On Crackpots; The Bane of Science
Now that I’m what’s considered a professional scientist, I’m apparently also a target for crackpots. Last month I received an e-mail from one Gabor Fekete, an Hungarian gentleman who has doubts about the veracity of the discovery of the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider. He began as follows:
While I’m flattered to be confused with Peter Higgs, this is of course just a piece of spam the author sent to every physicist whose e-mail address he could find. The rest of the e-mail is a confused exposé about why the detected Higgs boson was actually just a Xenon atom floating around the collider, as well as a digression about why black holes do not exist.
Today I received another e-mail from the same person, this time concerning his theory that matter does not exist, that electromagnetic waves have mass and that all particles, as modern physics thinks it knows them, are actually just electromagnetic phenomena. To kick it off, though, he kindly reminds me that my e-mail address is public property:
The e-mail is again a very confused argument, against essentially all progress in fundamental physics of the last century. The author doesn’t seem to have more than a very basic grasp on physics and unfortunately is left completely bewildered trying to tackle advanced concepts. Even more unfortunately, he doesn’t realise this in the least; he ends his lengthy message with some advice he believes is much needed: “Be advised by me! If you stand up on an university platform or take part on a conference, then I recommend you that never more refer for the stupid theories of the pseudo-science modern physics!”
So, the author of these messages is your typical combination of arrogance and ignorance that makes up an average crackpot. What of it? Am I not already giving him more attention than he deserves by writing these 300 words?
But, crackpottery is an interesting phenomenon, which reveals some delicate interplay between science and the outside world. Crackpots and science denial are very common nowadays, from climate change denial to that guy trying to sue CERN because he was afraid the LHC might destroy the planet; from Rupert Sheldrake, who managed to find himself a TedX stage for his crackpottery, to a movie like What The Bleep Do We Know!? that tries to pawn off quantum physics as a bunch of mystical mumbo-jumbo. But, why?
Let’s look at the crackpottery (science denial is another story altogether in many cases.) It turns out it’s about as old as science itself. An enlightening example is the story of Augustus de Morgan (an important 19th century mathematician) and one James Smith, Esq.
Squaring the Circle
Science as we know it has existed for about 200 years. It was in the 19th century that science gradually became professionalized. Before then, scientists were usually people who had the leisure to devote their time to scientific inquiry, but in the 19th century this changed. Scientists started to be able to live off of their scientific works, and they closed their ranks, distinguishing themselves from those whom they did not consider real scientists. They formed societies and associations, formalized the requirements for being a scientist and carved out careers for themselves.
An important driving force for this change was that science was simply becoming too complicated. No one was able to understand the cutting edges of the scientific endeavor anymore without many years of study, and so that study became a necessary requirement for becoming a scientist. Where in centuries past, amateur scientists might have been able to make a contribution, this was now becoming rapidly impossible. Isaac Asimov, in his Foundation, puts it poignantly. The mathematician Hari Seldon is questioned about certain sociological predictions he has made:
“Q. Can you prove that this mathematics is valid?
A. Only to another mathematician.”
Augustus de Morgan was an important player in these changes. He was the first president of the London Mathematical Society, one of the many societies erected by scientists to protect their interests. He also became the target of an early crackpot’s misconceived ideas. Enter James Smith. In his 1861 book, The quadrature of the circle: correspondence between an eminent mathematician and James Smith (fully available here) he published his correspondence with Augustus De Morgan about a mathematical problem that was dear to his heart: squaring the circle.
The problem of squaring the circle consists of creating a square that has the exact same surface area as a given circle. Suppose you have a circle of radius 1; its area would be . To draw a square of that same area, you would need to construct sides of length ; this turns out to be impossible because of the nature of the number . (To be technical, because it’s a transcendental number.)
This fact wasn’t definitively proved until 1882, but mathematicians had been quite convinced of it for centuries. This, however, didn’t deter James Smith when he believed he did have a solution. He describes beautifully the clash between himself, well-meaning but still a crackpot, and the scientific establishment. He writes a paper on his ideas and tries to have it read at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, but is denied this opportunity because the mathematicians dismiss his ideas out of hand. Trying to have a conversation with the Astronomer Royal of England, Smith is told, “It would be a waste of time, Sir, to listen to anything you could have to say on such a subject.” To the mathematicians, he is just another ignoramus trying to square the circle (there were many of them at the time) but to him, it seems like they are conspiring to undermine him.
Smith consequently enters into a long correspondence with De Morgan in which he tries to convince the mathematician of his ideas. De Morgan is surprisingly patient and indulgent; perhaps it was his first encounter with a crackpot. He tries to help Smith understand that he really is wrong: he points out flaws in Smith’s reasoning, provides mathematical proofs to show him his ideas are fundamentally wrong, and even provides empirical evidence that what Smith is trying to prove simply cannot be right. Smith, however, doesn’t want to accept these arguments, and eventually De Morgan tires of trying to convince the stubborn amateur and ceases the correspondence. Again, Smith deludes himself into thinking this only makes him all the more right and, against De Morgan’s wishes, he publishes the correspondence (although he removes De Morgan’s name.)
Understanding and Dealing With Crackpots?
So, the phenomenon of crackpots trying to scale the walls of science with their crazy ideas mostly originates from this: science is a highly specialized endeavor worked upon by experts and the amateur finds himself excluded. However good his intentions may be, he doesn’t know enough to be able to discern what makes real scientific ideas valuable, and what makes his own ideas nonsense. For the scientist, even if he wanted to, it is impossible to explain to the crackpot why he is wrong, because the crackpot hasn’t learned to speak the right language to properly discuss the topic he is blundering through. And to the scientist it is painful, because the crackpot blatantly disregards the scientist’s expertise and hard work.
So what should we do about crackpots? As Augustus de Morgan learned the hard way, engaging in a discussion with one is not very fruitful. He would have had to spend much less energy if he had simply ignored James Smith, like his fellow mathematicians did. On the other hand, Smith’s feeling of non-acceptance and injustice when he is so quickly dismissed is understandable, if misguided.
Science is not based upon authority, but upon reason; any idea or paradigm, no matter how strongly established, must be overturned if reality is found to contradict it. The scientist is therefore uncomfortable in telling anyone, “I’m an expert; just trust me.” But ultimately, there is no choice; no one can grasp the entirety of science, and a lot of scientific details cannot be conveyed very well to a larger audience. The skeptic outsider should tread carefully. Mr. Fekete, the crackpot I started with, calls Albert Einstein a pseudo-scientist in today’s e-mail. While even the greatest names in science are no guarantee, that just reeks of a lack of reality checking and nuance.
It would be amazingly productive if all scientific knowledge could be easily passed on to anyone who was interested, but this is not realistic. The more everyone can be educated about science, the better! However, sometimes scientists and their expertise should just be trusted.