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overturn the scientific consensus the MeFi way
January 3, 2013 6:05 PM   Subscribe

Given what's started to come out at the tail end of the prostate research thread, it seems to me like either the thread ought to be deleted or at least some of the links stripped out. To whatever extent the continued existence of the AskMe supports this person's behavior, it shouldn't.
posted by gerryblog to Etiquette/Policy at 6:05 PM (118 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

Yeah, that's pretty sketchy, I think I'm going to go ahead and delete the post.
posted by mathowie (staff) at 6:12 PM on January 3, 2013


Also, the poster's profile links to this. While I am only marginally paying attention, that seems sketchy, right? Or am I just waving my pitchfork around at nothing?
posted by kbanas at 6:19 PM on January 3, 2013


kbanas, yeah, that's of a piece with the whole thing. That's the research the thread was nominally asking us to evaluate and help promote.
posted by gerryblog at 6:23 PM on January 3, 2013


I think they linked to it after being asked what the paper looked like that was being submitted.
posted by mathowie (staff) at 6:23 PM on January 3, 2013


Thanks, Matt. After fuming over this all through dinner I was about to come in here to request the same, and I'm very glad to see it shut down.
posted by Westringia F. at 6:23 PM on January 3, 2013


"The semen samples used in the experiments were collected with informed consent and were not from people who were being treated for any of the described conditions"

Welp, that is probably the second-best followup this week.
posted by griphus at 6:23 PM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


The OP here - this is my first AskMetafilter question and I am sorry that it has turned out that the post will be deleted. I put the link in my profile, as I have seen others do, in case people wanted more information. I can delete the link in my profile now that the question is gone.
posted by unlaced at 6:24 PM on January 3, 2013


Well. Wow.
posted by rtha at 6:33 PM on January 3, 2013


Even though I find the research project in question incredibly problematic, I'm not sure I would have deleted the post. It doesn't have any direct links to the report on PSP94. It seems like a good thing that when people Google for PSP94 and prostate cancer this thread with a bunch of people pointing out that this guy is unqualified and conducting what appears to be unethical research.
posted by grouse at 6:52 PM on January 3, 2013 [7 favorites]


It is your site, Matt, but i think that was quite an unfair deletion. Ask Metafilter is not a peer-reviewed journal, and there are plenty of questions here that could be said to encourage a person to do something other users disagree with, just by existing. And how encouraging is a thread filled with "stop being a crackpot" answers anyway? I think it sends the right message to others in the same position.
posted by michaelh at 6:57 PM on January 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


Ok, I would consider bringing it back, I was reacting at the aspects that looked like the subject of the post in question was posting this on every forum they could, and we were just another part of that online tour of quackery. But if you guys think it's better left up and being debated, I would consider bringing it back.
posted by mathowie (staff) at 7:04 PM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


We often delete things in AskMe that have a whiff of promotion about them, and "my friend wants to get the word out about his scientific idea, how can I help spread the word?" is pretty borderline anyway IMO.

Once it comes out that the friend has been misrepresenting himself elsewhere online to promote this idea, the sketch factor rises.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 7:04 PM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, this is a dubious deletion. Even though most people understand that posting an AskMe does not equal "endorsed by Metafilter, Inc.", I can understand how even the possibility of leading people astray into crackpot science would lead you to want to delete it. I myself started off in the morning thinking, "hey, your friend might have a neat idea! Package it into a conference paper and present it!" to by the early evening thinking, "OMG this is creepy."

However, I think unlaced posted it in good but naive faith, geniunely looking for an answer, and not as a shill for her friend.
posted by deanc at 7:07 PM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, the poor scientific grounding of the post isn't really the issue, so much as the fact that the "question" doesn't seem to be in good faith.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 7:09 PM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Seems to me this was a question with many on-target and useful answers. As always, I bow to the wisdom of the moderators, but I think the answers to the OP's question would be helpful to other would-be lay researchers. I can't see this thread doing any harm; quite the contrary.
posted by Wordwoman at 7:09 PM on January 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yeah it's one of those things where it's totally not OK if the OP is in on the deal and is using the post to promote this research. If they legitimately have a friend and are asking a question, it's okay but they're going to get a lot of "ummm...." type of answers.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:10 PM on January 3, 2013


Does deleting a thread remove it from web search? I just tried a Google search on "prostate cancer" + AskMetaFilter and I got the thread. So while I agree that it could be helpful for people to find at least one place where this junk was debunked, or would-be serious researchers could get tips and pointers, closing the thread doesn't seem to prevent that positive outcome.

I actually jumped in to post the same TAL episode that OmieWise did, but he was in first!
posted by Miko at 7:12 PM on January 3, 2013


Deleting a thread should remove it from Google eventually (could take hours, could take weeks), but for the sake of arguments here, I decided to bring it back. I was on the fence about removing it, thought it might be the best path, but it sounds like people getting to debunk it in the thread is a better overall positive outcome.
posted by mathowie (staff) at 7:16 PM on January 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


There are few times that I read a thread or post and think "Get out the pitch forks" but the so called 'research' is unethical, especially if it is affiliated with a fake lab that encourages patients to submit surveys and even remotely suggests that they may be eligible for a clinical trial.

Many things posted in metafilter seem to be high in google rankings. Would there be any way to list the fake lab name, fake person name up there in the tags for this metatalk so that the fake name will also pull up crackpot and crank in google?

