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Is how to engage with the crackpot at the scientific meeting an ethical question?

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

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There’s scientific knowledge. There are the dedicated scientists who make it, whether laboring in laboratories or in the fields, fretting over data analysis, refereeing each other’s manuscripts or second-guessing themselves.

And, well, there are some crackpots.

I’m not talking dancing-on-the-edge-of-the-paradigm folks, nor cheaters who seem to be on a quest for fame or profit. I mean the guy who has the wild idea for revolutionizing field X that actually is completely disconnected from reality.

Generally, you don’t find too much crackpottery in the scientific literature, at least not when peer review is working as it’s meant to. The referees tend to weed it out. Perhaps, as has been suggested by some critics of peer review, referees also weed out cutting edge stuff because it’s just so new and hard to fit into the stodgy old referees’ picture of what counts as well-supported by the evidence, or consistent with our best theories, or plausible. That may just be the price of doing business. One hopes that, eventually, the truth will out.

But where you do see a higher proportion of crackpottery, aside from certain preprint repositories, is at meetings. And there, face to face with the crackpot, the gate-keepers may behave quite differently than they would in an anonymous referee’s report.

Doctor Crackpot gives a talk intended to show his brilliant new solution to a nagging problem with an otherwise pretty well established theoretical approach. Jaws drop as the presentation proceeds. Then, finally, as Doctor Crackpot is aglow with the excitement of having broken the wonderful news to his people, he entertains questions.

Crickets chirp. Members of the audience look at each other nervously.

Doctor Hardass, who has been asking tough questions of presenters all day, tentatively asks a question about the mathematics of this crackpot “solution”. The other scholars in attendance inwardly cheer, thinking, “In about 10 seconds Doctor Hardass will have demonstrated to Doctor Crackpot that this could never work! Then Doctor Crackpot will back away from this ledge and reconsider!”

Ten minutes later, Doctor Crackpot is still writing equations on the board, and Doctor Hardass has been reduced to saying, “Uh huh …” Scholars start sneaking out as the chirping of the crickets competes with the squeaking of the chalk.

Granted, no one wants to hurt Doctor Crackpot’s feelings. If it’s a small enough meeting, you all probably had lunch with him, maybe even drinks the night before. He seems like a nice guy. He doesn’t seem dangerously disconnected from reality in his everyday interactions, just dangerously disconnected from reality in the neighborhood of this particular scientific question. And, as he’s been toiling in obscurity at a little backwater institution, he’s obviously lonely for scientific company and conversation. So, calling him out as a crackpot seems kind of mean.

But … it’s also a little mean not to call him out. It can feel like you’re letting him wander through the scientific community with the equivalent of spinach in his teeth while trailing toilet paper from his shoe if you leave him with the impression that his revolutionary idea has any merit. Someone has to set this guy straight … right? If you don’t, won’t he keep trying to sell this crackpot idea at future meetings?

For what it’s worth, as someone who attends philosophy conferences as well as scientific ones (plus an interesting assortment of interdisciplinary conferences of various sorts), I can attest that there is the occasional crackpot presentation from a philosopher. However, the push-back from the philosophers during the Q&A seemed much more vigorous, and seemed also to reflect a commitment that the crackpot presenter could be led back to reality if only he would listen to the reasoned arguments presented to him by the audience.

In theory, you’d expect to see the same kind of commitment among scientists: if we can agree upon the empirical evidence and seriously consider each other’s arguments about the right theoretical framework in which to interpret it, we should all end up with something like agreement on our account of the world. Using the same sorts of knowledge-building strategies, the same standards of evidence, the same logical machinery, we should be able to build knowledge about the world that holds up against tests to which others subject it — and, we should welcome that testing, since the point of all this knowledge-building is not to win the argument but to build an account that gets the world right.

In theory, the scientific norms of universalism and organized skepticism would ensure that all scientific ideas (including the ones that are en face crackpot ideas) get a fair hearing, but that this “fair hearing” include rigorous criticism to sort out the ideas worthy of further attention. (These norms would also remind scientists that any member of the scientific community has the potential to be the source of a fruitful idea, or of a crackpot idea.)

