Always Right

It’s a mystery to me how tenaciously someone can hold on to a scientific proposal after it has been rigorously demolished, as happens with cranks, crackpots, woomeisters, quackademics, etc. Even after you separate out the charlatans who are trying to scam a few spacebucks out of somebody, and the ones driven by some ideology, there’s a whole host of folks who won’t let go if their pet hypothesis that disproves relativity or quantum mechanics or whatever.

The process of science is to disprove things, and most things get disproven. Benjamin Schumacher has written a nice little summary of it, and how it tends to pervade our thinking.

On occasion, some idea of ours turns out to be right, and then we’ve made a discovery. These occasions are wonderful and gratifying, of course. They are also rare, because most new ideas are wrong. The trick is to be verifiably wrong most of the time. If our ideas are verifiably wrong, then we can eventually get rid of them

The main factor that distinguishes the behavior of scientists is that scientists tend not to take it personally when contrary data is presented that slays our pet theory, while a crank takes it as a huge insult. They don’t like getting rid of their wrong ideas, except when somehow it doesn’t affect their conclusions at all.

0 thoughts on “Crackpots Are Always Right

  1. It’s worth mentioning one of the most famous American scientists, Benjamin Franklin, had great insight on being wrong; from his speech at the Constitutional convention:

    I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them: For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others. Most men indeed as well as most sects in Religion, think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them it is so far error. Steele a Protestant in a Dedication tells the Pope, that the only difference between our Churches in their opinions of the certainty of their doctrines is, the Church of Rome is infallible and the Church of England is never in the wrong. But though many private persons think almost as highly of their own infallibility as of that of their sect, few express it so naturally as a certain french lady, who in a dispute with her sister, said “I don’t know how it happens, Sister but I meet with no body but myself, that’s always in the right — Il n’y a que moi qui a toujours raison.”

    The first time I read his speech, I nearly had tears in my eyes, it was so eloquent and brilliant…

  2. I am always wondering about reaction to a paradigm shift myself. In one instance it would seem as if string theory has an uncertain future, yet it seems that way simply because it cannot be tested really. The debate on string theory though seems to bring out some less the scientific communications and even strong challenges. I personally do not know where to call the real fine line of being a crackpot in such.