In memory of Martin Gardner (1914-2010), he wrote a prescient essay in 1950, entitled “The Hermit Scientist”. What comes to mind for me is a memory I have of a conversation with Roger Callahan in the early 2000s, where he told me he felt nobody, not even the people who studied with him, truly understood his work. He informed me that he thought that I came closest of anyone who had studied with him (at the time of his remark, of course, not anymore), but after something I had said he did not agree with, he informed me that not even I, completely understood his work.
I will present a quote from Michael Shermer’s synopsis in his Scientific American column, of the essay without further comment, since the reason it is relevant to this blog, speaks for itself.
How can we tell if someone is a scientific crank? Gardner offers this advice: (1) “First and most important of these traits is that cranks work in almost total isolation from their colleagues.” Cranks typically do not understand how the scientific process operates — that they need to try out their ideas on colleagues, attend conferences and publish their hypotheses in peer-reviewed journals before announcing to the world their startling discovery. Of course, when you explain this to them they say that their ideas are too radical for the conservative scientific establishment to accept. (2) “A second characteristic of the pseudo-scientist, which greatly strengthens his isolation,is a tendency toward paranoia,” which manifests
itself in several ways:
- He considers himself a genius.
- He regards his colleagues, without exception, as ignorant blockheads …
- He believes himself unjustly persecuted and discriminated against. The recognized societies refuse to let him lecture. The journals reject his papers and either ignore his books or assign them to “enemies” for review. It is all part of a dastardly plot. It never occurs to the crank that this opposition may be due to error in his work …
- He has strong compulsions to focus his attacks on the greatest scientists and the best-established theories. When Newton was the outstanding name in physics, eccentric works in that science were violently anti-Newton. Today, with Einstein the father symbol
of authority, a crank theory of physics is likely to attack Einstein …
- He often has a tendency to write in a complex jargon, in many
cases making use of terms and phrases he himself has coined.
We should keep these criteria in mind when we explore controversial ideas on the borderlands of science. “If the present trend continues,” Gardner concludes, “we can expect a wide variety of these men, with theories yet unimaginable, to put in their appearance in the years immediately ahead. They will write impressive books, give inspiring lectures, organize exciting cults. They may achieve a following of one — or one million. In any case, it will be well for ourselves and for society if we are on our guard against them.” So we still are, Martin. That is what skeptics do, and in tribute for all you have done, we shall continue to honor your founding command.