Daily Archives: August 28, 2015

Creative or Crackpot. How do you tell the difference?

the doctor has been called both. Thought leaders early in their career, including modern legends in science and business, have been called both. And anyone who pushes the boundaries in unusual ways will be called both. But how do you tell the difference?

It’s a tough problem. There’s such a thin line between genius and insanity, and even if the individual was a genius yesterday, who’s to say the genius hasn’t crossed the line and become a bonafide crackpot today.

But it’s one that should be tackled. the doctor could cross the line himself someday and the best way to prevent that from happening for as long as possible is to be aware of the warning signs and take proactive action. (Just like the best way to avoid dementia is through a combination of good eatin’, regular exercise, stress management, and regular mental activity.)

So the doctor did some research and found a pretty interesting article over on boingboing that provided some advice on the identification of the modern crackpot.

According to the article, written by Maggie Koerth-Baker, the science editor at boingboing and a Nieman-Berkman Fellow at Harvard University from August 2014 to May 2015 (which only accepts candidates with the potential for journalistic excellence), there are five indicators that, if present, might indicate the individual has crossed the line into the realm of the crackpot (or, even worse, has always lived in crackpotopia).

1. Is the story being uttered by the individual too feel-good?
(Like the Big News from Grand Rock.) Good educators care more about the evidence, technology, or practice than the story.

2. Is the proof being presented by the individual too self-evident?
If it really is obvious common sense, the individual is not as smart as he is making herself out to be. And if it’s not, there’s more smooth in the talk than there is substance, and that should set off a lot of warning bells. Proof generally requires explanation. Sometimes lots of it.

3. If the individual is trying to convince you that acceptance of the new idea will make you smarter than the official experts, be suspicious.
Very suspicious. Experts aren’t always right, but they usually are. Plus, at best, you should be as smart as the experts. Not more so.

4. If the studies the individual is using are (really) old, if there’s only a few studies, or if the individual is trying to use some weird meta-study across mostly unrelated studies (and ignore Pinky and the Brain’s lesson in statistics), dig deep. Really, really deep. What looks like truth when you look at five samples can quickly become completely untrue when you look at five hundred.

5. If you are told that you cannot trust any other source of information (because of some big, corporate, conspiracy or because such-and-such expert is a sell-out), then the individual is either the pre-eminent expert or a complete crackpot. (And we will leave it to you to guess which one is considerably more statistically likely.) An individual must know his or her limitations. There’s a reason SI tends to focus on some things (like optimization and analysis) and ignore others (like market speculation and merger benefits). That’s because the doctor is an expert in the first and not an expert in the latter.

This is not a complete or exhaustive test, especially since the greatest of geniuses who truly see the future years before anyone else will often only have a few studies to draw on, come up with proofs so logical that they seem self evident, require you to mistrust most accepted sources of information, and present a story that is truly exceptional. However, ground-breaking advances like this tend to only happen every few decades at most. So the test present by Ms. Koerth-Baker is a good one.