Monday, October 29, 2007

Everybody Is A Crank

The New York Times has a short article (free subscription required) about well regarded scientists stepping out of their own fields and becoming cranks in another. This has been spurred by James Watsons (co discoverer of the structure of DNA) cranky claims about race and intelligence last week, for Watson however such claims are not entirely unusual and not entirely unexpected given his age (79). The article includes an interesting quote from Sir Martin Rees:
“With my own advancing years, I’m mindful of the three different ways scientists can grow old,” Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal of the United Kingdom and president of the Royal Society, wrote in an e-mail message. The first two choices are either to become an administrator or to content yourself with doing science that will probably be mediocre. (“In contrast to composers,” Dr. Rees observed, “there are few scientists whose last works are their greatest.”) The third choice is to strike off half-cocked into unfamiliar territory — and quickly get in over your head. “All too many examples of this!” he lamented
I'm just struggling to come up with too many examples of this (any ideas internets?), there must be some, but there is another more interesting route to crankdom for scientists, one which allows you to remain comfortable in your own field: you are mainstream at some point but stick with a discredited theory long after it was given up as a lost cause by everyone else, Halton Arp is the obvious example from astronomy. I find this the more interesting route because it is the most dangerous, the easiest most seductive route, kind of like the dark side of science where you let your ego get the better of you.

I don't doubt that everyone is a crank in some field, I just wonder what my crank field is. I've known some friends that held what I thought were borderline cranky views on areas such as global warming or biology, but I guess its always difficult to spot where your own thoughts appear unreasonable to others. No doubt someone will enlighten me. Do you know where your inner crank resides?

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