A Peculiar, Recurring Challenge

Not infrequently, crackpot physics papers attain a level of wrongness where trying to point to specific mistakes is useless, and a critique of the specifics collapses down to “just take a physics class” — true, but unhelpful to the curious bystander. The physicist, trying to say anything substantive, ends up picking out psychological “tells”, like the suspiciously convenient mention of too many famous big problems all in a row. There are no solid particulars of physics to discuss, so we end up talking psychology and sociology. I find the psychological questions that arise quite fascinating. Why, for example, is the population of pseudophysics perpetrators so heavily skewed to the male? But, in general, it is difficult to take physics and mathematics crankery and find interesting comments to say about it. All these years later, and the circle still refuses to square.

I’m reminded of self-proclaimed mega-genius Christopher Langan, whose “Cognitive Theoretic Model of the Universe” mixed incoherence, impenetrability and arrogance. As one of my fellow science bloggers put it back in the day:

I have no idea what he means by “replacing set-theoretic objects with syntactic operators” – but I do know that what he wrote makes no sense – it’s sort of like saying “I’m going to fix the sink in my bathroom by replacing the leaky washer with the color blue”, or “I’m going to fly to the moon by correctly spelling my left leg.”

My personal favorite might be the parenthetical clarification, “conspansion consists of two alternative phases accounting for the wave and particle properties of matter and affording a logical explanation for accelerating cosmic expansion”. Words words words words, words words!

A kind of “security by obscurity” sometimes operates in cases like these, where the total lack of solid material to criticize leads to indifference and silence from established scientists. This “why bother?” response then becomes fodder for the pseudophysicist to claim that the academy is too stuffy to understand his work, or even actively censoring it. The truth is less dramatic, though not without its own interest to old-fashioned students of human nature.