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  Topic: Crank spotting...< Next Oldest | Next Newest >  

Posts: 80
Joined: Nov. 2005

(Permalink) Posted: Nov. 22 2005,10:51   

I was reading a review of Stephen Wolfram's book "A New Kind Of Science" this evening - the reviewer, who appears to be very well connected in the areas of mathematics concerned, subtitled the review "A Rare Blend of Monster Raving Egomania and Utter Batshit Insanity" which may spare those with no interest in such things the need to read either review or book. (Give the review a go, though. It's worth it, and at least a thousand pages shorter - and it also touches on the abuse of complexity as a mathematical concept).

However, as one might suspect, anything which concentrates on monster raving egomania and utter batshit insanity contains irresistible parallels with certain topics and beloved people closer to the world of the Thumb. I was particularly taken with the following passage, which contains itself a further reference that I will follow up: (can't seem to make nested quotes work here, so forgive the unorthogonal redaction)

"Let me try to sum up. On the one hand, we have a large number of true but commonplace ideas, especially about how simple rules can lead to complex outcomes, and about the virtues of toy models. On the other hand, we have a large mass of dubious speculations (many of them also unoriginal). We have, finally, a single new result of mathematical importance, which is not actually the author's. Everything is presented as the inspired fruit of a lonely genius, delivering startling insights in isolation from a blinkered and philistine scientific community. We have been this way before.

[Some cranks] are brilliant and well-educated, often with an excellent understanding of the branch of science in which they are speculating. Their books can be highly deceptive imitations of the genuine article well-written and impressively learned....
[C]ranks work in almost total isolation from their colleagues. Not isolation in the geographical sense, but in the sense of having no fruitful contacts with fellow researchers.... The modern pseudo-scientist... stands entirely outside the closely integrated channels through which new ideas are introduced and evaluated. He works in isolation. He does not send his findings to the recognized journals, or if he does, they are rejected for reasons which in the vast majority of cases are excellent. In most cases the crank is not well enough informed to write a paper with even a surface resemblance to a significant study. As a consequence, he finds himself excluded from the journals and societies, and almost universally ignored by competent workers in the field..... The eccentric is forced, therefore, to tread a lonely way. He speaks before organizations he himself has founded, contributes to journals he himself may edit, and until recently publishes books only when he or his followers can raise sufficient funds to have them printed privately.

Thus Martin Gardner's classic description of the crank scientist in the first chapter of his Fads and Fallacies. In lieu of superfluous comments, let us pass on to Gardner's list of the "five ways in which the sincere pseudo-scientist's paranoid tendencies are likely to be exhibited."

He considers himself a genius.
He regards his colleagues, without exception, as ignorant blockheads. Everyone is out of step except himself....
He believes himself unjustly persecuted and discriminated against....
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-symbol of authority, a crank theory of physics is likely to attack Einstein in the name of Newton....
He often has a tendency to write in a complex jargon, in many cases making use of terms and phrases he himself has coined...."

Now, that's all terribly familiar, wouldn't you say? I can even propose a test for this apparent similarity: if the half-life of this post when copied over to Dembski's blog is greater than, oh, 450 nanoseconds, then I'm thinking up the wrong tree...


Uncle Joe and Aunty Mabel
Fainted at the breakfast table
Children, let this be a warning
Never do it in the morning -- Ralph Vaughan Williams


Posts: 234
Joined: Sep. 2005

(Permalink) Posted: Nov. 22 2005,11:27   

Ol' Wolfram gave a talk at Caltech a few years ago.  After his spiel, which was interesting, no doubt, a panel of prominent Caltech scientists on stage discussed the possibility of A New Kind of Science being some sort of paradigm shift.  All gave a short, well thought out answer to the question.  Each trying as politely as possible to say "no" to Wolfram in front of a large audience.  Wolfram replied, "If this is a paradigm shift then you answered exactly as you should have."  A quick thinking professor (Dr. John Preskill) replied "If this isn't a paradigm shift then we answered exactly as we should have."  The whole auditorium laughed as they shuffled out.

Afterwards, I saw a sign-up for some sort of Wolfram bootcamp for graduate students.  *sigh*


  1 replies since Nov. 22 2005,10:51 < Next Oldest | Next Newest >  


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