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Dyson’s baffling love of crackpots

Peter Woit reports on the sympathy that well-known physicist Freeman Dyson has with crackpot theorists. The interesting part is that Dyson has positive feelings for these cranks, even while believing that their theories are completely wrong:

In my [Dyson’s] career as a scientist, I twice had the good fortune to be a personal friend of a famous dissident. One dissident, Sir Arthur Eddington, was an insider like Thomson and Tait. The other, Immanuel Velikovsky, was an outsider like Carter. Both of them were tragic figures, intellectually brilliant and morally courageous, with the same fatal flaw as Carter. Both of them were possessed by fantasies that people with ordinary common sense could recognize as nonsense. I made it clear to both that I did not believe their fantasies, but I admired them as human beings and as imaginative artists. I admired them most of all for their stubborn refusal to remain silent. With the whole world against them, they remained true to their beliefs. I could not pretend to agree with them, but I could give them my moral support.

Dyson first writs about Eddington. I agree with Peter Woit that “this sympathy for a great physicist who headed down a wrong path in his later years is easy to understand, but the case of Velikovsky is less so. Velikovsky was a well-known author of crackpot best-sellers starting in the 1950s . . . and a neighbor of Dyson’s in Princeton.”

Woit quotes what Dyson “wrote as a proposed blurb for Velikovsky in 1977”:

First, as a scientist, I [Dyson] disagree profoundly with many of the statements in your books. Second, as your friend, I disagree even more profoundly with those scientists who have tried to silence your voice. To me, you are no reincarnation of Copernicus or Galileo. You are a prophet in the tradition of William Blake, a man reviled and ridiculed by his contemporaries but now recognized as one of the greatest of English poets. A hundred and seventy years ago, Blake wrote: “The Enquiry in England is not whether a Man has Talents and Genius, but whether he is Passive and Polite and a Virtuous Ass and obedient to Noblemen’s Opinions in Art and Science. If he is, he is a Good Man. If not, he must be starved.” So you stand in good company. Blake, a buffoon to his enemies and an embarrassment to his friends, saw Earth and Heaven more clearly than any of them. Your poetic visions are as large as his and as deeply rooted in human experience. I am proud to be numbered among your friends.

Now back in 2012, Dyson writes:

Science is a creative interaction of observation with imagination. “Physics at the Fringe” is what happens when imagination loses touch with observation. Imagination by itself can still enlarge our vision when observation fails. The mythologies of Carter and Velikovsky fail to be science, but they are works of art and high imagining. As William Blake told us long ago, “You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.”

I’m with Woit (I think) here. I don’t see the appeal of bad science. I don’t think such voices should be silenced (as Dyson puts it), but it’s probably a good thing to keep these theories off the nonfiction shelves. I see the appeal of poetry and literature and philosophy and all sorts of things that aren’t science, and I recognize that poets, philosophers, etc., can motivate themselves by all sorts of wacked-out theories. Look at Philip K. Dick. His visions are part of who he was, and I wouldn’t trade Valis for anything, but without the art the visions aren’t so exciting. My impression is that the problem with crackpot scientific theories is not that they are not beautiful but that they lead to no scientific progress or understanding. To put it another way: as a poet, Velikovsky does not have much to offer. It is only if his theories point toward scientific understanding that they have value. In contrast, Blake was an artists whose visions are appealing without any necessity for them to correspond to scientific reality.

To me, a good analogy would be with the fascinating “outsider art” done by schizophrenics, where an entire canvas is covered with tiny scribbles relating to the nature of the universe. These artworks can be just amazing and I don’t think anyone should try to silence their voices. But I don’t think it does anybody any favors to call this science.

I think my view is shared by most scientists. Dyson gets some attention here partly from his eminence and partly because of his contrary views. That’s fine—he’s done enough good work that he’s earned the right to have his ideas broadcast—but it all seems a bit odd to me. Whatever people think of William Blake’s scientific ideas now, he is admired as a poet and artist. Velikovsky is more of a historical footnote in the annals of past bestsellers, a pop-culture artifact who belongs with the Chariots of the Gods guy, the Jupiter Effect guy, the Bible Code guy, the people who made the Search for Noah’s Ark movie, etc etc. I don’t think anyone will be reading his books for the pleasure of his prose.

18 Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    Eddington has a special place in my heart for coming up with this:

    I believe there are 15 747 724 136 275 002 577 605 653 961 181 555 468 044 717 914 527 116 709 366 231 425 076 185 631 031 296 protons in the universe and the same number of electrons.[1]

    http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eddington_number

  2. Apropos of this thread, you might enjoy this SMBC cartoon about physicists becoming crackpots as they age.

    http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=2556#comic

    And yes, the human figures have bodies (are not stick figures) — there’s even color.

