The (but I’m Not a) Crackpot Style Guide

Ok, ok, I believe you. You’re not a crackpot. You’re just an outsider, one with a brilliant new idea that would overturn the accepted paradigms of physics, if only someone would just listen.

Here’s the problem: you’re not alone. There are plenty of actual crackpots. We get contacted by them fairly regularly. And most of the time, they’re frustrating and unpleasant to deal with.

If you want physicists to listen to you, you need to show us you’re not one of those people. Otherwise, most of us won’t bother.

I can’t give you a foolproof way to do that. But I can give some suggestions that will hopefully make the process a little less frustrating for everyone involved.

Don’t spam:

Nobody likes spam. Nobody reads spam. If you send a mass email to every physicist whose email address you can find, none of them will read it. If you repeatedly post the same thing in a comment thread, nobody will read it. If you want people to listen to you, you have to show that you care about what they have to say, and in order to do that you have to tailor your message. This leads in to the next point,

Ask the right people:

Before you start reaching out, you should try to get an idea of who to talk to. Physics is quite specialized, so if you’re taking your ideas seriously you should try to contact people with a relevant specialization.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: your ideas are unique, no-one in physics is working on anything similar.

Here, it’s important to distinguish the problem you’re trying to solve with how you’re trying to solve it. Chances are, no-one else is working on your specific idea…but plenty of people are interested in the same problems.

Think quantum mechanics is built on shoddy assumptions? There are people who spend their lives trying to modify quantum mechanics. Have a beef against general relativity? There’s a whole sub-field of people who modify gravity.

These people are a valuable resource for you, because they know what doesn’t work. They’ve been trying to change the system, and they know just how hard it is to change, and just what evidence you need to be consistent with.

Contacting someone whose work just uses quantum mechanics or relativity won’t work. If you’re making elementary mistakes, we can put you on the right track…but if you think you’re making elementary mistakes, you should start out by asking help from a forum or the like, not contacting a professional. If you think you’ve really got a viable replacement to an established idea, you need to contact people who work on overturning established ideas, since they’re most aware of the complicated webs of implications involved. Relatedly,

Take ownership of your work:

I don’t know how many times someone has “corrected” something in the comments, and several posts later admitted that the “correction” comes from their own theory. If you’re arguing from your own work, own it! If you don’t, people will assume you’re trying to argue from an established theory, and are just confused about how that theory works. This is a special case of a broader principle,

Epistemic humility:

I’m not saying you need to be humble in general, but if you want to talk productively you need to be epistemically humble. That means being clear about why you know what you know. Did you get it from a mathematical proof? A philosophical argument? Reading pop science pieces? Something you remember from high school? Being clear about your sources makes it easier for people to figure out where you’re coming from, and avoids putting your foot in your mouth if it turns out your source is incomplete.

Context is crucial:

If you’re commenting on a blog like this one, pay attention to context. Your comment needs to be relevant enough that people won’t parse it as spam.

If all a post does is mention something like string theory, crowing about how your theory is a better explanation for quantum gravity isn’t relevant. Ditto for if all it does is mention a scientific concept that you think is mistaken.

What if the post is promoting something that you’ve found to be incorrect, though? What if someone is wrong on the internet?

In that case, it’s important to keep in mind the above principles. A popularization piece will usually try to present the establishment view, and merits a different response than a scientific piece arguing something new. In both cases, own your own ideas and be specific about how you know what you know. Be clear on whether you’re talking about something that’s controversial, or something that’s broadly agreed on.

You can get an idea of what works and what doesn’t by looking at comments on this blog. When I post about dark matter, or cosmic inflation, there are people who object, and the best ones are straightforward about why. Rather than opening with “you’re wrong”, they point out which ideas are controversial. They’re specific about whose ideas they’re referencing, and are clear about what is pedagogy and what is science.

Those comments tend to get much better responses than the ones that begin with cryptic condemnations, follow with links, and make absolute statements without backing them up.

On the internet, it’s easy for misunderstandings to devolve into arguments. Want to avoid that? Be direct, be clear, be relevant.

13 thoughts on “The (but I’m Not a) Crackpot Style Guide

  1. Lubos Motl

    I completely agree with that. First, such an outsider-genius has to be different from the hordes of obvious crackpots who are spamming our mailboxes, physical and electronic ones, with self-evident garbage.

    Second, he has to find relevant people who might be interested. If he’s convinced that no physicist in the world could possibly be good enough to care about that ingenious insight, it’s almost certainly a fault of the proponent of the idea. The potential endorsers have to have a pretty good specialization so that they’re interested in the new idea. If the outsider-proponent of the new idea doesn’t have a clue who could be the right men with the right specialization, it’s almost certainly because he doesn’t have a clue about the actual scientific status of the questions themselves, either.

    And then just be direct, clear, relevant, honest about sources, and all things like that.

