DailyDirt: Crackpots Versus Real Scientists

from the urls-we-dig-up dept

Over a hundred years ago, Albert Einstein published what would become his theory of special relativity, and since then, there have been quite a few experiments that support Einstein's ideas. That's the way science usually works. A theory hypothesis is proposed, and if it's deemed worthy enough, other people will actually try to test out the theory hypothesis and see if its predictions can be verified (and every worthy theory hypothesis needs to be able to predict something that isn't already known). As non-traditional scientific publishing becomes easier and more popular, though, the signal-to-noise for interesting ideas can get a bit difficult to discern. Luckily, there are still some folks willing to bear the burden of debunking extraordinary claims from an endless stream of nearly-good ideas. If you'd like to read more awesome and interesting stuff, check out this unrelated (but not entirely random!) Techdirt post via StumbleUpon.

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 14th, 2013 @ 5:23pm

    "Albert Einstein published his theory of special relativity, and since then, there have been quite a few experiments that support Einstein's ideas."

    Poor Albert makes a fundamental mistake.

    He assumes that time is linear and continuous.

    The assumption for light is that it is made up of discrete particles called photons.

    But with no theory of time he assumes linear and continuous.

    What happens to his theory if time is not linear or continuous but is made up of non equal intervals which are not linear or discrete?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 14th, 2013 @ 5:49pm

    peer reviewed journals...

    need to figure out a new business model.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. icon
    Dirk Ruffly (profile), May 14th, 2013 @ 5:51pm

    Einstein didn't publish a theory of relativity

    Forgive me my pedanticism, but you're using the word "theory" incorrectly, from a scientific perspective. In science, a hypothesis is published and IF the hypothesis withstands scrutiny (i.e. a lot of testing) and IF the hypothesis provides a generally acknowledged useful way to model physical phenomena (especially to predict additional behaviors not known when the hypothesis was proposed) THEN and ONLY THEN does a hypothesis become a theory.

    This is important! For example, when Creationists say "evolution is only a theory" they are almost right ... evolution is a fact that is explained by the Theory of Evolution (i.e. natural selection), which has withstood more than a century of close scrutiny and provides the best explanation of observed phenomena. Similarly, gravity is a fact that is explained by the Theory of Gravity, etc.

    I bring this up because scientists often assign a strict meaning to many words that most of us use quite loosely in daily conversation. We read of "legal theories" here, and watch detective shows where everyone has a "theory" about what happened. Scientific theories are a whole different critter, perhaps more akin to a "legal theory" that's made it all the way up to a unanimous validation by the Supreme Court.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Pseudonym, May 14th, 2013 @ 6:15pm

    Hold on there...

    At least two of these three people are not "crackpots" by the usual definition.

    Vinay Deolalikar is a real scientist. He has done a lot of work in number theory, coding theory, information theory, machine learning, data mining and so on. He is employed as a researcher at HP.

    Deolaikar did not prove that P != NP. However, he is precisely the sort of person who might make significant headway on the problem. He also did investigate a possible plan of attack which had genuinely never been tried before.

    Deolaikar's problem is that of the several P/NP papers a month posted to arXiV, his is the one that went viral. In one sense, that's inevitable, since his was the one not posted by a crackpot. But it's also unfortunate for him, because anything he does with that paper now will be scruitinised to hell and back.

    There may be something in his proof which constitutes an advance on the problem. It's difficult to tell at this stage, and certainly the onus is on him to show it if there is. Unfortunately, thanks to the viral shitstorm, anything he does with the preprint is tainted.

    A Garrett Lisi is also not a crackpot. He is a legitimate theoretical physicist, albeit a minor one. Unlike Deolaikar, He is the first to point out that the preprint for which he is most famous is preliminary and speculative, and has no pretension that it is even close to a major contribution to the field at this stage. He is exactly the sort of person who might produce some preliminary, speculative work which he or others may find useful to build upon into something more solid.

    Once again, it was the subject of a viral shitstorm. In his case, I think he's a victim of his own eccentricity. His slacker surfer lifestyle makes him look like an "outsider", and the mainstream media eats that shit up.

    You could argue that Deolaikar's infamy was at least somewhat deserved: he was a real researcher who claimed to have solved a significant outstanding problem. It's hard to make the same case with Lisi, who never claimed such a thing.

    Shinichi Mochizuki... nobody knows what's up with him. It's once again hard to call him a crackpot. He is a real mathematician, and a brilliant one at that. He is exactly the sort of person who might have cracked (or made significant headway on) the ABC conjecture. Once again, the onus is on him to show that he has, and he hasn't done it.

