Friday, April 25, 2008

Someone Should Study This

This week I've had to spend time in the department office to read files relevant to some committee work. These files are printed and filed in hanging folders rather than made available as pdf's, and I have to get out of my office chair, leave my office, walk all the way to the department office, and sit there reading pieces of paper. It is very traumatic.

It's also kind of fascinating to spend some time in the department office. One staff member in particular has to handle a lot of random phone calls from people asking random things. Non-university people often call university departments with questions and requests. Fortunately for the people who call my department office, the first person they talk to is nice, patient, and helpful, even when the caller is bizarre and/or not as polite as they could be. Some of these calls are then passed along to a professor in the field most relevant to the question, or perhaps (for bizarre/rude calls) to the professor who has most recently annoyed the nice staff person who fields the call.

Perhaps it is similar at private colleges, but I think that because professors at public universities are state employees, the citizens of our states view us as public servants who are available to help them. They are probably a bit more reluctant to call the doctors at the university medical center for free medical advice, or the football coach for advice on athletics, but mere professors are seen as fair game.

In some cases, the questions are easy and quick to answer -- for example, some people call with a question about something they heard on the news. In some cases, people stop by the department (with or without calling first) and expect assistance. At least 62%* of these people are very strange. On several occasions, I have had random people call me and tell me what I should study in my research. Apparently I have been studying the wrong things. I have not yet, however, been tempted by any of these new and creative ideas, 100% of which have been bizarre.

From talking to colleagues in other departments, I know that it isn't just science departments that attract random people who want to discuss their new ideas that Explain Everything or who want to expound on their obsessions, 37%* of which involve unusual religious beliefs. For example, a friend of mine in the philosophy department occasionally encounters local citizens who want to share their philosophical ideas, some of which are written in tiny illegible letters on all sides of grocery bags.

I think that many (76 ± 12%) professors are reluctant to turn away these random people. Part of our job is to teach, and some of us aren't comfortable saying (effectively) "I'm not in the classroom right now and you are not a registered student in my class, so I am not going to help you with your insane question." It would go against our professorial nature, even if our professorial natures should perhaps be gone against more. Example: I once knew a young assistant professor (YAP) who spent a lot of time helping a random person. The YAP was too nice to say no, and got deeper and deeper into a project that involved time and analytical work in what turned out to be an absurd and useless quest.

Do some departments attract more wackos than others, or do all/most academic departments have their own special kind? Someone should study this. What is the ratio of people who call the nation's English departments to discuss their hypothesis that Shakespeare was an extraterrestrial vs. those who call their local astronomy professor to talk about extraterrestrials who quote Shakespeare?

I don't mind some of these random interactions with the scientifically curious and/or confused public. Some (0.4%) of these interactions are interesting and useful. Most are not, but you never know.


* 80% of the so-called statistics in this post are completely made up.

45 comments:

PhysioProf said...

Couple glasses of wine before today's post, FSP?

Female Science Professor said...

No..

Em said...

One of the faculty in my astronomy department has an email folder titled "crazies" where he puts all the wacky emails that come through his inbox ("if you don't believe my crazy theory about jet-powered comets, you're part of NASA's cover-up conspiracy!" I wish I was making that up). He wants to write a book someday.

Jonah said...

Just today I was at a colloquium given by Gerard 't Hooft, Nobel Laureate theorist, and I saw quite a few faces that have never shown up before at any physics department event (at least to my limited knowledge). Their behavior was quirky, to say the least. But all they managed to do was ask some rather dull questions that 't Hooft had even already addressed in the talk. I was hoping for more drama, but I suppose that came from 't Hooft himself who claimed that a deterministic theory exists at the Planck scale for which quantum mechanics is just a statistical approximation.

PhysioProf said...

Ah, whisky. I love whisky!

Seriously, I have never heard of anyone receiving this kind of communication in a basic science department at a medical school. Maybe the numerous clinicians in the institution serve as wackaloon attractors, and that's why we never encounter them.

Auntie Em said...

This post made perfect sense to me - plausible sounding statguesstics and all.

I once went to a public talk by my PFB (possible future boss), after which he was buttonholed by an intense and, let's face it, utterly clueless guy. UCG harangued PFB with his (UCG's) theory that consciousness was being given to us by aliens. PFB dealt with this chap courteously and patiently - much more so than I would have done in his shoes.

It was my first inkling (as a tiny wee post-doc) of the kind of waccos that come out of the woodwork. Comforting to know that PFB is not alone in being a loopy-person magnet.