I would hope that if someone searches around by google that it is obvious that this is not a real lab, but maybe connecting the dots both in the ask meta post and this post may at least mitigate the person spreading false info.
posted by Wolfster at 7:38 PM on January 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


I sort of feel bad about jumping in early with advice based on a charitable reading of the question and the abstract of the monograph. For the sake of anyone this guy might try to rope in with clear misrepresentation, I feel like there's only one right answer here: cut it out. Not that the OP's friend is likely to listen, of course, but the fact that he has new leads now (based on early answerers not having the whole story) kinda gives me a squicky feeling.

Not that anything can be done, of course, other than making the page high in Google rankings for his name and the name of his "lab" with the skeptical/angry answers that are there. So I'm with Wolfster: I think it's reasonable to put the guy's name in the post, along with the name of his lab and his monograph. I'm guessing that's far enough from SOP on Ask that Matt and the other mods wouldn't concur, but that's my two cents.
posted by supercres at 7:56 PM on January 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


Joining in the "feeling duped" sentiment.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:59 PM on January 3, 2013


OP here - Wolfster and supercres, could you elaborate on why you think it is a fake lab and a fake name? I am genuinely confused by this. What makes a lab fake? What is the clear misrepresentation that is happening?

I did not provide details in the original question about funding sources, laboratory set up etc because that was not the point of the question.
posted by unlaced at 8:09 PM on January 3, 2013


Ask Metafilter: Lie back and think of Einstein.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:14 PM on January 3, 2013


You say that he is an electrical engineer by day, that he is not part of "the research community", and that he's not in a position to obtain graduate education in a medical field... in other words, he is an enthusiastic amateur without formal medical training or institutional affiliation.

But he signs his forum posts as if he is the chief scientist of a lab, and phrases them so as to suggest (to patients with these illnesses) he is conducting formal, institutionally-sanctioned research. It seems intentionally misleading.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 8:17 PM on January 3, 2013 [19 favorites]


It's pretty deceptive all right.
posted by Miko at 8:19 PM on January 3, 2013


Also this. A "lab" of one guy, who doesn't even bother to explain what he does, except when he wants to rope in random people off message boards?
posted by StrikeTheViol at 8:25 PM on January 3, 2013


The only google result of consequence under his organizational name is here. Canadian Mefites, is his credential some kind of trade school or associates degree?
posted by StrikeTheViol at 8:38 PM on January 3, 2013


Diplôme d'études collégiales: apparently equivalent to an Associates degree.
posted by elephantday at 8:47 PM on January 3, 2013


Yeah, it's a Quebec thing. Some people only get their DEC and go straight into the workforce doing trades or secretarial type work, but for most, it's the step in between high school and university.
posted by hasna at 8:50 PM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't think anything but good can come from the AskMe thread being indexed to provide what is clearly expert advice as to the (lack of) credibility of this 'research'. I find it hard to believe, though, that anyone would consider any of the linked material credible anyway. I'm about as far away from being a medical expert as you can get and, even to me, it all looks like just another crackpot theory, but I guess people sometimes get desperate when they or someone they care about is suffering. So I think it's good that there is now some counter balancing information to help those people see this for what it is.

But. I can see it starting here and I hope this doesn't become another MeFi witch hunt...
posted by dg at 8:55 PM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


What StrikeTheViol linked to is problematic. If it weren't for the grounded answers advocating for real scientific approach and discipline, I'd be heavily on the side of deleting just to keep MetaFilter from being roped into something as dubious as that.

...but even with those answers, the things Wolfster pointed out are really sketchy. I would hate for even one person in need of real medical care to get the idea that they could go along with this guy's theory and get better. Even if that sounds awful of me. I've just known too many people who dig and dig for other solutions to a horrible diagnosis and then latch on to something completely useless, unethical, and/or destructive, and it worries me perhaps too much to see a path being built for something that could create that kind of confusion.
posted by batmonkey at 8:55 PM on January 3, 2013


What makes a lab fake?

This is one of those "if you have to ask it..." questions.

Unlanced - it seems like you're a true believer in your friend and that makes it hard for you to be a good friend to this person. And he needs a good friend. I'm empathetic to someone who's doesn't realize he's in over his head and who really thinks he has a chance to change history if only he got the right break. But to be a good friend you need to see what's happening for what it is.

1) This guy is on his own and is misrepresenting his credentials.
2) The whole internet* is saying this is a bad idea.

Don't further #1 by not knowing what is or isn't a real lab. It looks like he's self-publishing and claiming to be the principal investigator of a lab he made up and is comprised solely of him. If you're this person's friend, you need to sit down with him. You need to say that there isn't a great conspiracy and that this urgency that he feels isn't appropriate for what he wants to accomplish. And if he feels like he just has to get this out no matter what, you need to find a way to provide support without deepening the problem.

*Basically
posted by allen.spaulding at 9:09 PM on January 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


I find it really hard to believe that an actual research scientist does not know the difference between a real lab and a fake one, or why misrepresenting yourself as a scientist is a bad idea.
posted by snickerdoodle at 9:24 PM on January 3, 2013 [23 favorites]


Given what's started to come out at the tail end of the prostate research thread,

Intentionally punny or not, this made me snort soda out my nose with laughter.
posted by tzikeh at 10:01 PM on January 3, 2013 [15 favorites]


(glad you said it so I didn't have to, tzikeh)
posted by koeselitz at 10:04 PM on January 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


Oh please, that's really scraping the bottom of the barrel of humor isn't it?
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:31 PM on January 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


What makes a lab fake?

You need to follow licensing and regulatory guidelines, get accreditation and all that stuff. Unless the flu vaccine people are secretly working out of Mom's basement.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:33 PM on January 3, 2013


Oh please, that's really scraping the bottom of the barrel of humor isn't it?

