On Crackpotism and Other Things

I haven’t posted anything new here in a while, with the holidays and trying to get over a bad cold keeping me otherwise occupied. Partly because of this the comments section has been to some degree taken over by people who want to discuss things I have no interest in. I’ll try and put up something new soon (comments on Penrose’s new book), but I did want to make some remarks about the problem of crackpotism in theoretical physics, something which is especially a problem for open forums on the internet like the comment section here.

When I first started studying particle physics during the 1970s, it was pretty clear to me how to tell the difference between serious people and crackpots. The Standard Model had just recently been formulated and it had started to accumulate an impressive amount of experimental evidence in its favor. So, at least in particle theory, serious people were doing one of a small number of things. The more phenomenologically inclined were analyzing the new experimental results to see if they further validated the Standard Model, or suggesting new experiments that would test different parts of the model. More mathematically inclined sorts were trying to understand the rich structure of the model, trying to get a better grasp of its aspects that were still poorly understood. People inclined to speculation were working on ambitious extensions of the model, hoping to find something compelling that would both explain some of the model’s parameters and make new, testable predictions.

So, to my mind, crackpots were those claiming to have new ideas about particle physics, but refusing to really engage in some way with the Standard Model quantum field theory. There were plenty of them around, including S-matrix die-hards like Fritjof Capra, those who wanted to go on about what happened before the big bang and how that explained all properties of particles, and a wide variety of people with their own private TOE that completely ignored the Standard Model. All you had to do was learn to ignore such people.

During the last 20 years, distinguishing crackpots has become a lot tougher, and it has gotten much more difficult recently. Famous professors from the best research institutions in the world go on about the properties of the universe being determined by colliding branes, or by an anthropically determined point in a multiverse, or any number of similar ideas. The dominant idea in the whole field makes nothing like what would normally be considered a testable scientific prediction, and those pursuing it don’t seem too bothered by the increasing evidence that this situation will never change. Personally I haven’t much changed my criterion for crackpotism in particle physics: if someone is not engaging in a deep way with the Standard Model and/or the kind of mathematical structures it involves, they’re probably a crackpot.

When I first wrote a critical article about string theory and made it public about four years ago, I got quite a lot of reaction. Almost all of it was gratifyingly positive, but I ended up hearing from quite a few people who were convinced that since I didn’t like string theory, surely I would like their alternative. These alternatives spanned a wide range, from very serious work to complete crackpotism, including all shades of in-between. The one thing that caused me to worry that there might be something wrong with my criticisms of string theory was the nature of a small number of my supporters. Some of these people still write to me regularly, and my e-mail is full of crazier things than what appears in the comments on the weblog. It’s embarassing to get cc’d on an e-mail to a long list of very prominent physicists by someone who is quoting my criticisms of string theory to back up their own even sillier ideas.

I’ve gotten very good at hitting the delete key or, in extreme cases, using procmail to automatically filter this stuff out of my inbox. I suggest similar tactics in reading the comment section here. The first line of defense against people who you think are not making any sense is just to ignore them. Do not give in to the temptation to point out to them that they are not making sense, because all this will accomplish is to clutter things up as they respond to your response to them.

I’m not about to start just deleting comments that I think are of a crackpot nature, partly because it is now hard to set up a clear criterion for what is crackpotism (should I delete Lenny Susskind’s comments if he decides to write in some day?). But to the extent that the volume of off-topic comments starts to overwhelm those that are interesting and related to the postings, I will have to take some sort of action. If you are posting large numbers of comments, mostly far off the topic at hand, please stop doing it now. If you are responding to such off-topic comments, please stop doing that too, don’t encourage them!

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68 Responses to On Crackpotism and Other Things

  1. RT says:

    “Wolfram a great man comparable to Newton? I know that’s what he thinks and tells everyone, but really….”

    I was joking, honest (cf ‘Mathematical Humour’). An attempt to introduce a note of levity into a debate that seems only too ready to lurch into the realms of acrimony. As an engineer/applied physicist, I found Penrose’s book to be enlightening, entertaining and educational in equal measures. For what it’s worth, many of my professional colleagues regard all theoretical physicists as crackpots, and my interest in their world as a signature of senescence.

