An unfortunate practice has come to be an inescapable part of modern journalism. This is the introduction of “false balance” to any subject. I have written about that before, but I have only now really figured out a reasonable counter for it. During this morning’s drive to work, I was listening to the Point of Inquiry podcast. The host, Chris Mooney, was interviewing the head of the National Center for Science Education, Dr. Eugenie Scott. The topic was the recent decision of the NCSE to begin focusing on Climate Change Denial.
As the two discussed the overlap of Climate Change Denialists with Evolution denialists, I wondered about the lack of a means of identifying those individuals who are considered cranks by their peers. There certainly must be a reasonable means for doing so. Absent anything in the literature, I will take a first stab at it (I will call the individual under scrutiny the “test subject”):
First, the field of the test subject should be a recognized field of study. That is to say we should not need to proceed any further once we realize the test subject is a homeopath or astrologer. The bar for this should be fairly low. I say that since there are such pursuits as chiropractic wherein a fairly sizable fraction are non-cranks.
Second, we find whether the test subject is working in his own field. A number of true experts within the bounds of their own fields become crackpots when they leave those bounds. Linus Pauling was a brilliant scientist who became an advocate of curing cancer with vitamins. An unfortunate number of medical doctors and engineers fall victim to extrapolating their abilities into foreign fields of study.
Third, the test subject should be an expert in his subject. He needn’t be particularly well-known, but he should be recognized as an expert by other experts. Note that it often happens that a single instance of apparent crackpottery is enough to damage one’s “expert” credentials for life.
Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, the test subject should not be considered a crackpot by his peers. This one is important. If colleague thinks you’re crazy, maybe it’s him. If you think everybody else is crazy, maybe it’s you.
If such indicators inform a journalist’s treatment of her subject, she will be doing a service to her profession and to her audience.
In all my readings, I only know of two individuals who were “laughed at” yet turned out to be correct.
Alfred Wegener was a respected geophysicist with notable contributions in meteorology and climatology. In his studies, he noticed similarities between creatures, living and fossil, in facing coasts. After much research, he wrote The Origins of Continents and Oceans. Despite his reputation, many reacted negatively to his claims. He would continue to contribute to the the fields of meteorology and geophysics as a professor at the University of Graz until his death during field work. It was only matter of time before geophysics caught up enough to provide a mechanism for Wegener’s continental drift.
The other was a real crank, whose lack of understanding of basic physics proved to be a boon. Guglielmo Marconi’s failure to grasp that electromagnetic radiation travels in straight lines (and thus generally require line-of-sight for transmission) caused him to attempt over-the-horizon transmission by simply increasing the power. Given that he was using spark-gap signal, the power involved was phenomenal. Unbeknownst to himself or competent electrical engineers however, signals may be reflected off atmospheric layers.