    Mochizuki's papers have not been "debunked". They haven't even been understood, despite a lot of effort. The only reason why people are going to the trouble is that there's probably something of significant value in his papers, even if it's not a proof of ABC.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. icon
    Michael Ho (profile), May 14th, 2013 @ 6:23pm

    Re: Einstein didn't publish a theory of relativity

    Right you are. I've re-worded the post to fix it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. icon
    Michael Ho (profile), May 14th, 2013 @ 6:30pm

    Re: Hold on there...

    heh. I didn't mean to suggest that these people are crackpots.

    But the number of crackpots who can introduce plausible-sounding papers is growing at a rate that might be concerning... or encouraging, depending on your point of view.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Pseudonym, May 14th, 2013 @ 6:44pm

    Re: Re: Hold on there...

    Yeah, I agree with that.

    Part of the thing is that anyone who has worked in science knows that they could, at any time, produce an interesting idea that may go somewhere. Some of us are even lucky enough to have done this. When that happens, you don't want to oversell it, but you don't want to undersell it either.

    There are rules to the peer review process, and you have to play by them. There is, in theory, no shame in having honestly proposed something that turned out to be wrong. Well, as long as you don't do it consistently. Unfortunately, the more significant the problem is, the higher a chance you have of your half-baked idea going viral before it's ready. So I feel really bad for Lisi, and somewhat bad for Deolalikar. That could have been any of us.

    It's harder to feel bad for Mochizuki, because he did not play by the commonly accepted rules. Those rules are there for your benefit. You are the one who best understands your ideas. If you are good, then you are the biggest critic of your own ideas. But the bigger the problem, the more likely that there's something you overlooked. That's why it's up to you to explain your ideas to other people, so they can help you look for what you missed.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    The Old in The Sea, May 14th, 2013 @ 9:49pm

    Re: Einstein didn't publish a theory of relativity

    You're not being pedantic enough.

    First and foremost. "evolution" is not a fact. However, "change in the next generation" is a fact. The word "evolution" has so many additional connotations even when used in scientific literature. An explanation for this change is mixing of chromosomes from the parents (though this is only part of the explanation - single cells replication being somewhat different). The how, the why and the wherefore is up for grabs. (Put an evolutionist and a creationist in the same room and you will only have two opinions, but put two evolutionists in the same room and there will be at least opinions)

    Secondly, "The Theory of Evolution" is a group of philosophical standpoints. There are various hypotheses in play here. All of them have major problems in their predictive capabilities. If one looks at the processes involved in promulgating "The Theory", one can be surprised by the "religiosity" of the believers. If anything can be said here, "evolutionary theorists" are almost Hindu in their standpoint. I have read the writings of a number of Hindu philosophers and they see "Evolutionary Theory" as being a confirmation of their viewpoint. In like manner, "creationists" are coming from a particular philosophical standpoint.

    Thirdly, "natural selection" is a term for how people observe specific events. It doesn't require "evolutionary theory".

    Fourthly, "gravity" is a term used to describe a particular observation. There is currently no one "Theory of Gravity", even though there are a number of different hypotheses to explain the observations.

    Fifthly, I bring this up because scientists are people and are as affected by the various political, religious and philosophical backgrounds affecting them. There are enough discussions going on in the various science fields relating to what is the current politically correct ideology that must be followed to get funding.

    Just to give an example, "Standard Model of particle physics" has had some good success at predicting "New" particles to be had in high energy collisions. Yet it has some major flaws, one being the ability to predict the binding energy of nuclei. The equation used is (how shall we put it) a bit of a "black magic" equation using quite a number of "magic numbers". Yet, I have come across at least two other "theories" that have better predictions for the nuclear binding energy. Both of these "theories" look at creating models that dispense with some of the "base assumptions" used in the "Standard Model". They use less base assumptions.

    How well these will work will require much further study and they may end up failing in some fundamental ways. But, looking for better simpler explanations (without being too simple) is a goal that is admirable. I have a problem with the "big" theories because they keep adding more epicycles to the models to explain new observations. What we need is another Copernicus to cut through the growing waffle.

    Finally, science is a tool/methodology for investigating the world around us. It has its limits, just like everything else. Unfortunately, there are many who have elevated science to a position that is normally reserved for religions. The result is that honest investigation into the world around us has suffered as a result.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Pixelation, May 14th, 2013 @ 10:02pm

    " Similarly, gravity is a fact that is explained by the Theory of Gravity, etc."