  3. John Goodwin says:

    When Mark Kac made his famous distinction between ‘ordinary geniuses’ (Hans Bethe) and ‘magicians’ (Richard Feynman) it was in a longer extended passage discussing Freeman Dyson. His point was that early contact with Feynman changed Dyson’s perspective on the work he himself was capable of. It is worth hunting down the longer form.

  4. fraac says:

    Totally agree with Dyson. Being interested in unusual people and their thought processes is worthwhile, not least because it reminds us not to be proud – there but for the grace of God. I get the feeling, whenever I see a scientist with a blog take a diversion from their usual high quality output and professional tone to take particular pleasure in chastising a crank, that we’re seeing the smallness of their mind, their pettiness, their sense of entitlement and hierarchy. *They* worked hard to be respected. It’s a lack of self-confidence and it’s ugly.

    Last year when Deolalikar’s P =! NP paper came out you could survey the reactions in all the maths and CS blogs. Unfailingly, the scientists you would rather be working with took the childlike, Dyson-esque approach of “Fascinating! Let’s see where this goes!” while the stuffier, more mediocre scientists got snooty. The most brilliant mind is the one who delights in the idea that everything they believed will tomorrow be wrong.

    • Andrew says:

      Fraac:

      I would agree with you—except there are lots of unusual people who have more interesting things to say. To me, ideas like Worlds in Collision, Chariots of the Gods, the Jupiter Effect, etc etc are not interesting at all. Quantum mechanics is interesting. The Bible Code is boring to me, interesting only in the sociological sense that it got media attention. Similarly, I don’t think scientists get particular pleasure in chastising a crank, it is more a matter of duty or public service after the crank gets tons of media attention.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM says:

      Yes, maybe the idea that chastising a crank isn’t part of the science ethos is cranky? Undoubtedly there are personal satisfaction here (disclaimer: certainly it can be emotionally rewarding, and this chastising comment is no exception) but the web model of simplest motivation should rule (“stupidity, not malice”), here: ethos, not malice.

    • K? O'Rourke says:

      fraac: Perhaps not some much ugly, but rather self-preserving of pattern (such as an immune system.)

      Things identified as “not us” are encapsulated and expelled or destroyed.

      I have often been uncomfortable with this in academics, when more than a few times colleagues have talked about how one their heroes /friends embarrassed so and so out of their department at that university (or have been tried to do this with mixed success for many years so maybe we should join in and try to help). Or about the talks purposely put together to lay bare the lack of value in so and so’s work.

      Very much like what I once read about zebras – those without quite the right stripes are continually pushed to the outside of the herd – to be picked off by predators.

      Now those stripes do serve a communal purpose, and I believe that is what Andrew is getting at – there is a downside to not having a highly active immune system.

      And for “everything they believed will tomorrow be wrong.” CS Peirce suggested death would save most from this and therefore was actually a good thing.

  5. John Mashey says:

    There are many forms of crankery that sometimes combine, but are slightly different:

    a) Strong belief in some specific idea, with hope of injecting it into accepted science.
    That might be an idea to solve a problem, or a new viewpoint that sounds whack, but occasionally turns out not to be, ulcers being the common example. Of course, when these turn out OK, they usually are done by experts anyway, not amateurs.

    b) Strong belief that accepted science is wrong, and attraction to anyone who argues against it, i.e., fondness for the outside viewpoint, almost no matter what.
    Sadly, Dyson seems to fit that with regard to climate change, here or here, at RC.

    It is sad that he comments negatively and strongly on models, when GFDL is a few miles away.
    Saddest of all, he was listed as a “Global Warming Expert” for the Heartland Institute, see p.52, top right, in this PDF. HI has been doing Fakeducation for years.

    Some crackpot beliefs merely lower the quality of scientific thinking in the general population. Others have wider consequences.

    Skeptical Inquirer often studies odd beliefs, but if you want a cornucopia of them, peruse the Journal of Scientific Exploration, of which my favorite is dog astrology, which at least has statistical analysis.

  6. Rick in Chicago says:

    For a long time, I have been inspired by Dyson’s remark that “Science is a creative interaction of observation with imagination.” That seems right to me. It seems also to have informed his attitude towards crackpots.

    • Andrew says:

      Rick,

      Indeed, Dyson has done a lot of great work, and one might say: Who am I to disparage his enjoyment of crackpots? What puzzles me is that Dyson finds work such as Velikovsky’s appealing at all. In 1950 or even 1975, perhaps there was something appealing about that Worlds in Collision stuff, but now it just seems silly to me. Similarly, I remain baffled by Conan Doyle’s belief in various spiritualist frauds. I just have to accept that photos which to the modern eye look obviously faked, could fool people in the early 1900s.

