Wednesday, June 29, 2011

In Praise of Crackpots

There are a lot of crackpots out there. Not just political ones (though there's more of them than any other flavor), but conspiracy theorists who believe the moon landings were faked, people who believe that they can subdue tornadoes with electrical fields, people who believe that they have a cure for cancer but are being oppressed, and, yes, the most strident climate-change deniers. (In the latter category, I'm not including the folks who have legitimate scientific questions about the quality of data or the interpretation of that data or with the theories that arise from it; I'm talking about the folks who disregard any data that supports man-made climate change and embrace any and all data that could be seen as refuting it).

It's very easy to write off crackpots as a bunch of nutjobs. But it wouldn't be wise to do so. Every so often - very rarely indeed, but not never - the crackpot is right.

I think that the thing that makes a crackpot a crackpot is that they grasp on to the non-disprovable. The state of science is such that not everything that is false can necessarily be disproved. In the cases like the moon landing conspiracy, I think the conspiracy theory has been thoroughly disproved and we can ignore these crackpots.

But the are the folks who claim to have a cure for cancer, or who think that there is no anthropogenic climate change are generally in a different place: it's harder to definitively prove them "nutty," and sometimes they aren't.

If 90+% of scientists agree on something (again, take climate change), it is certainly wrong to say that it must be true. It's just super likely to be true. If a huge majority of scientists believe something, then the burden to show them wrong is very high indeed. Science is, after all, based on peer review and you advance if you discover replicable advancements in human knowledge; if it isn't replicable, you don't go very far.

But, ironically, the great leaps in science come from the crackpots. Newton, Galileo, Einstein (just to pick a few of my favorites) were "crackpots", espousing theories that were distinctly in the minority. I think it's fair to say, for example, that much better than 90% of scientists thought time was inelastic prior to Einstein's theory of relativity.

So the great paradox of crackpots is that we should dismiss almost all crackpots almost all of the time, because almost all of them are almost always, well, nuts. But we need to be careful because every now and then one of those "nutjobs" will turn out to be right.

I wonder who the next significant crackpot to be found right will be?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Self-un-fulfilling prophecies

Thomas Malthus is famous for predicting that population growth, which grows geometrically, will eventually outstrip the arithmetic growth in our ability to grow food (or provide any important resource such as energy). Poor guy, he's always been proven wrong (at least so far).

Of course, Malthus ultimately has to be right. For a ridiculous example that proves the point, I think it's pretty clear that the Earth alone cannot support more than, say, 10 to the 25 (1 followed by 25 zeros) people because the people alone would then weigh more than the whole weight of the earth.

But this is indeed a ridiculous limit; the more salient point in the criticism of Malthus has generally been the accurate observation that he neglected to account for the effects of innovation, and indeed innovation has always intervened before Malthusian limits could apply.

A great example of this is the very food production which spurred his theories, where the capacity of 19th century agriculture extrapolated across all potentially arable land would be sufficient to feed perhaps a billion or 2 people. But alas here we are today pushing 7 billion people, with lots of wasted food and an obesity problem in many nations. This is due to innovations in fertilizers and pesticides, which have dramatically increased yields faster than the population has grown.

Yet there is a perverse self-unfulfilling prophecy at work here: human innovation is motivated, at least in part, by the fear that failure to innovate will prove Malthus right. As described in the book "The Alchemy of Air," it was precisely the fear of starving populations that drove the discoveries of new fertilizers.

So I think there is an interesting irony that it is precisely the fear of Malthus being right which has led to his consistently being proven wrong.