    I hate to disagree with bigbrain guy but Gravity is explained by the large lump on my forehead after too many beers.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    The Old in The Sea, May 14th, 2013 @ 10:05pm

    Re: Re: Re: Hold on there...

    Firstly, what determines a crackpot? Unfortunately, that can be hard to tell at times.

    Secondly, there are problems with the peer review process. Particularly, if what is being proposed is going to upset the "apple cart". It can be a useful tool to sort out or at least highlight problems in the papers being presented, but it can also stop papers that will cause a challenge to the reputation of the reviewers or others. There have been enough examples of this kind of activity over the last century.

    The real question is "How do you determine the gold from the dross?"

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    Anonymous Coward, May 14th, 2013 @ 10:16pm

    Theory and hypothises

    Mr Ho, please oh please, learn some things, learn what a theory is, what a hypotheses is and what a 'law' is. Otherwise you make yourself look really STUPID and ignorant.

    Albert Einstein published what would become his theory of special relativity,

    what bullshit is that, "would become" ??? Albert Einstein published THE THEORY OF SPECIAL AND GENERAL Relativity, it did not "become" that some time after he published it.

    and since then, there have been quite a few experiments that support Einstein's ideas.

    No, it is generally observed and common physics and common daily events that continuously support the published theory (now considered a law) that support the published theory of relativity, not Einstein's idea's.

    The scientific process is an adversarial process, someone proposes a theory and all the other scientists do their best to 'debunk' it. That is how the system works and how progress is made.

    It's not a 'bad thing' as you make out, but an essential aspect of scientific endeavour.

    in science you make a hypothises, develop that into a theory, then everyone tries to 'debunk' or confirm that into a theory, the theory is tested and if it withstands testing and is proved to be valid is becomes a law.

    The law of relativity is proven daily, and proven by the requirement to adjust the clocks on GPS satellites due to their relativistic motion and lower gravity, so it would be consider a law of science, not a hypothises or 'theory', just as Ohm's LAW is a law of physics because it's always obeyed.

    Just as the theory of quantum mechanics is a law, and is the only reason why electronics works and plants grow.

    Einstein did not believe in quantum mechanics, yet it has been proved time and again to be a valid and usable theory/law.

    Wave/particle theory is consider a law of physics, you are able to make predictions with these laws and have not been proven wrong in any situation.

    Try to familiarise yourself with 'the scientific method' and what these terminologies actually mean in a scientific context before you start to cross out words like "theory" and replace it with 'hypotheses' because you do yourself no favour is doing that, in fact I would propose a hypothesis that someone who would do this has a law IQ.

    IF you cannot disprove that, then is might become a theory, and if that theory hold water and is shown able to be used to make valid and real predictions it might even become a law.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    joedpa82, May 15th, 2013 @ 12:28am

    Re: Einstein didn't publish a theory of relativity

    I read your comment with the voice of sheldon sounding in my head. thanks for your explanation.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    The Old Man in The Sea, May 15th, 2013 @ 1:36am

    Re: Theory and hypothises

    Anything that has theory attached to it is NOT a law.

    Hence, "the theory of quantum mechanics" is still only a theory not a law. Hence, "Wave/particle theory" is still only a theory not a law. Hence, "The Special Theory of Relativity" is still only a theory and not a law.

    For anything to become a "law" in science requires some very special considerations. It is in effect very hard to generate a new law in science.

    The general order of events is the following

    Observations -(lead to)-> hypothesis -(leads to)-> further observations and tests -(leads to)-> possible change to hypothesis (and cycle) -(leading to)-> formulation of theory -(leading to)-> possible predictions -(leading to)-> observations -(leading to)-> validation of theory possibility -(leading to)-> further changes in theory/new tests/new hypotheses (and cycle)

    This is scientific method 101

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    Anonymous, May 15th, 2013 @ 3:48am

    Re: Re: Einstein didn't publish a theory of relativity

    Pass the syrup, strawberry preserves, and a knife, and I'll cut through it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    The Old Man in The Sea, May 15th, 2013 @ 4:44am

    Re: Re: Re: Einstein didn't publish a theory of relativity

    Don't forget the ice cream, just not chocolate chip.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 15th, 2013 @ 5:31am


    Science is all about theorising and then proving the theory.

    Einstein had some amazing theory's which have greatly advanced our understanding of the universe.