  2. Peter says:

    Wolfram a great man comparable to Newton? I know that’s what he thinks and tells everyone, but really….

    I’m still not quite up to writing about Penrose, but, no, he’s not a crackpot. He takes the standard model quite seriously, has an interesting discussion of it, and is properly skeptical about it just where it deserves skepticism (the Higgs mechanism). His speculative ideas about twistors have already had interesting implications for the standard model (in finding solutions to the Yang-Mills equations, recent “twistor-string” formulation of perturbative N=4 super Yang-Mills) and it is quite possible that more will be found.

    I should clarify something. My remarks about identifying crackpotism were specifically restricted to the subject of particle physics, where a huge amount of experimental data and a very successful theory exist. Other subjects, e.g. quantum gravity, are a whole different story, and I didn’t intend to say anything about the much more difficult question of how to identify crackpotism in that area.

  3. RT says:

    I look forward to finding out whether Sir Roger qualifies as a crackpot or not; the criteria Peter lays out seem a little stringent. And, almost without exception, great men, from Newton the alchemist to Wolfram the WANKOS, exhibited a touch of the balmpot at some point.

  4. Peter says:

    Hi Serenus,

    I don’t think that what has happened is that speculation is now encouraged, whereas it wasn’t earlier. If you try and get something published that goes against orthodoxy (as an example, let’s say you have an idea about how to make sense of theories with anomalous gauge symmetries), you’ll still have a lot of trouble with referees. All that is new is that certain outlandish speculative ideas (e.g. brane-worlds) are now part of the orthodoxy, heavily funded by the NSF and promoted by prominent theorists. As long as you stick to this particular variety of speculation, you’ll have no trouble getting all sorts of silliness published. I don’t think this is progress.

    What’s wrong with brane-world scenarios is that they are ugly and don’t actually predict or explain anything. The fact that you can work on them and have a successful career, while if you work on something less orthodox you’ll have a lot of trouble, is at the root of a lot of the problems of the field.

    Peter

  5. Quantoken says:

    Peter:

    Don’t you realize that crackpotism is a relativistic term? You call the string camp crackpotism, and they call you crackpotism. The string camp call the LQG cracks and so does LQG call the string camp. So who deserves to be the ultimate judge on this matter? Everybody? Nobody?

    It’s a relativistic term. Please do not abuse its usage. I would not use that term to criticize string theory, LQG or any theory in exploration. Certainly there do exist true crackpotisms, like perpetual motions kind of thing. Those stuff challenges well established theories and experimental evidences and are crackpots.

    On the other hand, in the field of searching for a theory that unified both GR and QM, there has not been a single winner yet. There simply hasn’t been any established theory in this area. So people from different camps really can not call each other crackpots.

    Before a clear winner is well established and well confirmed by experiments, every potential theory could potentially be right and equally potentially be wrong. The only rule is the theory must be able to arrive at known limits and agree with known and established theories, GR and QM.

    GUITAR does give the GR and QM limit and does not violate any of the established theories. It makes clear predictions that can be verified or ruled out by future experiments, predictions that is completely reachable in technology in near future. It explains a lot of things including CMB and Hubble Red Shift, and it even explains the origin of the uncertainty principle, all in a very natural way. My theory could still be wrong at the end of day but it is definitely not crackpot.

    Quantoken

  6. Serenus says:

    “Famous professors from the best research institutions in the world go on about the properties of the universe being determined by colliding branes, or by an anthropically determined point in a multiverse, or any number of similar ideas.”

    There was a time, not so long ago, when the top journals routinely rejected papers for being “speculative”. In effect, dull technical papers were preferred over anything that might look imaginative and interesting. Do you really want to return to the bad old days, Peter? I thought you only objected to the *overselling* of new ideas, but it seems that I may have been mistaken. What exactly is so awful about brane-world scenarios, as long as nobody pretends that there is observational evidence favoring them?

