Tales from "The Box": A survey of crackpots in physics


David Dixon, assistant professor of physics at Saddleback College, gave a presentation while he was at California Polytechnic State University titled Tales from "The Box", in which he presents selected contents of The Box, an archive of what is charitably describe as "unsolicited materials", but which is in more plain language "stuff sent to us by crackpots." (Warning: Sound quality is terrible.) He describes the various types of crackpots, common themes, behaviors that set off red flags in professional scientists, and how crackpot theories can be used in instruction.

In the talk, he excerpts A Little Bit of Knowledge, an episode of This American Life. He also wonders why crackpots are frequently retired engineers.

(For some reason, the video is doubled, so ignore the second half, unless you like watching it a second time, but with the sound off.)

Things I learned:

  • A subgenre of physics crackpottery is deriving physical constants from other physical constants in dubious ways. (Time code 29:00.)
  • You need read only the first few pages of any manuscript. That's where the theory is laid out and where you can find the error, assuming the manuscript is comprehensible to begin with. (The rest of the manuscript is just a series of examples of how the theory can be applied to everything under the sun.) One example given was a manuscript that showed that the generally-accepted formula for centripetal acceleration is incorrect by a factor of 2/π. (Time code 37:00.) You would think that an error of this magnitude could be confirmed by experiment, but that never occurs to them.
  • There are crackpot conferences. (Time code 44:00.) Crackpots tend not to criticize each other's work. And there is a pecking order of crackpot specialties.

During the Q&A, a person from the audience remarked that he worked for a government agency which was required to respond to all communications, even the ones from crackpots. That must really suck.

Bonus reading: How does a layperson grab the attention of research scientists (without looking like a crazy person).

Comments (11)
  1. Joshua says:

    I was a crackpot physicist. The straw man was a high school level textbook that was very good until the last two chapters.

  2. Adam Rosenfield says:

    Doesn't the Microsoft security team have to respond to/investigate to all security issue reports, even the ones from crackpots?

    ["That must really suck." -Raymond]
  3. Katie says:

    I suspect that many of the papers in "the box" tell the reader that they need to think "outside the box."

  4. Anon says:

    @Adam

    I want to see Raymond on the Microsoft Security Team, just for the ruckus. ;-)

  5. Anon says:

    @Katie

    Everyone should keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.

  6. Gabe says:

    Apparently engineers are somewhat over-represented not just in "the box", but also among conspiracy theorists, religious nutjobs, and even terrorists.

    Has anybody put forth a theory as to why engineers are so likely to be cranks?

  7. Daniel says:

    Gabe, my theory is that engineers tend to see themselves as smarter than most other folks. I think this then leads to (a) giving way to much credit to one's own musings and (b) the suspicion that if the hoi polloi thinks a thing, it's very likely wrong.

  8. Joker_vD says:

    @Daniel: Not to mention they always work with systems that were designed. So naturally, some of them start to assume everything was rationally designed… and they are not told much of the physics anyway, but since they get the job done with it, some of them, again, start to assume that that's the actual contents of the physics, and all the extra stuff is just to be pretentious.

    Something like this, I suppose.

  9. B.Sc. Cowboy-Astronaut-Millionaire says:

    As long as we're using Fox News style anecdotal hearsay, I've heard talk that more cranks falsely claim to be Engineers/Doctors/Lone Geniuses/etc than the average number of non-cranks. I hypothesize that it is because they think doing so will bolster their first impressions and claims. I've also heard a lot of people generically slag others with university degrees. I hypothesise that in many cases it's simply because… uhh… they entered a competitive job market without one and had some hunter-gatherer competitive thing going on in their head over it. I intend to invent a machine that will prove these hypotheses AND THEN I WILL SHOW YOU ALL!!!!

  10. Ben says:

    @Daniel @Gabe

    I think it is related to the old adage that there is a fine line between genius and madness. Many engineers (and scientists for that matter) are highly creative, and a little bit mad. If we take the example of Tesla, he seemed to be truly brilliant and also a crank. Michael Shermer has a very good talk on this topic (http://www.ted.com/…/michael_shermer_the_pattern_behind_self_deception.html), and relates it to the wonder brain drug dopamine. Dopamine is what makes as creative, but too much and your crazy. There is no hard line here though, so a lot of creative intelligent people are also a little bit crazy.  

  11. Tom says:

    Yeah, um, have fun in your closed little worlds.  The crackpots are more fun to hang out with.  Long live the stupid!  Down with disease!

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