Cracked conjectures

Pivot Points is a monthly column by EuroScientist writer David Bradley.

As a science writer, I’ve probably received more than my fair share of crackpot missives over the last couple of decades. Messages from the apparently well-meaning, but often deluded, come thick and fast and are a side of science rarely seen by the public, I suspect. The authors of these emails usually profess complete ignorance of science and mathematics and yet then claim that they have revealed some latent truth about inner workings of the universe, something that Newton, Einstein, and Schrodinger missed.

In the early days of my career in the publishing offices of the Royal Society of Chemistry, the cracked conjectures I saw had a distinct chemical bent and were commonly written on crumpled or stained paper in smudgy green ink. Why green, I will never know. Even children hoping to impress adults know to use black or blue and only educators and editors get away with an outlandish red flourish. The arrival of a new missive was often cause for celebration allowing an office full of professional pedants a moment of cynical amusement at the mental meanderings of a deluded author.

When I left the corporate office environment and went freelance, I assumed I’d miss the missives. However, I set up a web site way back in 1995 and that seemed almost instantaneously to be become a honeypot for world citizens hoping to gain publicity for their theories and inventions. At one time, there were only so many pages a green ballpoint could stretch to, but in the digital age, a document can go on for page after digital page.

It is no exaggeration to say that I receive a lengthy treatise on quantum mechanics, cosmology, relativity, alternative energy sources, pollutant remediation, life elixirs, medical panaceas and all-round cure-alls for all that ails humanity on an at least once-a-week basis. Sometimes, I’ll receive several copies to different email addresses. These people are nothing, if not persistent.

Claims that overturn everything Einstein and Newton come thick and fast, and cover such odd proposals as gravity acceleration, quantum time and countless origins-of-the-universe theories. Of course, modern physics doesn’t yet explain the ultimate origin, but any new theory, must be able to successfully predict what we have so far observed; if it doesn’t it’s cracked. There are propositions that attempt to reconcile freewill with quantum theory and hook it into black hole radiation. Prior research is condemned and the stupidity of scientists declared, demands are made that we overturn the laws of thermodynamics, in particular that awkward one about creating and destroying energy.

Common too are the items that tout the almost universally beneficial health effects of some obscure tropical plant or bean. None of these have been properly examined for clinical efficacy but come with a long list of disparate ailments that can all be successfully treated. This is a common feature of almost all alternative medicine where high hourly fees and bottled water lead to inverse homeopathic profit lines.

Before I ever need to talk to an expert about the validity of some novel theory in my inbox, I do apply a few analytical rules to exclude the obvious outliers. In fact, I developed a simple flowchart, which I dubbed the “Fraudulent Invention Debunkifier” , which works for spurious theories, whimsical claims, and perpetual motion machines alike. The flowchart codifies the warning signs exemplified by the web site of electrical engineer Phil Karn. Karn worked at Bellcore on the technical staff and has apparently been the recipient of many cracked conjectures during his time.

Karn’s list of warning signs coincides with my own instinctive filters that come into play when confronted with a putative cracked conjecture. They take into consideration the neuroses and paranoia level of the correspondent (if they are high, it’s usually debunkable nonsense). They also consider the level of the claims with respect to well-studied phenomena and evidence and whether or not the theory is claims to be a theory of everything. It’s quickly debunkable if it’s a medical cure for all illnesses or a solution to every problem from energy to population. Of course, any reference to a higher “power” that provided the insight, or the blueprints for the invention, is a significant marker to the degree of crackedness and crumples the missive into the virtual waste basket very quickly.

I do wonder whether it is only science writers that attract this cracked pottery, I assume the scattergun approach means that countless other people, who may not have access to physicists or biomedical researchers for comment, also receive them. Do they wonder whether what they are reading is genuinely revolutionary, paradigm-shifting breakthrough, or nothing more than the digital equivalent of smudgy green ink on cheap, crumpled paper?

David Bradley

David is a freelance science writer with more than thirty years in science communication. His best-selling book, Deceived Wisdom is available now.
David Bradley

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3 thoughts on “Cracked conjectures”

  1. Some ideas that are assumed to be nothing but the result of crackpottery at work, are assumed to be such, simply due to their uniqueness.

    I, not having the chance to obtain any education in the world of physics, was still interested in “Motion”, and so I analyzed motion in my spare time, and did so because I had noticed some peculiarities about it that no one else seemed to have noticed. These peculiarities lead to a paradox. I eventually resolved the problem, and by using simple geometry, I converted my new understanding of motion into mathematic equations. Later on I found out that my equations were identical to the equations known as the Lorentz-Fitzgerald Length Contraction equation, the Time Dilation equation, the Velocity Addition equation, and the Lorentz Transformation equations. In other words, I had independently discovered SR.

    But since my method of discovering SR was not related to Einstein’s method, nor anyone else’s method, and that the method in which I derived the SR mathematical equations is also 100% unique, the entirety of my work was, and still is, viewed as being nothing but crackpot mumbo jumbo.

  2. I just had two more this morning, theories of “everything” kind of stuff. No merit whatsoever.

    No, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything that turned out not to be dodgy my having assumed it was cracked initially. I think the problem is that although we most certainly don’t know everything and probably never will, there are some people who take this to mean any idea could be right. Anyone can make up a theory, but it’s really only those theories based on past observations that then predict future observations that bear up on closer scrutiny.

  3. I am inundated with cracked conjectures through my job at the University of Oxford. I look after a particular email account for industry collaboration and am forever deleting emails claiming to have the “natural herb from deepest Africa that will cure cancer”. Usually there is no explanation, paper or even website, so I ignore them. Let’s hope they are cracked rather than just bad at writing emails otherwise we are missing a trick(!!!)

    David – have you ever found something real in an email you originally thought was dodgy?