Crackpot science

by Stephanie Chasteen on July 12, 2008

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There’s a delightful post on crackpot science (in particular crackpot physics) from Twisted Physics this week.

For some reason, physics has more than its fair share of crackpots fringe scientists: those misunderstood tormented souls whose genius goes unnoticed by mainstream physicists… The receipt of any missive beginning, “EINSTIEN WAS WRONG AND MY THEORY PROVES IT!!!” invariably causes most physicists to discard said missive in the nearest trash receptacle. But what about the rest of us? How do we know if Harry Brained’s new theory is bogus, or a

Fortunately, a handful of enterprising physicists offer some helpful online advice. The best-known resource is John Baez’s “A Simple Method for Rating Potentially Revolutionary Contributions to Physics,” affectionately known around the science-minded blogosphere as “The Crackpot Index.”

Mis-spelling “Einstien,” for instance, will earn you 5 points on the crackpot index, along with each word in ALL CAPS, although Baez is willing to make an exception if your keyboard happens to be malfunctioning — perhaps after you spilled your can of soda over it in your excitement at finding that fatal flaw in relativity’s Teflon (TM) armor. (Hey, it could happen to anyone.)

Another great resource is Bob Park’s Seven Warning Signs of Voodoo Science

Bob Parks is a physicist at the American Physical Society and he’s written a lot of stuff about how to be skeptical about such claims. He’s got a book called Voodoo Science. I was lucky enough to interview him when I was at NPR, and he said something I never forgot. He was telling the story of when the controversial experements on cold fusion came out and there was a lot of excitement in the public about it even though the scientists were quite certain it couldn’t have happened. When people want something to be true, he said, it’s very compelling for them to believe it. When he said that the cold fusion experiment didn’t jibe the physical principles, a woman asked him, “But it would be so very important for the world. Couldn’t you try just a little bit harder?” Of course, the cold fusion scenario was very different from the type of crackpot science we’re talking about here, but that woman’s reaction does go a long way to explaining why it’s hard for many of us to let go of ideas that we should be more skeptical about.

Here’s Bob Parks 7 warning signs of voodoo science:

  1. A discovery is pitched directly to the media, bypassing peer review, e.g., Pons & Fleischmann’s claims about cold fusion and Dennis Lee‘s claims about free energy.

  2. A powerful “establishment” is said to be suppressing the discovery.

  3. An effect is always at the very limit of detection.

  4. Evidence for a discovery is anecdotal.

  5. A belief is said to be credible because it has endured for centuries, i.e., commits the fallacy of appeal to tradition. E.g., acupuncture and Ayurvedic medicine.

  6. An important discovery is made in isolation (the “lone genius”).

  7. New laws of nature are proposed to explain an incredible observation. A common lament of parapsychologists.

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