In practice, though, scientists pick their battles, just like everyone else. If your first ten-minute attempt at reaching a fellow scientist with rigorous criticism shows no signs of succeeding, you might just decide it’s too big a job to tackle before lunch. If repeated engagements with a fellow scientist suggest that he seems not to comprehend the arguments against his pet theory — and maybe that he doesn’t fully grok how the rest of the community understands the standards and strategies for scientific knowledge-building — you may have to make a calculation about whether bringing him back to the fold is a better use of your time and effort than, say, putting more time into your own research, or offering critiques to scientists who seem to understand them and take them seriously.

This is a sensible way to get through a day which seems to have too few hours for all the scientific knowledge-building there is to do, but it might have an impact on whether the scientific community functions in the way that best supports the knowledge-building project.

In the continuum of “scientific knowledge”, on whose behalf scientists are sworn to uphold standards and keep out the dross, where do meetings fall? Do the scientists in attendance have any ethical duty to give their candid assessments of crackpottery to the crackpots? Or is it OK to just snicker about it at the bar? If there’s no obligation to call the crackpot out, does that undermine the value of meetings as sources of scientific knowledge, or of the scientific communications needed to build scientific knowledge?

Could a rational decision not to engage with crackpots in one’s scientific community (because the return on the effort invested is likely to be low) morph into avoidance of other scientists with weird ideas that actually have something to them? Could it lead to avoidance of serious engagement with scientists one thinks are mistaken when it might take serious effort to spell out the nature of the mistakes?

And is there any obligation from the scientific community either to accept the crackpots as fully part of the community (meaning that their ideas and their critiques of the ideas of other ought to be taken seriously), or else to be honest with them that, while they may subscribe to the same journals and come to the same meetings, the crackpots are Not Our Kind, Dear?

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

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

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  1. 1. Jennifer Ouellette 1:25 pm 05/31/2012

    The American Physical Society has a policy whereby any member in good standing has the right to present a paper at a meeting. Which means they get their fair share of crackpot submissions. The solution is usually to pile them all into a “General Physics” session — code for “crackpot.” :) Other meeting participants often attend this session just for the entertainment value. And that is a third option to ignoring and trying to help — a less kind/forgiving one: Public ridicule. It’s hard not to feel sorry for the man who is earnestly trying to demonstrate that the universe is made up not of atoms, but of tiny styrofoam balls, while the audience laughs uproariously. I confess to having mixed feelings about it.

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  2. 2. greg_t_laden 3:24 pm 05/31/2012

    This is not much of a problem in Anthropology because it is impossible to tell the crackpots from the brilliant scholars.

    But seriously, what does happen in the fields of archaeology and paleo, not covered here so perhaps a bit OT, is the person who shows up at detrimental or institutional talks (generally on a regular basis) with very long questions from the Stratosphere, and the person who shows up at departmetns or museums with objects of interest which are not really of interest.

    In the former case, the situation is similar to what you discuss here, and the range of possible reaction similar as well. BTW, if you are giving a talk at a regular session that is semi-public, follow your hosts’s lead. I used to co-run a talk that was open to the public at the MCZ to which the same individual would come with his Question from the Stratosphere (which always included one useful thing but took 10minutes). My strategy was to pick who was asking the questions, not letting the guest do this. Then I could avoid this particular individual until the end, and then cut off his question politely after the interesting part and get a quick answer from the guest, then off to the beer hall. If he asked his question first, there went the entire session. We all wanted to be nice, he was nice, but he had this difficulty.

    People showing up with objects is very interesting, one of the great benefits of being an archaeologist linked to a museum. My best Shrunken Head story ever comes from such an event. People might be surprised as to how many Egyptian Mummy Heads are out there in general circulation. But now and then there is the person with a rock that looks and acts like a normal rock but that this one person receives messages from.

    Good to be familiar with the people to call who can help. A lot of the people we are talking about are people who need some sort of help.

