Thursday, July 30, 2009

Where are all the crackpot Tychos?

We all know that crackpots have a number of identifying features. These have been enumerated on other blogs; I won’t rehash that material. However, I would like to examine one particular point.

When crackpots compare themselves to great scientists, it is almost always to Galileo. As he was a persecuted genius ahead of his time, this is not surprising. This is how crackpots self-identify. But Galileo was not the only scientist in such a situation. Even in the limited field of 17th century astronomy, Tycho Brahe was in the same category.

Brahe, the last great pre-telescope observer, mapped the night sky to a precision not seen for another century. He had by far the best dataset of the time period, and while Galileo had to deal with house arrest in his later years, Tycho was poisoned, either by his king for being an embarrassment, or by Kepler for not handing over his data.

So why aren’t there more wannabe Tychos?

I think the key is their perceived contributions. While Tycho is seen as having been a meticulous, workaholic data collector, Galileo is often thought of as a guy with a single flash of cross-disciplinary brilliance that changed everything. Just point this navigational aid into the night sky, and BLAM! The universe has changed.

Of course, this interpretation overlooks the huge effort that Galileo put in, but we’re taking about perception here. His lens grinding, observing schedule, and other elbow grease producing work is generally less emphasized than his brilliant idea is.

So why does this appeal to crackpots? Because. They don’t just want to be game-changing scientists; they want it to be easy. I’ve never seen a crackpot whose theory required years and years of dawn-to-dusk data. Crackpot theories invariable offer simple, pat solutions that obviate the need for further rigorous study. The whole point of having a simple explain everything theory is so that they can go around feeling smug without having to crunch through weeks of data analysis. There are no crackpot Tychos because he is seen to have worked too hard to be a role model for them. Crackpotism isn’t just intellectual laziness; it’s ordinary laziness too.


Kim said...

I've seen a lot of crackpots compare themselves to Wegener, too. "Nobody believed Wegener and he was (sort of) right. Nobody believes me; therefore, I'm also right."

Lockwood said...

I dunno... I've always had the sense Galileo worked pretty hard too. And I doubt crackpots have done enough reading and research to know anything substantive about either Galileo or Brahe.

I love Kim's summary: "Nobody believed Wegener and he was (sort of) right. Nobody believes me; therefore, I'm also right." ,'D)

C W Magee said...

So is the solution to get all the crackpots to spend a few winters in Greenland?

Lockwood said...

Or even just one...

EliRabett said...

Brahe could see clearly (probably better than anyone before or since). that's why.