    Most of the people who are contacting are hopelessly stupid. But many of them have amazing ideas about the degree of dishonesty that is just OK. I regularly get spammed by people who basically want to circumvent peer review or get some paper published somewhere by using my authority – even though they don’t even know me. So I often have to explain basic things, e.g. that I don’t have the authority to circumvent some peer review etc., and even if I had this power, I wouldn’t be using it.

    This sounds shocking to most of those people – they’re basically mentally living in a completely corrupt, garbage pseudo-intellectual world and can’t even imagine that something with higher standards exists.

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    1. Mr. Eldritch

      For what it’s worth, I find it very difficult to read your posts because you’re constantly pinging the crackpot meter. Not being personally familiar with string theory, or really advanced enough in mathematics or physics to claim any understanding of it, I kind of need to fall back on the crackpot meter as one of the heuristics needed to judge what sources on it I should take seriously.

      The constant (constant!) vitriol tends to pattern-match to stuff like Time Cube’s ranting about how only indoctrination and the fundamental incompetence and stupidity of humanity stops them seeing the blind obviousness of his ravings; the absolute arrogance that comes with the assurance that your field of research is self-evidently the correct approach and that everyone who does not find it obvious is blind, stupid, or deluding themselves also pattern-matches to any number of fringe theorists.

      I’m well aware that you’re in fact a respected academic working in a fairly mainstream avenue of research that has much to recommend it, so the crackpot meter is almost certainly going off erroneously, but it is very distracting and makes it difficult to treat you as an authoritative or even reliable source.

      Could you please try to tone it down a bit? You’re really not helping, and tend to make your opponents look less fringe simply by the contrast with you.

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  2. David Bartell

    I wrote a very short satire, “Armchair Scientist”, on this very topic for the Probability Zero feature in Analog: Science Fiction Science Fact. It’s free at: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/122665

    This discussion adds some things I hadn’t thought of. Perhaps I should spam a bunch of scientists to collect material for an updated version! 🙂

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  3. Giotis

    Don’t raise too many hopes though.

    It is more likely hell freezes than an outsider making a significant contribution to cutting edge theoretical Physics research.

    Paraphrasing dear Lord, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than an outsider to enter the kingdom of high energy Physics revelations.

    And this is from an outsider like me (Electrical Engineer) who is studying physics for his own pleasure at his own free time for many years now.

    But of course: “you never know”, “never say never”, etcetera etcetera ☺

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    1. JollyJoker

      I’m under the impression Philip Gibbs of Vixra fame did some real physics. Rare but far from impossible.

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  4. Ulises

    A few years ago I was a crank. I began to study physics, I am not a crank anymore, I think.
    I will be working in string theory and/or QFT when I began the thesis, that’s the next year. My natural language is spanish, I learned english reading papers and using “google translate”, I’m sorry if I had writen in a horrible, unspeakable and sacrilegious way this paragraph.

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  5. Tom Andersen

    Thanks for the article.

    Its hard to tell crackpottery from real science sometimes. Its also impossible to say that there are no tenured full on crackpot theoretical physicists out there. That’s a fact that every graduate student knows.

    Yet there is not enough ‘anything goes’ in theoretical physics, which in my opinion is holding it back. I think there is progress, though. I recently watched a Perimeter video about an alternative quantum theory that is almost certainly wrong. Too bad you need to be an ‘elder in the community’ to be brave enough to give a talk on something that is both likely wrong and also not popular.

    With the impasse that theoretical physics is at today it seems to me more likely that some ‘silly physics’ talk will spark a real advance, rather than beating on the doors we have already opened. People think of the weirdest things.

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  6. Vikn

    Where would I go to clarify why a novel concept is wrong? I wouldn’t call what I have a theory, that implies I have the capacity or mathematical understanding to justify it in some way. I have no delusions about my schooling, I was never a great student due to a distaste for memorizing information or learning technical skills in subjects I didn’t like….so my formal schooling and aptitude for technical learning ensures that I would never be so deluded as to believe in the likelyhood of any new conceptual model I come across.

    But what if something is disputing no theory, and instead disputes a fundamental assumption that has never actually been proven because of the way we percieve reality, filtered through the lens of conscious minds evolved to interpret the physical scale we have evolved for?

    The information that disputes the idea is inherently flawed and less a theory than an innate assumption of something so everpresent that we never even bothered considering it?
    In the commoner terms that I am able to conceive of, it seems to allow for the rate of timeflow in relation to mass, general relatively, quantum mechanics, the possibility of intersolar travel (and the further seeding of life), and doesn’t really seem to clash with quantum entanglement. I lack the knowledge to say it allows for it, but there’s nothing that makes me see the need for a change in that model.
    It also would explain a potential reconciliation between general relativity and quantum mechanics. Its less of a calculated understanding and more of just a visual representation my visual brain able to conceive and my conscious mind can only try and make some sort of articulation that doesnt sound like a dog trying to bark mandarin.

    I earnestly just desperately want some information disproving it as the topic isn’t addressed very often in anything I can find is justified by a simple explanation that assumes I am asking about the very basic definition of entry level HUMAN concept, not even science.

