The word crackpot refers to an eccentric person with an enthusiasm for promoting an unorthodox idea. In an early use of the term, a 1913 observer described a rally in support of the impeached Governor of New York as "a collection of the rarest political crackpots I have ever seen."
The term crackpot is used pejoratively against a person, who writes or speaks in an authoritative fashion about a particular subject, often in science or mathematics, but is alleged to have false or even ludicrous beliefs. Such a person may also be termed a crank. This use seems to date from the 1940s and 1950s. The New York Times contains a 1946 example of use the context of scientific theory: a review of a book by T. D. Lysenko says that unless it is read in the context of State control of science "it will strike the informed reader as merely another effusion by a crackpot." Martin Gardner made frequent use of the word crackpot in his influential 1957 book In the Name of Science, and list what he said were typical characteristics of the scientific crackpot.
Ideas held by such people are called crank ideas or crackpot theories.
True Crackpots usually have some formal training in science but are often unattached to any university, college, or research institute, and have usually reached a point where their papers and commentaries are refused by standard scientific journals as being of little interest. They form a "fringe" in any field, and it is often difficult to distinguish crackpots from bona fide scientists who hold minority views because the distinction is usually based primarily on behavior rather than on scientific contributions. The consequence is that a bona fide scientist with a minority view is unfortunately sometimes called a crackpot merely due to peculiar or disruptive behavior. Often crackpots are experts in one field but choose to make authoritative assertions outside their area of expertise. Such as physicist Linus Pauling's endorsement of large doses of Vitamin C against cancer, or doctors espousing on legal matters.
Some distinguishing characteristics of crackpots are:
1. The crackpot has usually lost interest in new experiments and will defend to his theory or viewpoint, even though it may have been rejected by the scientific community as invalid or useless. Any objective view of reality becomes less important than his own personal view.
2. As a consequence of continuing peer rejection, the crackpot becomes more and more strident with advancing age, until eventually one finds him doing vigorous vocal battle in fringe arenas, open forums, anti-science mailing lists, and magazines devoted to fringe ideas and readers who thrive emotionally on fringe ideas.
3. In any serious discussion of a scientific issue, the crackpot will usually offer polemics rather than reason, invective rather than fact, and a harangue that he's a "revolutionary" against an "establishment". Sometimes he makes accusations of a conspiracy against him. At other times, the accusation is of "social control" of the minds of scientists. He appoints himself as the avant-garde of a paradigm shift. However, this often represents a basic philosophical failure in the crackpot to understand that "paradigms" and "paradigm shifts" are usually recognized de post facto by historians and almost never while the shift is occurring, and that significant paradigm shifts are almost always the work of younger scientists who come up with innovative and significant ideas early in their career, and not of older scientists whose ideas have already been examined and rejected.
Notes and references
- "Loyal Few Hear Sulzer Farewell," The New York Times, October 19, 1913, p. 1. Attributed to one Patrick E. McCabe, Clerk to the Court of Impeachment. A letter entitled "Political Crackpots" appeared the next day (p. 6) credited McCabe with "adding the expressive word 'crackpot' to our recently somewhat worn political vocabulary.'" An August 6, 1924 letter (p. 12) said that the term "had made its way into respectable literature." It quotes from p. 301 of Frank Swinnerton's 1923 novel Young Felix :"'Why you old idiot!' stormed Felix. 'You don't know what an artist is. You old crackpot!'"
- Kaempffert, Waldemar (1946), "Man and His Milieu," The New York Times, March 3, 1946, p. BR4
- Reprint title: Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. Dover Publications, ISBN 978-0486203942