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In Physics, Telling Cranks from Experts Ain’t Easy

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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All science writers, especially those of us who cover particle physics and other fields that purport to reveal ultimate reality, hear from cranks. Pre-email, I got envelopes stuffed with manuscripts, sometimes hundreds of pages long, from people unaffiliated with any research institution known to me. Some letters were so baroque—the text hand-written in shifting scripts and colors, veering between technical and mystical arcana, adorned with fantastical diagrams—that their authors had to be floridly psychotic. Lucid or not, the writers invariably wanted to inform me of a revolutionary new theory that would solve the mystery of, well, everything. If I helped reveal this Truth to the world, I could share the glory!

A couple of decades ago, I made the mistake of faxing an ironic response to what I thought was an ironic faxed letter. The writer—let’s call him Tachyon Tad—had “discovered” a new physics, one that allowed for faster-than-light travel. In my reply, I told Tad that if he built a warp-drive spaceship, I’d love to hitch a ride. Dumb joke. For months, my fax machine churned out sheets covered with Tad’s dense elaborations of his theory and plans for a superluminal machine.

After that, I simply chucked cranky letters. What else was I supposed to do? I had neither the time nor wherewithal to find the flaws in their logic, any more than I could double-check the math that yields, say, quantum electro-dynamics or some spiffy new variant thereof. As a mere journalist, I relied on experts to do that for me, especially ones at fancy institutions like Caltech and Cambridge, who presumably had been thoroughly vetted. My job isn’t to uncover scientific truth, I told myself, but to report on what professional scientists think the truth is.

But cranks have always haunted me. Who, I wondered, are these people, toiling in feverish obscurity over their wildly ambitious theories? And how could I be so sure that Tad, say, is not a loon but a genius? Couldn’t he (and almost all the cranks who write me are male) be the real deal? What is the difference, really, between cranks and experts? Just as experts are often wrong, can’t cranks occasionally be right?

My friend Margaret Wertheim, an Australian-born science writer who unlike me has a degree in physics, couldn’t set these questions aside. In the early 1990s, she began collecting manuscripts from “outsiders,” as she calls them, and even corresponding with them. In 1995, when she was in Tacoma, Washington, to give a talk, she drove 30 miles to a trailer park perched on the edge of the Green River Gorge. There she met Jim Carter, owner of the trailer park, whose lavishly illustrated manuscript on “circlon synchronicity” had captured Wertheim’s imagination. (See the image above for an example of Carter’s graphic talent.) Carter’s theory, which began germinating in him when he was still a teenager in the early 1960s, explained all the “mysteries and paradoxes that have plagued physical science for centuries,” as he put it, in terms of circlons, which are springs made of smaller springs.

Carter turned out to be not a reclusive schizophrenic but a charming, ruggedly handsome husband and father. A self-taught jack of all trades, he was a former abalone diver, meteorite-hunter, gold miner and inventor. His most successful creation was the “lift bag,” an inflatable device with which the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard and salvage companies resurrect sunken objects. To provide experimental evidence of his circlon theory, Carter cobbled together three trash cans, rubber sheets and a disco smoke machine into a contraption for blowing smoke rings. The experiment worked.

In her immensely entertaining new book Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything (Walker & Company), Wertheim tells the tale of Carter, who became her close friend, and embeds it within a history of outsider physics. She traces the phenomenon back deep into the 19th century, when the British mathematician Augustus De Morgan collected hundreds of examples of “paradoxers,” whom he defined as people who held views “apart from the general opinion” in science, mathematics and other fields. Just as modern cranks often declare that Einstein was wrong, so did 19th-century paradoxers tout the superiority of their ideas to those of Newton.

De Morgan pointed out that some paradoxers were mainstream figures. “From the ridiculous to the sublime is but a step,” De Morgan commented. “Which is the sublime, and which the ridiculous, every one must settle for himself.” The 17th-century scholar John Wilkins, a master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and a founder of the Royal Society, speculated that wild geese were capable of flying to the moon. Newton, the supreme embodiment of scientific reason, filled his notebooks with all manner of wacky theological and alchemical conjectures.

