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:
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.
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.
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.
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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