Last week I took John Baez’s on-line test to find out if I was a crackpot. One item that cost me 20 points was Question 28: have you ever used the phrase “self-appointed defender of the orthodoxy”. Then it occurred to me that maybe those people have as much trouble recognizing themselves as the crackpots have, so there ought to be a test to help identify them. So based on my own many years of personal encounters with that type, here is my list of ten questions that will tell you if you are indeed a “self-appointed defender of the orthodoxy”.
1. Do you respond to internet postings by people you consider crackpots?
Why? I go on the internet looking for good discussions with smart people who know what they are talking about. I’m not interested in the people who post garbage, and I don’t understand people who make a big deal of it.
2. Have you ever said: “Even if you are right about X, how do you explain Y?”
It’s the “even if” that bothers me the most, because you avoid taking a stand either way. If you think someone is right about X, you should acknowledge it. If you think he is wrong about X, then argue him down on his specific case. Don’t change the subject by challenging him on Y, especially if he has made no claims about Y.
2a. (EDIT: I thought of this one later.) A nasty variation on item 2: "Even if you're right, so what?"How do people get off pretending that the whole game of physics isn't about trying to be right? As though you're not motivated by petty things like the quest for personal glory, but somehow your opponent is. And the worst thing about is is the "if" clause: you don't even commit one way or another on the physics, you just question the motivational psychology of your adversary.
3. Do you normally refute false arguments by giving a published reference instead of making your own counter-argument?
For me, this is the biggest problem with the world of physics. People love arguing by reference to authority. That’s a much bigger problem than the existence of so-called crackpots.
4. Do you argue that a theory is useless unless it makes testable predictions, presumably different from those of the Standard Model?
This is basically John Baez’s clincher, his 50-point final question. If you take it seriously you have to throw away every insight that makes existing knowledge understandable in a different way. Bohmian mechanics? I’m no fan of it, but I certainly don’t claim it’s useless because it “merely” claims to duplicate the results of the Standard Model. You might as well throw out Lagrangian Mechanics because it doesn’t predict anything different from F=ma.
5. Have you ever said “QED is the most accurate theory known to man, verifed experimentally to eleven decimal places”?
Or used any other line from Feynman as a debating point, without attribution. Unless you happen to be Feynmann himself. Then you get a pass on this one.
6. Do you challenge your opponents to refute arguments in published articles available only to paid subscribers, which you link to in your posts?
This is another nice tactic from the “What-do-you-say-about-THIS-then?” grab-bag. In fact there is way too much argument by reference to authority. That’s not what physics should be about.
7. Do you see your participation in discussion groups as a form of public service?
I get into discussions on the internet because it’s fun for me. I also like to challenge myself by getting into skirmishes sometimes. If you participate in discussions because you believe someone ought to protect the naïve from being misled by false ideas, then you are probably a self-appointing defender of the orthodoxy.
8. Have you ever commented on the sanity or otherwise of people you argue with on the internet?
If they’re so crazy, why are you wasting your time arguing with them?
9. Do you make fun of people who question the theory of evolution?
There is a good case to be made that we are indeed descended from earthworms, but it is not so unreasonable to doubt that the mechanism whereby we got from there to here was based on an accumulation of random errors in the transmission of the genetic code.
10. Have you ever gotten someone banned from a discussion group?
I don’t have an official scoring guide, but if you answered “yes” to four or more of these, then you are probably a self-apointed defender of the orthodoxy. If you answered “yes” to nine or more, then you are probably either ZapperZ, Jim Carr of Mati Meron.