P. Z. Myers sued for libel; what is crackpot science?

Stuart Pivar initiated a suit for libel against P. Z. Myers (of Pharyngula), over Myers’ caustic reviews of Pivar’s recent book. Myers is not talking (on advice of counsel); others are providing solid background, including Andrea Bottaro at Panda’s Thumb, Scientific American, the Lippard Blog, Overlawyered, Science after Sunclipse and Positive Liberty (all blogs that you read on occasion, right?).

In the comments to Bottaro’s post at Panda’s Thumb, someone asked:

What exactly is a “crackpot,” and how does one attain the status of “classic?”

Isn’t that rather the key question of life? How can we tell the cranks from the prophets, the dross from the gold?

My comments appear at Panda’s Thumb, but why not put it down here, too? This is a topic often addressed here: Voodoo science, voodoo history, bogus science, bogus history, and who can tell the difference, and who cares?

I tell my students in the college business law classes that they call it a “trial” for a reason, and that one of the chief goals (especially for businesses) is to avoid litigation in the first place, and to avoid having to go to trial in the second place. Because, even if you win, generally there’s a high price to pay mentally and physically.

BUT, this is one where I almost wish we could count on a trial. What is a crackpot?

Jeremy Bernstein, the physicist, wrote for The New Yorker some years back about how to tell crank science from true genius, with respect to Albert Einstein’s papers submitted in 1905, that contradicted so much of what most physicists would have known then, or could have known. (The essay is collected in Cranks, Quarks, and the Cosmos: Writings on Science.) Bernstein’s question was, how could an editor of a journal know Einstein wasn’t a nutter? Bernstein said that the true science paper will demonstrate understanding of the prevailing theory among scientists, and while showing that it may be wrong, do so in a manner as to show how reasonable people could have gotten off on the wrong track, innocently. Most papers from cranks will demonstrate no such knowledge of how scientists think the current theory works (see, for example, almost anything cited by the Discovery Institute, which sometimes seems bent on acquiring the reputation as the place where dying crank ideas go to get a decent stipend for their authors and perpetrators). From a 2006 article in Cosmos magazine:

In his book Cranks, Quarks and the Cosmos, science writer and physicist Jeremy Bernstein points out that one of the criteria that always defines crank ‘science’ is its lack of correspondence with the body of scientific knowledge that has gone before it.

“I would insist that any proposal for a radically new theory in physics, or in any other science, contain a clear explanation of why the precedent science worked,” he writes. Einstein did this, as the first page of his paper on special relativity, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies”, illustrates perfectly.

In contrast, “the crank,” Bernstein writes, “is a scientific solipsist who lives in his own little world. He has no understanding nor appreciation of the scientific matrix in which his work is embedded … In my dealings with cranks, I have discovered that this kind of discussion is of no interest to them.”

The second point is probably more obvious: Bernstein says that cranks almost always see a conspiracy to shut down their ideas; true scientists on the other will, as Einstein did, show how honorable people could miss the key discovery, and instead of grousing will suggest ways that the new idea can be tested and verified or disproven.

So Jeremy Bernstein I propose as expert witness #1 on crankery. (I’ve never seen a photo of Bernstein; he’s near 80, but I suspect would be a great witness in such a trial, due to his personal knowledge of so many characters in science, especially in physics; Bernstein is likely a first-rate judge of crankery in science; and, isn’t it a demonstration of how fast we’re going to hell in this hand basket that Wikipedia has no bio of Bernstein, but Bill Dembski has more space than Bertrand Russell? I mean, isn’t there a God of justice somewhere?)

Then there is Robert Park, another physicist, the guy who has so long written “What’s New,” first for the American Physical Society (APS), and now for the University of Maryland (don’t you just love the ‘opinions are not necessarily those of [the sponsoring institution], but they should be’?) Park’s essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education in January, 2003, lays out the “Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science.” It’s well worth a read: http://chronicle.com/free/v49/i21/21b02001.htm

The Seven Warning Signs of Cancer on the Body Scientific are, as detailed by Prof. Park:

1. The discoverer pitches the claim directly to the media.
2. The discoverer says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work.
3. The scientific effect involved is always at the very limit of detection.
4. Evidence for a discovery is anecdotal.
5. The discoverer says a belief is credible because it has endured for centuries.
6. The discoverer has worked in isolation.
7. The discoverer must propose new laws of nature to explain an observation.

I propose Robert Park as expert witness #2 on crank science. [Faithful readers, all three of them, may recall my earlier use of Park's list in the creation of the Seven Warning Signs of Bogus History.]

I live in Texas, and I’ve sat through at least 48 hours’ worth of testimony against biology text books at the State Board of Education, and I could use the work. I’d love to be expert witness #3. I wouldn’t even be the writing on the icing on the cake with the other two guys, Bernstein and Park.