    It even makes sense why we would perceive it that way so innately while justifying itself. It doesnt seem to contradict anything, and I need some information from a legitimate source to tell me why Its wrong, because nothing else says anything aside from a human assumption.

    I mean it’s stopping me from getting decent sleep. Im terrified of commiting so fully to a flawed idea that I build a worldview around it only to be shown some fundemental misunderstanding that invalidates everthing. That’s an implication of not only wasted time that could have been spend evolving me understanding, but also a jarring example of being so subject to human bias and delusion that I work so hard against.

    I just want to improve my conceptual understanding of the universe and how the various systems interact, and I have no desire to horn into a field with confidence and delusion. I am happy having a good layman’s conceptual knowledge of physics, I only need it as a backdrop for the other systems I study and try to compile as a “whole” and find patterns, magnified echos or trends within.

    Please, if anyone has any information for someone I can briefly speak to to get this over with. Its taking up time I try study other things and keeping me awake with a lightening heart rate, dry mouth and a headache from unwelcome implications…one being the great personal fear of this how one starts becoming a fully committed crackpot after all the effort I expend being extremely cautious.

    Any link would be a godsend because I need to stop this snowball, I have drawn strange theoretical connections lately that make me think I am completely losing it. I can’t even type this comment with any sense of brevity, I just cant shut this up and really need to.

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    1. 4gravitons Post author

      So, a couple of things:

      First, it’s usually good to start by having a conversation with someone patient enough to hear you out and walk you through at least the most obvious questions. It can be hard to get someone to do this: translating between “physicist” and “non-physicist” can be frustrating, I’ve definitely had conversations like that where I got annoyed enough I couldn’t engage productively. Someone you know is likely to be more patient with you if that’s an option. Another option is to go to a physics Q&A forum like https://physics.stackexchange.com/ . The advantage there is that it lets whoever has enough patience at the time respond, rather than relying on one person.

      Second, you want to be as specific as you can. Even if what you have in mind links to a huge number of things, you want to pin down a specific question that precisely addresses something you want to know. Think before you ask about the kinds of responses you could get, and ask a question that will confuse the people you’re asking as little as possible.

      Third, consider that some questions are better addressed by philosophers than physicists. If what you’re wondering about is a bigger question about how we know what we know, then philosophers will have walked through the standard arguments and have a better idea of what you’re looking for.

      Fourth, consider that if something feels really really important but is really hard to articulate, that itself can be a warning sign that you’re dealing with human bias. If it’s an overpowering feeling it can even be a symptom of mental illness, such as schizophrenia. This is another reason to try to distill out a specific question, to see if there’s something solid so you don’t have to worry it’s “just you”.

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  7. J Mark Morris

    While this post emphasizes the word ‘crackpot’ which I find to be a term used to bully independent ideators, other than that the advice is decent. Thank you 4gravitons for the empathy and thought you put into this. Maybe I should give 4gravitons another chance. I still think there is a huge issue : those physicists who react emotionally and negatively to ideas have an anger management issue. Here are some suggestions. Ignore the idea. Say something polite and encouraging. You are not on the hook to respond to anything. Why get annoyed? Oh, because physicists know their field is in a crisis for 50, 90, 150 years depending on when you start counting and these ideators keep reminding us physicists and cosmologists that we work in a failed discipline that continuously spouts nonsense. Really physicists?

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    1. 4gravitons Post author

      If you’d like to understand what gets physicists so annoyed, I think there are two core things.

      First, there’s a reaction not to the content, but to the tactics. A big part of the reason I wrote this post is that the kind of tactics I talk about here aren’t just bad practice, they’re actively annoying. I use the word “spam” because some of these behaviors have strong similarities to commercial spam. When a physicist gets sent an unprompted mass email angrily denouncing Einstein, they feel like you do when you get an unprompted mass email about penis enlargement pills. It feels like someone is trying to take advantage of you. It’s not the kind of thing most people can just shrug and ignore.

      The other side is what I might call “impatient teacher syndrome”. If the person in question is misunderstanding something that seems very obvious to the physicist, it can be frustrating. For example, I remember a bachelor’s student who tried to solve sin(x)=y by dividing both sides by sin (not taking the inverse, dividing, so x=y/sin)! I think this is a flaw on the physicist side: as educators, we should view these situations as interesting puzzles, a way to assess our teaching methods, not as a source of annoyance. But crabby teachers exist nonetheless.

      In my case, when someone posts unconventional physics as a blog comment, and it’s on-topic, I usually do what you suggest and just let it sit. If there’s something I think I can productively discuss, I’ll respond. (I vaguely remember your proposal sounded similar to Stochastic Electrodynamics? I had a mostly-civil conversation with a commenter about that just a few posts before the one you commented on.) I just don’t allow it if it’s off-topic, because at that point I might as well allow commercial spam as well.

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      1. J Mark Morris

        My idea was simply to pick up point charges from the physics discard pile and give them a field effect that gave them immutability at a radius near the Planck length. I write about it at my blog. It looks to be a really good model if you ask me. I can see solutions to every significant open problem.

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