    Even if his theory of special relativity were wrong (it has been repeatedly proven right by the way) I am sure that Einstein as a scientist would have welcomed it!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. identicon
    Anonymous, May 15th, 2013 @ 12:15pm


    I'm reminded of the first episode of "Star Trek: Deep Space 9". Supposedly the wormhole aliens have no concept of linear time and don't understand it. Yet when referring to Sisko, one of them says, "We must destroy it before it destroys us". Um, doesn't the use of the word "before" (and the whole sentence, really) show that they DO understand linear time?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. identicon
    Pseudonym, May 15th, 2013 @ 5:31pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Hold on there...

    You have a point, but I should point out that cases of genuine breakthroughs which deal an effective blow to traditional orthodoxy made by mavericks who don't play by the rules are notable precisely because they're rare.

    The overwhelming majority of major breakthroughs are made by people working within the peer review process, because we don't have a better alternative.

    Upsetting the apple cart is actually a desirable thing in science. If someone could actually disprove an orthodoxy, it would make that person's career.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. icon
    Niall (profile), May 21st, 2013 @ 6:22am

    Re: Re:

    Well, they may not understand being limited to time in a particular way. It's all a big ball of timey-wimey stuff after all.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. icon
    Niall (profile), May 21st, 2013 @ 6:48am

    Re: Re: Einstein didn't publish a theory of relativity

    The very simple difference is that science makes predictions that CAN BE TESTED and is falsifiable. No religion can do that. Claiming that people 'believing' in science, no matter how strongly, qualifies any science as 'a religion' is seriously moving the goalposts. So little children have the 'Santa religion'? What about 'Tooth-fairyism' and 'The Grand Church of the Easter Bunny'?

    Arguments like these, while they do have some good philosophical elements, largely boil down to people who have issues with science trying to drag it down to the level of religion. Possibly there are philisophical issues with science, but in the end, it WORKS, and unlike religion generally, it self-corrects and advances. Not since the early days of Islam have I seen any religion trying to actually advance science and the knowledge of Man.

    Yes science is only a tool, but it's a damn effective one, and for many of us it's infinitely better than authoritarian hand-me-downs from the Bronze Age.

    You can't complain that science is no use because it's not perfect - that's the point of science. We learn, we add to it, and we develop new ideas and theories.

    I've also noticed a lot of science-deniers fixate on "what ideology is needed for funding", conveniently ignoring that many of the 'anti-science' positions are equally well-funded, if not more so. Science funding is not some sinecure for life, where one has to just publish one thing and lay back in comfort (join the RIAA for that). Science requires justifying everything you do to people who also know the topic, and relies heavily on being published, which only happens reliably if you *convince* people of being correct. It's not logic games or appeals to authority like religious apologetics and debate often are. Unlike religion (or even philosophy), Science doesn't claim to have all of the answers, especially not 'right now'.

    Gravity happens. Evolution happens. In this sense, they are factual statements of what happens about us. There are hypotheses and (scientfic) theories about these which need investigated, but it doesn't invalidate it. As they are different sciences, there are differences in the levels of these. Gravity is more observable than Evolution, but we probably have better theories (and more evidence of mechanisms) of Evolution.

    Natural selection is just one element of evolution (see Dawkins' "The Greatest Show on Earth"). Just because you can subdivide Evolution, and some bits are better understood than others, doesn't mean you can invalidate it as an incredibly powerful description of historical, current and future life any more than doubts about black holes invalidate the ability of an airplane to fly.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21. identicon
    juanchogespacho, Dec 6th, 2013 @ 10:16am

    Re: Re: Theory and hypothises

    Wrong on all counts. This is so wrong I do not even know where to start.

    You are perpetuating persistent MYTHS.

    * There is NO such thing as a singular step by step "method" that all scientists follow or must follow. Scientists use literally THOUSANDS of very different methodS in different specialties.

    * There is NO heirarchy between hypotheses, theories and laws. Laws are NOT immutable. That is NOT even a characteristic of a law! Laws could changed tomorrow eith new evidence, realization of past mistakes or newly gained perspectives. There is NOT ANYTHING that makes a law above opr better than a theory.

    These are ALL different animals that serve different roles. One can NEVER become another.

    They differ in BREADTH, NOT leve of support.

    Hypotheses have multiple lines of evidence behind them and can be SO complex they are best described in the form of a computer program.

    You are very misinformed. I suggest "University of California at Berkely Misconceptions About Science'

    What we all earned in 7th grade- the poster version is erroneous NONSENSE AND MISINFORMATION.

    Little, if any, science is done that way....

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22. identicon
    juanchogespacho, Dec 6th, 2013 @ 11:39am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Hold on there...

    Very true.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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