Unfair, you say, to judge past masters from our modern vantage point? Some giants of 20th-century science were cranky, too, even by standards of their time. The famously hard-nosed quantum theorist Wolfgang Pauli was fascinated by extrasensory perception and other paranormal phenomena. The chemist Linus Pauling spent his final decades insisting, in the face of strong counter-evidence, that massive doses of vitamin C could treat a wide range of disorders, from colds to cancer. (My mother, a Pauling devotee, doled out huge vitamin C pills to me and my siblings in the late 1960s.)

My favorite modern paradoxer was the British astronomer Fred Hoyle, who coined the term “big bang” (although he loathed the theory) and helped elucidate how light elements fuse into heavy ones in the cores of stars. He once tried to convince me that the AIDS virus was a U.S. military experiment that had gone awry, and that flu viruses came from outer space. To paraphrase Alexander Solzhenitsyn: The line between brilliance and looniness runs through every great scientist’s brain.

Great scientists are great because they discern patterns in the flux of nature that elude us ordinary mortals; we should not be surprised when some patterns turn out to be illusory. Indeed, whole fields can descend into crankiness. Wertheim serves up her philosophical punch line toward the end of her book, when she turns her attention to mainstream physics and cosmology. She shares my sense that some popular suppositions—notably the notion that reality consists of extremely tiny strings wriggling in hyperspaces of a dozen or more dimensions, or that our universe is just one of an infinite number of universes—verge on pseudoscience, because they are even less experimentally testable than Jim Carter’s circlon theory.

Wertheim calls a 2003 conference on string theory and cosmology “by far the most surreal physics event I have ever been to.” She likens it to “a sugar-fueled children’s birthday party or the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party,” with each presenter floating speculations that everyone else considered to be “unsupported by evidence and based entirely on arbitrary assumptions.” Far from fringe figures, the attendees included Stephen Hawking of Cambridge, Brian Greene of Columbia, Lisa Randall of Harvard and other stars of modern physics.

On the other hand, Wertheim is gently, affectionately skeptical of the outsider physicists, too. In the 1990s, she notes, Jim Carter and other outsiders formed an organization, the Natural Philosophy Alliance, which hosts events and maintains a Web site where, as Wertheim puts it, outsiders “can publish their ideas without fear of censure.” When Wertheim attended an NPA meeting in Grand Junction, Colorado, it reminded her of The Three Christs of Ypsilanti (1964) by the psychiatrist Milton Rokeach. The book describes an experiment in which three schizophrenic patients, each of whom believed he was Christ, were introduced to each other in a mental hospital in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Each concluded that the others were crazy.

Watching presenters at the Grand Junction meeting, Wertheim comments , was like “watching thirty Jesus Christs. Everybody had the Answer. Everbody was the One.” Yet given how far mainstream physics has drifted from empirical evidence, she suggests, perhaps we should judge all physics theories by their beauty, elegance and craftsmanship. And just as the art world occasionally embraces outsiders who lack formal training, so perhaps physics—and physics writers—should look more favorably upon the imaginings of autodidacts like Jim Carter.

So what do I do with my crank—I mean, outsider—mail now? As it happens, a couple are sitting in my inbox. One claims to have predicted the recent report (which I bet will not hold up) that neutrinos travel faster than light. Echoes of my old friend Tachyon Tad! I wish I could say I read these letters carefully, appreciating their unique aesthetic qualities, but I don’t. I still just delete them. I’m too busy working on my own fringe theories to help others with theirs.

[Author's note: This column is adapted from an essay published last month in The Chronicle of Higher Education.]

[Additional author's note: The spelling of "Ypsilanti" has been corrected.]

