Are you a quack?

This page is dedicated to the many people who have occasionally drifted into my office, or sent me e-mail, or even mailed me their books, eager to tell me about their new theory, which they know will turn all known physics on its head, even though they have only studied an infinitesimal fraction of the latter. Some of them are just ignorant or naive, but are willing to learn; this page is not about them.

There is a distinction between "artistic" scientists & true quacks. The former have some bold new hypotheses (i.e., educated guesses) that have not completely confronted reality. (A former advisor of mine had a bumper-sticker-like sign in his office that went something like, "Your new theory is beautiful and elegant. Too bad it's wrong.") The latter have old ideas that have been fudged to try to reproduce some of the results of new ideas. (For example, anyone sticking to Ptolemaic epicycles after the advent of Copernicus & Kepler would fall into this category. Fairy tales are also old ideas.) Real quacks would not even make good science fiction authors.

On the other hand, there are also "pessimistic" scientists. They do not reject proven science, but refuse to consider new conjectures until they have been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. Unfortunately, playing it safe seldom leads to new discoveries. ("Nothing ventured, nothing gained.") These also differ from quacks, who tend to reject proven science of much (if not all) of the 20th century.

Quacks (also known as "crackpots" or "cranks") have several well-known mental conditions in common with other conspiracy theorists:

It is easy to distinguish the quacks; although they may seem reasonable at first, they degenerate into absurdity progressively with any conversation. This is because quacks are organic forms of artificial intelligence: They would not pass the Turing test applied to a physics conversation. (This might be a good problem for a computer science student: Write a quack program, designed to sound as much like a true physicist as possible, then allow it to engage in a conversation with a real quack.) They simply copy and paste text & equations they have found in 19th century literature, introductory physics textbooks, or the web, none of which they understand well enough to pass a test in school. (A musical description of them can be found in the song "Swinging on a Star", especially the mule & fish parts.) Whenever questioned on any of their errors, they reply with repetition, non sequiturs, or insults. Eventually the true quacks make the same remarks, some version of almost all those listed below. Generally, their comments are of 3 types:

    Attacks on established theories, based on distaste and fear

  1. "I have proven that special relativity/quantum mechanics/... is wrong."
    You mean you did an experiment whose results disagree with the predictions of that theory? I didn't think so. You mean you proved it is self-contradictory? Not possible: Mathematically it's an elementary system, whose consistency is easy to check. You might as well claim that you can prove 2+2=5. (If you think you can do that, I'm willing to give you $2+$2 change for a $5 bill.) If you think you have found an inconsistency, you have probably made an assumption that is not implied by the theory. The fact is that these theories are not only well confirmed by experiment, but practical use is made of them every single day.

    Note: You will not dispell a quack's distaste for modern physics by relating it to classical physics, since they usually do not understand that either. This is an unusual example of "Familiarity breeds contempt."

    Quacks seem to dislike modern physics literally because of the word "relativity": In their attacks, they focus on what is relative, not on what is absolute. They know special relativity says time is relative, but don't understand (or care) that proper time is absolute. In rejecting relativity, they replace it with the ether, rejecting even Galilean relativity, because they refuse to accept that even velocity can be relative. They know general relativity says reference frames are arbitrary, but don't know that it's curvature that displays the physics. They've heard that the uncertainty principle says there are things you can't measure, but don't know what you can measure. Apparently they view modern physics as an attempt to limit their personal freedom. Their egotism does not allow them to accept any frame of reference as equal to their own.

    Consequently they are basically 19th century physicists, except for the fact that they don't understand even that. They focus on attacking the physics of the 1st quarter of the 20th century & its results, oblivious to the fact that it is backed up by all the dependent theories & results since then. They want to return to the "good old days", & constantly refer to archaic papers, as if history had anything to say about recent experimental results.

    Thus quacks are in perfect agreement with the alleged statement of the Commissioner of the US Patent Office in 1899, "Everything that can be invented has been invented." So it's not surprising they reject ideas developed by someone while working @ the Swiss Patent Office a good several years later.

    Quacks are dogmatists: Their point of view is a belief. A belief is something one assumes to be true because one wants it to be true. They only come up with "proofs" or "evidence" to sway non-believers to their belief. So you can waste your time disproving all their fallacies, but it won't matter to them, because they were invented only for you, & are totally irrelevant to their conviction.

    For those of you quacks who want to know what it's like trying to explain 20th century physics to someone like you, I suggest you go to this web site and try to explain 19th century physics to the people there.

  2. "But it's obvious nonsense!"
    Then why does it work so well?

  3. "You're wrong!"
    That's just contradiction, not an argument.

  4. "BUT I HAVE PROVEN YOU WRONG!!"
    I already responded to that remark. And your caps lock key is stuck.
    (Maybe you should use a bigger font.)

    Update: I have already been yelled @ with a much bigger font --- another prediction confirmed.

