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Scientists vs. pseudoscientists

The Skeptic column in the most recent Scientific American is mostly about Martin Gardner's take on "hermit scientists," and how, 50 years after he published Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (which was originally published as In the Name of Science), "pseudoscientists" are still in business today.

The writer, Michael Shermer (of Skeptic.com), cites Gardner as offering two key criteria for identifying a "scientific crank": "Cranks work in almost total isolation from their colleagues"; and they exhibit "a tendency toward paranoia." This paranoia, he continues, is evident in the following symptomatic behaviors:

(1) [The crank] considers himself a genius. (2) He regards his colleagues, without exception, as ignorant blockheads. ... (3) He believes himself unjustly persecuted and discriminated against. ... It never occurs to the crank that this opposition may be due to error in his work. ... (4) He has strong compulsions to focus his attacks on the greatest scientists and the best-established theories. ... (5) He often has a tendency to write in a complex jargon, in many cases making use of terms and phrases he himself has coined.

People like this exist, of course, and some of this type of behavior is inexcusable. The thing is, some of that behavior could also be caused simply by having one's ideas neglected, worthy or not. And mainstream scientists have motivations for disregarding the work of any non-mainstream thinker, even when that work might be valuable. Shouldn't a purportedly skeptical column think to question whether the mainstream view is so unassailable as to justify marginalizing those on the periphery of current practice?

I sure think so. Chances are, any given scientist is wrong about most things. Some are wrong for much better reasons than others, sure; and hermit scientists are more likely to be wrong for the wrong ones, yes. But mainstream scientists are liable to dismiss them regardless. After all, an original, non-mainstream result, if widely accepted and determined to be "true," represents a threat to the mainstream scientist's own past results, their chances of producing what's considered worthwhile work in the future, and possibly even their ability to get grant money (though I hesitate to equate grant money with the value of a contribution, I confess).

It's good to be skeptical of solitary "geniuses," of course. But, I think, we should be at least as skeptical of those that travel in packs.

February 18, 2002 9:07 PM

Comments

It seems to me that you are creating much from nothing. The point of the article is that after fifty years much remains the same. It does. I don't see anywhere in the article where he even intimates that we shouldn't be skeptical about mainstream science. Your statement "The thing is, mainstream scientists have motivations for disregarding the work of any non-mainstream thinker, even when it might be valuable. " simply begs the question. You further say "And it's kind of funny, actually, that a purportedly skeptical column shouldn't think to question whether the mainstream view is so unassailable as to justify marginalizing those on the periphery of current practice." Since the article is talking about the fringes and not mainstream science I don't find it funny at all. Shermer says "We should keep these criteria in mind when we explore controversial ideas on the borderlands of science" that is far from marginalizing those views. It would seem one would marginalize the views by refusing to explore them.

Posted by Norman Jenson on February 18, 2002 9:38 PM

[A note, first: I had modified the sentences Norman quotes, shortly after originally publishing this, because I had omitted a thought, and for sake of flow. His quotes accurately reflect my original wording. I confess I was a tad chagrined to discover I had been so caught, revising my already published words.... (Curses to anyone who reads this within half an hour of my writing it! Curses, I say!)]

But, seriously. I don't hope to make much of anything here. It was just an odd perspective, I thought. Of course we should be skeptical of cranks. But the definition offered is a bit facile, and one that is too easily interpreted so as to apply to solitary thinkers who might have something valuable to contribute that happens not to fit into a fashionable mold.

(Also, Shermer's conclusion, "That is what skeptics do, and in tribute for all you have done, we shall continue to honor your founding command," hardly sounds skeptical of anything.)

You say that the article focuses on the fringes, and not the mainstream of science, but there is no rigid, unchanging map of where science will go, and what properly belongs in the center and what on the edge. I'm just saying that we should be careful of dropping these ideas into such neat little buckets.

I by no means intend to attack what is now considered mainstream science, or defend pseudoscience. I don't see why either should be singled out simply in virtue of its current, popular standing. Each should stand -- or fall -- on its merits.

Posted by M on February 18, 2002 10:54 PM


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