Friday, December 02, 2011

Crazy Enough For You?

It seems that I have had this experience before:

I am talking to an eminent, senior scientist in my field, and the conversation will be about semi-normal sciencey things and then -- zoom! without warning! -- we are in the realm of big-idea crazy-talk, as in really crazy.

Sort of like this, with the speaker being the eminent scientist:

"And then when we were studying X, it led to the insight that ... and of course that was different from what Schmoe found, but when we also tried Z, we found that results were consistent. But of course, the Earth is flat, and we are taking that into account, but Schmoe didn't."

I had such a conversation recently, and it also involved something like this:

"I read your paper on ABC, but I think you are basing a lot of your work on the assumption that the Earth is round, but it isn't of course. There's no evidence for that. You are making the same mistake that everyone makes. I used to, but then I realized: The Earth is flat."

I realize that someone doesn't have to be eminent (or old) to be (apparently) crazy, but I mention it because I wonder if it affects how we respond to this type of thing. That is, if someone you don't know wanders into your office with a New Theory of Everything, would your response be different compared to what you might say (and how you would say it) if someone with a long and distinguished record of scientific accomplishment (apparently) starts to go off the rails with their scientific ideas?

Are we more likely to assume that the former is insane (and not an eccentric genius who wanders from campus to campus trying to get someone to discuss their brilliant, transformative idea), and that the latter just might be on to something that has been hidden to the scientific masses because we so love conformity and are afraid to step back and blast away at centuries of belief in something we all "know" to be true?

I am not talking about level of respect -- I hope we would all be respectful to the maybe-crazy person with the New Theory of Everything, even if it is written in tiny letters covering the sides of grocery bags -- but about how likely we are to say "You're wrong" or to wonder if maybe we have been blind to the Truth all these years because we are science-sheep.

Perhaps it matters how (apparently) crazy the idea is. "The world is flat" is a good analogy for the encounter I had recently, but there are more subtle versions of (possibly) crazy ideas.

In my most recent encounter, I did not directly say "You are wrong". I said "There's actually a lot of evidence that the world is round. For example... [devastating list of compelling evidence]", but all I got back in response was "Well, I was talking to Other Famous Guy about this and he agreed with me."

Conversation = over for me at that point.

It was even pointless (and weird) to have to summon evidence for how we know the Earth is round -- and that's why I think I only did so because of the eminence of the scientist with whom I was having the conversation. But I rather quickly reached my limit of being willing to discuss this. At that point, the best options are to change the subject or leave, depending on what is possible for the situation.

Have any of you had this experience? What did do you? Did you doubt for a moment your belief in whatever idea was being challenged? If you tried to discuss the issues, did you make any headway?


EliRabett said...

Why yes, and they have friends on the intertubes

JM said...

I once received an F (and a rant on government conspiracies)for stating in a paper that the Earth was flat. I am not kidding. It was for a freshman level writing course at at community college. I didn't try to change his mind. I was shocked though and definitely assumed he was crazy. He wasn't there for long.

Anonymous said...

I have not had this experience face-to-face with an individual. However, there is at least one scientist in my field who will have anything he says publicly, no matter what or how ridiculous, be lapped up by the rest of the boyz club and be accepted as dogma. No solid set of data are needed to back up his claims. As long as it's claimed by HIM, then, it must be cool and it must be right. It's annoying and it has been damaging to those of us who try to say otherwise, even when armed with data. Talk about sheep to the slaughter...

Anonymous said...

Kuhn, the famous science philosopher, would say that some of these people are advancing theories that may be paradigm shifting and the rest of us are so dogmatic in our thinking that we can't consider the validity of their theories.

Of course some people are legitimately crazy and are advancing unsupportable theories but it is interesting that the scientific community often alienates or calls crazy these groundbreaking scientists. Think of Linus Pauling and what he did to Daniel Schectman with regards to quasicrystals.

Are they really crazy or just paradigm shifting?