They're really reaching around up there for those prostate jokes.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:34 PM on January 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


Everything I saw made this person's work look indistinguishable from crankery. This additional information makes it look kind of scammy as well.

The way lay people get their hypotheses tested and integrated into the professional debate is by partnering with experienced research scientists, not by pretending to be experienced research scientists.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:36 PM on January 3, 2013 [11 favorites]


not by pretending to be experienced research scientists

I really wish I lived in a world where we could, though, you know?
posted by neuromodulator at 11:34 PM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


I do prostate cancer research in the EU (along with other types of cancer) and I wouldn't touch that question with a ten foot pole. His human research is definitely unethical and potentially illegal and there's a good reason why no one will publish his "science". Ick. I'm all for any deletion of this crap just because ick.
posted by shelleycat at 2:59 AM on January 4, 2013 [6 favorites]


Also, using a vulnerable patient population in this way really makes me upset.
posted by shelleycat at 3:04 AM on January 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


This guy is an excellent example of the distilled essence de crank, looking through the actual ideas that he has and the literature behind it, the ideas that are good don't appear to be at all original and the ideas that are original don't appear to be any good. He makes many of the predictable errors of someone who doesn't know anything about what they think they do, but desperately wants to appear to.
  • A Primary Investigator is not shorthand for a sovereign researcher not beholden to a more established one, but someone who has attracted their own funding and is primarily responsible for the good stewardship of that money as they investigate whatever line of inquiry that money was intended to support. In using that title, Martin Laurence is actively misrepresenting himself as someone responsible for someone else's money, which is not ok.
  • A laboratory is an entity that performs scientific research. There are actually people who can plausibly claim to have a laboratory in their basement, though for the last hundred years not many, but your friend is very much not one of them. He does not seem to claim to have ever actually performed research of any kind, having just combed through other people's work to produce his conclusions.
  • His forum posts seem to indicate that he thinks attracting a self selecting sample population of patients gullible enough to believe him to self report what they think they are suffering from, when, and why without any verification of any kind much less any human subjects review whatsoever represents research. Were he to ever actually collect any data he would need to continue to lie his ass of to publish it or communicate it in any way.
  • His protocol for whatever he thinks he is planning to do (an environmental survey of whatever fungi might be present in semen? a titer?) strongly indicates that he has not read many protocols, has no idea what the tools is is planning on using are for, and has no business being around human tissues.
  • I've been fascinated by cranks for a while and I think I have a decent model for understanding where it comes from, frustrated privilege. They seem to be almost exclusively white men from relatively economically privileged backgrounds, a demographic that Western society is constantly reminding from a young age is smart, talented, knows things, and HAS THINGS TO TEACH US. The practice of crankery represents a reversal of something fundamental to the honest practice of science, where it is all about finding ways to feel smart - smarter than everyone else - whereas as good scientists are constantly finding new ways to feel stupid - pushing themselves to the edge of knowledge where they know nothing and no one can help them. This guy is absolutely confined to the knowledge that is already known and published, he is not capable of honestly producing more, and so, in his desperation to feel smart like he imagines scientists to be, he tried to re-synthesize other peoples work into something coherent as a review but he is not capable of doing anything remotely like what someone with a proper education could do, much less the actual researchers involved.
    posted by Blasdelb at 3:14 AM on January 4, 2013 [89 favorites]


    I guess it was me who brought this guy's questionable behaviour to the thread.

    At the time I contacted the mods to highlight why I thought it should be removed. I feared that the early comments, while well-intentioned, would embolden and enable what I saw as reckless unethical behaviour. But having thought more about it I think the post should stay up as a buttress against this guy's efforts to further establish his legitimacy online.

    I would be very interested to hear what the friend himself has to say in response.

    Sadly I think he seems to be the kind of guy who will wear all this controversy as a badge of honour.
    posted by TheOtherGuy at 3:16 AM on January 4, 2013


    I'm all for shining a light on questionable stuff, but per the FAQ AskMe has a policy/convention of deleting questions that are "illegal or borderline illegal." Given what TheOtherGuy brought to light, I believe this is at _best_ "borderline."

    I've flagged the question, as well as all of my answers except for my last "STOP," as guideline breaking for this reason. We already have evidence that this individual is engaging in wildly unethical and possibly illegal practices wrt his "project," and any success that this person has will only further enable him to misrepresent himself to unsuspecting/vulnerable/desperate patients. I don't want to be a part of that, and as a member of the Metafilter community, I'd prefer not to see AskMe be a part of that.

    (Also, without explicitly linking his/his lab's name with the words that would describe his massively unethical, potentially illegal, and definitely crackpotty pseudoscientific efforts I'm not sure how much the Ask post is actually doing to delegitimize his web presence.)
    posted by Westringia F. at 3:57 AM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


    I've been fascinated by cranks for a while and I think I have a decent model for understanding where it comes from, frustrated privilege.

    That's actually really interesting. I guess I've always - perhaps naively - assumed it comes from a combination of a genuine desire to do good and a completely hazy idea of what scientific research actually looks like. But I suppose, thinking about it, that it would be difficult to get to that point without a quite staggering lack of humility. Are you able to recommend any particularly good books about cranks? I feel a bout of intellectual curiosity coming on.
    posted by Acheman at 4:03 AM on January 4, 2013


    I deleted your comments that you flagged Westringia F.

