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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Why are there so few cranks in biology?

One more thing that physics beats us at


A dd this to the physics envy pile. There are lots of anti-physics cranks out there. I found a good one at a university library with the big red stamp of death: DISCARDED BOOK on the inside. It was a typical rant: Einstein was completely wrong, the ether is real, and the finite speed of light is a conspiracy. There were dozens of these guys back in the days of Usenet. Quantum mechanics has them, too: some think there are no such things as waves and some insist there are no such things as particles.

Physics has some really good skeptics, like Lee Smolin and Peter Woit, two prominent critics of string theory; and it has some who blur the distinction between crank and skeptic, like Jim Baggott, the author of Farewell to Reality and Alexander Unzicker, who informs us in his book The Higgs Fake (reviewed here) that the Large Hadron Collider is indulging in quackification.

Why can't biology get good stuff like that? Too often we get “skepticism” of magazines like Scientific American and sites like skeptic.com, which are only skeptical of anyone the authors consider outside the mainstream. Sci. Am., as you may recall, once devoted a whole issue to political attacks on climate skeptic Bjorn Lomborg. But that's not even biology.

Oh sure, we have anti-vaxxers and creationists. We have anti-capitalists who think the big pharmaceutical companies have a cure for cancer but won't release it because they make so much money letting people die. Not sure how that business model works, but anyway.

But where are all the real skeptics in biology? The closest we have is Thomas S. Szasz, who wrote several books telling us that psychiatrists were all quacks. But he hardly counts as a skeptic: mainstream biologists already regard Sigmund Freud's theories as being one step above those self-quizzes in women's magazines.

It's not like we don't have theories. There's the synuclein theory of Parkinson's disease, the cholesterol theory of heart disease, and so on. But you're on thin ice critiquing them: if you're wrong, people will die. So maybe the reason we don't have cranks has more to do with natural selection. The ones who believed laetrile cured cancer are no longer around.

And we do have people who think that DNA technology and genetically modified food is dangerous. Nutrition has lots of cranks. I'm not talking about mundane conspiracy theories like sugar being a plot of the cereal companies to turn us into addicts. Your true, bona fide crank would be like the person who said the reason dinosaurs were so big was that they had more radioactive minerals, like uranium and thorium, in their diet.

These days the closest thing we have to cranks are those feminists who think there is no difference between men's and women's brains, and the gay rights activists who think that there really are 58 different sexes, and you can change to a different one on a daily basis depending on how you feel that day.

But they don't really believe that—for them it's post-truth politics, like the PC the Russians had in the USSR. Government interference creates most of the cranks in biology, which makes sense because people are, as they say on Star Trek, biological units. They're trying to get special privileges by creating new classes of underrepresented groups. The wealth redistribution system creates them, and if the government went away they'd disappear.

Surely one reason is that physics excites the imagination more than biology does. It wasn't always this way: the theory that there were male and female plants was once highly controversial. We can't really count the ones who think the US government is hiding reptilians and grays in a secret underground base in New Mexico. For all we know, that could be true.

But the alien theorists don't even count as skeptics. Even bigfoot believers aren't questioning the existence of species or the theory of living matter. Alien believers are just saying there are a few new species from outer space. So why does physics get the crazies and not us?

No one, so far as I know, questions superconductivity or the existence of radioactivity or nuclear fusion. Maybe the skeptics are out there and we're just not noticing them. Or maybe biology just isn't dangerous enough ... yet.


Last edited Feb 16, 2017, 7:22 pm

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