A follow up post on how you do deal with monomaniacs and garden shed quantum physicists would be great. How do you avoid getting sucked into the mire (like YAP) but still be open to the 0.4% of people who are really on to something?

sciencecog said...

What is the ratio of people who call the nation's English departments to discuss their hypothesis that Shakespeare was an extraterrestrial vs. those who call their local astronomy professor to talk about extraterrestrials who quote Shakespeare?

Someone did a study and found it to be 60:40.

Another statistical study showed that 80% of statistics are made up on the spot :)

PowerProf said...

I've discussed the idea of wacko departments and the general consensus is that english and psyhology departments tend to be departments with the highest proprtion of nutballs. :)

Angry Professor said...

Oh my heavens! Psychology gets so many of these cranks (whom I adore). The stories I could tell! Mostly I get sent stuff, like the thesis on how the Seven Seals reveals the nature of consciousness and the secret to Saving The World (tm). But sometimes they call or drop by my office... Once two Czechoslovakian brothers (really!) were in my office for hours wanting me to assist them in a research project to demonstrate that massage can uncover long-lost memories.

I really love these people. They're so creative, but so confused.

planeten said...

It can be a good laugh however. Well, afterwards.

I actually don't know which one was the best. The one who wanted to save fuel by harvesting Super Nova energy, the one who wanted to defy gravity with an odd-shaped bike or the one with the black hole in the center of Earth.

What strikes me odd...I had to deal with three cases so far - and made the mistake to actually debate with the first one - and all three have been retired engineers. Like, you know, they know enough physics to get started and somehow get lost on their way because they lack the theoretical training and practice. And, of course, they are never wrong.

Well, maybe I read too much into this. 3 cases are hardly any statistics at all.

I need to work on it ;-)

amy said...

I'm so glad to know people in other departments get this kind of stuff! In philosophy, there's always some weird person wanting to sit in on classes and talk about the Being of Being, and we get manuscripts in the mail every month that try to prove some new theory of everything. One of the saddest came last week: it was a book of aphorisms, Nietzsche-style, and the accompanying letter said that the author had arranged to have the book mailed to various universities after his suicide. The letter indicated what newspaper would have the death notice, and I looked it up. It was real. That just broke my heart.

mareserinitatis said...

As an undergrad, I worked on a student paper. We'd had a tragedy where a prof and his family died, and some guy called and wanted to talk to the paper about it. Okay...

Said person shows up with shaved head, in combat boots and camo pants (fortunately he wore a normal t-shirt), tatoos all over his arms, and said he was an artist with an interest in the government.

He was a total conspiracy theory nut and said that this professor had been bugged by some secret agency because he worked at such-and-such place. (People who worked at the is place were supposedly dropping like flies, and this guy tracked them.) Supposedly, the government had ordered said tragedy to happen in order to cover something up.

And, of course, we needed to report this conspiracy by the government to cover up some secret work that no one knew about.

I was very glad when he left, and I no longer returned his phone calls. I think the guy had been watching X-Files a little bit too much.

Tuff Cookie said...

I used to work in the office at my undergrad geology department (at a public university), and we'd get people in every once in a while with questions. Usually I was the one answering them (it's good practice for an undergrad!), and they tended to be kind of silly..."So, where do you all go to dig for gold?" "I think this is a tooth from the whale that swallowed Jonah!" "What's this rock made of and can I sell it on EBay?"

(For the last, the answers were usually "Concrete" and "no".)

But we had some genuinely nice people come in - one who donated an entire mineral collection to the department, and another who taught at a community college and needed help identifying samples in a collection he'd inherited. For the most part, I didn't mind helping these people out, and it fostered a better relationship between the community and the college. Then again, geology can be more accessible to non-scientists than things like engineering or psychology, so we probably missed out on the more misinformed, crazy crowd.

Academic said...

Perhaps the printed files are in a different office to lure you away from your computer for some window of time because of a need for OSHA compliance. Just a thought ;)

Diane said...

When I worked for a university public policy institute, an elderly man once wandered into our office (hidden on the fifth floor of a non-university building) and wanted to hear all about the history of the university. He was prepared to settle into a chair and have me tell him all about it. He was very kind but also didn't quite have a grip on reality, and I was the only person at the office at the time and was very wary. It took about a half hour to convince him that the library's archive was a lovely and helpful place to be.

Scott H. said...