John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. McSkeptic 8:57 am 12/12/2011

    Re: “The Three Christs of Ypsilante” and “Ypsilante, Michigan.” The correct spelling of both the book title and the city is “Ypsilanti” I should know, I was born there and until recently I resided there.

    I have book entitled “Whitman World Library Astronomy” that I received as a Christmas gift in the early ’60s. Inside, the there is an illustration of a man trying to fly to the moon by attaching a kite-like frame to swans and geese. It was inspired by “The Story of Dominic Gonzales,” written by Francis Godwin in 1683.

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  2. 2. siddhartha 10:50 am 12/12/2011

    “…perhaps we should judge all physics theories by their beauty, elegance and craftsmanship”. No. Physics theories should be judged by (i) how well they agree with experimental results, (ii) how well they make testable predictions, and (iii) how accurate their predictions turn out to be when tested.

    I hypothesize that the vast majority of the outsiders you write about are theorists, not experimentalists. “The line between brilliance and looniness” does not run through every great scientist’s brain – only the theorists. Experimentalists are grounded in reality.

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  3. 3. bigbopper 10:55 am 12/12/2011

    Eventually a difference will become evident: the crank’s theories never gain any traction whereas the genuine physicist’s theories eventually do. That’s because the ultimate arbiter is Nature her (him) self. If a physicist has promulgated a valid theory, this is another way of saying that she has correctly described some segment of Nature, and the experimental evidence for same will eventually be forthcoming. Unless the crank by some quirk happens to be correct (presumably for all the wrong reasons), what this means is that she is incorrectly describing Nature, or describing an alternate form of Nature which does not actually exist, and it will not be possible to generate valid experimental confirmation.

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  4. 4. Cogitari 12:13 pm 12/12/2011

    I agree with siddhartha, identifying crank ideas are easy if you know the subject: they either disagree with experimental results or do not predict anything.

    Non-predictive theories are not science to begin with. I think of them as badminton for the brain: fun and good exercise, but do not do anything useful. Offbeat ideas: ideas which are alternative explanations for experimental observations, on the other hand, tend to be dismissed all too easily. This is the place where “peer review”, review by established scientists, tends to break down. As John Horgan points out, it takes much effort to analyse whether an idea is actually valid and useful and most people do not want to take the time to evaluate other people’s. They want other people to evaluate theirs.

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  5. 5. idurham 1:50 pm 12/12/2011

    You don’t have to be a science journalist with a well-known magazine to get this stuff. Whoever is chair of my very small physics department at an obscure New England liberal arts college (presently me, lucky guy that I am) gets piles of this. I get double (or actually triple) the fun since I also have a blog and I edit an APS newsletter.

    With that said, I also have tried to communicate with some of these folks with little success. However, as your story points out, not all of them are necessarily nuts. The problem is that modern physics – and science in general, to some extent – has lost its way a bit. It used to be that we were aiming to figure out how the universe works in as simple and unified a way as possible. Now it seems we are more interested in the structure of the theory itself than in its applicability to reality. Unfortunately this also makes it difficult for outsiders to understand just how science is supposed to work.

    Finally – and I mean no offense to science journalism by this – the publicity given to string theory over the past fifteen years has not helped. There’s a lot of fascinating and interesting work being done by a lot of great thinkers outside of string theory. But the string theorists (and to some extent cosmologists) are the ones who get most of the headlines and tend to dominate the TV shows. For instance, I’d love to see Anton Zeilinger host a TV show.

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  6. 6. zeynel 11:14 pm 12/12/2011

    “…perhaps we should judge all physics theories by their beauty, elegance and craftsmanship”

    I proposed years ago that it was about time to divide physics like art into two distinct sections as “physics” and “fine physics”. Fine physics will not be bound with any kind of standard of evidence. If anyone is interested the post is here:

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  7. 7. Infinoe 6:26 am 12/13/2011

    With due respect, the very fact of submitting a manuscript to a person who is naturally unprepared to make fully professional and insightful judgements but only to make bets at various theories to hold up or not, may be a sign of naivety or low self-esteem. Besides journalists, even the luminaries of science are not always objective and can be called Bradyon Brads when heavily biased with their own official theories.

