Are They (or You) a Crank?

Are They (or You) a Crank? October 28, 2019

Matthew Collins adapted something from the realm of math for application to biblical studies and religion. He shared it on Facebook, and I asked for permission to circulate it. I adapted it slightly more to fit its new application better, but the vast majority of it is his and/or his source’s.

Are they a crank? Use this scoring system to find out:

(NB: This is stolen from mathematics and slightly edited, but I think it works for bible/religion too.)

  • 1 point for each word in all capital letters;
  • 5 points for every statement that is clearly vacuous, logically inconsistent, or widely known to be false;
  • 10 points for each such statement that is adhered to despite careful correction;
  • 10 points for expressing fear that your ideas will be stolen;
  • 10 points for each new term you invent or use without properly defining it;
  • 10 points for stating that your ideas are of great academic, historical, financial, theoretical, or spiritual value;
  • 10 points for beginning the description of your work by saying how long you have been working on it;
  • 10 points for each favorable comparison of yourself to established experts;
  • 10 points for citing an impressive-sounding, but irrelevant, result;
  • 20 points for naming something after yourself;
  • 30 points for not knowing how or where to submit their major discovery for publication;
  • 40 points for claiming to have “proof” of a particular conclusion but not knowing what established scholars have done on the problem.

What else would you add? What would make it more applicable to other fields? What changes would make it still more applicable to biblical studies and ancient history?

This “taxonomy of quackery” appeared just as I was working on this blog post. Coincidence, or evidence that they are watching me?

A Taxonomy of Quackery

Let me also share some things I wrote previously on this topic.

Skepticism Quote

Cranks according to Jonathan Kay

Antiultracrepidarians vs. Deliberatefraudists: Smackdown in the Blogosphere

Also relevant to this topic is this cartoon from Pictoral Theology:

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  • Some people make one or more of those mistakes then continue to ‘crank it up.’

  • John MacDonald

    Wow, my multiple personality Evil character I play on the internet, who oscillates between Lawful Evil (like Darth Sidious) and Chaotic Evil (like the Joker), scored nice and high!

  • Chris Morris

    It’s interesting to see how often in history ‘cranks’ have eventually proved to be correct. A more useful taxonomy would be one which distinguishes ‘wrong cranks’ from ‘right cranks’.

    • It would be interesting to see, but I think the key questions are epistemological and methodological. That some cranks turn out to be right is bound to happen. How many people judged cranks were right for the right reason rather than just by chance, and how many contributed to the change in consensus?

      • Chris Morris

        How many? I don’t know – not very many, probably but perhaps the reasons change with the paradigm shifts which would make it difficult to predict.

    • MaryKaye

      I don’t think that “cranks” in the sense described here are right except very occasionally by accident. There are lots of people whose views are outlandish, but who pursue them with rigor. McClintock’s hypothesis that spotting on corn kernels is due to genes moving from place to place in the genome was quite strange, and she had trouble getting it accepted. But she didn’t behave crankishly; she did experiments, meticulously wrote up her results, and eventually got the theory accepted (she won the Nobel for it).

      Do you have a counterexample–someone who behaved as described, but was correct? In particular, the criterion about being unable to define terms and stick to them is pretty antithetical to successful research.

      • MaryKaye

        As a personal example, I was once asked to review a scientific paper that hinged on the idea that the temperature of the human body is 98.6 F. If you take the temperature under the tongue this is true, but it’s well established that the temperature deep inside the body is higher, and this exploded his entire argument. Several people had told the author this, but he continued to submit the paper. Someone who behaves like this is not going to make a significant discovery except by accident, just as someone who can’t recognize a dead end is not going to escape a maze except by accident.

        • Chris Morris

          Rather than offering any counter-examples I would suggest that the view presented in the article runs the risk of opening the door to ad hominem and labelling attacks. However, I suspect that if you went back to the late 17th century and met Isaac Newton you would have difficulty with many of the criteria mentioned here. More recently, Andrew Wakefield would probably not score highly on the Crankometer but has clearly caused more damage than any number of David Ickes.

          • MaryKaye

            You seem to be arguing against a statement neither I nor the blogger made, namely “cranks are more dangerous than other people who are wrong.” I think it’s generally the contrary. A good, professional snake-oil salesman who does not necessarily believe what s/he is saying (a description which, in my opinion, fits Wakefield) is a lot more likely to cause harm than a crank.

            Certainly any attempt to say “This argument has features X, Y and Z, therefore I can dismiss it without further examination” has evident risks. On the other hand, it’s absolutely essential: life is short, the art is long, and we can’t give consideration to all arguments, so we need to filter out those that are particularly unlikely to be true. I think the original article gives an empirically somewhat reliable guide to a class of arguments that are particularly unlikely to be true. Not all false arguments will fall in this class! But as a scientist I’m quite comfortable rejecting the class en masse. (I will note that criteria about punctuation and capitalization and so forth are probably a bad idea to apply to pre-modern writers, because the conventions have changed. But Isaac Newton would never have gained the success he did if he couldn’t rigorously define his terms and stick to the definitions.)

            This wouldn’t have filtered out Wakefield. Without investigation to figure out that he falsified his data, nothing reasonably could have: his claims were not unreasonable a priori, nor presented crankishly. They were based on fraud, and false, but that’s much harder to detect than the mental confusion producing cranks.

          • Chris Morris

            Yes, I’m happy to agree with most of that; I wasn’t suggesting that anyone was presenting an argument of the “cranks are more dangerous” variety, just that we should be wary of dividing people in to fixed, sharply-defined, opposing categories rather than looking at the actual arguments or hypotheses. As a political philosopher, I’m used to considering the context of a view – where the proposer is ‘coming from’ – but I think it’s essential to keep that subordinate to the substance of the view so I wouldn’t, perhaps, be quite as comfortable as you with rejecting the class out of hand but would be content with reasonable scepticism. As you suggest, the timescale is probably the principal deciding factor – waiting a couple of hundred years to see how a philosophical view pans out is much less of a problem than waiting a year to see if Wakefield’s research is false.