    Regarding deleting the post, since it's already been deleted and then undeleted, I'll hold off on that until other moderators are around to discuss again. People should feel free to weigh in yea or nay on that.
    posted by taz (staff) at 4:06 AM on January 4, 2013


    I think while Westringia F. is absolutely right on this, as it is indeed unlikely to have any meaningful direct effect on this guy's web presence being not indexed by anything related to his web presence and is dramatically against the guidelines, I don't think it will meaningfully help him either and it does still serve as an interesting example of how to spot cranks for the many new to that. It sucks that this happened at all but don't really have strong feelings about the official response myself, maybe it would be best to delete it for the benefit of those who feel taken advantage of.
    posted by Blasdelb at 4:22 AM on January 4, 2013


    "That's actually really interesting. I guess I've always - perhaps naively - assumed it comes from a combination of a genuine desire to do good and a completely hazy idea of what scientific research actually looks like. But I suppose, thinking about it, that it would be difficult to get to that point without a quite staggering lack of humility. Are you able to recommend any particularly good books about cranks? I feel a bout of intellectual curiosity coming on."

    Most of the thinking about them seems to concern Physics cranks, who are more immediately obvious due to their lack of knowledge of basic math, extraordinary organization, and less financial incentives. Just check out their conferences

    The wikipedia article is something one could get lost in

    Amateurs around the world take on the priesthood of mainstream science.

    There was also a really nice blog by a real physicist who was similarly fascinated by them that I'm not finding at the moment but will post as soon as I do.
    posted by Blasdelb at 4:40 AM on January 4, 2013 [14 favorites]


    The semen samples used in the experiments were collected with informed consent

    Does anyone actually believe that?
    posted by mediareport at 6:09 AM on January 4, 2013


    I was happier when it was deleted, though I suppose the harm has been done either way. I think unlaced went about this badly. Moreover, it seems pretty likely to me that unlaced is the person perpetrating this fraud, and not a friend, though maybe other people's intuitions disagree on that.

    Either way the question definitely seems to me to be an attempt to game the Internet's reputation systems as much as or more than it's a good-faith attempt to get advice.
    posted by gerryblog at 6:27 AM on January 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


    Does anyone actually believe that?

    I believe it's quite probable that the guy thinks they were collected with 'informed consent', because when they were collected he asked the subjects 'are you OK with this?' and outlined to them some of the details of his research. He may even have given them a bit of paper to sign, though I doubt there was an information leaflet. I would be very surprised if he knew what is actually involved in the consent process for modern medical research.
    posted by Acheman at 6:31 AM on January 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


    A friend of mine has been using crank physics letters as a teaching tool for his undergrads. Here's a presentation he made about it.
    posted by thelonius at 6:44 AM on January 4, 2013 [19 favorites]


    As a sometimes-IRB-person I sincerely doubt this was actually done right. But I think he may quite possibly in good faith think it was. It never fails to astonish me what very smart, very well-intentioned people think is totally ethical and valid, where the informed consent process is concerned.

    I have all sorts of concerns about this and I'm now sorry I gave what little advice I did. I don't feel strongly that it needs to be deleted, but I certainly won't be giving any further advice to the OP or his friend.
    posted by Stacey at 6:45 AM on January 4, 2013


    I'm conflicted on this too. I tempered my answer based on potential "good intentions", but finding out about the forum trolling is really awful.

    I flagged one of my posts because I don't think it's worth calling any attention to the "results" they have, as paltry and poorly organized/explained as they are, seeing as they were likely collected under the conditions Acheman outlined. That should have sounded more alarm bells when read the first time.
    posted by Paper rabies at 6:49 AM on January 4, 2013


    It may not be covered by previous practices here, but I could imagine letting the question stay, but adorned with a mod-comment (of the kind normally used for deleted posts) that goes somewhat like this (and I sort of quote LobsterMitten):

    "this post was allowed to stay as a warning.
    The subject of this post is described as an electrical engineer by day, not part of "the research community," and not in a position to obtain graduate education in a medical field. In other words, he is an enthusiastic amateur without any formal medical training or institutional affiliation.

    He nevertheless falsely signs his forum posts as "chief scientist" of an actual lab, and phrases them so as to suggest (to patients with these illnesses, as to everyone else) he is conducting formal, institutionally-sanctioned research. All this seems intentionally misleading."
    posted by Namlit at 6:51 AM on January 4, 2013


    Blasdelb, your comment is fascinating. It'd make a good book (or at least essay-form op-ed). Your privilege hypothesis makes a lot of sense.

    You note that most seem to be men, and I think that's true probably in most of the sciences, but as a food-history person I also often wander in diet and nutrition science forums, and there are many female cranks in these areas, perhaps reflecting gendered expectations for 'appropriate' areas of scientific inquiry going back to the domestic hygeine movement of the late 1800s. Long long screeds about aspartame, natural hormone balancing, etc, with theories, drawing on sketchy studies, and the utter conviction that one person has discerned the truth and been locked out of the mainstream channels, refused credit, and unreasoningly dismissed. They do often seem to be white. "Frustrated privilege," of course, couldn't be enough on its own to create the degree of obsession that people like this exhibit, otherwise we'd have even more of them, but it is probably a component and probably part of a complex range of responses to loss of privilege which include very overt actions ranging from criminal forms of protest to political conspiracy theorizing.
    posted by Miko at 6:54 AM on January 4, 2013 [13 favorites]


    it seems pretty likely to me that unlaced is the person perpetrating this fraud

    It's fine to discuss the ethics of the question, whether it should stay or go, etc., but please do not make accusations about the real identity of the poster, or (I'm sure I don't need to say) launch any vendetta/crusades against anyone.

