At last, I’ve begun James Gleick’s The Information, a seminal pop-sci treatment of ” the genesis of the current [published in 2011] information age.” This morning, whilst re-familiarising myself with Claude Shannon‘s application of George Boole’s peculiar logic to relays and switching circuits, I considered an addition of two ideas.
“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
Second: the idea of “crackpot physicists”, which can themselves be evaluated by John Baez’s Crackpot Index and are described in Sabine Hossenfelder’s article about her time engaging in exploratory dialogues with autodidact physicists. Hossenfelder writes:
“The majority of my callers are the ones who seek advice for an idea they’ve tried to formalise, unsuccessfully, often for a long time. Many of them are retired or near retirement, typically with a background in engineering or a related industry. All of them are men. Many base their theories on images, downloaded or drawn by hand, embedded in long pamphlets. A few use basic equations. Some add videos or applets. Some work with 3D models of Styrofoam, cardboard or wires. The variety of their ideas is bewildering, but these callers have two things in common: they spend an extraordinary amount of time on their theories, and they are frustrated that nobody is interested.
Sociologists have long tried and failed to draw a line between science and pseudoscience. In physics, though, that ‘demarcation problem’ is a non-problem, solved by the pragmatic observation that we can reliably tell an outsider when we see one. During a decade of education, we physicists learn more than the tools of the trade; we also learn the walk and talk of the community, shared through countless seminars and conferences, meetings, lectures and papers. After exchanging a few sentences, we can tell if you’re one of us. You can’t fake our community slang any more than you can fake a local accent in a foreign country.
My clients know so little about current research in physics, they aren’t even aware they’re in a foreign country. They have no clue how far they are from making themselves understood. Their ideas aren’t bad; they are raw versions of ideas that underlie established research programmes. But those who seek my advice lack the mathematical background to build anything interesting on their intuitions. I try to help them by making connections to existing research. During our conversations, I point them towards relevant literature and name the important keywords. I give recommendations on what to do next, what they need to learn, or what problem lies in the way. And I make clear that if they want to be taken seriously by physicists, there’s no way around mathematics, lots of mathematics. Images and videos will not do.”
So: we have the recognition of a given human’s general intelligence alongside a class of humans who have not even wrong epistemological stances about a particular domain or issue. Why does this matter? Because it indicates that we are all crackpots—or latent crackpots, depending on the generosity of one’s perspectives.
Being members of a civilisation, we have to manage a complex, dynamic roster of abstract thought and concrete skills in order to live life as we know it. The result of this lived experience is an entangled mess of knowing, the majority of which is never surfaced for honest, effective scrutiny. Unlike Hossenfelder’s autodidact physicists, the majority do not explicitly document, expose to dialogue and continually refine their pet theories about how the world does and doesn’t work. That doesn’t mean that these pet theories do not exist, however.
Two recent events that brought this to my attention are Elon Musk’s bungled Twitter takeover and Sam Bankman-Fried’s FTX meltdown. The voluminous, moment-by-moment commentary, analysis and prophesying that accompanied these sibling train-wrecks caused observers to posit otherwise hidden theories and revealed that a lot of people are stubborn, not-even-wrong crackpots in these particular domains.
I don’t mean to paint myself as a paragon of enlightenment and the revealed crackpots as flawed, leaky vessels of epistemology. I don’t know much about the infrastructure of hyper-scale sociotechnical systems, nor the mechanics and machinations of cryptocurrency exchanges and their orbiting parties myself. The opposite, in fact. Real recognise real; it takes one to know one; you’re a crackpot, I’m a crackpot, we’re all crackpots. It’s the acknowledgement, acceptance and response to our fractures, to our not-even-wrong-knowing, that I’m concerned about.
As Marcelo Gleiser puts it:
“As the Island of Knowledge grows, so do the shores of our ignorance—the boundary between the known and unknown. Learning more about the world doesn’t lead to a point closer to a final destination—whose existence is nothing but a hopeful assumption anyways—but to more questions and mysteries. The more we know, the more exposed we are to our ignorance, and the more we know to ask.”
Friends, by default and without intent, we inhabit a big ol’ island. Let’s not pretend otherwise.