    Promotion of a new unified theory, based on laziness and pride

  5. "My theory is prettier than the accepted one."
    Take it to an art dealer.

  6. "But Einstein/Feynman/... himself said that a theory must be pretty."
    You have already admitted you reject their theories.

  7. "My theory is better philosophically".
    Take it to church.

  8. "My theory agrees with the Bible/Quran/..."
    The author of that book has not written any papers with testable predictions. Furthermore, many of the claims of that book are disputed (quite violently) in most parts of the world.

  9. "My theory cures the common cold".
    Take it to the hospital. (You now qualify as a quack in the strictest sense.)

  10. "My theory makes more sense."
    What could possibly make more sense than to have a theory that agrees with nature, as determined by experiment? If your theory only makes you feel better about its subject, it is a placebo, not a cure.

  11. "Experimental verification isn't important in science."
    Look up "scientific method" in the dictionary. Science is the study of the real world. If you make a claim in court, you need real evidence to back it up. If you make a bet, you have to provide a way to test that bet in a way that is unambiguous. It must be either right or wrong; there is no third alternative for a meaningful statement.

    Note: The quacks I get are always theorists. I don't think that's just an accident, or because I'm also a theorist, but because theory is easier for quacks than experiments. (People who do cold fusion or sell snake oil are a level above these sorts.) It never occurs to them that there are a large number of experiments with which their new theory must agree.

    The only response I have ever gotten from a quack to that criticism was that all the experimenters had purposely misinterpreted their raw data to make it agree with accepted theory. This was in spite of the facts that:

    1. He had never seen the raw data.
    2. He had no clue as to how the experiment was done.
    3. He didn't know any of the experimenters, at least not enough to slander their integrity.
    4. The experiments were performed by many groups of people over a period of 60 years.
    5. The first such experiment preceded the first theoretical calculation of the quantity.
    6. His own prediction was 10,000,000 standard deviations off of the most recent experimental and theoretical ones (although it's doubtful he knew what a "standard deviation" was).
    7. His theory was not capable of describing the dynamics necessary to perform any experiment to measure the quantity.
    Apparently this quack was under the impression that all experimenters and theorists were part of a huge conspiracy, dating back decades (if not centuries), to unanimously support one theory. (If only cooperation between scientists were that good...) This is another example of how quacks are ignorant not only of physics, but also of psychology.

  12. "My theory doesn't need any complicated math."
    Then how do you calculate anything? Science is not just knowing "what goes up must come down", but when and where it comes down.

    Note: Quacks come in slightly different levels of sophistication in math. Some use only words, and no numbers whatsoever, but lots of pictures. (However, with today's technology, it's easy for some of them to copy & paste equations they think look nice.) The worst one I ever corresponded with claimed that dimensions did not physically exist, but were just abstract mathematical concepts, and you could never prove the existence of anything unless you could do it without equations. After giving him the examples of directions, he claimed that "up" and "down" did not physically exist.

    Better ones actually know arithmetic, but no algebra, so even E=mc2 is usually beyond them. They will quote lots of numbers, which they "predicted" by some numerology, but never functions (like cross sections). They don't understand units, or conventions, and will not appreciate that some constants of nature may be more natural with extra factors of 2π or so, or that some are actually not constants (like running couplings).

    Since quacks never get over special relativity & quantum mechanics, even the ones who "re-derive" those results never get to doing the same for general relativity or quantum field theory. They take great pride in what they take as reproducing the physics of Maxwell's equations or maybe even the Schrödinger equation, but have no awareness of the equations of Dirac or Einstein (gravity). They have no understanding of the meaning of "approximation" or "perturbation expansion". The worst don't even know how to make order of magnitude estimates, to determine what is & isn't relevant to a problem. One actually told me that in the problem of an artificial satellite orbiting the Earth, the motion of the Earth about the true center of their mutual orbit was not negligible, in spite of the fact that the satellite's mass was over 20 orders of magnitude smaller than the Earth's.

  13. "Numbers aren't important in science."
    I guess you can throw out your clock.

  14. "How you explain something is more important than the numbers."
    Try that the next time you pay a bill.

  15. "You have to spend some time studying my theory."
    I already spent some time: You don't need to eat a whole apple to know it's rotten. How much time did you spend getting an education in physics?

  16. "Why don't you spend some time telling me what's wrong with my theory?"
    Why don't you take a course? That's what they're for: So that many people can be taught the same thing at the same time, making more efficient use of the instructor's time. The instructor's office hours are for those who already took their own time studying the course material.