    On the other hand, I can understand many of the amateur (and professional) freethinkers because the mainstream physics today is riddled with almost schizophrenic gaps and inconsistencies. Some established attempts to fill up those gaps are notoriously flawed with quasi-logic and pseudo-mathematics. Fields like string theory are at least formally sound, some other offbeat conjectures still cannot find a refutation. How popular was the idea of heavier-than-air machines flying some 150 years ago?

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  8. 8. Sterndorf 10:43 pm 12/13/2011

    Nice article.
    Thank you John.

    I have to support “siddhartha’s” comment above –

    “Physics theories should be judged by
    (i) how well they agree with experimental results,
    (ii) how well they make testable predictions, and
    (iii) how accurate their predictions turn out to be when tested.”

    In this vein, I’ve been enjoying using the “Hyper-Certainty Principle” where “data quality and quantity is inversely related to advocacy certainty and ferocity.” This means the less and worse data available – the more certain the advocacy and Zero data inspires huge certainty and advocacy.

    I guess the short version is — “Where’s the Beef?”

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  9. 9. waltond 4:40 pm 12/15/2011

    I think describing string theory as “surreal” displays a profound ignorance not only of physics, but of philosophy in general. String theory is a mathematically consistent picture of the natural world which must be taken seriously.

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  10. 10. hungry doggy 4:58 pm 12/15/2011

    Nice essay. Years ago I worked in the engineering department of a Fortune 500 company. One of my dutues was to review the many unsolicited inventions that people sent to the company. I felt sorry for the inventors. The ideas were unusable but the inventors were mostly sincere people.

    It seems to me that a lot of modern physics is more philosophy than science. Some of it (like an 11 dimension universe) might someday conceivably be confirmed by experimental evidence. But the multi-verse or the many universes hypothesis – is that really science or is that philosophy?

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  11. 11. drelliot 4:34 pm 12/18/2011

    The supreme irony of our age is that the crackpots have been institutionalized in academia.

    Do not take my word for it, but read the Nobel Laureates’ thoughts on String Theory, which are suppressed in the books of Michio Kaku and Brian Greene:

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  12. 12. drelliot 4:47 pm 12/18/2011

    Major blogs including those at Ivy League Universities regularly and actively delete the following quotes from the Great Physicists:

    “But before mankind could be ripe for a science which takes in the whole of reality, a second fundamental truth was needed, which only became common property among philosophers with the advent of Kepler and Galileo. Pure logical thinking cannot yield us any knowledge of the empirical world; all knowledge of reality starts from experience and ends in it. (Yes! Moving dimensions theory begins in experience–the double slit experiment, entropy, relativity, nonlocality, time and all it arrows and asymmetries, and it ends in experience, by providing a physical model predicting all these entities!) Propositions arrived at by purely logical means (String theory, loop quantum gravity (which might not even use logic)) are completely empty as regards reality. Because Galileo saw this, and particularly because he drummed it into the scientific world, he is the father of modern physics—indeed, of modern science altogether. -Einstein[i], Ideas and Opinions

