An Open Response to Johanna Miller’s Column: ‘Sorry, Crackpots’

On February 1, 2019, Johanna L. Miller, an editor of Physics Today, published an article entitled “Sorry, Crackpots: A Physics Today editor explains why we’re never going to publish your cockamamie theories”. As an independent researcher, one Ms. Miller would improperly label as a crackpot, I believe that her position dangerously stifles scientific advancement and innovation. To illustrate my point, I show how bias and name calling prevents us from having a serious scientific conversation.

Let’s begin with statements with which everyone should agree:

  1. The average (or arithmetic mean), ξ, of two expressions s and can be found using the equation: ξ = 0.5*(s + t). It can also be found using an equivalent equation: ξ = t – 0.5 *(t – s). If you use the second equation but fail to recognize it as an average, this does not enable it to take on new magical properties.
  2. Mathematically, a circle (2D) or sphere (3D) is axiomatically defined as, the set of all points in a Euclidean plane (2D) or space (3D) that are a constant distance from a common center. If you find at least two points that belong to the same set and those points are not the same distance from a common center, then the shape is not a circle or a sphere.
  3. If given the distance equation, distance=time*velocity, you can solve for any variable if the other two are known. However, you cannot use this equation to determine a velocity if you replace distance with grams, volume, cycles, or shoe size.

Now, let’s create some statements with which few people should agree. I’ll call these statements elements of a crackpot test:

  1. On a sheet of paper. Draw a circle, an oval, a straight line, and a squiggle. Convince yourself that each of the shapes is a circle.
  2. Convince yourself that each of the following equations are equivalent and will properly find the velocity of a moving object: velocity = grams/time; velocity = cycles/time; velocity = volume/time, and velocity = shoe size / time.
  3. Imagine a train approaches you with a bright light on top of the locomotive. You know the wavelength, x’, of the light. You measure the light’s wavelength as the train approaches and again as it moves away from you as, s = x’c/(c + v) and t = x’c/(c – v). Find the average Doppler equation, ξ. Convince yourself that the average Doppler shift is the train’s spatial position.

Now for the test question: If someone builds a “cockamamie theory” (Ms. Miller’s words, not mine) based on at least one of the above statements, would you label them as a crackpot and dismiss their theory?

Before you answer the question, recognize that a key theme of the scientific process is independent validation. To this end, review Einstein’s 1905 paper, On the Electrodynamics of Moving Systems, and Michelson and Morley’s paper discussing their interferometer experiment and see if you can find each of the anomalies (above). Why do I ask that you find it yourself? Because when you do, it’s no longer about someone telling you what they’ve found. Instead, finding them independently allows us to come to the table as peers and engage in a scientific conversation rather than an emotional argument. Even if we disagree on whether a finding is “right” or “wrong”, we’re discussing the same finding.

Ideally, you’ve independently found each anomaly mentioned above. But, if you’re struggling to see the problems in the original works, you can (optionally) review an academic poster presentation that I delivered in February 2019 (see: https://goo.gl/8kaF3N ). However, I still encourage you to review the original works and confirm each finding yourself.

Returning to the test question: If you answered yes (and you’ve done the research mentioned above), not only have you dismissed Einstein’s theory of relativity as a “cockamamie theory”, you’ve labeled Einstein as a “crackpot”.  This is why name calling is so dangerous. While I believe relativity is invalid, I would never use such terms to describe Einstein or his work. It is this type of labeling and name calling that turns a scientific conversation into an emotional argument; at which point serious discourse no longer occurs.

So, Ms. Miller, please join me in changing the tone of the conversation. Let’s agree to stop the grade school name calling because labeling someone as a crackpot does nothing but perpetuate a culture of bias and discrimination. Let’s also agree to stop hiding behind the excuse of peer reviews when editors, many of whom share your biases, have no intention of publishing works that disagree or challenge their beliefs – no matter how well-argued and researched that work might be. Name calling and exclusion were (ineffective) tools we used as kids on a playground when we didn’t know any better. But as mature scientists, we owe it to ourselves and to the broader community to find more effective ways of handling crucial conversations. Fortunately, I’ve met many scientists who are quite open to exploring material that challenges their beliefs. We can use them as role models.

Scientific innovation and discovery advance best when we examine what others have to say and remain open to reexamining our most deeply held beliefs. I think it would be a huge benefit to the scientific community if more journals were open to publishing well-researched, critical submissions that challenge our understanding. Ms. Miller, will you please join me in moving the conversation from the playground to places more appropriate for serious scientific discussions?


Steve_aes-114Steven B. Bryant is a futurist, researcher, and author who investigates the innovative application and strategic implications of science and technology on society and business. He is the author of DISRUPTIVE: Rewriting the rules of physics, which is a thought–provoking book that shows where relativity fails and introduces Modern Mechanics, a unified model of motion that fundamentally changes how we view modern physics. DISRUPTIVE is available at Amazon.com, BarnesAndNoble.com, and other booksellers!