crackpot people and crackpot ideas

I listened to Brian Doherty talk about his book on the history of libertarianism.  One point he makes is that in the forties and the fifties, libertarians were mostly crackpots.  He suggests that this is likely to be the case for any dissident idea.

This suggests that different ideas are going to occupy different niches.  For example, suppose that there is a large niche for anti-capitalist ideas.  The actual ideas occupying that niche may be different in different time periods, but something always fills that niche.

There may different niches for pessimistic ideas and optimistic ideas.

When there is a popular idea and a crackpot idea, which is more likely to be right?  Instead of thinking about this problem by thinking in terms of a probability distribution, it may be useful to think of an ecological model.   What sort of false ideas are likely to occupy particular niches, including the niche of popular opinion?  What sort of false ideas are likely to survive by finding crackpots to host them?

Belief in anthropogenic global warming is becoming popular.  Skepticism is becoming crackpot.  What is the probability that the global warming partisans will turn out to be the crackpots?  How does that probability depend on the niche that the global warming idea occupies?

I know that the ecological metaphor has been used in this context, with the term "meme," but I admit I have never read the literature, so I don’t know if the connection between bias and survival of memes has been addressed there.

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  • Robin Hanson

    It might be more useful to think of an ecology of idea niches, but you haven’t really shown us it is useful in the examples you mention here. *How* is it useful in these examples?

  • Matthew

    Very insightful, Arnold.

  • Doug S.

    I’d say that crackpots are far more likely to be wrong than the mainstream view among reasonably well-informed people. Once in a while, you get a crackpot proposing an idea that turns out to be right (Giordano Bruno proposing that the stars were other suns with planets of their own), but crackpot ideas that are supported by evidence eventually become mainstream ideas instead of crackpot ideas. Also, even if the mainstream view is usually imperfect (consider the state of physics in the 19th century), there are so many crackpots out there that are just crazy and wrong instead of crazy and lucky, so you still do better by siding with the mainstream.

  • Ben Hill

    Also, the difference between a crackpot and brillant idea may be how good a story it makes.

    Someone may have a good idea but it’s a lousy story, so it’s hard to sell it to people.

    Of course, it’s help when the idea has evidence or a solid theory behind it.

    Plate tectonics was considered a radical-crackpot idea once.

  • Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Are you asking for the probability that an idea considered crackpot turns out to be right, or for the probability that the idea which turns out to be right will be considered crackpot? The former probability is obviously far lower, simply because there are more possible wrong ideas than right ones.

  • Doug S.

    I suppose there is also a difference between a crackpot and an iconoclast. A crackpot is a person who champions an idea and is impervious to disproof; an example might be 9/11 conspiracy theorists. An iconoclast is someone who is willing to “play by the rules” and tries to assert that his unpopular position is actually better supported by the evidence; an example could be opponents of string theory. Iconoclasts are more likely to be right than crackpots.

    From Wikipedia:

    “Crank” is a pejorative term for a person who

    1. holds some belief which the vast majority of his contemporaries would consider false,
    2. clings to this belief in the face of all counterarguments or evidence presented to him.

    The term implies that

    1. a “cranky” belief is so wildly at variance with some commonly accepted truth as to be ludicrous,
    2. arguing with the crank is useless, because he will invariably dismiss all evidence or arguments which contradict his cranky belief.

  • Cobb

    Crackpot ideas survive by being dismissed by people who know better and by developing credible sounding arguments beyond the level of lay debate. I can think of several examples of arcane or taboo knowledge where this is the case. I agree that any idea must survive in a kind of ecology that is supportive of it.

  • JMG3Y

    IMO, the biggest reasons are the three fundamental premises we make – that everyone’s brain works (thinks) the same as ours, that we are entirely conscious of our thought processes and that what we sense is reality. Therefore, everyone should reach the same conclusions, hold the same opinions and act as we do, sitting here with our model of how the world works (which we assume is shared in virtually its entirety).

    If they do not, we then assume it is most likely because (in descending order of likelihood) they are devious (they know better but they have bad motives – greed, lazy, . . .), they are stupid (they can’t think any better), they have a knowledge gap (our knowledge is more perfect and theirs is weak so they don’t know any better) or that they are nuts and such is to be expected of them.

    To discover (diagnose) where their thinking went wrong and to decipher their motives, we run the VCR backwards from what we saw through our model of how the world works to what we would have to be thinking, have as motives or know if we behaved or acted that way or stated that.

    Then to “fix” them, providing we haven’t concluded they are nuts and thus unfixable, we run the VCR forward, adding in the ingredients that we think we would personally need to move from their erroneous state of mind to better reflect our correct state of mind.

    Hence, when we all know something, those skeptical of the conclusion are either crackpots (ignorable nuts) or devious villans to be fixed. Devious villans are best moved by stoning or other forms of public correction and humiliation.