A profound misunderstanding of the significance of cranks in science

I’ve spent a lot of time over the years looking at cranks, examining crank science (i.e., pseudoscience), and trying to figure out how to inoculate people against crankery. Because I’m a physician, I tend to do it mostly in the realm of medicine by critically examining “alternative” medical claims and discussing the scientific basis of medicine, both with respect to those “alternative” claims and to more conventional medical claims. However, I don’t limit my skepticism and critical thinking just to medicine, although lately I think that I’ve been “specializing” too much, almost totally forgetting that there are other varieties of cranks besides quacks and anti-vaccine activists. That’s why, when I saw Steve Novella’s discussion of a badly misguided article on physics cranks by Margaret Wertheim, my interest was piqued. Maybe it was because the article was a change of pace for me. Of course, Steve has already done his usual excellent job discussing the fallacies underlying Wertheim’s article, which is the sort of thing that makes me wonder if I should pile on. But then I tell myself: Of couse I should! Before I read the article, I knew it was going to be bad just from the subtitle, namely “Amateurs around the world take on the priesthood of mainstream science.”

Here’s a hint: Anyone who refers to mainstream science as a “priesthood” at the very minimum flirts with giving the impression of being a crank herself. Or perhaps Wertheim has just spent too much time among physics cranks in writing her book Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything. I agree with Steve, though. Her article represents profoundly muddled thinking about the nature of cranks and their relationship with science. Although she seems to understand what a crank is, her article quickly devolves into an apologetic for cranks that blames science itself for their becoming cranks in the first place. Why? Because science is “inaccessible.” Like medicine, I suppose, whose apparently “inaccessibility” must, if Werttheim’s arguments hold water, similarly lead to the emergence of quacks.

She begins her discussion by introducing Jim Carter, a physics crank who has what Wertheim characterizes as a “radical theory of the universe he has been developing for 50 years.” It doesn’t bode well that Wertheim apparently doesn’t understand that the word “theory” doesn’t mean half-assed guess or “something I made up because science is too ‘inaccessible.'” On the other hand, Wertheim does paint a picture of what a crank is, using Carter as a prototype. Basically, Carter has just a single semester of university education, has never published a scientific paper in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, or held any sort of academic position, but he has the arrogance of ignorance to have constructed his own elaborate notions of “everything,” which Wertheim characterizes as “idiosyncratic alternative to quantum mechanics and general relativity, based on the idea that all matter is composed of doughnut-shaped particles called circlons.”

There once was a time when it was possible for people without formal education to make observations about the universe and formulate them into laws and hypotheses that characterize reality. That time ended at least a hundred years ago. The reason is that science builds on what was discovered. The more it builds, the more background information there is that has to be mastered in order to be able to make useful contributions. Although there can be lots of controversy in science, certain fundamental things are agreed upon because overwhelming evidence has led scientists to provisionally accept them as correct. For instance, you can’t suddenly posit a “theory” that says that atoms aren’t made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons, because there is a massive body of evidence that has led to a scientific consensus that they are, in fact, made up of such particles, whatever scientists choose to name them. At least, you can’t do it and have scientists take you seriously unless you can produce evidence that is at least compelling enough to call such well-established science into doubt. Cranks don’t acknowledge this and, through arrogance, think that they alone are able to see what all of science isn’t. As a result, they tend to be upset that science doesn’t recognize their apparent genius.

Yet, of cranks like Jim Carter, Wertheimer writes:

The mainstream science world has a way of dealing with people like this–dismiss them as cranks and dump their letters in the trash. While I do not believe any outsider I have encountered has done any work that challenges mainstream physics, I have come to believe that they should not be so summarily ignored.

Why is it that Wertheimer thinks cranks like Carter, whose ideas have no grounding in evidence and experiment, shouldn’t be just ignored or dismissed by scientists? First, she invokes the logical fallacy of argumentum ad populum and writes:

Consider the sheer numbers. Outsider physicists have their own organization, the Natural Philosophy Alliance, whose database lists more than 2,100 theorists, 5,800 papers, and more than 1,300 books worldwide. They have annual conferences, with this year’s proceedings running to 735 pages. In the time I have been observing the organization, the NPA has grown from a tiny seed whose founder photocopied his newsletter onto pastel-colored paper to a thriving international association with video-streamed events.

So let me get this straight. If I can get a few hundred people together to write books and papers claiming that the world is flat, then scientists shouldn’t dismiss that idea out of hand and ignore cranks who send them letters and articles claiming that the earth is flat? That does seem to be the implication of Wertheim’s argument.