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  3. 3. Glendon Mellow 5:16 pm 05/31/2012

    Similar to Jennifer Ouellette’s comment, when we were in art class crits (discussing each other’s work and if it had merit) my friends and I used a bit of code to nod to each other if the work was terrible: we’d say “I like your use of colour”.

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  4. 4. Bill Noble 6:24 pm 05/31/2012

    Two key considerations seem unaddressed here: (1) How do you propose distinguishing crackpot ideas from *other* crackpot ideas such as plate tectonics, heliocentrism, or evolution through natural selection? (2) How do you “regulate” heterodoxy to maximize yield from new, uncomfortable or confusing ideas, and minimize crackpot investment. Too strong a community consensus in a field can easily extinguish new, valuable ideas, and often does. Too weak control can damage the standing of the entire field (see Greg’s remark).

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  5. 5. geojellyroll 6:39 pm 05/31/2012

    After 35 years in geology I can’t say I really encounter crackpots at actual ‘science’ meetings. A crackpot wouldn’t make into publication or on to the agenda to speak at a conference. There are certainly whacko personalities but their science is within acceptable methodology.

    98% of geologists work outside of academia so they wouldn’t last in the ‘real world’. They aren’t playing with their own millions of investment dollars.

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  6. 6. r0b3m4n 6:39 pm 05/31/2012

    And that’s why this web site needs the ability to rate user commments (and hence we can apply next to the users names an avg “grade” of community acceptance – same thing for blog authors, etc.)

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  7. 7. priddseren 6:46 pm 05/31/2012

    Who is to determine what is a crackpot theory? Global warming certainly is crackpot it is not based on anything real yet it is promoted as if it is biblical fact not to be questioned. Worse, the warmist theories of outcomes of simultaneous Armageddon by freezing, burning, drowning and war are also crackpot theories.

    How about Clovis first? The “fact” of the theory of Clovis people being the first in America was taken as “fact” for decades and anyone who pointed out the evidence that indicated this was not true were called crackpots until a few years ago.

    So called global warming deniers are called crack pots when the real data shows at best we don’t know what is going on. So this begs the question how can both warmists and deniers be crackpots, someone is actually right and as my Clovis first examples demonstrate, who is right is not determined by vote or consensus. Since it used to be the consensus Clovis was first.

    Bottom line is every theory should be questioned good or bad and when the bad ones are found they should be put aside but not discarded because sometimes one of those crackpot theories turns out to be real and it is better to deal with 99 crackpot theories that fail and catch the important one instead of just discarding 100 theories.

    I would also point out there is no way to develop some fail safe method of evaluation to declare what is or is not a crackpot theory. Maybe it would work for most theories but the entire point of something new is that is is unknown, which implies an impossibility for an evaluation method to anticipate all possible unknown factors that might become part of a theory in the future.

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  8. 8. jctyler 9:23 pm 05/31/2012

    Galileo was for a quite a while considered a crackpot by the establishment of the time. priddseren (message nr 7) is a well-known crackpot (read his eminently entertaining comments on many SciAm climate articles). Hence priddseren sees himself in Galileo’s camp, a spiritual kinship strengthened by Galileo’s patronage of the fight against an Australian carbon tax. Therefore priddseren = Galileo = priddseren not crackpot. (This logic is based on priddserentology, a philological concept based on shooting oneself in both feet with a machine-gun in each hand at the slightest opportunity.)

    That being said, my eyebrows kind of arched reflexively when I got the first whiff of “Arrogance numéro cinq” musking this article. Crackpots are essential to science, always have been, always will be. They might more often than not be wrong but every lab needs one for more than one reason. Which is probably why each one has one. Crackpots have done more for science than most diplomaed bores who never had a single idea in their whole life.

    Could I understand that this article is concocted by someone who did not have the intellectual rigour needed for precise logic and therefore escaped into philosophy where one can write just about anything these days. Talk about giving a profession a bad name… But at least she makes Krauss look like a philosophical genius.

    Vive les craquepotes!

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  9. 9. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 10:42 pm 05/31/2012

    @ jctyler, I think there’s a relevant distinction to be drawn between “crackpots” as commonly understood and folks who generate of new ideas, or people not so wedded to standing theories as are the people who trained them, or what have you.

