Tuning Up Your Crank Filters

Vic Stenger
 Skeptical Briefs "Reality Check" June, 2001


Over my many years of teaching physics, I received an enormous amount of what is called "crank mail." These were letters, articles, and sometimes even personally published books that proposed some great new theory to explain the universe. Since I was mildly curious about what they had to say and did not immediately trash them, my colleagues began to pass their collections on to me. I will not claim that I studied them all in detail. This would have taken all my time and more, since the material was often quite voluminous and filled with complex equations and diagrams.

So, I gradually developed a set of filters that I could use to quickly discard what was worthless. In almost forty years, not a single unsolicited item passed through. Perhaps my filters were too narrow, but I can somewhat justify my criteria by the fact that none of the claims that I discarded ever became established science. This might be blamed on scientific dogmatism, but I don't buy that. If any of these ideas had real merit, much less the revolutionary implications asserted, it could not have been kept down. Some mainstream scientist, somewhere, would have seized the opportunity to collaborate with the author and share a Nobel prize.

 Today, with the Internet, the amount of crank material has multiplied exponentially. I get regular e-mails from people all over the world asking me to check out their theories of the universe. CSICOP gets them as well, and usually feeds them to me as possible material for this column. Most of the new cranks have elaborate Web pages that promote their theories in great detail, accompanied by beautiful illustrations and even animations. You can go to the web site, http://www.crank.net/ to find links to these pages along with the "Crank o' the Day" which is chosen each night at midnight. This site also contains a small number of anti-crank links. I wish it had more.

 A large number of the crank theories that I see assert boldly that "Einstein was wrong." CrankDotNet contains fifteen sites on this subject alone. Even more sites have to do with quantum mechanics, and these usually also contain references to Einstein's supposed errors. You can find forty-nine such sites by clicking http://www.crank.net/quantum.html.

Not all crank sites are innocuous. Many are commercial pleas for investments to fund research on the proposed theory, with the eye toward developing some world-shaking new product that will make billions for the investors. Often this involves some sort of cheap source of energy, or mind-over-matter devices--some even patented. CrankDotNet lists many sites on Cold Fusion, Zero Point Energy, and other inventions designed to save the world. Even the giant Toshiba fell for the Cold Fusion scheme, so investors beware!

 The Internet is a great source of information. But it is largely unedited information, which means that you, as the reader, have to do your own editing and filtering. With my years of experience, I find that relatively simple and am still able to efficiently extract much valuable information for my own work that previously required a very great effort. No doubt, my life has been made much easier with the Internet. Let me indicate some of the filters I use to avoid being bogged down by cranks and other useless material:

 When you read an article in a scientific journal, or even a newspaper, someone beside the author has provided additional input to what you read--some selection and checking of subject matter and correction of errors. One characteristic that signals many crank web sites is their misspellings, poor grammar, and typographical errors. This is a sure sign that you a reading mindless ramblings. So, one of the first filters you can apply is a quick glance at the text. If it is crude, ungrammatical, and contains obvious errors, move on to another link. Of course, you might allow some slack for those from non-English speaking nations, but remember that English-language journals do not accept any broken English submissions. If an author expects you to take the trouble to study his work, you have the right to expect him to take some trouble in making it readable to you.

 Next, look for some kind of summary or abstract that presents the basic ideas. If this is absent, you can move on. Again, if the author cannot go to the trouble of providing this, he has no right to expect you to take your valuable time to dig deeper.

 The abstract should give you sufficient reason to read further. If it does not, then don't bother. Here are some of the things to look out for in the abstract: claims of persecution or conspiracies; claims of logical errors in long-established theories; claims of great, revolutionary implications; claims of something for nothing. These are all possible, but very unlikely. Decide whether it is worth your time to probe deeper.

 If the claim is a scientific one, then the abstract should tell you up-front what experiment might be done to test it. Is it falsifiable? Is the experiment feasible? If the only claim is to fit already existing data, then why bother? Current theories already do that. Where is the new theory simpler or otherwise preferable?

 If the site passes these filters, you might want to look at the author's credentials and list of publications. While amateurs play an important role in some sciences, such as astronomy, I know of no example in the history of science since Newton where an untutored individual has made an important theoretical advance. You can point to great tinkerers like Edison and Tesla, of course, but these dealt with applications of phenomena for which theories were separately developed.

Of course, if you are looking for a few laughs, then the crank web sites are a good source.

Vic Stenger is Professor Emeritus of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Hawaii and Visiting Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Colorado. His latest book is Timeless Reality: Symmetry, Simplicity, and Multiple Universes, (Prometheus 2000). He can be reached by e-mail at vstenger@mindspring.com. His web page is at http://spot.colorado.edu/~vstenger/.