In fact, as I read Wertheimer’s article, I couldn’t help but think of my primary blogging niche, namely the critical examination of “alternative medicine” and hear echoes of Wertheim’s arguments in the many, many apologias to quackery, crankery, and “alternative medicine.” How often have we heard the claims of proponents of various unscientific medical modalities that their woo should be taken seriously by science-based medicine because it’s so popular? Because there are so many practitioners and physicians who seemingly take it seriously? Because there are so many people who believe in it and pay money for it? In fact, I have to wonder if Wertheim would be so quick to claim that cranks like Jim Carter shouldn’t be so quickly dismissed by scientists if Jim Carter weren’t a physics crank but rather a basic, run-of-the-mill quack. It’s easy to look at physics cranks like Carter as harmless eccentrics because the consequences of their pseudoscientific ideas are basically minimal to nonexistent. They aren’t going to persuade scientists, but more importantly they aren’t likely to lead innocents into harm the way quacks do. It’s easy to ignore them–or be amused by them. Quacks do, however, share one characteristic that Wertheim identifies in the physics cranks that she studies:

Very little unites this disparate group of amateurs–there are as many theories as members–except for a common belief that “something is drastically wrong in contemporary physics and cosmology, and that a new spirit of open-mindedness is desperately needed.” They are unanimous in the view that mainstream physics has been hijacked by a kind of priestly caste who speak a secret language–in other words, mathematics–that is incomprehensible to most human beings. They claim that the natural world speaks a language which all of us can, or should be able to, understand. Rather than having their dialogue with the world mediated by “experts,”= NPA members insist that they can commune with it directly and describe its patterns in accessible terms.

One wonders whether Wertheim would be so accepting of similar arguments from, for instance, anti-vaccine activists. Certainly, they think there’s something wrong with medicine, namely vaccines. How many times have we seen anti-vaccine activists referring to medicine and science as a “religion”? I’ve even heard of support of vaccines referred to as “Vaccinianity,” much as Holocaust deniers refer to as “Holocaustianity.” How many times have we heard quacks refer to doctors as a “priesthood”? Indeed, perhaps the most entertaining example of this sort of attack that I’ve seen came from our old friend, the creationist neurosurgeon known as Michael Egnor, who, after congratulating himself for resisting the introduction of “alternative medicine” where he practices, castigates the “arrogant medical priesthood” and urges humility. He conveniently leaves out his own glaring lack of humility in seemingly thinking that he knows more than evolutionary biologists. Dr. Egnor, you see, has made a name for himself as a defender of “intelligent design” creationism who blames “Darwinism” for eugenics.

The fact is, in medicine, cranks are all too often quacks, and vice versa. Should we be accepting of, for example, Hulda Clark’s view that something with modern oncology is “wrong” and that all cancer is caused by a liver fluke? Or perhaps I should have phrased that “should we have been accepting?” After all, after having plied her quackery on untold numbers of desperate cancer patients for decades, ironically Clark herself succumbed to cancer. Or what about Tullio Simoncini, who thinks that all cancer is a fungus and the treatment is injecting sodium bicarbonate into them? Or Robert O. Young, who thinks that cancer is a cell “poisoned” by acid, the tumor a protective reaction of the body to cells, and alkalinization is the treatment for cancer and virtually everything else? Or what about Lionel Milgrom? Milgrom is a homeopathy apologist who derives ridiculously complicated equations and models based on nothing, all in order to make it seem as though there is a scientific basis to that quackiest of quackeries, homeopathy. To me, Milgrom is the crank who most resembles Carter in that he has built up the most elaborate justifications for his pseudoscience. Compare Milgrom’s illustrations with some of Carter’s illustrations and explanations and you’ll see what I mean. It’s been nearly 30 years since I took advanced undergraduate physics and physical chemistry, but even I know that Carter’s explanation of gravity is hilariously off-base. The difference is that Carter’s equations don’t hurt anyone. Milgrom’s equations are used to put a patina of scientific respectability on quackery.

Do the existence of quacks like Clark, Simoncini, Young, and Milgrom mean that there’s something wrong with the science of medicine? Science-based medicine is not by any means perfect, but just because there are medical cranks like these four does not mean that there is something wrong with medical science, just as just because there are physics cranks like Jim Carter doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with physics. Neither of these observations means that science is a religion or scientists and doctors are a “priesthood.” Yet that is exactly what Wertheim seems to be arguing:

Regardless of the credibility of this claim, it is sociologically significant. In their militantly egalitarian opposition to what they see as a physics elite, NPA members mirror the stance of Martin Luther and other pioneers of the Protestant Reformation. Luther was rebelling against the abstractions of the Latin-writing Catholic priesthood, and one of his most revolutionary moves was to translate the Bible into vernacular German. Just as Luther declared that all people could read the book of God for themselves, so the NPA today asserts that all of us ought to be able to read the book of nature for ourselves.