Never commented here before, but I just have to quote from the email I received just this morning. It begins by telling me It is imperative that this PRIORITY message be delivered to the CIA Cryptography Dept, among other places. It then goes on for many, many pages. A snippet:


I sent a 40 page document which was delivered by priority mail on March 12th to former VP Al Gore with reference to His TV documentary An Inconvenient Truth which is the result of his research on global warming ... What Al Gore has learned about global warming is directly connected to my studies of God's language for the past 19 years and approximately 40,000 hours as I have been shown that His language is cryptography which is based upon the English alphabet.


I get a few emails in this genre per week; this is the most extreme one I've received in a while. Since I'm in a physics dept, they usually have Figured It All out, or have some great Truth to reveal. My PhD advisor has a whole file cabinet dedicated to the hardcopies he received over his 40 or so years in the field.

Anonymous said...

I am in a math department and kind of agree with Angry Prof.. We get three kinds of cranks: amateur mathematicians who have 'solved' an unsolved problem (typically the Riemann hypothesis) or a simple 'solution' to a big problem (typically FLT), the parents of some 'genius' who has done one of the above and those can can fix the world's problems/prove the existence of christ/predict the rapture/etc ... using mathematics.

The parents are the worst, they are most likely to come to your office and least likely to listen to reason. The first group can often provide student seminar material--find the flaw in the following--fun for the whole family! The last are the most entertaining and are certainly of the same ilk that visit Angry Prof.. I will send my next such visitor her way ...

YAMP

Ambitwistor said...

Our physics department once had a pet crank who would wander into colloquia and ramble at length about his philosophical ruminations. He was tolerated until we had a Nobel laureate (no, not 't Hooft) show up, and the crank started harassing him about how his theory was "beautiful, but wrong". The (notoriously short-tempered) colloquium host ended up yelling at the guy in the middle of the Q&A session, who was never seen again.

Jonathan Thornburg said...

Underwood Dudley is a mathematician who has (dare I say it) specialised in the study of mathematical cranks. (E.g., people who claim to have solved the classic problem of trisecting an arbitrary angle via Euclidean-geometry methods.) He wrote a great article about such people and his experiences meeting them and collecting their "proofs": "What to do when the trisector comes", The Mathematical Intelligencer volume 5, number 1, pages 20-25 (1983).

More recently, he wrote a book
"Mathematical Cranks" (Mathematical Association of America, 1992, ISBN-10 0883855070, ISBN-13: 978-0883855072).
I've read the article; it's lots of fun.
I haven't yet read the book...

Kim said...

When I was in grad school, there was this guy who would come to all public lectures and eat. Rumor had it that he would ask questions at physics talks: "This reminds me of my work on angels..." (He said he specialized in metaphysics and parapsychology.)

These days, I mostly get people who want to know if their rock is a meteorite, a dinosaur bone, or gold. (There are the chem trails guys, though, who have given me CDs of the research the government doesn't want us to know about.)

The best visitor was a guy who claimed that bathing in a cast-iron bathtub with a high-Mg volcanic rock could prevent aging. I hope that he wasn't implying that I needed it or anything...

Harvestar said...

At my grad school department, the grad students were the ones required to answer any questions from the public. (never the professors)

We had lots of informational type questions: what was that thing I saw in the sky last night (the planet Venus, usually), when does the moon set on a particular day, how to choose a telescope, and some from police officers or others involved in cases where the sun was blamed for a crash or such. ("The sun was in my eyes, officer!")

Recovering Academic said...

When I was teaching in the Mathematics Department at Fourth-Rate-College-That-Will-Remain-Nameless, we would sometimes, but not very often, get people like this. We might have gotten more but we were in a fairly remote portion of the state.

We had one angle trisector who would show up on campus to tell us how wrong our teaching of geometry was. He claimed he had found a general way to trisect angles using only compass and straight edge. (Trisecting angles in this way was shown to be impossible in the nineteenth century.) He had written a book about this and had left some copies around. The book was full of confusing diagrams, pictures of Egyptian gods and long screeds against the professoriate which was keeping this deep knowledge from the general public. In the 1950’s when Sputnik went up and shocked us all, he wrote a letter to the president of the college claiming that the Russians knew about his work and that’s how they were able to leap ahead of us in space technology. Suuuuuurre.

We also had a guy who came into our open house and went ballistic on me because we were not teaching the right things to our undergraduates. His point was that we should refocus all of our efforts on one field – Computer Graphics applied to Architecture. I have nothing against either computer graphics or architecture but he wanted those and only those to be taught. Everything else should be thrown out and he was most adamant about it. I was very happy when that day was over.