    One of the salient differences is that the latter set of scientists are still committed to shared standards of evidence and of logical rigor, still open to the possibility that they could be wrong and attentive to the data and arguments that might show them to be so. The crackpots … not so much.

    There are certainly instances where there’s not yet enough evidence on the table to tell if the person you’re engaging is an original thinker who’s still committed to maintaining contact with reality or a crackpot. As well, there are instances where people in the scientific establishment may themselves be drifting from organized skepticism to dogmatic attachment to their pet theories.

    Judging for yourself whether you’re being too crackpot, too establishment, or applying close to the right level of skepticism is a pretty tough maneuver. That’s one reason interacting with other scientists is a good thing — it can provide a needed reality check.

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  10. 10. Glendon Mellow 11:25 pm 05/31/2012

    @jctyler – I like your use of colour.

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  11. 11. geojellyroll 1:15 am 06/1/2012

    The author is gtrying to differentiate between eccentrics, those with ‘questionable’ theories, etc. with actual ‘crackpots’. Galileo was never seen as a ‘crackpot’…nor any legitimate scientist that I can think of. Instead they were seen as ‘wrong’. They presented evidence that, like all science., is subject to healthy skepticism.

    In contrast a crackpot to me is someone who doesn’t present any actual evidence to support a theory. Instead they present the theory as ‘a given’ and then wait for a negative to be proven. As a scientist i don’t need to ‘disprove’ the existence of the Easter Bunny, Jesus or leprechauns…the crackpot needs to present evidence of their existence.

    The irony is that crackpots often garner mass appeal by putting skeptics (what science is all about) in the role of deniers, close minded, etc. Movies are full of ‘boring’ scientists too stubborn too accept that little Johnny did actually receive a message from an alien spacecraft by rewiring the headlight on his bicycle with and hooking it up to his Etch-a-Sketch.

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  12. 12. Martin Wirth 5:47 am 06/1/2012

    In the context of a scientific or philosophical meeting, crackpots are fairly harmless. The worst they can do is waste your time.

    I suggest that crackpots be further subdivided. There are those who are merely goofy because they’re so emotionally attached to some idea that they’re unlikely to face reality in the foreseeable future. Then there are shills.

    While a shill is not likely to have much influence in scientific community, in public they can have a devastating impact on the health of both humanity and our planet.

    One global warming denier used a complex formula to model the climate of Earth. Any mathematically mature person could play with the formula and discover that the solution never changed as the input parameters changed. This crackpot used that formula to “prove” that no matter how much carbon dioxide we pumped into the atmosphere, the climate could not possibly change.

    In a scientific or mathematically astute group of people, that person is quickly dismissed as a crackpot. In a pubic setting among conservative politicians and oil men, the man was a genius well worth quoting as an expert on climatology whose opinion outweighed the nearly unanimous agreement of peer-reviewed climatologists, their data, and their live’s work.

    That’s one example of a crackpot shill being an existential threat to humanity when gathered together with all other like-minded frauds.

    Thimerosal is an organomercury compound used as a preservative in vaccines. A crackpot said that this insignificant dose of mercury was causing autism. Lawyers filed a lawsuit against the manufacturers of the vaccine. Subsequent research showed that there was no correlation whatsoever between giving the vaccine to children and autism. This research should have been done before the lawsuit but that wasn’t the worst outcome.

    Once word got out to the public that the vaccines were harmful because of mercury, a large number of people stopped getting vaccinated and created a public health hazard for themselves and their children who were also not vaccinated.

    It’s fine to go ahead and laugh at simple crackpots. Shills are another kind of beast, one that the scientific community has a moral obligation to oust, pillory, and ridicule at every opportunity.

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  13. 13. David Marjanović 8:46 am 06/1/2012

    The American Physical Society has a policy whereby any member in good standing has the right to present a paper at a meeting.

