How to Write a Crank Letter

The following is an article from The Annals of Improbable Research.

by Marc Abrahams, Improbable Research staff

Recently we received a crank letter that sets the standard for how to write a good one. Like every science-related journal, the Annals of Improbable Research receives a sufficiency of crank letters. This one begins by saying:

Gentlemen:

Attached idea came to me while thinking about how one might explain that the equation....

Honoring the tradition of the genre, the entire equation-and-symbol-packed middle portion is either impossible to follow, or irrelevant. Six pages later, it ends with a cheery:

Maybe you are interested in this subject too -- maybe not.

Enjoy!
Anonymous

Neither the letter nor its envelope gives a return address. That absence of contact information, combined with the explicit “Anonymous” signature, is a mark of thoughtfulness and kindness. One can hope, wistfully, that other cranks will emulate it.

If you are a scientist or if you write about scientists, cranks send you lots of mail. In the November, 1951 issue of The Scientific Monthly, philosophy Professor Laurence J. Lafleur of Florida State University wrote an essay that, in ensuing decades, became the quasi-official standard for how to recognize a crank letter. Professor Lafleur was ticked off at the clamorous attention given to Immanuel Velikovsky, whose ingeniously cranky, best-selling book Worlds in Collision was inspiring cranks everywhere to ratchet up their epistolary production. Velikovsky’s popularity so enraged certain scientists that they, too, began acting like cranks.

Professor Lafleur recommended a set of spot-the-loony guidelines. This elicited a reply, also published in The Scientific Monthly, from a Mr. Alan O. Kelly of Carlsbad, California. Mr. Kelly titled his letter “A Crank’s Eye View.” Though now little-known, Mr. Kelly is perhaps the philosopher-king of cranks. Here are some of his thoughts:

Being a crank and prone to come at any problem in a hasty manner, we at first thought to settle the whole matter by one simple test for the scientist -- namely, to ask him a question and if he gives a straightforward answer, he is not a scientist.
...

The average layman is apt to think of a scientist as the man who taught science in high school, or perhaps some college professor. He usually remembers this man as a mean or colorless individual (depending on what grades he received), and almost never as a scientist who was investigating anything new or unusual. [Most of these teachers] are not interested in science and probably never were.... The layman has been taught to venerate science, if not the teacher, and like the teacher he supposes that the books contain nothing but the truth.
...

Thomas Edison ... had many of the characteristics of the crank and few of the scientist, but perhaps the thing that set him apart and above the common crank was his wisdom in never writing letters to scientists, or going to scientists for approval of his ideas.

Which, Then?

The apparent line between scientist and crank is sometimes impressively thick, sometimes vanishingly thin. Often, it is difficult to gauge the thickness, especially on first sight. For a good example of this, see Figure 3.

Figure 3. Perhaps just coincidentally, but perhaps not, the year 1951 also saw a famous retelling of one of the great stories about the how-to-recognize-a-crank question. Bertrand Russell’s obituary of Ludwig Wittgenstein appeared in print several months before Professor Lafleur’s half-cranky crankhood analysis. Here, reproduced, is the pertinent part of Russell’s remembrance of his fellow philosopher.

References

1. “Cranks and Scientists,” Laurence J. Lafleur, Scientific Monthly, vol. 73, no. 5, November 1951, pp. 284-90.

2. “A Crank’s Eye View”, Alan O. Kelly, Scientific Monthly, vol. 74, no. 2, February 1952, pp. 117-9.

3. “Obituary: Ludwig Wittgenstein,” Bertrand Russell, Mind, vol. 60, no. 239, July 1951, pp. 297-8.

_____________________

This article is republished with permission from the January-February 2006 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

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I don't think I've ever gotten an anonymous crank contact. I've gotten anonymous spam to buy products without any indication who or where to buy from, but crank emails usually are plastered with the submitter's contact info, links to their own site and anywhere else their writing exists.

Probably one frequent pattern I've noticed is they will spend a lot of time talking about what scientists say, think, concentrate on, and ignore. While mainstream journal articles will have an intro and background paragraph, they are not 50+% trying to summarize opposition. And the inevitable happens when you spend most of a letter telling the recipient what they think and do, when they would probably be quite ware of most that: parts of it ends up being quite blatantly wrong. Regardless of the merits of their point when they get to that, I can't imagine how anyone would expect an unbiased response from most people when you spend a long time building a very detailed straw man, of the recipient, and then beat them over the head with it. E.g. I've lost track of how many times I've gotten emails that start out with trying to say physicists never consider that various things in outer space are made of plasma.

As far as the actual ideas, good ideas can come from anywhere. But what background and experience amounts to, especially in the sciences, is knowing of a lot of the results of previous experiments, and the successes and failures of various ideas. The ideas I've gotten may explain/predict one particular measurement or experiment result, but disregards dozens of others, frequently quite basic ones. There are a rare few that fail for a reason that students in a graduate level class would probably get wrong too on a final, but few too many show issues that would have been covered at a low level undergraduate course. I've also lost count how many times I've been told about some amazing energy generating circuit, that turns out to be a very commonly used circuit, that acts as understood by intro level electronics, and if it acted differently, billions of appliances and devices would not function as they should.

I suppose this could be created into template:
Dear SoAndSo, I want to present my idea that, with your help, will make us revolutionize [field of study]. For some reasons, scientists in this field refuse to consider the effects of [some chapter title from intro level book on field], which is incredibly shortsighted considering those are effects are important because [a few points from the intro of that chapter]. By applying those effects [via some way ignoring caveats covered in that chapter], we can see that it makes accurate predictions of [one or two well known experiments or measurements]. So you can see how silly [idea introduced to explain more detailed experiments] is, and why we don't need such hogwash. My ideas have already been published in [non-peer reviewed journal]. Thanks for your time, unless you are one of those fake physicists perpetuating false truths. [Then inflate the word count, so that it is much longer than this post... as difficult as it is for me to be concise, such emails are even wordy than I could be if I tried.]
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