    If anyone would like to ask us questions about this, please use the contact form.

    As far as leaving a note as a warning, yeah... this is not something we do. We leave a reason if something is deleted, but we either keep a post or delete it, we don't really use them as object lessons about behavior "in the wild," which is not up to us to police.
    posted by taz (staff) at 6:56 AM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


    I don't think my advice to shorten things up and read the literature could really do much harm, however, I think the people who responded (who all seem like either PhD holders or grad students) probably don't want to be associated with anything where some guy is doing work with human material by himself and doing questionable misrepresentation (PI at his own lab or whatever). So my vote is for deletion.

    I don't doubt that your friend is well-meaning, and I'm sure most of us would like to encourage people to have passion for science. However, I think that if your friend wants to really continue on this path, he would really benefit from the training which comes with a PhD, or at least a MS. This is not because I am a credentials snob, but because there's actually a lot of valuable training in how to do science, design experiments, safe laboratory practice, presenting your results, &c.

    Incidentally, you should be aware that human semen is considered biohazardous waste. I hope you are handling and disposing of this material safely. Doubly so if your major hypothesis is that there is some sort of unidentified infectious agent in your samples.

    Finally I think this might be a good impetus for somebody to do a metafilter post on scientific crankery; Blasdelb is halfway there!
    posted by Comrade_robot at 6:58 AM on January 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


    Moreover, it seems pretty likely to me that unlaced is the person perpetrating this fraud, and not a friend, though maybe other people's intuitions disagree on that.

    I thought that at first too, but he has a pretty substantial history of giving perfectly normal answers in AskMe, so, at the very least, this was not an account created just to post information about this to MeFi.
    posted by Ragged Richard at 6:58 AM on January 4, 2013


    Yes, as I said, please cut this line of discussion short. We don't discuss members' private details at all, and this isn't a productive or useful way to go with this. If you have questions about how we choose to handle it and why, use the contact list.
    posted by taz (staff) at 7:03 AM on January 4, 2013


    Sorry taz - started typing that before your comment came in and neglected to preview.
    posted by Ragged Richard at 7:10 AM on January 4, 2013


    Miko, I think that it's definitely true that crank-dom is highly gendered, with certain areas becoming dominated by women for reasons having to do with historical and persistent gender-role separation. But there's still a lot of privilege there in most cases, with the discussions being primarily among white women with money.

    For example, I've done a bit of reading about the anti-vaccination movement and hypotheses about the etiology of autism and other developmental disorders. While Andrew Wakefield was the first major published author of the theories, they seem to be propagated these days mostly by mothers who believe that the established medical community is either being tricked by vaccine manufacturers or is willfully in the pockets of big corporations, and that they need to spread the "truth" in order to save lives. Most of the theories about delaying vaccinations, spreading them out, or selectively choosing which deadly diseases to vaccinate against seem to have been made up by young, affluent, well-meaning but not formally scientifically educated women trying to make sense of some very complex medical topics because they're afraid for the welfare of their families. These women talk primarily with one another about their theories and perpetuate them in circles that include very few men. That's not to say that there aren't anti-vaccine men, but they are overwhelmingly outnumbered by upper-middle-class moms who have primary responsibility in their households for child-rearing decisions and who are making these decisions based on things they get from message boards and Jenny McCarthy's appearances on Oprah, rather than on actual medical science that they don't have the training to understand.

    Their "work" would be sort of pitiable if it weren't for the fact that their crankery has caused hundreds of thousands of preventable illnesses and a not insignificant number of deaths.

    The exceptions I can think of off the top of my head to the crank-privilege theory are the inner-city AIDS and crack epidemic conspiracy theories. The thing is, though, those sorts of conspiracy theories that spread among less privileged communities, even where they're nominally about scientific topics, tend to be more about politics than about the actual science. Not to mention, there's some evidence that least parts of them have a ring of truth.
    posted by decathecting at 7:28 AM on January 4, 2013 [14 favorites]


    Oh, I should note as well that many of the female cranks in the autism forums see the gender imbalance and have incorporated it into their crank theories. The idea that male-dominated science is willfully ignoring a link between vaccines and autism precisely because it is pushed by women is often part of the theory. The fact that a lot of the criticism from the scientific community has been couched in sexist terms doesn't help matters. That is to say, the critics are correct, but they debunk these claims using language that denigrates mothers specifically, and often women generally, as less qualified to judge credible science. That sort of gendered insult, even when it's absolutely correct on the science, helps to feed the idea that the mainstream scientific community is ignoring these theories for unscientific reasons having more to do with ego and prejudice, thus bolstering the outsiders' claims that the truth is being suppressed.
    posted by decathecting at 7:36 AM on January 4, 2013 [17 favorites]


    Moreover, it seems pretty likely to me that unlaced is the person perpetrating this fraud, and not a friend

    Just fyi, this is not the case; mod-side information we have says this is not the case. As taz said, we'd appreciate people contacting us about this if they have questions about this. If this researcher guy were using the AskMe thread as a sideways self-promotion tool, we'd be less on the fence about deleting it. The guy in question may be doing unethical or illegal stuff on other sites, but they are not doing that stuff here.
    posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:38 AM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


    But there's still a lot of privilege there in most cases, with the discussions being primarily among white women with money.

    I didn't mean to posit that because they were women privilege wasn't present; I fully agree with you that it often is, and the vax/autism topics you mention are great examples.

