Unified theory of the crank

A crank is defined as a man who cannot be turned.
– Nature, 8 Nov 1906

Here at denialism blog, we’re very interested in what makes people cranks. Not only how one defines crankish behavior, but literally how people develop unreasonable attitudes about the world in the face of evidence to the contrary. Our definition of a crank, loosely, is a person who has unreasonable ideas about established science or facts that will not relent in defending their own, often laughable, version of the truth. Central to the crank is the “overvalued idea”. That is some idea they’ve incorporated into their world view that they will not relinquish for any reason. Common overvalued ideas that are a source of crankery range from bigotry, antisemitism(holocaust deniers), biblical literalism (creationists – especially YEC’s), egotism (as it relates to the complete unwillingness to ever be proven wrong) or an indiscriminant obsession with possessing “controversial” or iconoclastic ideas. Some people just love believing in things that no one in their right mind does, out of some obscure idea that it makes them seem smart or different.

The OED definition of a crank seems to be a little old-fashioned:

5. colloq. (orig. U.S.). A person with a mental twist; one who is apt
to take up eccentric notions or impracticable projects; esp. one who is
enthusiastically possessed by a particular crotchet or hobby; an
eccentric, a monomaniac. [This is prob. a back-formation from CRANKY,
sense 4.] Also attrib. and Comb.

The OED etymology suggests it’s been in use for about 180 years, but I don’t think it was defined well until that Nature quote in 1906 (which very poetically describes the problem) that the definition seems to take shape. Cranks aren’t interested in debate, nor do they respond to reason, they’ll just blather on about their idiotic pet theory until everyone in the room has fled or opened a vein. Another take on that quote might be that a crank can only be turned one way, which would fit with the mechanical metaphor and suggest they’re only ever interested in spouting one line of reasoning.

Wikipedia has an excellent wiki on cranks; I find their criteria are more modern :

  1. Cranks overestimate their own knowledge and ability, and underestimate that of acknowledged experts.
  2. Cranks insist that their alleged discoveries are urgently important.
  3. Cranks rarely if ever acknowledge any error, no matter how trivial.
  4. Cranks love to talk about their own beliefs, often in inappropriate social situations, but they tend to be bad listeners, and often appear to be uninterested in anyone else’s experience or opinions.

Now, in our terminology not every denialist is a crank, but cranks use pretty much exclusively denialist arguments to make their point. Cranks are a bit more deserving of pity, a bit closer to delusion and mental illness than the pure denialist, who knows that they are spouting BS to sow confusion.

Most people have a pretty good gestalt for what one is, and the standard definitions are pretty accurate. But we’re more interested in how people, sometimes perfectly reasonable people, turn into cranks. An interesting resource to understand the phenomenon is this article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Justin Kruger and David Dunning about how people who are incompetent not only have an inflated sense of their own competence, but are also incapable of even recognizing competence. Take for example this figure from the paper (it’s not Wiley so hopefully I won’t be sued). It’s pretty self-explanatory


What’s even more amazing is that when they then shared the performance of other participants with the people who performed poorly (hoping that they would then adjust their self-perception downward) people who scored poorly failed to adjust their self-perception of their performance. In other words, they are completely unaware of their own incompetence, and can’t detect competence in others.

Now, doesn’t this explain a lot? It explains the tendency of cranks not to care if other cranks (and denialists in general for that matter) have variations on their own crazy ideas, just as long as the other cranks are opposing the same perceived incorrect truth. Cranks and denialists aren’t honest brokers in a debate, they stand outside of it and just shovel horse manure into it to try to sow confusion and doubt about real science. They don’t care if some other crank or denialist comes along and challenges the prevailing theory by tossing cow manure, as long as what they’re shoveling stinks.

For instance, you notice that Dembski doesn’t spend a whole lot of time attacking Ken Ham, nor does the DI seem to care a great deal about any kind of internal consistency of ideas. Michael Behe, for example, is a raging “Darwinist” compared to Michael Egnor, who any scientifically competent person would recognize as well, this:


So what we have from the DI, the other denialists and their organizations, is evidence of people with no competence in understanding science, who overestimate their own abilities, and are incapable of recognizing competence in others.

Next time I think we’ll discuss how people might start out as reasonable people and then become cranks because they’re more interested in being “right” than actually pursuing any kind of scientific truth. Some cranks seem to be defined not so much by incompetence, but by their obsession with their overvalued idea that ruins their ability to think rationally.

P.S. I wrote this piece over the weekend and then PZ published this piece on a crank named Gilder on Sunday. He’s a real textbook case. Crazy, gibbering, throwing out lingo and jargon, and clearly not competent to recognize that he’s completely wrong about information theory.

**Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments, Justin Kruger and David Dunning, Cornell University, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol 77, no 6, p 1121-1134 (1999)