The claim Pivar has against Myers should die before it gets to that stage – alas for those of us who enjoyed the Dover trial.

The forces of crankery, crackpottery, and just evil, are doing what they can to frustrate the advance of science in biology. As I have detailed at my blog, Texas has a stiff-necked, hardened-heart creationist as chair of the state education board that reviews biology textbooks; the U.S. has an administration that rules for science views that best line their own campaign coffers rather than what is right; funding for real research is limited; David Attenborough’s television shows are purchased by evangelicals in the Netherlands in order to edit out mentions of evolution; Adnan Oktar can get a court in Turkey to darken a million blogs away from Turkey over an offense he perceives in one blogger’s opinion about Oktar’s crank science: We could use some good news.

See also:  Sean Carroll’s post about how to achieve respectablity in science; and John Baez’s ever-popular crackpot index.

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6 Responses to P. Z. Myers sued for libel; what is crackpot science?

  1. Pam says:

    I agree, a great summary of stuff for “sciencing” (not to be confused with the educators’ definition which is more like “now, let’s pretend we’re scientists” instead of having kids actually do science and engineering).

    I first ran across major crankery as a graduate student during the “Ancient America” stuff, Barry Fell, retired Harvard marine zoologist, and Sal Trento, now a science curriculum trustee in California, I think. Both, but particularly Fell, met most of Baez’ criteria. I ended up as several paragraphs in their Proceedings of the Castleton Conference from Castleton College as the “graduate student rising to defend her professors” baloney.

    I wasn’t rising to defend any professor but rather to point out the racist nature of their “studies” [if it involved complexity or thought or creativity in the Americas, it couldn't possibly be indigenous but built by Europeans or northern Africans, such as Celts or Hittites or Phoenicians].

    This is one problem with labelling this as “crank”, crackpot, or even voodoo. The misuse of science is dangerous and the crackpot terminology seems to place it in the “quaint” or “doddery” category.

    Follet’s definition of scientism (somewhere in the drainpipe of earlier comments. I’ll dig it out.) may be more appropriate for these more dangerous types of fraud. I’ll excavate my storage to see if I have anything relevant on Dr Fell.

    [As an Oxford graduate, I could never resist the Oxford ditty —
    ” I do not love thee, Dr Fell,
    The reason why I cannot tell;
    But this I know, and know full well,
    I do not love thee, Dr Fell.”


  2. jre says:

    Great post, and great links!

    Permit me to add two:
    I thought Sean Carroll’s post on this subject did an excellent job of instructing the unrecognized genius how to convince the scientific establishment that you’re really Einstein (and Carroll[1] resonates well with Jeremy Bernstein).

    And the gold standard in crackpot measurement is, of course, John Baez’[2] crackpot index.

    [1] No relation to the developmental biologist Sean B. Carroll

    [2] Joan’s cousin!


  3. [...] P. Z. Myers sued for libel; what is crackpot science? Stuart Pivar initiated a suit for libel against P. Z. Myers (of Pharyngula), over Myers’ caustic reviews of […] [...]


  4. [...] Just came across this post which contains this [...]


  5. [...] Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub: has a nice article about “what is crackpot science, and what is truly innovative science? [...]


  6. John A. Michon says:

    In the context of the illuminating posting above, I would like to refer to the analysis, by the mathematician Underwood Dudley of a highly specific but characteristic class of what, by any standard, may be called “classical crackpots” (or alternatively: classical “cranks”): the people who stubbornly keep trying to trisect angles with straightedge and compass alone. They suffer from a delusional syndrome, shared by other categories such as the inventors of the perpetuum mobile, circle squarers, and creationist that has been described by Dudley in “A budget of trisections” [New York, Springer, 1987] and reissued under the title “The trisectors” more recently. Their diagnosis dates back at least to Augustus De Morgan’s “A budget of paradoxes” (1872) as duly acknowledged by Dudley. In general it fits the conception discussed in this post quite precisely.

    As a (relevant) aside: one might want to have a look look at http://skepdic.com/quackery.html which discusses a recent case in the Netherlands (usually not among the most credulous countries in the world) where a Court of Appeal, decided that an MD who claims that her osteopathic treatment cures cancer and a host of other scary ailments — and yes indeed, lower back pain too — may not be called a quack by the Netherlands Society aginst Quackery. The president of the Court, by the way, is a prominent (board)member of the local Sufi chapter and known for her confidence in alternative worldviews. The complaint filed by this MD, a Ms Sickes (1923) looked pretty much like the Pivar case at hand and, for that matter, the Harun Yahya case in Turkey. [The latter case, by the way, can be put in perspective very informatively by reading physicist Taner Edis' balanced "An illusion of harmony: Science and religion in Islam"(New York, Prometheus, 2007).]


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