    At the same time, I often seem to encounter or learn of women doing this who are white but also lower-income, so I don't think it's as tightly associated with affluence (though affluence may exacerbate it) as it may be to whiteness. I still think this is consistent with the loss-of-privilege hypothesis, as there are cultural ideas that whiteness itself should guarantee attention or grant some inherent degree of gravitas regardless of social class, and there are also instances where a person from an affluent family background finds their own life circumstances quite changed - and this seems to sometimes be connected to the crankery topic (as in the pursuit of alternative medical treatments which have contributed to impoverishment).

    The community in which I most recently observed this had to do with Lyme disease hysteria.
    posted by Miko at 7:42 AM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


    The idea that status-loss can come as a result of some outside event, such as illness, is a really interesting one. I wonder now whether the apparent affluence of some of the vaccination-autism link promoters might be a red herring. Having a child with a serious developmental disorder that you can't effectively cure or treat involves a serious loss of control that is likely deeply unsettling to people who are used to having enough money or power or standing to control most aspects of their lives. A sick child can consume your time and money and cause friends and family to pull away out of discomfort or fear. That loss of control might be enough to push some people, regardless of their socioeconomic standing, out of the mainstream and into a world where they feel a profound loss of privilege. If, for your entire life, all of the evidence has pointed to the idea that you are the master of your own destiny, a sudden event that takes all of that control away from you might cause you to question the available evidence in other ways.
    posted by decathecting at 7:51 AM on January 4, 2013 [15 favorites]


    That sort of gendered insult, even when it's absolutely correct on the science, helps to feed the idea that the mainstream scientific community is ignoring these theories for unscientific reasons having more to do with ego and prejudice, thus bolstering the outsiders' claims that the truth is being suppressed.

    Absolutely, and there's actually a pretty long history of this in the American medical community. The AMA essentially got its start as an organization dedicated to stamping out the claims of crank medicine like homeopathy. They released a series of reports in the late 19th/early 20th century called "Nostrums and Quackery in Healing." But their language was often so dismissive that they didn't really help their cause, especially when dealing with women. The most obvious such case concerns Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science. The AMA reports on her were 100% right about the medicine, but are jaw-droppingly personally insulting in a very clearly gendered way. Among other things, the author (a Dr. Morris Fishbein) speculates that Eddy's late first husband might have gone off to war and died in order to get away from her.
    posted by Ragged Richard at 7:57 AM on January 4, 2013 [9 favorites]


    > As a sometimes-IRB-person I sincerely doubt this was actually done right.

    As a fulltime-IRB-person (currently on a coffee & MeFi break), I share those doubts enthusiastically.

    Technically an independent agent is within their rights to collect semen from willing participants to do basic science research (i.e. grow some cultures, look at them with a microscope, which seems like all this guy has done) without going through an IRB/Ethics Board. I don't know about Canada, but this is true in the US, at least. The whole IRB system really only kicks in when federal money and/or FDA regulated products are involved. Fed money and the FDA are really pervasive though.

    That he is passing himself as a serious researcher with a lab, however, and not some guy culturing semen in his basement, is where this gets (even more) sketchy. Particularly with the nudge-nudge-wink-wink hinting at a possible miracle prostate cancer cure, there's no way a random donor could have given truly informed consent. I'd love to see his informed consent document, because I bet it is terrible. I'd also hate to see his ICD, because it would probably make me angry-sad. If these were actual cancer patients I'd be inclined to think this could shade into fraud.

    Given that he only used 4 healthy volunteers, though, makes me think he probably just used people he knew and were probably aware of his obsession. That a semen donation is minimal risk mitigates this, but is still chilling considering that he obviously wants develop some sort of treatment, which presumably he would also test on "volunteers" with "informed consent." Basically, the best case scenario is that he asked some friends their semen, which is not that great of a scenario.
    posted by Panjandrum at 7:59 AM on January 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


    Here's the thing that bothers me about the post and answers. The people posting replies that this was dangerous and unethical may have been correct, but they were not "answering the question", so, technically their answers should have been deleted (as I understand Ask).

    But since they had valid reasons, the post should have been flagged and either removed for borderline illegal/questionable, or just have it edited to remove the links that lead to the specific research/person. That way the answers could address the general concept of the question while staying on topic and not get mired in the ethics of this particular situation.
    posted by Vaike at 8:02 AM on January 4, 2013


    Absolutely, and there's actually a pretty long history of this in the American medical community

    And, back to decathecting's point that there can be a "ring of truth" to some anti-establishment hypotheses, it's fair to note that medical science does not have a stellar record as far as women's health is concerned; there were still people describing premenstrual symptoms and dysmennorhea as psychological in nature when I was a kid, and it can be still difficult trying to get appropriately evidence-based hormone and thyroid treatment because many of the symptoms associated with related conditions (lethargy, anxiety, memory impairment, weight gain) also cross over to psychological diagnoses. And it has taken a fair amount of effort to move toward parity in health researched focused on female subjects as well as male ones.

    I don't intend to commit the logical error of using specific failings of an intellectual system to damn the whole system, but one of the reasons these endeavors become so gradually seductive is that there are quite legitimate and well-supported early steps along the path of many such investigations that do pass most filters.