    Huh. The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology has a policy whereby all abstracts submitted for its annual meeting, whether by members or not, are peer-reviewed. About a third of them are rejected nowadays – most of them aren’t crackpottery at all, but there are simply too many hundreds of submissions for the tight schedule. The post mentions a question session that lasts at least ten minutes – SVP meeting talks last 15 minutes including the question session, if the speaker is considerate enough to get the talk done in less than 15 minutes.

    (1) How do you propose distinguishing crackpot ideas from *other* crackpot ideas such as plate tectonics, heliocentrism, or evolution through natural selection?

    Scientific method. Falsification and parsimony, in other words.

    (2) How do you “regulate” heterodoxy to maximize yield from new, uncomfortable or confusing ideas, and minimize crackpot investment.

    Scientific method.

    Sorry for sounding trite. Of course I know that scientists are people, too, and sometimes don’t abandon their pet hypotheses/textbook wisdom quickly enough when the data turn against them. But the method to sift the science from the crackpottery is pretty obvious.

    Who is to determine what is a crackpot theory?

    Wrong question.

    Right question: “How do you propose distinguishing crackpot ideas from *other* crackpot ideas such as plate tectonics, heliocentrism, or evolution through natural selection?”

    Global warming certainly is crackpot it is not based on anything real yet it is promoted as if it is biblical fact not to be questioned.

    Which of the following facts do you have a problem with?
    1) CO2 absorbs infrared of wavelengths that the Earth radiates and that are not absorbed by water vapor. In the process, it heats itself up and then heats the rest of the air.
    2) The CO2 content of the air has been rising for decades. At the same time, its C-14 content has declined, meaning the extra carbon must come from volcanoes or from fossil fuels; there hasn’t been an increase in volcanism (let alone of the drastic proportions needed to explain the observations), but we’ve been burning fossil fuels in just those amounts.
    3) Temperatures are going up, especially in winter and at night, as expected from the increase in CO2. An increase in radiation from the sun would have the opposite effect (temperatures going up especially in summer and during the day), and the activity of the sun is currently going down, not up.
    4) Usually, the temperature goes up first (because of solar activity), and then CO2 provides a feedback mechanism that dampens small and increases the effects of large changes, because gases are better soluble in cold than in warm water. But this time, we are adding CO2 to the air; we’re not driven by an increase in temperature or anything. There aren’t many precedents for that, but there are a few, notably the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum and the mass extinction event at the end of the Permian. (Look them up, I’m too lazy to spend another 10 minutes writing here.)
    5) As expected from the rising temperatures, Greenland, West Antarctica, and most mountain glaciers in the world are melting, and they’re melting faster than the rest of the world’s ice is growing from the increased precipitation that results from the extra evaporation; as expected from the melting and from the thermal expansion of the oceans, the sea level is rising.
    6) As expected from the CO2, the oceans are becoming more and more acidic, with noticeable consequences for organisms with calcareous shells.

    Also, needs moar commas. Sentences written “in one sausage” like that are boring to decipher.

    Worse, the warmist theories of outcomes of simultaneous Armageddon by freezing, burning, drowning and war

    Don’t exaggerate.

    The worst-case scenario is that the whole world turns into a tropical paradise over a few centuries, with a sea level that ends up 200 m or so above today’s. That’s not likely to happen, however. What’s likely is a rise by 2 or 3 m till the end of the century, so at least half of Bangladesh (for example) will have to be evacuated… to… somewhere, while the amount of energy in the weather continues to increase. The Sahara might go green, but probably it won’t, because there’s probably not enough rainforest left in west Africa to provide the necessary evaporation. The Gulf Stream will likely continue to weaken as the inland ice of Greenland melts faster and faster; it might shut down entirely, leading to local cooling in Europe (that’s the “freezing” you dishonestly mention) and even more violent weather around it. Remember, there are so far no hurricanes and no tornadoes in Europe; we’re not prepared for them – the unusual “winter storms” of 1999 were quite a disaster. We’re not prepared for the incredibly damp weather of the last three summers either, but it’s not going to go away: more heat – more evaporation – more humidity.

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  14. 14. jctyler 11:59 am 06/1/2012

    Janet D. Stemwedel:

    The title reads “Is how to engage with the crackpot at the scientific meeting an ethical question?”

