Signs of a crank: recognizing pseudoscience

This wonderful list is by well-known skeptic Brian Dunning, who runs the Skeptoid blog. He adapted it from late mathematician Martin Gardner’s book Fads & Fallacies in the Name of Science

It’s surprising, and a little bit frightening, how well some popular, self-proclaimed scientists who work against salmon farming fit these points.

• Cranks tend to work in isolation from their colleagues. This is conducive to drifting far afield. If you want to stay abreast of the latest developments, you usually want to be part of the community. If you’re not, you proceed unchecked, and you lack the checks and balances and corrections of peer review. Isolation is rarely or never the best way to insure that your work is on track.

• Cranks tend to be paranoid. They worry that their important discoveries are being spied upon, that evil forces are out to destroy their reputations, that colleagues are conspiring to suppress their discoveries. Nobody doing legitimate science, or working within the scientific method, has any plausible reason to be paranoid about such things. Can any legitimate scientist recall the last time they conspired to suppress good work?

• Cranks tend to consider themselves geniuses. Cranks tend to learn early on that their work is pretty unique. For some reason they often fail to consider the possibility that this uniqueness is for any reason other than its utter brilliance. “I’m the only one smart enough to see this” a pretty clear red flag. Beware of anyone who claims unique insight.

• Cranks tend to regard their colleagues and critics as stupid. The Dunning-Kruger effect (no relation to me) is expressed when people of mediocre ability are unable to perceive their own mediocrity, and unable to comprehend that others may be smarter or more capable than they. When a crank sees a colleague doing different work or coming to different conclusions, it may well be that his own incompetence prevents him from understanding that it’s possible for others to be smarter. Therefore, the colleagues’ different conclusions can only be due to their stupidity.

• Cranks tend to believe there is a conspiracy against them. Why will nobody publish their paper or invite them to speak at conferences? Is it because their work is poor? No, it must be a conspiracy to protect to status quo and to suppress innovation. A crank is so convinced of his own correctness that there doesn’t seem to be any rational reason for the community to dispute his work, therefore a conspiracy seems to be a better explanation.

• Cranks tend to criticize the work of big names in science. Einstein is usually the favorite. When a good scientist finds a flaw in established theory, that theory rarely happens to be from one of the big names in science; not because the big names are special or infallible, but simply because the huge number of scientists in the world dilutes the big names down to a tiny percentage. Cranks probably tend to go after big names because their own limited expertise makes them more familiar with the big names than with the actual science being done in the field. Have you ever doubted Einstein, at a time when you could genuinely claim to have a thorough understanding of all the work done since his time?

• Cranks tend to invent their own terminology, sometimes their own sciences, and tend to write in their own overcomplicated jargon. Beware of the article that discusses a science with terminology not found on Wikipedia. Beware of any scientist that invents his own name for a new science. Obviously all new sciences do originally need to be named, but the number of crank theories with made-up names is much, much larger. And beware of any article that is written with such jargon in an overcomplicated way that makes no sense. Don’t jump to the conclusion that the author is smarter than you; he may simply be a crank.

The point of this blog is not to assassinate anyone’s character. But when we created our Twitter account this morning, and started following people, we immediately noticed the latest posts from Ms. Alexandra Morton and/or her followers on the “salmonaresacred” account.

We are aware of Ms. Morton and her position, and her work, and don’t plan on singling her out, but this needs to be commented on:

Alexandra Morton: “If ISA virus is in BC, I hope the #salmon farmers and the governments of BC and Canada are insured”http://ow.ly/6UddM

ISA? In B.C.? Of course, we clicked the link which takes us to a long, rambling essay about why salmon farms are killing Fraser River sockeye. There are huge, flashing red warning lights which appear reading the conclusion:

The biology of the fluctuating Fraser sockeye returns is a pattern of exceptional clarity. With healthy sockeye runs occurring in the Columbia River, the sockeye of western Vancouver Island that migrate through Port Alberni Inlet, where there are no salmon farms, and even in the Harrison sockeye which originate from the Fraser River, but avoid the clusters of salmon farms by migrating to sea around southern Vancouver Island, our attention is drawn to the waters off eastern Vancouver Island. It is only the salmon that swim through those waters that are fluctuating unpredictably. The evidence hereinsuggests the unknown variable/s are salmon farm-origin pathogens.

Warning! Warning! Danger Will Robinson! Fallacy alert! First of all, last time we checked, there were salmon farms on the West Coast of Vancouver Island. Are the Harrison sockeye salmon passing by there? Has anyone checked? This is a huge assumption based on an extremely weak correlation.

The sockeye appeared to be dying of a cancer-causing virus that originated in salmon farms on the narrowest portion of the Fraser sockeye migration route. The geography, pathology, flutuations and timing all fit perfectly.

Another warning light should be flashing frantically here.

There is no self-criticism or caution here. Reading through the paper and then through her blog postings it’s obvious Ms. Morton has started with a conclusion and worked backwards; views herself as smarter than everyone else; presents herself as a curator and interpreter of limited and secret knowledge; and will name-drop and cherry-pick whatever it takes to make her point.

No offence meant to her, but this is deeply disturbing, and not just her conclusions. If they are actually true, they should stand up to scrutiny, and should be able to be proved. But given how her conclusion seems to be “there is a huge risk, there is a conspiracy to cover it up, the solution is to stop salmon farming” we doubt there is any real proof for this.

And this certainly seems to fit into the “crank” category. Let’s see how seriously the mainstream media takes it.

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4 thoughts on “Signs of a crank: recognizing pseudoscience”

  1. Thank you for a great article it apppears to be a phenomena on Vancouver island where any opinion other than the enviroexperts is either utterly wrong or a campaign of propaganda by government lackeys. I am very alarmed by the number of “anonymous” unsubstantiated experts who never can provide any information on their background or funding sources. It seems you are either left or wrong these days!

  2. You missed another “Fallacy Alert”. The claim that Chinook farming ceased in 2007 along the “Fraser River migration” is BS. Ignoring the fact that every channel is a potential migratory route, this claim is a pure lie;

    Two Chinook salmon farms continue to operate on the East side of Vancouver Island (several operate on the West of the Island). Given the fact these were operating when the record run (35 million) of Fraser sockeye outmigrated in 2008 & returned in 2010, that puts another bullet in the “theory”.

    It was very nice of Judge Cohen to allow this into evidence – so we can see that her media catching speaking points aren’t backed up with evidence at all.

    1. Good point Greg, thanks for adding that one!

      We are not scientists – just die-hard fans of science – but it seems to us a little bit ridiculous that salmon MUST have gone past that one farm and MUST have gotten sick because of that one farm. Too many qualifiers. And where’s the evidence? Do we know if the salmon even went past that farm? And like you point out what about the other two Chinook farms?

      I’m not saying that it’s impossible for diseases from a Chinook farm to infect wild salmon swimming by. But how plausible is it? And how many other factors are affecting wild salmon survivability at the same time? Why pick this one over all the others?

      That is what sets off the alarm bells. Why fixate on this one highly unlikely scenario?

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