Our worst problems, however, came from fellow faculty members in other departments who had just seen an application of some fairly elementary mathematics. Eigenvalues comes to mind as an example of this. THEY HAD, JUST HAD, TO INFORM US OF THIS INCREDIBLE BREAKTHROUGH AND DEMAND TO KNOW WHY WE WERE NOT TEACHING IT AND WHY THEY HAD NOT BEEN INFORMED!!!! (Sorry about the caps but they would usually lecture us in caps.) My technique for dealing with this was to ask when they had found out about this great breakthrough – usual answer: JUST NOW!! – and then state (a) I had known about since I was nineteen and (b) why had it taken them so long to figure it out? I was really considered rude for that.

Not all screwballs are outside the faculty. I guess we all knew that already.

thm said...

This seems like an appropriate thread on which to mention the short film Strange Little Man which was shot by a film-maker son of a physics professor. The subject is one of the physics cranks that hung around the department. Legend has it that the professor offered the crank a desk in the lab in exchange for never having to answer the crank's questions again--an offer which the professor apparently came to regret making.

To the outside observer, this crank looked and acted like he was a part of the department. Apparently, he knew basic physics really well, but had his own theories that were more typical of the work of a crank. He often buttonholed graduate students and faculty to discuss his theories.

usagibrian said...

Poltergeists. That's what our receptionist usually has to deal with. Requests to exorcize poltergeists.

CAE said...

These stories are hilarious. My sister works in publishing, and every office she's worked in has a "loonies" file of weird and wonderful manuscripts and book ideas. The staff look through these files when they need cheering up.

Anonymous said...

According to an editor at a major international science journal, the crank submissions often break down this way: (1) crank physics/astronomy papers from medical doctors and engineers and (2) crank biology papers from physicists. (And of course crank papers from people with no credentials at all.)

Anonymous said...

I'm in a Wildlife Ecology Department, and we (plus Entomology and Fisheries) get wacky phone calls of a differnt sort. If there's an orphaned baby squirrel, weird bug in the patio, or snake trapped in the bathroom, we get a call. We've had students bring us opossums they hit with their cars and anglers call and ask us what the best bait for fishin' walleye is. The secretary doesn't bat an eye - she puts them on hold and transfers them right over to the Extension Specialist.

Carrie said...

I'm not defending the folks with the wacky theories and bad science ideas. However I need to speak up for Joe Public. What should you do, after you've been out hiking one day near Mt. Lassen and find an ice cave in an area surrounded by sulpher pools and steam vents, and what to know how & why that came to be? We sent an email to the most likely prof at the local [public] university and got a GREAT answer. And I do feel that it was part of the Prof's job -- dissemination of knowledge and all that. The knowledge should NOT be kept in the Ivory Tower and also should also not just be lodged in the scientific literature. I do think it is a public university professor's job to disseminate knowledge the the public that helps finance (minisculy, but still) their research in the area that Joe Public may have a question.

We did say thank you :-)

Anonymous said...

"What should you do, after you've been out hiking one day near Mt. Lassen and find an ice cave in an area surrounded by sulpher pools and steam vents, and what to know how & why that came to be? We sent an email to the most likely prof at the local [public] university and got a GREAT answer."

Oh, most of us like answering questions like that one. It's the people who call you, saying that they think the government has implanted recording devices in their head, and want to know how to get them out, that are problematic. Sad, too. When I got that call, I just kept saying that I just didn't have the right expertise to answer his questions.

Anonymous said...

Anyone ever tried sending the cranks' papers to each other? "I'm not qualified to judge your groundbreaking work, but I know someone who is!" :D

B H said...

Wonderful stories. This makes me wish we saw just a few more cranks in linguistics. The grass is always greener, eh?

Gingerale said...

After we've all been out hiking one day near Mt. Lassen, etc. etc. -- may I suggest we call the reference librarian at our local public library. If she or he can't help us possibly a reference librarian at another town's library can (I doubt they check their caller ID first to be sure the caller's exchange is local). These are reference librarian type questions.

For my tax dollars, I don't want university professors with PhDs doing what librarians with Masters degrees can do as well or better.

Fault Rocks said...

I agree with Carrie - public questions can be fun and I certainly think they are part of our job! The real questions I get can generally be answered offhand (e.g. as Tuff said, "that rock is not gold-bearing, it is part of your driveway) but it's good to know what people are thinking about.

To me, a crank comes to a university to inform us of some great secret, even if couched as a question. An erstwhile member of the public comes to be informed. No trouble differentiating between the two.

sandyshoes said...

I was a geology grad student at a California university. We got many, many earthquake questions from the general public.

