Posted by: Jeremy Fox | June 1, 2012

Engaging with crackpots at scientific meetings

Here’s a rare problem, but one that raises some interesting issues: What’s the appropriate way to deal with a crackpot at a scientific meeting? Specifically, a crackpot presenter? Over at Doing Good Science, Janet Stemwedel raises this question in the context of a philosophical talk that was nominally about the non-crackpot topic of abductive reasoning but actually propounded conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination. Janet raises a number of interesting issues, some of which I’ve also blogged about, such as the ethics of tough questions (is it impolite to tell someone they’re full of it, or impolite not to?) and some of which I probably should (e.g., Do scientists have an ethical obligation to use some of their finite time to correct mistakes by others, even if those others seem unlikely to recognize the error of their ways? What are the risks to being too quick to dismiss off-the-wall ideas?*)

As I said, crackpot presentations are rare, especially in ecology. I have the impression crackpots are more attracted to other fields, like philosophy, fundamental physics, and mathematics.** I’ve never actually seen a crackpot ecology presentation. I have seen one ESA talk that literally made no sense, but it was by someone who wasn’t an ecologist by training and who had done competent work in his own field, and so was merely seriously confused rather than a crackpot.

Have you ever seen a crackpot presentation at an ecology meeting? If so, what did you, or the other audience members, do?

*There certainly are examples in ecology and evolution of off-the-wall ideas being quickly dismissed when they shouldn’t have been. The Price equation is one. George Price was brilliant, but he had at least strong crackpot tendencies. Nature famously had to be tricked into reviewing his initial paper on the Price equation, and Richard Lewontin initially dismissed the Price equation as trivial before changing his mind and writing to Price to apologize for his initial dismissal. And conversely, there are examples of crackpot ideas not being recognized as crackpot when they should have been. Recently, PNAS found an excuse to retract a crackpot paper on speciation by hybridization that was backed by Lynn Margulis, an eminent scientist who late in her career pushed her ideas to crackpot extremes. The line between crackpot and non-crackpot ideas, and between crackpots and non-crackpots, isn’t always easy to everyone to see.

**Well, I guess climate change denialism could be considered an example of crackpot ecology, but that’s not so much crackpot as political. I tend to think of true crackpots as being crackpots for their own idiosyncratic reasons.


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