    The "status loss" framing makes a lot of sense to me.
    posted by Miko at 8:09 AM on January 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


    > I often seem to encounter or learn of women doing this who are white but also lower-income, so I don't think it's as tightly associated with affluence

    In regard to cranks & privilege, I think there's a difference between people who buy into quack/conspiracy theories and then promulgate them (like the anti-vaxxers), and those who generate their own elaborate theories and then delude themselves into believing that they have a special insight that no scholar of the field has had. The former seems to be a more democratic thing; to me it appears to be motivated by a desire to exert control over a situation in which one is powerless ("if only I don't vax my kids, I can avoid this terrible unexplained fate!") and fueled by distrust in an establishment that at times has made serious errors (eg Tuskegee). The latter might share some elements of the former (I wouldn't be surprised if medical cranks are motivated by grief), but has a characteristic dose of arrogant, delusional self-aggrandizement. It's the self-aggrandizing type of crackpottery that seems correlated with privilege... although perhaps it's only that privileged self-aggrandizers are able to build enough of a soapbox to get heard.
    posted by Westringia F. at 8:22 AM on January 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


    The people posting replies that this was dangerous and unethical may have been correct, but they were not "answering the question", so, technically their answers should have been deleted (as I understand Ask).

    Questioning the premises of the question is allowable in AskMe, though responders are asked to do so with care.
    posted by EvaDestruction at 8:23 AM on January 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


    I believe it's quite probable that the guy thinks they were collected with 'informed consent', because when they were collected he asked the subjects 'are you OK with this?' and outlined to them some of the details of his research.

    Ok, does anyone *aside from Martin Laurence* actually believe there was informed consent?
    posted by mediareport at 8:37 AM on January 4, 2013


    This discussion of crackpot theory and its intersection with privilege is fascinating - hopefully a spin-off FPP is in the offing.
    posted by Neneh at 9:39 AM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


    If we're voting, I vote for deletion. I feel like giving any extra airtime to this dude just keeps his dangerous zeppelin of nonsense inflated.

    (I know we're not voting.)
    posted by Sidhedevil at 9:46 AM on January 4, 2013


    CRANKISM IS CAUSED BY SOLAR FLARES!!! THE EVIDENCE IS CLEAR!!! VISIT MY WEBSITE!!! www.crankismiscausedbysolarflarestheevidenceisclearvisitmywebsite.com!!!
    posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 9:57 AM on January 4, 2013 [17 favorites]


    As my not-vote: I think a page containing informed discussion of the guy's plans, including all of the "this is sketchy and unethical and here is why," is far more useful to the internet at large than a deleted page.
    posted by ook at 10:08 AM on January 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


    Clearly a crackpot but the crazy is allowed on AskMe all the time, so I don't see the problem.
    posted by Justinian at 10:10 AM on January 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


    does anyone ... actually believe there was informed consent?

    I am sure he had 'consent'; whether they were fully informed (of both the experiment and the person performing them) or not is the big question.

    For the record, I have always assumed that the question was asked in good faith.

    Westringia: I take your point. There isn't much by way of linking information in the thread. I am still in two minds as to whether it should stand or not.

    Vaike: I agree in principle with what you're saying. I immediately sought advice from the mods as to whether posting these outside links was above board.

    On preview: What ook said.
    posted by TheOtherGuy at 10:13 AM on January 4, 2013


    The former seems to be a more democratic thing; to me it appears to be motivated by a desire to exert control over a situation in which one is powerless ("if only I don't vax my kids, I can avoid this terrible unexplained fate!") and fueled by distrust in an establishment that at times has made serious errors (eg Tuskegee).

    I've never heard an anti-vaxer bring up Tuskegee as to why they distrust the medical community, or any of the other systematic abuses and tragedies. It's almost always someone they (or a friend) know who had a hard time getting something diagnosed, or had an adverse reaction to a treatment. Which isn't to say that those stories always come from ill founded complaints, just that the distrust always comes from a more personal level. On the other hand, the last several crops of parents don't have a personal story about all the things we vaccinate for. I think the privilege thing holds true for the crank followers, but in a different form. More along the familiar lines "my personal experience is the only one that could exist" instead of the "I must have something to say," of the crank.
    posted by Gygesringtone at 10:16 AM on January 4, 2013


    Yeah, it's a weird situation either way but I'm inclined to run with the keep-it-live reasoning.
    posted by cortex (staff) at 10:16 AM on January 4, 2013


    As far as leaving a note as a warning, yeah... this is not something we do.

    There's a link to this Metatalk discussion in the thread. That seems to me to be more than sufficient warning to anyone who is interested.

    I'm also for leaving it up. The question was asked in good faith, and the answers more than address the problems with what the OP's friend is getting up to.
    posted by PeterMcDermott at 10:27 AM on January 4, 2013


    I know it's not really a vote, but my general inclination toward the idea that more information is better information because it's likely to include more good information as well as bad information leads me to support leaving it open.

    If the guy were faking his identity to post I think that would be actionable based on site policy, but since he's not, there's not really a reason to take this down. One could compare it to the AskMe by the guy whose friend was preparing to meet a 14-year-old girl he met on the Internet - what his friend was doing was totally beyond the pale, but talking about it as a second party really wasn't and could even help.
    posted by Miko at 10:27 AM on January 4, 2013


    I've never heard an anti-vaxer bring up Tuskegee as to why they distrust the medical community, or any of the other systematic abuses and tragedies.

    I'm not sure I've heard it from anti-vaxer's specifically, but it's fairly common among the kind of paranoid new age anti-science kooks of whom anti-vaxers are a subset.
    posted by PeterMcDermott at 10:30 AM on January 4, 2013


    I'm not sure I've heard it from anti-vaxer's specifically, but it's fairly common among the kind of paranoid new age anti-science kooks of whom anti-vaxers are a subset.