And, yes, I've identified a lot of "20th century Urbanite" for hopeful people with "rock" samples :).

But you never know what treasures might be in someone's Granddad's old rock collection...

Alethea said...

I recently came on this site:

http://noamyharel.googlepages.com/daretoshare%3Ascience%27sphilosophy

and it might be a good place to suggest a meta-study such as the one you have proposed. And to give Dr Harel (http://network.nature.com/profile/noam) some sort of heads up.

;-)

shon said...

How about when the quack is actually part of the department?
When I started grad school, the incoming students had to listen to spiels from all of the profs in the department. There was this one tenured guy who had been there forever and was reduced to working out of a lab the size of a large broom closet. His talk was priceless! He rambled on and on about radiation from phone wires, the secrets of chinese herbs and tapping the power of aloe vera. The best was his rant on AIDS means drugs and drugs make money and so AIDS=money. I still am not sure what the guy worked on. Of course, his level of research required skills beyond the means of graduate students, so he wasn't actually interested in taking students. Too bad...

Alethea said...

Shon, that wouldn't have been at a large university with the initials "UCB" would it, in a "MCB" department?

:-) I'm all for tolerance myself, and if the guy you're thinking of is the same as the one I am, he wasn't in a huge position of power. So let's allow some diversity of approach if he can convince grant reviewers to give him money. He's not taking up our time like the other crazies mentioned above.

shon said...

Alethea--it was not at "UCB". I guess there's more than one of those guys. :)

mentaer said...

a bit late, but one question: Does it appear that all answers on this post are from the US?

I have not heared of something similar in Europe - not yet? Or maybe the people there do not speak about such things. I guess people in Europe have much more respect for professors and are, thus, too shy of calling them (in terms of a social ranking). But I am guessing here...

Any other non-us readers?

N. Bourbaki said...

Since you asked ... Lots of fields have their, um, iconoclasts. In English Lit it would be the Oxfordians. Not the people who went to Oxford, but the people who are convinced that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays usually attributed to that bumpkin Shakespeare. They can make those persons who have discovered a paradox in Special Relativity look sensible.

Archaeology apparently gets a lot - ancient Egyptians, Atlantis, so on. I note that in physics some fields are more popular than other (relativity and QM are bigger targets than solid state physics), so I've always assumed that, say, analytical chemistry doesn't see a lot of these gentlemen, but maybe I am wrong.

This has been going on for many decades (it's not solely a post-Cold War conspiracy theory phenomenon). There is a book called "No One May Ever Have The Same Knowledge Again," published by the Museum of Jurassic Technology, which compiles out-there letters of inquiry written to the Mount Wilson Observatory over much of the early 20th century.

biomancer said...

I had an interesting variant on this my very first year at Expensive Small College. Someone from the town newspaper called our department with a question about some fungus that had been in the news, and the secretary routed the call to me since I'm the only microbiologist. My training, however, is in virology and bacteriology, not mycology, and so I told the reporter that while I did not know the answer off the top of my head (because my training was in virology and not mycology), I'd be happy to look it up and get back to him. He responded with "sorry, but I need to know now" very tersely and hung up. The following year I had politely contacted the newspaper hoping to correct several major errors in ther article on the Major Pandemic Virus Threat of the Moment (I can't remember if it was influenza or something else), and was told that since I'd demonstrated that I wasn't really a competent microbiologist the previous year, they were not interested in my information on the virus. To this day their "health and science" section is still rife with errors, and I've given up trying to set the record straight.

Kragen Javier Sitaker said...

I left a long, thoughtful comment here about cranks I have known, about three weeks ago. It never showed up. Did it get erroneously classified as spam?

mathsgirl said...

my maths department gets loads too.

a short while ago a guy came to tell us that he'd discovered that if you add the squares of the smaller sides of a right angled triangle, you get the square of the larger side.

did anyone know about this? it seems really useful.

yes. especially pythagoras about 2500 years ago....

Anonymous said...

I do not usually get the cranks, but they do call/email my boss (I am in a psych/neuroimaging lab). I should ask him if he has gotten anything particularly strange lately.

Ceriness said...

This reminds me of one of the highlights of my grad student years in which the random person was a consultant from the TV show Bones wanting advice (which they ignored) on how to pronounce some Latin phrases (I'm in Classics). I'm a huge fan and was thrilled to have some role, however tenuous, in the show.

Most of these don't make such cool stories. The frat who emailed me asking how you spell 'phi alpha delta' (changed to protect the tragic) in Greek is a prime example.