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Top 10 Ways To Spot A Crackpot

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Posted by Nicholas on November 1, 2002 22:46:39 UTC

Hello everybody. I'm a graduate student in astrophysics and I have some information that I think might be helpful to y'all who are interested in serious science. Among the scientific community, we often have to deal with people that we call "crackpots". This basically refers to people who have wild (and usually grandiose) theories with little scientific basis. I've noticed that these forums have these people in spades. Perhaps there is something to these theories (let's try to be open-minded), but if you're a novice looking to learn something about science, these people can be very distracting and confusing. Here's a list of things to look out for:

1. Does it make any sense at all? Mainstream scientists will usually speak in terms that are at least partially understandable to the general public. Crackpots will often try to sound as technical as possible (often with made up words) so that there is little hope of anybody refuting them.

2. What is the scope of their ideas? If they claim to be able to explain the entire universe with their own new theory, that should be a red flag. Unfortunately, real science is complicated enough that no one person could reasonably have all the answers. Despite popular belief, even the scope of Newton and Einstein's theories were small in comparison to the range of physics in its entirety.

3. Is it based on religion? Real science does not in any way USE religion for its conclusions. This should not cause people to think that scientists are areligious (Einstein was very religious, in fact), we just think that religion and science are two separate practices that should not be mixed (kind of like separation of church and state).

4. Do they ramble on about random things for no apparent reason? Crackpots are usually eager to spread their ideas (after all, they claim to have solved the universe), so they will take advantage of any chance to talk about them. Thus, they often get way off topic.

5. Does it sound a bit like spam? Crackpot theories are often sold like cults. They'll cover the boards with multiple messages and try to indoctrinate you into their beliefs.

6. Is it based on an obscure result? The first crackpot I ever met claimed to completely reformulate cosmology based on a slight variation in the signals from the Voyager spacecraft. When one of these people catches onto something, their minds will often runaway with them. There is a reason we emphasize repeatability in all scientific results.

7. Are they extremely full of themselves? I used to think real scientists were egotistical, but compared to most crackpots, they are really quite humble. If you try to argue with a crackpot, they will often just dismiss you outright. This is either because they think they're way beyond you or they're afraid they'll lose the argument. Either way, it's a particularly productive way of doing science.

8. Do they sound a bit schizophrenic? I'm convinced that some of them are. Check out the king of crackpots:

9. Do they disbelieve the fundamental theories of science (e.g. relativity, quantum mechanics)? Granted, there are perfectly reasonable people who don't believe these theories, but most of these people don't go on and try to reformulate science.

10. Are they stuck in everyday language? In other words, do they try to deal with abstract concepts using simple, Earth-based ideas? Many crackpots have the illusion that everything in the universe should be easily understandable to them in terms of their experiences on Earth. Fortunately, serious scientists disavowed this kind of thinking around the time of Copernicus. Humans are not, and never will be, the center of the universe.

These are some basic guidelines. In all fairness, real scientists can fall under any one of these categories from time to time, so don't dismiss anything without a little thought. After all, thinking is what science is all about.

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