Half-Accurate Crackpots and the Bloodhound’s Dilemma
Awhiles back I re-read “Fads and Fallacies in the name of Science”, by Martin Gardner. It holds up well, and is as relevant as ever, alas. However, ‘even a blind pig can find an acorn’; and even a crackpot can get something almost right. I found two crackpots in his book who correctly detected that something odd was going on, though they completely misidentified what that something was.
Consider the amusing Mr. Lawson, whose Lawsonomy features the Law of “Zig-Zag-and-Swirl”. He said, “Thus the path of the germ is a highly zig-zag one which ‘continues without direction or end’.” Lawson suggest that a ‘Supreme Mathematics’ will have to be devised for computing such complicated paths.”
Is this not a description of the nondifferentiable, infinite-length fractal trajectories characteristic of chaotic dynamics? I suspect that Lawson was over-hyping chaos (“Supreme” mathematics?) but so does everybody else. His intuition of chaos was correct, but his presentation was more entertaining than coherent.
Now consider Donald Keyhoe, author of “Flying Saucers Are Real”. Of him, Martin Gardner said, “He tells the story of his research chronologically, almost like a work of fiction. As it progresses, you see the author’s growing suspicion that military officials are not playing square with him...”
Well, it turns out that Keyhoe was right about that, though not about the flying saucers. The military was lying to him, along with everybody else, in order to cover up some of their top-secret projects. I recall that in recent years it came out that a famous ‘saucer crash’ was really the debris of a fallen spy balloon.
No doubt the military-intelligence people considered the saucer cults a godsend; homegrown self-generated disinformation, absurd and confusing enough to hide any number of secrets behind. But I personally consider this to be an outrage; for the government was thus complicit in the creation of brand-new forms of superstition and pseudo-science. It is also a violation of the First Amendment; the establishment of religion.
One can make a case for the saucer-nuts’ “poetic” accuracy. Though it was not literally true that the Army sold us out to the Martians, still one could (metaphorically!) say that they sold us out to Mars, god of war. The saucer-cultists incorrectly detected aliens because they correctly detected alienation.
Of both Lawson and Keyhoe I could say that they had bad eyes, but good noses. They could smell that something was wrong, but they couldn’t see clearly what it was. I call this the “Bloodhound’s Dilemma”; they can smell the rot but they can’t see it.
Other crackpots have the Bloodhound’s Dilemma. Consider the “Lizard People” conspiracy-theorists. Their belief in the existence of shape-shifting lizard people from outer space is amusing; not to be taken literally; but it does have a certain poetic vividness. There really are powerful people who really do have no more compassion than a lizard has. Such people are called sociopaths, and they tend to accumulate at the very bottom of society, and the very top. So the Lizard People tale should not be taken literally, but it should be taken seriously.