    As a reader that is what I must go with. You assume a certain understanding of the term to make it an ethical thing. I am forced to assume that you use “crackpot” in its most standard understanding. This leaves not much room for interpretation. I therefore comment because I think that how you use the word, your question can only lead to the wrong answer, in the process belittling the importance of the crackpot in science. Which I find to be a quite serious mistake.

    In essence a crackpot is defined as someone excentric, foolish and/or impractical. Which in art applies to practically everybody with a name but is understandably not so accepted in science. Yet scientific progress lives in part from the ideas of its eccentrics and its impractical fools. In my intimate opinion a lot of creative science is the mental twin of artistry. Big Al, the master of the perpendicular tongue-in-cheek, Dirac whom I consider the Picasso of word assembly, the enigmatic Turing, a hippie before the time, or Fibonacci and how to conclude from rabbits fornicating to the mathematical definition of elegance… you don’t have to be a nut to be a scientist but it helped many on the road to breakthroughs. Would you let someone throw a live frog into very, very expensive and extremely sophisticated lab equipment? Of course not. Or let a barely post-pubertarian scientific virgin run a brainless experiment on your best supercomputer so that he can test his half-baked ideas?

    It’s true that Galileo was not christened a crackpot in public but we can safely assume that in private this is what he was considered by many then, and even a dangerous one. Darwin? Haughton’s assessment of Darwin’s work was only a convoluted way of saying that Darwin was a nutcase with a crackpot theory. Revolutionary ideas in science often start out that way. The problem, as some here have suggested in intelligent detail, is in the selection process. Darwin in action?

    So you can now try a posteriori to be subtle about the definition of crackpotery, the fact is that in essence your article looks at how to be ethically correct with those fitting the standard and general understanding of crackpot. Which IMO is the wrong question because the basis of the question, your implied definition of crackpot, is wrong (in my own personal and possibly wrong opinion). To your credit, comments by Greg, Bill e.a. have made this an interesting page to read.

    Yes, there are crackpots out there, and only one in a hundred is worth the time. But isn’t that similar to the time “wasted” when running lab experiments where you could be slaving away for years and then an accident happens and bingo! Hoffman and LSD, Fleming and penicillin, serendipity and Nobel price. “Genie und Wahnsinn liegen dicht beieinander” (Genius and madness lay closely side by side).

    Never run a lab, a project, a research without a crackpot around. You might oversee the one detail that changes everything. He may not have seen it either but you can be sure he’s the one who will stumble over it.

    All this to say, you meant crackpot when you wrote crackpot. It’s only the comments that save your article. In that sense, you’ve done unwillingly a good job of it. IOW, your article is a crackpot job but from the accident came quite a lot of interesting comments. The question then is: you now being an official crackpot, how do we treat you ethically?

    Glendon, thanks – I’m never too sure if my way of putting things is understood or correct or only even accepted; your comment is reassuring.

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  15. 15. Bee 7:42 am 06/3/2012

    To echo Jennifer, the same is the case for the German Physical Society, where I’ve sat through a few talks of that sort. Most of these speaker though are not actually active researchers at some institution: Pretty much everybody can join the society as long as they pay their fees. In physics at least the gap to the amateurs is so large that few even try bridging it. It’s understandable – if somebody hasn’t figured out by the time they present their grand solution that they haven’t understood the problem to begin with, it seems rather pointless arguing with them.

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  16. 16. sycodon 10:30 am 06/4/2012

    Here is how they handle it in the Global Warming Community

    1. Immediately denounce them as Oil Company Shills.
    2. Ponder how you can get their PhD revoked.
    3. Do your best to ensure they are not published.

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  17. 17. jctyler 6:57 am 06/7/2012


    if you could just provide a single example or a single proof or a single link

    (unless you mean the way climate scientists see organizations like the heartland institute which is a polluter shill, pretends that its members are respected scientists and hates it when its strategic papers are published? in which case you are of course perfectly qualified to comment the way you do!)

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  18. 18. jctyler 5:57 am 06/17/2012

    might be a few weeks late but here is the ultimate crackpot

    or not.

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