The Sciences

The Varieties of Crackpot Experience

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollJan 5, 2009 3:58 PM


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Frank Tipler is a crackpot. At one point in his life, he did very good technical work in general relativity; he was the first to prove theorems that closed timelike curves could not be constructed in local regions of spacetime without either violating the weak energy condition or creating a singularity. But alas, since then he has pretty much gone off the deep end, and more recently has become known for arguments for Christianity based on fundamental physics. If you closely at those arguments (h/t wolfgang), you find things like this:

If life is to guide the entire universe, it must be co-extensive with the entire universe. We can say that life must have become OMNIPRESENT in the universe by the end of time. But the very act of guiding the universe to eliminate event horizons - an infinite number of nudges - causes the entropy and hence the complexity of the universe to increase without limit. Therefore, if life is to continue guiding the universe - which it must, if the laws of physics are to remain consistent - then the knowledge of the universe possessed by life must also increase without limit, becoming both perfect and infinite at the final singularity. Life must become OMNISCIENT at the final singularity. The collapse of the universe will have provided available energy, which goes to infinity as the final singularity is approached, and this available energy will have become entirely under life's control. The rate of use of this available energy - power - will diverge to infinity as the final singularity is approached. In other words, life at the final singularity will have become OMNIPOTENT. The final singularity is not in time but outside of time. On the boundary of space and time, as described in detail by Hawking and Ellis [6]. So we can say that the final singularity - the Omega Point - is TRANSCENDANT to space, time and matter.

All of the signs of classic crackpottery are present; the vague and misplaced appeal to technical terminology, the spelling mistakes and capital letters, the random use of "must" and "therefore" when no actual argument has been given. Two paragraphs later, we get:

Science is not restricted merely to describing only what happens inside the material universe, any more than science is restricted to describing events below the orbit of the Moon, as claimed by the opponents of Galileo. Like Galileo, I am convinced that the only scientific approach is to assume that the laws of terrestrial physics hold everywhere and without exception - unless and until an experiment shows that these laws have a limited range of application.

Compares self with Galileo! 40 points! There is really no indication that the person who wrote this was once writing perfectly sensible scientific papers. Perhaps you will not be surprised to find that Tipler has now jumped into global-warming denialism. In just a few short paragraphs, we are treated to the following gems of insight (helpfully paraphrased):

People say that anthropogenic global warming is now firmly established, but that's what they said about Ptolemaic astronomy! Therefore, I am like Copernicus.

A scientific theory is only truly scientific if it makes predictions "that the average person can check for himself." (Not making this up.)

You know what causes global warming? Sunspots!

Sure, you can see data published that makes it look like the globe actually is warming. But that data is probably just fabricated. It snowed here last week!

If the government stopped funding science entirely, we wouldn't have these problems.

You know who I remind myself of? Galileo.

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.

Stillman Drake, the world's leading Galileo scholar, demonstrates in his book "Galileo: A Very Short Introduction" (Oxford University Press, 2001) that it was not theologians, but rather his fellow physicists (then called "natural philosophers"), who manipulated the Inquisition into trying and convicting Galileo. The "out-of-the-mainsteam" Galileo had the gall to prove the consensus view, the Aristotlean theory, wrong by devising simple experiments that anyone could do. Galileo's fellow scientists first tried to refute him by argument from authority. They failed. Then these "scientists" tried calling Galileo names, but this made no impression on the average person, who could see with his own eyes that Galileo was right. Finally, Galileo's fellow "scientists" called in the Inquisition to silence him.

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