  17. "My theory totally replaces the accepted one."
    Sorry, science doesn't work that way. Why do you think theories get accepted in the first place? Because scientists like them? No, because experiments verify them. And if some experiment agrees with some theory, that fact isn't changed by the invention of a new theory. The worst (or best) that can happen is that a new experiment disagrees with that theory, or an old experiment is done more accurately and is no longer in perfect agreement. Then the old theory is recognized as an approximation to the truth, that doesn't apply in all situations, or works only to so many decimal places. That's why classical mechanics is still taught in spite of quantum mechanics, and nonrelativistic mechanics is still taught in spite of special relativity, and your neighborhood butcher didn't throw away his scales when general relativity was discovered. And even if you or someone else eventually finds a replacement for special relativity or quantum mechanics, it will not change the fact that experiments have already proven nonrelativistic physics and classical physics to be wrong. You can only go forward, not backward; there is no nostalgia in physical law, it is not fashion.

  18. "I know my theory is right, without wasting my time learning the accepted theories."
    Science doesn't work that way, either. The fact is, the accepted theories already work, so why replace them? To start with, you have to reproduce all the correct results of the established theories: That means you first have to learn those theories, then check that your new theory can successfully reproduce their correct results. After all, if they're so wrong, why do they work so well? Secondly, to replace the old theories, you have to do better: Successfully predict something the old theories don't. In other words, your new theory has to agree with the old theories where they agree with experiment, and also agree with experiment where the old theory disagrees. But how would you know all that if you haven't studied the old theories in the first place? Would you read a movie review by someone who didn't see the movie?

  19. "I can explain all of physics, and I didn't need to go to graduate school or study any graduate textbooks."
    Would you allow yourself to be operated on by a surgeon who never went to med school? "Oh, yeah, all that medicine they teach in college is a waste of time. I learned surgery all by myself at home! Yeah, from the internet! Oh, lots of practice -- every Thanksgiving, when I carve the turkey! I even removed my own X-organ! That's what those stupid M.D.'s call a liver -- or is it a spleen? And I didn't even need an anesthetic! Now just hold still while I make the initial carv-, er, incision..."

    Personal attacks, as a diversion from their failure

  20. "That's what they told Galileo."
    I know Galileo, and you're no Galileo. On the contrary, you're one of "they", people who, without any evidence in their favor, contradict real scientists. (Actually, "they" to whom you refer have been dead for over 300 years. The world has changed a bit since then.)

    Note: Quacks usually contradict Galileo, by rejecting Galilean relativity. They also often personally attack Einstein, claiming his useful stuff was done by Lorentz, who found fewer results based on more assumptions (like ether). I even got one claim that Voigt did Lorentz transformations 1st, ignoring the fact that he got them wrong. Apparently, being 1st is more important than being right. That allows them to stay in the 19th century, & pretend special relativity is wrong because Einstein didn't discover anything.

  21. "The establishment always rejects new ideas."
    2+2=5 isn't new, but it is wrong. Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean you're right. Actually, there is no "establishment" in science: Scientists often disagree, until nature (through experiment) determines who's right, just like people making a bet. But quacks always welsh on their bets, never admitting they're wrong.

  22. "I knew you were going to say that!"
    1. Then why are we having this conversation?
    2. Then that is the first prediction you have made that has proven true.

  23. "I knew you wouldn't listen, you scientists are too arrogant and closed-minded."
    Look in the mirror.

    Note: Quacks, like criminals, often blame others for their own crimes. They call real science "belief". If you try to explain to a quack the actual physics at even high school level, he will immediately claim that you are the one who is ignorant.

    The amazing thing is that many quacks claim to have read this very page, & yet repeat the exact mistakes listed here. They have a predictable, uncontrollable compulsion to make these same errors. When realizing they have done so, their guilt then forces them to accuse me of those very faults.

  24. "I'm going to talk to a real scientist instead."
    Good luck.

    Note: Long ago a professor of mine told me that he got letters from 2 quacks, so he forwarded each's letter to the other. He got back an angry letter from one saying, "Why did you introduce me to this quack?"

  25. "I spend my time helping humanity, you waste your time on garbage."
    No, you waste your time trying to convince people who know their theories work that they don't, when all the evidence is in their favor. I only spend part of my time on garbage, and only when it contacts me first.

  26. "You %$#@@%# $% #%#* *#%!!"
    You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.

    Note: Some quacks have blogs, to try to attract moral support from other quacks. I found one such site devoted exclusively to attempted character assassination of physicists. I was criticized for my physical attributes, including some bigotry I haven't heard since elementary school. Quacks are totally oblivious to the fact that childish behavior serves only to destroy any shred of credibility they might have had left, & they will not hesitate to disseminate this as widely as possible. (Apparently their parents never taught them internet manners.)

Mental illness is common, but most of the afflicted can still function in today's society (although often this is because they are retired). Most people continue to use computers, even if some deny the science they are based upon. (Quacks are hypocrites as well as ingrates.) The situation is less serious in physics than biology: Some people pass laws to prohibit or restrict the teaching of evolution, but there have been no serious attempts to outlaw special relativity or quantum mechanics since the days of Hitler & Stalin (which failed because nuclear science required them). Fortunately, the world depends on the technology derived from modern physics for its economy, communication, leisure, etc.