  7. JC says:

    I always thought that looking at crackpot “freakshows” was similar to activities like watching a car wreck and/or high speed police chases live on television. It’s a bit like the equivalent of intellectual “junk food” for the brain, and a cheap way of indulging in a schadenfreund guilty pleasure in seeing the silly depths some folks are willing to lower themselves to.

  8. Peter says:

    Marko, thanks for the new vocabulary word!

    About “Out of This World”: if I thought that my review of it was likely to cause its author to immediately write another similar one, I certainly would have thought twice before doing it.

  9. Marko says:

    I believe the term used nowadays is “psychoceramics”.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Peter, look in the mirror. You are the one posting entries on books reviews for infinitely silly books such as “Out of this World”. Why don’t you take your own advice and just ignore it?

  11. Peter says:

    I wish people would start taking my advice, which I’ll repeat here:

    “The first line of defense against people who you think are not making any sense is to just ignore them. Do not give in to the temptation to point out to them that they are not making sense, because all this will accomplish is to clutter things up as they respond to your response to them.”

  12. Anonymous says:

    I don’t suppose D.R. Lunsford will ever be banned despite his enormous arrogance in calling a *mathematical* physicist such as Witten a failure while paradoxically demonstrating his admiration for other predominantly *mathematical* physicists such as Dirac and Einstein. Those who have developed ingenious physical apparatus for experiments are not on his list, and then he has the gall to predict the decline of “western science” (whatever that is) because of its preoccupation with mathematical toys? Frankly, I don’t understand why ST was not a natural progression (eg. Lunsfords belief that it was obviously ‘horseshit’ from the outset) from the standard model (see below)

    Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell
    by A. Zee

    “It struck me as limiting that even after 75 years, the whole subject of quantum field theory rooted in this harmonic paradigm, to use a dreadfully pretentious word. We have not been able to get away from the basic notions of oscillations and wave packets. Indeed, string theory, the heir to quantum field theory, is still firmly founded on this harmonic paradigm. Surely, a brilliant young physicist, perhaps a reader of this book, will take us beyond”

  13. Anonymous says:

    “Do not give in to the temptation to point out to them they are not making sense…all this will accomplish is to clutter things up as they respond to your response to them”

    I totally agree Peter. They crave attention, good or bad. I am afraid I am guilty of having responded a couple of times this week, for which I apologise. As much as I like vigorous scientific debate, it is clear that you simply can’t have any with a crackpot at all–they are only interested in “their theory” and condemn just about everything else. I would say the difference between a real scientist/physicist and a crackpot is that the real scientist does not really believe their own ideas but treats them with a kind of playful irrelevance, and are the first to try and find fault with their own ideas. If it is right or is promising, great, if not them move onto something else. I think it is ok to work on strange stuff if you keep this sober attitude. You are trying things out a lot of the time and seeing where they might lead…if anywhere. I would hope that most string theorists have this attitude, and I think most of them do (the best ones anyway).

    Much of theoretical physics and mathematical physics is like an advanced form of play for the human mind I think, but if you get completely obsessed with an idea and start ignoring all feedback and interaction the potential for self delusion is really vast.

    The crackpot is charactersied by being totally obsessed with his ideas or one idea no matter how absurd, and absolutely nothing can convince them otherwise. They simply don’t understand how science works. Rather than work on some small problem their theories are always “revolutionary” and everyone else is wrong or has missed the point. It must be some sort of psychological condition characterised by delusions of grandeur (I have the ultimate final theory) plus paranoia (the physics establishment wants to censor me and my ideas). Theoretical physics seems to attract them.

  14. JC says:

    Peter,

    After the 1960′s, how common were the hardcore analytic S-Matrix bootstrap guys like Fritjof Capra, who did not really pay attention to the Veneziano string stuff?

    When I was bored one afternoon, I decided to go through several old journals searching for analytic S-Matrix bootstrap papers during the 1970′s and 80′s. The one thing I noticed was that there were less and less equations in those bootstrap papers as time went on. Many of Geoff Chew’s later papers seem to be devoid of equations, especially in his “topological” bootstrap stuff from the late 1970′s and early 1980′s. At that point Chew could possibly be certified as a genuine “crackpot”.

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