Sunday, October 12, 2008

A measure for crackpots

Last night at a party, a few of us were discussing some recent self-published books by crackpots that we've seen or had pushed on us. We noted that these books seem to have in common a few features. They seem to often have long rambling introductions that are missing key elements like thesis statements or an indication of what the book is about. They use words in non-standard ways, yet don't bother to explain how they are being redefined. They claim that the author has some special knowledge, yet don't provide any reason to believe it is the case.

I had a dim recollection of having come across a "crackpot index" before somewhere, and a little bit of searching yielded Fred J. Gruenberger's December 1962 publication from the RAND Corporation titled "A Measure for Crackpots" (PDF), which offers the following scoring mechanism for distinguishing the scientist from the crackpot:

1. Public verifiability (12 points)
Scientists promote public verifiability; crackpots rely on revealed truth.

2. Predictability (12 points)
Scientists promote predictability and track their record of failure as well as success; crackpots promote wild predictions and count only successes, not failures.

3. Controlled experiments (13 points)
Scientists promote controlled experiments; crackpots avoid them.

4. Occam's razor (5 points)
Scientists prefer the simplest explanation that covers all the facts; crackpots enjoy wildly complex theories.

5. Fruitfulness (10 points)
Scientists prefer theories that generate new ideas and new experiments; crackpots prefer theories that produce nothing of value for further research.

6. Authority (10 points)
Scientists seek the endorsement and validation of known authorities and tend to obtain it if their work is valid; crackpots usually fail to obtain it.

7. Ability to communicate (8 points)
Scientists tend to promote clear (if sometimes dull) communications through approved channels; crackpots tend to be incomprehensible and self-published.

8. Humility (5 points)
Humility is a desirable (if sometimes lacking) trait in scientists; it is rare in the crackpot.

9. Open mindedness (5 points)
Scientists tend to qualify and carefully couch their statements as tentative based on the current evidence; crackpots tend to make absolutely certain statements that may not be challenged.

10. The Fulton non sequitur (5 points)
I'm more familiar with this as the "Galileo Gambit," or the common crackpot claim that "They laughed at Galileo; they're laughing at me; therefore I'm right just as Galileo was." Gruenberger uses steamboat inventor Robert Fulton in place of Galileo. This logically invalid argument is refuted by the Bozo rejoinder, which is that "they also laughed at Bozo the clown." This is a negative test, lack of the characteristic is 5 points, presence is 0.

11. Paranoia (5 points)
Another negative test--crackpots tend to be paranoid about their ideas being actively suppressed by conspiracy.

12. The dollar complex (5 points)
Another negative test. The crackpot claims immeasurable value for his discoveries as revolutionary, worthy of the Nobel prize, and world-changing.

13. Statistics compulsion (5 points)
The crackpot tends to use and continuously explain statistics allegedly supporting his claim, while the scientist tends to use standard methods and assume the reader is familiar with them.

Gruenberger's index is focused on science crackpots rather than philosophy crackpots, but a number of the above features do apply to the books we were talking about.

A more recent "Crackpot Index," also focused on physics, was created by John Baez, a mathematical physicist at the University of California, Riverside:

A simple method for rating potentially revolutionary contributions to physics:

A -5 point starting credit.

  1. 1 point for every statement that is widely agreed on to be false.
  2. 2 points for every statement that is clearly vacuous.
  3. 3 points for every statement that is logically inconsistent.
  4. 5 points for each such statement that is adhered to despite careful correction.
  5. 5 points for using a thought experiment that contradicts the results of a widely accepted real experiment.
  6. 5 points for each word in all capital letters (except for those with defective keyboards).
  7. 5 points for each mention of "Einstien", "Hawkins" or "Feynmann".
  8. 10 points for each claim that quantum mechanics is fundamentally misguided (without good evidence).
  9. 10 points for pointing out that you have gone to school, as if this were evidence of sanity.
  10. 10 points for beginning the description of your theory by saying how long you have been working on it.
  11. 10 points for mailing your theory to someone you don't know personally and asking them not to tell anyone else about it, for fear that your ideas will be stolen.
  12. 10 points for offering prize money to anyone who proves and/or finds any flaws in your theory.
  13. 10 points for each new term you invent and use without properly defining it.
  14. 10 points for each statement along the lines of "I'm not good at math, but my theory is conceptually right, so all I need is for someone to express it in terms of equations".
  15. 10 points for arguing that a current well-established theory is "only a theory", as if this were somehow a point against it.
  16. 10 points for arguing that while a current well-established theory predicts phenomena correctly, it doesn't explain "why" they occur, or fails to provide a "mechanism".
  17. 10 points for each favorable comparison of yourself to Einstein, or claim that special or general relativity are fundamentally misguided (without good evidence).
  18. 10 points for claiming that your work is on the cutting edge of a "paradigm shift".
  19. 20 points for emailing me and complaining about the crackpot index, e.g. saying that it "suppresses original thinkers" or saying that I misspelled "Einstein" in item 8.
  20. 20 points for suggesting that you deserve a Nobel prize.
  21. 20 points for each favorable comparison of yourself to Newton or claim that classical mechanics is fundamentally misguided (without good evidence).
  22. 20 points for every use of science fiction works or myths as if they were fact.
  23. 20 points for defending yourself by bringing up (real or imagined) ridicule accorded to your past theories.
  24. 20 points for each use of the phrase "hidebound reactionary".
  25. 20 points for each use of the phrase "self-appointed defender of the orthodoxy".
  26. 30 points for suggesting that a famous figure secretly disbelieved in a theory which he or she publicly supported. (E.g., that Feynman was a closet opponent of special relativity, as deduced by reading between the lines in his freshman physics textbooks.)
  27. 30 points for suggesting that Einstein, in his later years, was groping his way towards the ideas you now advocate.
  28. 30 points for claiming that your theories were developed by an extraterrestrial civilization (without good evidence).
  29. 30 points for allusions to a delay in your work while you spent time in an asylum, or references to the psychiatrist who tried to talk you out of your theory.
  30. 40 points for comparing those who argue against your ideas to Nazis, stormtroopers, or brownshirts.
  31. 40 points for claiming that the "scientific establishment" is engaged in a "conspiracy" to prevent your work from gaining its well-deserved fame, or suchlike.
  32. 40 points for comparing yourself to Galileo, suggesting that a modern-day Inquisition is hard at work on your case, and so on.
  33. 40 points for claiming that when your theory is finally appreciated, present-day science will be seen for the sham it truly is. (30 more points for fantasizing about show trials in which scientists who mocked your theories will be forced to recant.)
  34. 50 points for claiming you have a revolutionary theory but giving no concrete testable predictions.
    Here's a nice crackpot response to that index.


    Hume's Ghost said...

    From Martin Gardner's description of the hermit scientist:

    He considers himself a genius.
    He regards his colleagues, without exception, as ignorant blockheads …

    He believes himself unjustly persecuted and discriminated against. The recognized societies refuse to let him lecture. The journals reject his papers and either ignore his books or assign them to “enemies” for review. It is all part of a dastardly plot. It never occurs to the crank that this opposition may be due to error in his work …

    He has strong compulsions to focus his attacks on the greatest scientists and the best-established theories. When Newton was the outstanding name in physics, eccentric works in that science were violently anti-Newton. Today, with Einstein the father symbolof authority, a crank theory of physics is likely to attack Einstein …

    He often has a tendency to write in a complex jargon, in many
    cases making use of terms and phrases he himself has coined.

    Shannon said...

    We should apply this to the Matthew 10:10 crackpottery!

    Jim Lippard said...

    That's one of the books I had in mind in the first paragraph...