Anonymous said...

Are you referring to the "faster-than-light" neutrinos idea that seems to have swept the media lately, based on what seems to me rather shaky corrections to experimental measurements?

Anonymous said...

I just finished a faculty meeting where this exact thing happened. It is shocking how someone can be so dense as to think the world is flat. Most of us just shook our heads at the faculty member but finally the chair stopped the discussion because it was clearly going nowhere. He was convinced the world was flat and would listen to no other opinions.

Abby said...

A very senior professor in my department has a theory explaining how the brain works that is very clean and elegant as long as you work from the assumption that the world is flat. If the world is round, it becomes much less plausible. We (the grad students) pretty much agree that he is crazy on this topic... but some of his other science is quite strong.

Anonymouss said...

I'm interested to have more specifics. Could you tell us what field this flat earther is talking about?

I once had a discussion where the other person insisted that infrared radiation didn't travel in straight lines (through a vacuum) from the source, like visible light does. And they also drew me a Hg arc lamp spectrum (continuum and atomic lines) that had an intensity increasing toward zero frequency. Let's call it the infrared catastrophe.

There was also the time a physics Nobel laureate gave a public talk that centred around Schrodinger's Cat. He insisted that SC was a real paradox with a superposition of two states: alive and dead. I told him I have never heard of an alive/dead operator and that there are many ways to be dead and alive with so many molecules. His response was to reaffirm that SC was a real paradox and Density Function Theory can show it.

Anonymous said...

I'm in CS and have never heard a senior scientist make an "earth is flat" statement. Occasionally one hears counter-current statements which most people disagree with (e.g. unix isn't da thing), but there is enough reasoning behind them that it would be incorrect to confuse those with crack-pottery. Healthy, reasoned skepticism is good for the field.

Materialist said...

Whether well-published in the field or the time cube guy, if it is a one-time encounter I would go with the smile & nod. Someone who goes around claiming the earth is flat probably has a few hours of arguments memorized, and life is too short to elicit them.

Kea said...

Oh, I see. So you know everything, and everything you know is gospel. Perhaps the eminent scientist is eminent because they can think for themselves. If you are not a theoretical physicist, you really can't make a judgement call on what is or is not crazy at present, given the current status of the field.

Now I wouldn't say that the Earth is flat ... but neutrinos travel faster than the speed of light and the speed of light changes in cosmic time ...

Isabel said...

This is interesting in terms of the reactions to the recent death of Lynn Margulis. I've been fascinated with the responses. Some people seem to have a real interest in painting her as crazy, even exaggerating her "quirks"(rereading many of her writings has made this pretty clear). Whatever you think about her later career, she revolutionized the science of biology, however her later years seemed to overshadow her accomplishments in the minds of many.

John Vidale said...

I know several instances of senior, very respected people proposing ideas that are clearly wrong. Almost always, others have already tried to talk them out of their crazy ideas, and there is little point to arguing further. The worst cases have started the route of self-publishing or publishing only in journals of which they are editors, due to problems getting their ideas out, always a bad idea. There are definitely issues with disagreeing with them.

One problem I had was with a guy purporting to be on the verge of predicting earthquakes (and had been for 20 years), who was in the Institute I was directing. Several times, when I argued against his claims, I heard "But he is in seven national academies!"

TCF said...

Two words: Linus Pauling.

OK, two more words: William Shockley.

Or, I could even make this argument for Noam Chomsky.

In general I find that scientists--if not academics in general--are more than happy to commit the logical fallacy of the appeal to authority. They are especially good at doing this in fields outside their own--"I am a prominent scientist who is an expert on X, and this is why you should listen to my views on [insert political topic of the moment that has noting to do with X]." I'm still trying to figure out, for example, what made Carl Sagan an expert on nuclear disarmament.

To learn they do this in their own fields, as a whitewash to sloppy thinking/poor research/built-in bias, should therefor not be too surprising.