Archive for May 11th, 2008

Crackpot Bingo

It happens in science blog comments, and more so in discussion boards where you get some crank with their pet theory of some science subdiscipline, and how it’s the new paradigm ready to emerge and topple the orthodoxy. And it’s almost formulaic like a Hardy Boys mystery (or even a Robert Ludlum novel) with the same arguments cropping up in different combinations. Read several in a row and the commonalities jump out at you.

Hmmm. A finite set of arguments, appearing seemingly at random. Sounds like bingo to me!
Here are the major points, many of which are shamelessly cribbed from the crackpot index

Strawman – use of the strawman fallacy
Unbelievable — use of the argument from incredulity fallacy (I don’t understand, therefore it’s wrong)
Gedanken — use of a thought experiment to debunk a theory or actual experiment
ALLCAPS — extensive use of ALLCAPS or large font
Galileo — as in, comparing themself favorably (i.e. persecuted)
Einstein — as in, comparing themself favorably (i.e. I am the next one)
Nobel — claiming they will win one
School — listing degrees and/or schools attended
Dropout — usually a proud declaration
Many years — how long they’ve worked on their theory
Prize — offer a prize to anyone debunking their work
Terminology — new terms or acronyms
Particles — new particles proposed (Tachyons don’t count)
Interaction — a new interaction is proposed
Eponym — naming something of their work after themselves
Math — admitting to be unable to do it or doing it horribly
Theory — as in, “it’s only a theory” argument to dismiss accepted science
Metaphysics — the work explains “why” or what some phenomenon “really is”
Censorship — complaints about work being censored
Rue — “you’ll rue the day you ignored me” or similar warning
Religion — claiming science is a religion
Priest/Bible — scientists are high priests, or some work is the science bible
Gifs — animated, very pretty, meaningless
Graphs — must have unlabeled axes or be otherwise incomprehensible
See? — claiming the model explains/predicts many phenomena, but without actually presenting evidence
Huh? — befuddlement over lack of instant acceptance of new paradigm
We — the royal we; “we don’t understand X” applied to a well-understood issue
You — “You don’t understand X” directed toward an individual with significant experience in the field
Predicts — model predicts phenomena that have never been observed, but should have been
Turtles — all the way down: all of physics is due to one fundamental particle
Quotes — supports position by selective quoting
Like — argument by analogy
Topology — use of mobius strip or klein bottle in argument
Mum — won’t divulge details for fear of idea being stolen
Polly — simple repetition of claims, unchanged, after being debunked
Indignation — at being asked for evidence or other corroboration (added 5/11)

I’ll add more if worthy ones are suggested.

Card generator available here

The Illusion of Knowledge

Over at Backreaction

Current illusions such as the idea that if it’s on the internet, and especially if it’s in an oft-visited location, then it must be true (argument from popularity), if it can’t be explained in a short presentation, it must be false (argument from incredulity), if it’s not on the internet then it must be false, newer information is always better, and others.

I think some of this is a remnant of the idea that if something appears in print, it must be true — print used to be instant credibility in part because print was relatively expensive. The cost aspect was especially true in the earliest days, and you wouldn’t bother to commit something to writing unless it was very important, but before mass-printing, that was often spiritual truth rather than scientific truth. But with the advent of printing, thanks to Gutenberg, more information could be shared at less cost, so knowledge was put down on paper and distributed.

But it’s still largely driven by economics, and the illusion was present even back in the day. As long as a lie is profitable, and this could mean power and control, as well as money, putting it in print has a payoff. And as the cost of print goes down, the wider the illusion spreads. Today, of course, electronic print is dirt cheap. There is almost no threshold at all to making misinformation available, and even sending it to you — hey, you’ve got spam! Every crank and their inbred cousin can have a web site that “teaches” us how relativity is a conspiracy, quantum mechanics has a connection to the mind and body, the earth is 6000 years old, etc.

One danger, to which Bee alludes, is that if you’ve been hoodwinked into thinking a solution has been achieved, you aren’t as likely to support further investigation — legitimate, scientific investigation — into the problem.

The problem is not lack of knowledge. The problem is the Illusion of Knowledge that comes with an overabundance of unstructured information. It fosters the public manifestation of unfounded believes, stalls scientific arguments, and hinders progress.

I Think I Can, I Think I Can

Babbage’s difference engine #2 has been built and has “just gone on display in Silicon Valley” (Where? Not sure. Make sure you make a left turn at Albuquerque. Then ask.)

Despite Babbage’s reputation and government backing, the machine was never manufactured.

The plans were consigned to the dustbin of history until they were fished out by Mr Swade when he was working at the Science Museum in London. While there he went on to create the world’s first Difference Engine No 2. which was completed in 1991.

And, of course, one is reminded of Babbage’s excellent quote about GIGO:

On two occasions I have been asked [by members of Parliament!], “Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?” I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.

Hat tip to Caroline.

You'll Learn the Interesting Stuff Later

Bait and Switch, and observation from Entropy Bound. Peter’s argument is in the context of “the lab” being more mysterious when you don’t know what’s going on (the bait) but by the time you get to work in one you’re doing actual science which is (one hopes) quite interesting, even if the apparati have lost their mystique.

But when you get down to it, it’s a bait-and-switch: when you are growing up, no-one ever tells you that things aren’t so colorful and mysterious, so by the time you finally realize that it’s not, you’ve found a much more interesting — albeit prosaic –real world to ponder.

I can certainly identify with this, and also see a related effect along another tangent: are we using the right bait? You take physics classes (and this probably holds true for other disciplines, though I have little empirical data for comparison) and there is this sometimes spoken, sometimes unspoken promise of “I know this is basic stuff and may seem boring, but I promise if you learn this, we’ll get to some interesting stuff later on.” Whether that holds true or not depends on what you’re doing, who’s teaching and what your threshold of “interesting” is. I now wonder if this is part of the hurdle to get more students interested in physics — do we bore them to death learning basic kinematics, thermodynamics and E&M? Does this drive some students away who might otherwise be interested if they were doing physics discovered after 1900? At least in biology there is the prospect of dissecting something even in introductory courses (which is why I shied away from biology. Dissection, moi? Not only no, but fuck no). In chemistry you play with chemicals. In physics we’re sliding blocks down an incline. (My undergraduate experience did have one bonus, though. Since we were a small school and could only support one sequence per year in general physics, it was designated a sophomore-level course, so that everyone taking it could have calculus as a pre- or co-requisite. In order to make sure they physics majors had something to do, we had a course in basic optics and relativity and another in electronics that were engaging, but then anyone following the normal sequence regressed to the yawn-fest)

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Oh, Really?

From one of those “tell us what you do” info dropdown menus, so I can get more targeted spam.


Good to know that Research/Development/Scientific isn’t technology-related. Do you think maybe, just maybe, they sold computer stuff?