    Einstein’s above quote is quite prominent in its complete absence from today’s leading “physics” books and blogs, as are many of the Greats’ quotes below, wherein the Greats define what science is and ought to be–wherein they define what science has ever been. Einstein states that, “all knowledge of reality starts from experience and ends in it,” and a glaring problem with string theory is that nobody has ever seen a tiny little string (and thus ST does not begin in experience), nor measured one, nor conceived of an experiment that would allow us to see strings (and thus ST does not, and cannot end in experience either). Nor has anyone ever seen a multiverse, nor come up with a way of measuring or detecting multiverses. Nor has anyone ever come across any of the tiny, little loops of loop quantum gravity, nor any way to detect nor measure tiny little loops. So it is that all these non-theories begin in the imagination, and end in it. One will hear their proponents singing of the great beauty of their theories, but then, when one asks them for the fundamental equation, they are unable to produce any. Indeed, it turns out there are millions of equivalent non-theories with various amounts of dimensions, with ever-changing math which never adds up to predict anything we see in physical reality. In that sense, the theories are actually quite ugly. Especially when compared to the simple beauty of Moving Dimensions Theory’s simple, fundamental, far-ranging equation, dx4/dt=ic, which predicts nonlocality, entanglement (the fundamental characteristic of QM according to Schrodenger), entropy, time and all its arrows and asymmetries, and from which all of relativity is derived. dx4/dt=ic is more fundamental than relativity’s two physical postualtes, as both of relativity’s postulates arise from it.


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  13. 13. drelliot 5:01 pm 12/18/2011

    In many ways Galileo had it easy, because at least the Inquisition in his day wasn’t posing as physicists interested in science.

    And Max Planck had it easy too, as he noted, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

    But in Plancks’ time, the opponents were generally a generation of successful scientists who had risen to the pinnacles of their profession via science–not by multiverse politics. So today’s non-opponents of MDT are anti-theorists bolstered by state-funded crackpot indexes and anthropic principle politics–”we have tenure/funding because we are smarter than you because if we weren’t smarter than you, we wouldn’t have tenure/funding. Ergo we are smarter than you,” is what they announce at their lavish conferences, reformulating the anthropic principle to fit the latest “flavor of the week” of their unchanging anti-theory regimes, which have frozen physics in a block universe.

    Max Born wrote, “All great discoveries in experimental physics have been made due to the intuition of men who made free use of models which for them were not products of the imagination but representations of real things.”

    And yet, today, the quantum gravity regimes have rejected simple physical models along with the belief that the math ought represent *real* things. And now, they are even willing to forget time, space, reason, words, dialogue, physics, and physicists–to keep their perpetual motion funding apparati moving–even as time remains frozen. But there is no graviton, nor any consistent theory of quantum gravity. Instead, there are literally an infinite number of string theories, and a fair amount of loop-quantum theories, none of which quantize gravity in any finite, consistent way; let alone in any way that makes predictions that can be tested. There is no proof whatsover for tiny, vibrating strings, nor atoms of space and time, nor twistors, nor tiny little loops, nor multiverses, nor hyperspace, nor parallel universes, nor bouncing universes.

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  14. 14. drelliot 6:33 pm 12/18/2011

    Dear waltond,

    You write,
    “4:40 pm 12/15/2011
    I think describing string theory as “surreal” displays a profound ignorance not only of physics, but of philosophy in general. String theory is a mathematically consistent picture of the natural world which must be taken seriously.”

    Can you please share with us the Mathematical equations of string theory? Thanks!

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  15. 15. iWind 2:56 pm 12/31/2011

    Haha, telling an expert may not be easy, but sometimes it’s very easy to spot a crank. :)

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  16. 16. newtspeare 8:31 pm 01/15/2012

    All physicists seem convinced that atoms are just collections of protons, neutrons and electrons. This is understandable as there is masses of evidence in favour of the theory and none against.

    Mainstream fantasists like Hawking, may well be enamoured with string theory; but there are at least a some sceptics in the physics community who concur with Feynman’s “I do feel strongly that this is nonsense”.

    The real problem with modern physics, is that everybody seems to think that quark theory belongs in the same category as atomic theory, when actually it is unfalsifiable nonsense like string theory.

    In quark theory, different particles, with very different masses, can be assumed to be made of the same three quarks. Hence the theory makes no testable predictions about particle masses, so is effectively unfalsifiable. On my ‘Squish Theory’ website I describe a proper particle theory, which could be verified with accurate measurements of particle masses.

