skeptical - NYT article
- here's an article of interest:
Taking the Mask Off Pseudoscience
December 21, 2000
By BONNIE ROTHMAN MORRIS
ERIK MAX FRANCIS is so passionate about the theory and practice of
modern science that in the last year alone he has posted 9,460
messages in scores of online user groups devoted topics like
relativity, astronomy and neuroscience.
Mr. Francis, 29, is not a scientist, and has taken only a handful
of classes at a community college, but he is a self-educated
computer programmer from San Jose, Calif., who just happens to be
comfortable, he says, discussing the theories and applications of
mathematical physics, vector algebra and calculus.
Ten years ago, Mr. Francis started talking online with other
people who shared his interests. Along with lively discussions with
the other science enthusiasts, Mr. Francis often found himself
debating people who espoused bizarre theories that were more
science fiction than science. The more Mr. Francis argued with
them, the more they dug in their heels.
Mr. Francis began thinking of these people as cranks, reasoning
that science is an ever-evolving process, and scientists change
their views as they make new discoveries that tear down old
assumptions. On the other hand, "a crank has already made up his
mind, evidence one way or another will not make him change it," Mr.
In 1996, Mr. Francis created a separate file in his computer to
keep track of the cranks and their Web sites. In 1997, he spun off
his quickly sprawling file into a separate domain, and dubbed it
Crank Dot Net (www.crank.net).
Today, Crank Dot Net is an index of about 1,000 of these sites.
Through it, Mr. Francis performs the role of vigilante, by ranking
and categorizing Web sites propounding pseudoscience that Mr.
Francis says is misleading and simply ridiculous. On Crank Dot Net,
Mr. Francis pulls a quote from each site that he feels best defines
it, then ranks the sites as "Cranky (Downright strange), Crankiest,
(above and beyond the normal call of the crank), and Illucid,
(Something so beyond understanding that it defies classification)."
Among the sites listed by Mr. Francis are ones espousing time
travel, teleportation, alchemy, crop circles and the idea that the
Earth is hollow. There are several sites dedicated to an old
favorite, cold fusion, which created a sensation when it was
announced in 1989 but now is largely dismissed by the scientific
Initially, Mr. Francis said, he kept track of these kinds of sites
for his own amusement, in an effort to study their abnormal
psychology. What struck him was how television has influenced
pseudo-science. "It's surprising to me how many scientific cranks
think pseudoscience and technobabble are really how science gets
done," wrote Mr. Francis in an e-mail message, blaming the thinking
on the influence of "Star Trek."
Mr. Francis said he had also come to believe that many people
create their own scientific theories because they simply don't
understand the real ones. Since math is fundamental to science and
many people are math illiterate, he said, they simply think words
will do. To Mr. Francis, words are simply not enough.
Crank Dot Net's sorting and filtering function for strange stuff
on the Web has taken on a wider import: helping site visitors see
fallacy for what it is. To that end, Mr. Francis also lists extreme
religions, white supremacists and hatemongers on the site, along
with crystal healers and victims of alien abductions.
Mr. Francis isn't the only Web vigilante out there devoted to
pin-pointing fallacy to encourage critical thinking. Phil Plaitt,
the Web master of Bad Astronomy started his site
(www.badastronomy.com) devoted to exposing myths about astronomy
because he was, he says "full of righteous fury," after watching a
TV news reader on a national network morning show give a report on
the space shuttle then laugh on air that he had no idea what he was
"I have a passion for the rightness of science," said Mr. Plaitt,
an astronomer and a friend of Mr. Francis. "Science works. It's a
pretty good way to describe the universe." Mr. Plaitt suggests that
sites like Bad Astronomy and Crank Dot Net provide a "process to
separate the rational from the irrational."
As the Internet expands to give every person a platform to say
whatever he wants about the way the universe works, (a good thing,
in both Mr. Francis's and Mr. Plaitt's view), it behooves people
like Mr. Francis, Mr. Plaitt and the Webmaster of similar sites,
like Quintessence of the Loon (www.ratbags.com/loon) to put them in
In addition to the pseudoscience sites, Crank Dot Net features an
anticrank category that lists sites "fighting crankism, debunking
bad science and promoting logic."
Crank Dot Net also flags sites that are parodies. Sometimes, Mr.
Francis admits, it is tough separating the parodies from the real
thing. Sometimes, he has ranked a site as cranky, only to be
corrected by site visitors.
"It's really hard to tell the difference," Mr. Francis said. "The
crankiest people, literally, they are talking and you are giggling
and what they're saying is ridiculous, but they are serious."
Mr. Francis said he received several submissions daily suggesting
sites to mention. Many of the submissions come from cranky
Webmasters. In fact, Mr. Francis said he rarely gets complaints
from the Webmasters he's clearly criticizing on the site. "Most are
quite pleased," he said. "By no means is Crank Dot Net considered a
hostile resource by people who are listed there."
Mr. Francis recently listed Greatdreams.com and rated it
"crankiest." Almost immediately, he received an e-mail message from
Dee Finney, the site's Webmaster, thanking him for the listing.
"Our main thrust is to educate people to watch their dreams," Mrs.
Finney said. `In their dreams you see the future. "We're tickled to
be listed. He has got the best links on his site to any educational
subject that we actually favor."
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