Cranks and the Impulse to Certainty

Extending the healthy human life span is an endeavor that attracts more than its share of cranks; perhaps it's just that time of year, or maybe the rising profile of certain legitimate anti-aging ventures, but my inbox and the Fight Aging! comments have been especially busy of late. Vibrational devices to "change the voltage in your cells", vague promises of thrice-longer life in sheep from China, and more, mixed in with odd diatribes of all varieties. What is a crank?

"Crank" (or kook, crackpot, or quack) is a pejorative term for a person who writes or speaks in an authoritative fashion about a particular subject, often in science, but is alleged to have false or even ludicrous beliefs.

Science in progress via the scientific method is very much a matter of uncertainty, an often very slow and winding path to a consensus of theories and practical applications thereof, waiting to be overturned by the next great discovery. Humans crave immediate answers and certainties, however. It's unfortunate that the trait that leads to scientific investigation - the burning desire to know the answer as soon as possible, and thereby effect change in the world - is the very same trait that inspires the most harm to progress. A crank has taken that (internally) logical step to satisfy a base desire for certainty by creating "certainty" from thin air.

This certainty by revelation is the polar opposite of the scientific process; you know a crank because his or her work is unable to survive the scrutiny of the scientific community, professional and otherwise. The difference between a crank and a young upstart on his or her way to change a field of science is actually very clear: it lies in their engagement with the research community and ability to defend, improve and win acceptance of their work in the cut and thrust of the scientific method.

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Science attracts "Cranks" for many reasons as pointed out in the article. Here are a few others:
1) Scientific progress is partially a process of thinking outside the box. This is good because it makes progress possible and it is bad because it makes it hard to judge what is outside the box VS what is out of the box, off the table and down the street a ways. Lots of scientific advances when first articulated, had a distinct air of "Crank" to them. However after being subjected to the scrutiny of peer review turned out to be correct after all.
2) There is a desperate desire to be right and to know with confidence the truth when questions involve mortality. This is the elephant in the room if you will. If the person is right and immortality is within reach, then life is good and all other questions become relevant and important. If he is wrong then mortality is creeping up and all other questions become, on a personal scale, irrelevant. We frequently are willing to let emotion overrule the plodding scientific method when it comes to frightening issues like this.
I frequently have to remind myself to take a deep breath, look at the actual evidence, then decide dispassionately what is the best course of action.

Posted by: Howard at February 26th, 2007 11:05 AM
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