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  17. 17. Torbjörn Larsson, OM 2:36 pm 01/26/2012

    I pitch in with siddhartha. Another problem with this article is that it throws everything in a bin called “cranks”, whether it is crankhood, pseudoscience, pathological science or argued science.

    String theory and multiverses are argued, not pseudoscience. And Horgan doesn’t seem to know that they have both been falsifiable for a long time.

    String theory from the get go, predicting observed flux tubes and later black hole entropy, both of which happens to be predicted by simpler theory. (Though QCD predicted flux tubes one year _after_ string theory did it as the first theory.) Today supernova photon timing and polarization observations probes the very Planck scale where string theory lives and is latest testable.

    Multiverses since Weinberg’s prediction of the cc based on multiverse selection. Today Bousso et al have extende this with 5 other correct predictions. It is doing better than any alternatives, say TOEs.

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  18. 18. Torbjörn Larsson, OM 2:40 pm 01/26/2012

    @ newtspare: The Standard Model predicts quark masses..

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  19. 19. newtspeare 6:45 pm 05/1/2012

    @ Torbjorn Larsson The page you refer to, is not about the measured masses of real particles, it is about the imagined masses of imaginary beings called quarks. The page might be of great interest quarkologists, but it has no relevance to the real world, because the masses of quarks cannot be measured.

    If you look at the comments on the page, you will see people pointing out that the maths just does not add up. This is because, although particles like protons, neutrons and lambdas, are believed to be made from 3 quarks; most of their mass is supposed to be accounted for by massless gluons. It is not so much a fudge factor, it is more that the whole thing is a fudge; so that physicists can award quarks whatever masses they choose, and nobody can gainsay them, because the theory makes no experimentally testable predictions.

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  20. 20. c.stoffel50 11:59 pm 05/1/2012

    Nice, perceptive article. But ‘outsiders’ don’t necessarily propose crank ideas, and academic ‘insiders’ sometimes do. Since modern physics has blurred the line with philosophy/ontology it is conceivable that ‘outsiders’ can contribute new insights that can clarify current puzzles rather than predict new results. Since the puzzles of modern physics are so great (photon as wave and as particle), perhaps our problem lies in our conceptual foundations and not in our experiments.
    Elsewhere about wave-particle duality John you wrote (about signal and idler photons): “The answer is that the observer’s potential knowledge has changed.” That inference is unwarranted (and verges on idealism), esp. considering we don’t have a clear understanding of the photon. Experimentation on the photon will not reveal much more than we already know (and that Bohr asserted): we can make it appear as particle or as wave depending upon how we interact with it and how many filters we pass it through (a photon takes all paths!).
    So there is a point where experimentation fails to advance our understanding and where perhaps philosophical and ontological ideas can help us. Although I do not agree with all of its ideas, one site that offers some ‘outsider’ but not ‘crank’ ideas can be found by googling ‘Einsteins Method’. It suggests that the potential nature you attribute to human knowledge actually resides with the photon: the photon has kinetic energy but waveform potential mass (which determines its potential/probable space crossover) while the massy particle has kinetic mass but field form potential energy (which determines its potential/probable [radiation] crossover). Crackpot, or insightful? Hard to tell these days…

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  21. 21. ScienceMethod 9:41 am 09/11/2012

    I wonder if a desire to distinguish people, rather than ideas, comes from an inability or unwillingness to investigate ideas.

    While I enjoyed your musing on this topic John, I need to ask is it important to distinguish people, or instead is it only necessary to distinguish the merit of ideas?

    I don’t think you’d call Newton a derogatory name because he studied alchemy trying to find a way to convert lead into gold. I certainly don’t.

    Newton’s ideas on gravity were undeniably valuable. What possible gain of knowledge would anyone have for calling him a disparaging name for pursuing a silly idea or two ?

    I’ve found that a solid grounding in identifying logical fallacies allows fairly easy identification of “incomplete” science ideas.

    -David Dilworth

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