There are three broad senses of crackpottery. In one sense, it is the explanation of natural phenomena in terms of conjectures, hypotheses, and dogmas – termed “theories” by the crackpots – which have no evidential bases, and in most cases violate proven scientific principles. These conjectures often find application in society as either technological “innovations,” or medical procedures.
The second sense finds parallelism between scientific principles (mostly the laws of modern physics) and non-material phenomena. Any application of the laws of physics to “prove” or substantiate beliefs and claims of the established religions, any kind of spiritualism or mysticism, and Eastern theosophy is crackpottery. One notable example is to find an “explanation” for quantum phenomena, which are completely probabilistic. And any attempt at “explaining” or “understanding” probability leads to crackpottery. (This shows how trying to “explain” coin probability can lead to “intelligent coins,” and this shows how trying to “understand” quantum probability leads “conscious photons.”)
The third sense is very subtle. It questions the very foundation of scientific methodology. It is advocated by many philosophers of science, and has lured many scientists to its ranks. Observations are downplayed because they don’t “prove” the theories derived from them (philosophers call this underdetermination); study of the fundamental building blocks of objects is discouraged and the investigation of objects as a whole is encouraged (this is called holistic approach or emergence); in some extreme interpretation of emergence, theories and mathematics are abandoned altogether.
Traditionally, crackpottery was the prerogative of people without any expertise in science, whose most advanced scientific knowledge came from watching programs on the Discovery Channel and Nova or reading articles in Reader’s Digest and Popular Mechanics. Recently, however, more and more professional people have been attracted to crackpottery for various reasons. One main reason is the perennial penchant for fame and fortune. For example, the immense popularity of television programs like The Oprah Winfrey Show, which sponsor non-scientific – even anti-scientific – ideas and practices, plus the wealth and popularity coming from the participation in and/or creation of such programs, are irresistible incentives for a few credible doctors and scientists to leave their profession and turn into crackpots.
Examples of crackpottery and its roots are:
- a new theory of relativity undermining Einstein’s; or a new subatomic theory that refutes (relativistic) quantum physics;
- an all encompassing theory of the origin of the universe which challenges the big bang theory;
- philosophizing theories, thus injecting personal or popular opinions that can fog the clarity of the theory; for example, complementarity principle – which has been abused frequently – is the philosophization of the (mathematical) uncertainty relations;
- a new “methodology” of science, which is in contrast to the real methodology consisting of observation and theorization;
- various schools of thought which oppose studying the building blocks of matter;
- various versions of “It from Bit,” which “explains” reality – the “It” – in terms of a non-material computer code – the “Bit,” such as Steven Wolfram’s “a new kind of science,” which replaces reality with computer graphics.
Click on the picture of a crackpot on the right to learn about him and his contribution to “science.”