On crackpottery!

Sean at Cosmic Variance on the crockpottery of Tipler, and, from thence, to the general discussion on crackpottery itself:

One could go on, but what’s the point? Well, perhaps there are two points worth making.

First, Frank Tipler is probably very “intelligent” by any of the standard measures of IQ and so forth. In science, we tend to valorize (to the point of fetishizing) a certain kind of ability to abstractly manipulate symbols and concepts — related to, although not exactly the same as, the cult of genius. (It’s not just being smart that is valorized, but a certain kind of smart.) The truth is, such an ability is great, but tends to be completely uncorrelated with other useful qualities like intellectual honesty and good judgment. People don’t become crackpots because they’re stupid; they become crackpots because they turn their smarts to crazy purposes.

Second, the superficially disconnected forms of crackpottery that lead on the one hand to proving Christianity using general relativity, and on the other to denying global warming, clearly emerge from a common source. The technique is to first decide what one wants to be true, and then come up with arguments that support it. This is a technique that can be used by anybody, for any purpose, and it’s why appeals to authority aren’t to be trusted, no matter how “intelligent” that authority seems to be.

Tipler isn’t completely crazy to want “average people” to be able to check claims for themselves. He’s mostly crazy, as by that standard we wouldn’t have much reason to believe in either general relativity or the Standard Model of particle physics, since the experimental tests relevant to those theories are pretty much out of reach for the average person. But the average person should be acquainted with the broad outlines of the scientific method and empirical reasoning, at least enough so that they try to separate crackpots from respectable scientists. Because nobody ever chooses to describe themselves as a crackpot. If you ask them, they’ll always explain that they are on the side of Galileo; and if you don’t agree, you’re no better than the Inquisition.

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