And just as Luther didn’t reject the basic tenets of Christianity, outsider theorists do not reject science: They believe that it provides the right tools to reveal the majesty of our world. But they insist that the wonders of science be available to everyone.

And the anti-vaccine movement is, by this analogy, a “militantly egalitarian opposition” to what antivaccinationists see as a medical elite. Perhaps Wertheim would view Bob Sears as Martin Luther nailing his new “alternative vaccination schedule” and his explanations fo vaccine science to the church of modern medicine. Or something like that. In fact, anti-vaccinationists are every bit as “do-it-yourself” as Jim Carter. They come up with their own vaccine schedules based on their own amateur science, such as phone surveys and questionnaires disguised as science. Heck, Mark and David Geier even set up a lab in the basement of Mark Geier’s tony Silver Spring, MD home, just as Jim Carter uses various devices and equipment he’s cobbled together (including a disco fog machine) to test his “circlon” ideas.

Yes, obviously I used the example of quacks and anti-vaccine activists as a sort of reductio ad absurdum aimed at Wertheim’s arguments, but let’s get a bit more specific and blunt. Wertheim’s entire thesis in this article is that we shouldn’t dismiss cranks like Carter (and, I infer, Simoncini, Clark, Young, and Milgrom) because:

  • There are quite a lot of them (argumentum ad populum)
  • Math is really hard.
  • Learning the necessary background knowledge to do modern science is also really hard.
  • Science is complicated; so there must be something wrong with it
  • Science is a religion that should be available to all, just as Martin Luther wanted Christianity to be available to all through his translation of the Bible.
  • Outsider scientists feel “alienated” by scientific explanations and science as practiced.

None of these are, in my book, reasons to view science as a priesthood or religion, or to argue that the existence of cranks means there’s some major need that science isn’t meeting in the population. Rather, it’s more of a reason to wonder what it is in the personality of cranks that leads them to reject science; yet that doesn’t seem to be the conclusion Wertheim draws from the existence of cranks like Jim Carter.

In all fairness, there is a germ of a a couple of good points in Wertheim’s article, but they’re buried in polemics, and she draws the wrong conclusions from them. Perhaps she develops her arguments in a more nuanced, less crank-friendly fashion in her book and refrains from making so many analogies likening science to religion, but I tend to doubt it. If reading Michael Shermer’s review is any indication, Wertheim’s book seems to be arguing that There Is Something Seriously Wrong With Science. In any case, the first germ is that it’s not always easy to see where the fringes of science end and crankdom begins, and sometimes it’s only possible in retrospect. Occasionally people dismissed as cranks to turn out to be vindicated, but it doesn’t happen nearly as often as cranks and crank apologists like Wertheim like to think it does. As Michael Shermer once wrote:

For every Galileo shown the instruments of torture for advocating scientific truth, there are a thousand (or ten thousand) unknowns whose ‘truths’ never pass scientific muster with other scientists. The scientific community cannot be expected to test every fanstastic claim that comes along, especially when so many are logically inconsistent.

As I once wrote seemingly so many years ago:

For every Galileo, Ignaz Semmelweis, Nicolaus Copernicus, Charles Darwin, Louis Pasteur, etc., whose scientific ideas were either ignored, rejected, or vigorously attacked by the scientific community of his time and then later accepted, there are untold numbers of others whose ideas were either ignored or rejected initially and then were never accepted–and never will be accepted. Why? Because they were wrong! The reason the ideas of Galileo, Semmelweis, Copernicus, Darwin, Pasteur, et al, were ultimately accepted as correct by the scientific community is because they turned out to be correct! Their observations and ideas stood up to repeated observation and scientific experimentation by many scientists in many places over many years. The weight of data supporting their ideas was so overwhelming that eventually even the biggest skeptics could no longer stand. That’s the way science works. It may be messy, and it may take longer, occasionally even decades or even longer, than we in the business might like to admit, but eventually in science the truth wins out.

Unfortunately, Wertheim doesn’t seem to acknowledge that it’s almost always possible to tell the difference between crank pseudoscience and fringe science prospectively; we don’t have to wait until in retrospect. The second germ of a good point is that science communication is hard; it’s very difficult to translate the complex concepts behind physics, or medicine for that matter, into language accessible to an educated lay person. On the other hand, as Steve noted, the information is out there. In the age of blogs and the Internet, there could well be more good science out there aimed at the lay public than there has ever been. Cranks don’t care. They prefer their own pseudoscience. It sets them apart in their own minds and allows them to think that they can see what all the rest of the “priesthood” of science can’t.