39 Rules for Being a Scientific Change Agent versus a Crackpot

Posted by Steven Bryant On February - 10 - 2009

Last year , a friend posted to his blog a brief excerpt of an NPR radio show which pitted a Special Relativity challenger against one of its supporters. During the introduction, the reporter mentioned a test developed by a UC Riverside mathematician. This test, The Crackpot Index , is a combination of satire and seriousness. In reality, it highlights a number of common pitfalls that are repeatedly made by those challenging the establishment. If you score too high on this test, you will be labeled a Crackpot.

So, how do you keep from being labeled a Crackpot and enhance your chances of being viewed as a Change Agent? First and foremost, you need to realize that from a strategic perspective, those in power get to make the rules. You might not like it, but it is how the world operates. This means that if you’re not in power, to a large degree, you have to follow the rules. Knowing when to follow the rules and knowing when to bend (or even break) the rules is largely an art form. However, when there are clear lines drawn in the sand, you will do well to stay on the safe side. (That is, at least until you’ve built your power base.)

Tactically, there are several do’s and don’ts that you should be aware of, which are communicated as rules & recommendations. Rules should NEVER be violated or you will be labeled a Crackpot. Recommendations can be violated with good reason. However, you should be careful to avoid violating too many recommendations. (Note: Rules are definite and use words like Always and Never. Recommendations use words like Should.)

So, here’s a list of Rules and Recommendations:


1. Be passionate about what you are doing! (I know this goes without saying.)

2. Recognize that there are few, if any, scientific facts. This includes the “facts” you used to build you own theory.

3. Clearly state your beliefs, your assumptions that agree with the prevailing views, and the assumptions you’ve changed or introduced.

4. No, the Scientific Community is NOT out to get you. There is no conspiracy. Rather, they are just people – some nicer than others – with their own biases and beliefs just like everyone else. Understanding this will help you communicate more effectively with them.

5. It is incumbent upon you to change your message for other people to “get it.” Don’t just continue repeating yourself. If they didn’t get it the first time, saying it again s l o w e r or LOUDER will not improve their comprehension. It just irritates them. It irritates me, too.

6. Don’t expect your education or “how long you’ve been working on your theory” to impress anyone. You get to state your background ONCE and only ONCE. More than once diminishes your credibility. Yes, I know they will say “hey, this guy (or girl) doesn’t have a PhD” and use that to their advantage. Sorry. It doesn’t matter. That’s how the game is played.

7. Learn the difference between fact and belief, and between science and philosophy. Know how to categorize the various theories appropriately.

8. Laugh. If there’s no one else to laugh at (or with), then laugh at yourself.

Communications & Correspondence
9. When reaching out to someone you don’t know, keep your messages short and to the point. Don’t criticize them or their beliefs.

10. Mainstream media and events (e.g., journals and conferences) don’t want to upset the status quo. So, don’t expect your paper – the one that’s going to “change the world” – to be accepted or even get reviewed. Statistically speaking, it won’t. Deal with it.

11. Don’t start with “Here’s why you’re wrong…” Better to start with “I’m not sure I understand…” And then really try to understand what they are saying. This will help you communicate with them.

12. Never send unsolicited materials to anyone. Always get their permission.

13. Never ask anyone you don’t already know to “keep your material secret or confidential.”

14. Don’t be afraid to get your material out there.

15. Offer, but never push or beg anyone to look at your work. If you’re wrong, you’ve wasted their time. If you’re right, you don’t need their approval or their blessing.

16. Listen. God (or the universe) (or evolution) (or [insert your belief here] ) gave you two ears and one mouth; use them in the same proportion.

Theories and Models
17. Accept the fact that existing theories are useful or they wouldn’t be widely accepted. Repeat this rule over and over again until it sticks.

18. If you disagree with a statement or theory that is widely accepted as true, be clear and specific as to why your opinion, belief, or perspective differs. Just saying you disagree because you “believe” it is wrong is not good enough.

19. If you are introducing a new theory; make sure that your theory is compatible with existing experiments and make recommendations for experiments or theoretical predictions that will distinguish your theory from the existing theories.

20. If you use a term, define it first. This is especially true if you redefine the meaning of an existing term.

21. As a general rule, avoid redefining existing terms.

22. Always explain why your model or theory is better than the existing model or theory in very concrete, (ideally mathematical and/or experimental), terms.

23. Do not confuse scientific theory with science fiction. Know the difference.

24. Make sure your model offers something that the existing models don’t– either better predictions or new / different predictions.

25. Avoid bashing the prevailing theory if you don’t have a viable alternative that you think is able to win the minds of the broader scientific community.

26. Learn. Always, always, grow your mind.

27. Never state that you are smarter than the senior members (or other members) of the scientific community. Only they can bestow that honor. Sorry, but that’s the rule.

28. Accept the fact that people on the fringe don’t win Nobel prizes. It just doesn’t work that way.

29. Never give up on your dream of winning that Nobel Prize. No, this does not contradict the previous statement… – Think about it.

30. Exercise. I mean, you do want to look good accepting that Nobel Prize, right?

Consensus Building & Credibility
31. Know your limits. State your facts with confidence. If you’re not confident about something, you better not state it.

32. Know the rule of 2s. You get two chances: Two chances to reach out to someone in e-mail. Two chances to make contact with someone via phone. Two chances to convince someone of your point of view. Once you’ve used your two chances, you’re done; that is unless they have FIRST given you permission to continue.

33. Never say “I’m not good at math, but my theory is conceptually right.” You have four choices; 1) get good in math, 2) find someone who is good in math and get their help FIRST, 3) become a philosopher, or 4) stop pushing your theory.

34. Don’t always relate everything back to your theory. Make sure you can talk in terms of the prevailing, accepted, models. Regardless of whether or not you agree with the prevailing theory, you must be able so show that you understand it.

35. State opinions instead of pseudo-facts. For example, don’t say that “Einstein would have discovered this if…” (pseudo-fact), if you didn’t know Einstein personally. Better to say “In my opinion, Einstein would have discovered this if…” (Opinion).

36. Don’t get locked into your own perspective. Learn at least one other person’s alternative theory well enough so that you could present it as well as you can present your own alternative – even if you don’t fully agree with that theory.

37. Regardless of how much they have helped you improve your life, avoid mentioning your therapist, psychologist, or alien friend. It’s sort of like smoking near a gas station, people are going to run away as fast as possible.

38. When you are labeled a crackpot (and, yes, it is a matter of “when,” not “if”), be sure that your message rises above the label. Your message, model or theory, not you, is what needs to stand the test of time.

39. Relax and have fun.

Remember, some will try to label you a Crackpot simply because you have a different point of view. This is a normal defense mechanism and should be expected. However, since you are responsible for your actions, be aware of what you do and how others will perceive you.

Good luck!

Steven Bryant

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