      To put it another way, I’m not impressed by the imagination of Velikovsky, or the Chariots of the Gods guy, or the Bermuda Triangle guy, etc. By claiming to be nonfiction, they held themselves to a lower standard than would be expected by an author of fiction. Alice in Wonderland, Narnia, Watership Down: that’s what I call imagination! Making up stuff about astronomy: not so impressive.

  7. zbicyclist says:

    There is something in coherent systems of failure that is attractive to those of us who take risks and are at time perhaps not quite sure we aren’t crackpots, or at minimum wasting time with stuff that’s never going to work.

    This waste is probably just part of the system — like all those businesses that fail, where some few become glorious successes. How many people were just thisclose to being Steve Jobs, but instead were just a bit quirkier and failed?

    What about Bretz, the Missoula flood guy? Sure, it turned out to be good science but to many people he was seen as a crackpot for decades. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J_Harlen_Bretz

    That said, I’m certainly not planning on reading Velikovsky. Life’s too short.

  8. zbicyclist says:

    There’s also this marvelous quote about Bretz:

    Bretz received the Penrose Medal; the Geological Society of America’s highest award, in 1979, at the age of 96. After this award, he told his son: “All my enemies are dead, so I have no one to gloat over.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J_Harlen_Bretz

  9. Steve Sailer says:

    Stephen Jay Gould makes for a more interesting example: a super-respectable establishmentarian with a wonderful prose style admired by everybody … except the actual scientists in the fields of evolutionary theory and psychometrics, who considered him more or less of a crackpot.

  10. Thomas says:

    There’s a great passage in Dante’s De Vulgari Eloquentia in which he talks about the origin of language in literal biblical terms. He takes up the question of what the first word spoken was and who spoke it. Though Eve speaks the first quoted words in Genesis, which Dante admits, he finds it unlikely that God would give such important work (saying the first word) to a woman. So he offers the purely ad hoc suggestion that Adam must have said “God” first.

    At the time, I don’t think it was a crank theory. And I sometimes think that 700 years from now Chomsky’s ideas about language are going to be as quaint and obviously rooted in our own cultural biases as Dante’s were. I think Dante’s mind is probably on par with Chomsky’s (or vice versa depending on how you want the flow of praise to run).

    I also think that Galileo’s idea about the solar system are as wrong (incomplete) by our standards today as that of tenth-century astronomers were by his. And I think 500 years from now we’ll know things about planetary motion that will make our ideas about gravity today seem childish and silly.

    What I’m saying is that I presume that science is wrong about pretty much everything in some sense, even if, in another sense, it is more right than scientists were, say, 100 years ago. So the most “interesting” work out there, to my mind, is the work that tries to show how we’re wrong. Scientists who tell us how right we are about stuff all the time and how “out to lunch” people who “don’t get it” are don’t really interest me. I’d rather talk to someone who’s wrong about how wrong science is than someone who’s right about how right is.

    But I think our medicines and bridges should be designed by people who are more comfortable with being right than wrong. (I don’t do either.)

  11. Nick Cox says:

    If the question is how seriously to take Velikovsky, then I agree with Andrew. But the question is explaining Dyson’s views.

    Dyson’s endorsement is so qualified that he must have known that it was not usable. Most of us in similar circumstances would not become friends with Velikovsky, or would just decline to write an endorsement with some line like “You’re my friend, but I disagree with your book, so I can’t support it”, or just not answer the invitation. Dyson’s starting point was evidently that Velikovsky was his friend.

    As this is a largely statistical forum, I would add the trivium that Dyson may be the youngest author of a statistical paper in a serious journal. At least beat his publication in JRSS 1943 in the year that he was 20.

  12. Phil says:

    Dyson was, and probably still is, a truly great mathematical physicist. The problem is he also thinks he’s a great futurist, technologist, etc. This SMBC cartoon really nails it.

    • Wayne says:

      Great cartoon!

      Along the lines of your statement about his problem, I wonder if it has to do with having a couple of brilliant intuitions early in life and then having to handle the rest of your life.

      On the one hand, that might condition you to trust your intuition/instincts too strongly. Perhaps you do have that magic, and you’ll be proven right in the end, no matter who tries to tell you otherwise.

      On the other hand, there may be an unbearable pressure to continue to pull rabbits out of the hat, excelling beyond your elite peers. I believe I’ve seen a palpable fear in some (fairly young) famous scientists who really seemed to be terrified that they’d be intellectual/scientific one-hit wonders.

      On the third hand, perhaps there is the peer pressure to be a Feynman-like Renaissance Man. Perhaps you cannot hope to be a witty storyteller, math whiz, physics genius, accomplished musician, and bad boy, but maybe you can be a physicist and futurist.

  13. Gabe says:

    I know I’m late to the game here, but how was Eddington a crackpot?