    Well, my group could be outliers. For what it's worth, when I say "followers," I'm mainly referring to the type of folk just don't get their kids vaccinated rather than people who feel the need to convert others, online or otherwise, and all my exposure is with that first group.
    posted by Gygesringtone at 10:42 AM on January 4, 2013


    I had an interest in the original question (as long ago I published a peer-reviewed journal article on a "hobby"), but did not post an answer because it would've fallen on deaf ears. I thought the OP was asking in good faith, but if the OP's friend is mass-mailing unsolicited copies of his manifesto, I'm pretty sure he is already on certain people's "radar"...though not how he might have intended.

    I find it interesting that the OP's friend has now moved into misrepresenting himself on the internet. It is kind of like Ward Churchill situation -- who "did not know" that plagarism and fabrication were actually wrong. I wonder how that can happen. I suspect there has to be a "Memento" like moment where the person willfully tattoos a false clue in order to continue the pursuit. But maybe not?

    Perhaps the OP knows their friend is now crossing the line, and instead of acknowledging the craziness of their friend's "work" and eagerness to tilt at windmills, wants to re-direct the whole obsession into reasonable channels so it can at least be legitimate. If so, she is already way too late. Because people don't sit around writing 100 page manifestos out of empathy or wishing to speed up the rate at which solutions to medical problems can be found. There is something else at work.

    Anyway, it doesn't matter what happens to the AskMe thread because no amount of debunking will entirely obliterate the manifesto. But it is also not in danger of gaining traction. At worst, it (like various home remedies) might get dragged into the doctor's office by the family of an ailing patient, but sadly that kind of stuff already happens and the doctor is prepared to deal with it.
    posted by 99percentfake at 11:04 AM on January 4, 2013


    > I've never heard an anti-vaxer bring up Tuskegee as to why they distrust the medical community, or any of the other systematic abuses and tragedies.

    Oh, I didn't mean to imply a direct connection when I wrote this. Rather what I meant is that incidents like Tuskegee, Vioxx, the TGN1412 trial, &c, all contribute to an overall mistrust of biomed/pharma that enables that particular flavor of conspiracy theory to flourish. People have a natural tendency to spot correlations and hang causal explanations on them, and when there's something we're afraid of and/or can't control, we're particularly keen to hang it on something: either science or -- if the science is uncompelling -- superstition. The point I was trying to make is that in contemporary American society, hanging autism on pharma (or corporations generally) is a much more plausible explanatory superstition than, say, malevolent spirits or fans.

    Anyway, I don't really have the background in sociology or psychology to theorize why people believe such ABSOLUTELY MADDENING CRACKPOT NONSENSE without engaging in uninformed speculation myself, so I'll shut up. (& I think that we should all probably be aware of our own limitations while entertaining explanations for how-is-cranky-formed lest we ourselves wander into crankitude-light ;) ) But if someone is doing an FPP on "outsider science," something I'd be interested in is whether the styles of conspiracy/crackpot theories vary from culture to culture. EG, do American crackpot theories take of elsewhere (& vice versa), or is there a particular cultural flavor that makes them implausible? How much do they depend on the home culture's values of individualism, community, deference to authority, mistrust of gov't, &c?
    posted by Westringia F. at 12:32 PM on January 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


    (My remark about crankitude-light wasn't meant to be directed to you, Gygesringtone, or anyone specifically! Just a general caution after I caught myself about to wildly speculate further. Anyway, everyone knows it's solar flares.)
    posted by Westringia F. at 12:37 PM on January 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


    Anyway, I don't really have the background in sociology or psychology to theorize why people believe such ABSOLUTELY MADDENING CRACKPOT NONSENSE without engaging in uninformed speculation myself, so I'll shut up. (& I think that we should all probably be aware of our own limitations while entertaining explanations for how-is-cranky-formed lest we ourselves wander into crankitude-light ;) )

    That's a very very good point. As humans you and I are just as capable at fooling ourselves as anyone we may choose to think of as a crank.
    posted by Gygesringtone at 1:20 PM on January 4, 2013


    I think that we should all probably be aware of our own limitations while entertaining explanations for how-is-cranky-formed lest we ourselves wander into crankitude-light

    Well, that's why the degree of obsession is an important aspect of crankitude. It's one thing to hold a half-baked idea, but another to think about it every day, mention it at every opportunity, build an archive or a basement lab, etc.
    posted by Miko at 1:35 PM on January 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


    It's also one thing to be really really into something and quite another to be really really into something to the extent that you think that everyone else who doesn't agree/believe is somehow misguided and you are the person who knows The Truth.

    It's a "horses not zebras" situation. There is a teeny edge case possibility you are correct, but you have to not only believe that you are correct you have to almost believe in a conspiracy to keep the truth hidden from the world in such a manner as to leave no trace of the conspiracy. You have to decide that no one is more qualified than yourself to make this assessment. I enjoy these ideas in an X-Files sort of way, but the reality-check aspect of these things is super important. When you set up scenarios where even the reality-check stage is suspect, there becomes no actual way to either be dissuaded or disproven.

    This isn't like being really into Star Trek or budgies or ferrofluids where whether or not other people agree with you is actually sort of a moot point.
    posted by jessamyn (staff) at 1:42 PM on January 4, 2013 [7 favorites]


    All of my ideas have been continuously baked in virtual electric bench-top lab ovens for decades. They are artisanal theories.
    posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 1:49 PM on January 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


    I just went ahead and posted more bluntly in the Ask thread, together with his "lab" name, which should be enough to help get the point across.
    posted by StrikeTheViol at 1:52 PM on January 4, 2013


    Speaking of crackpots, here is some completely half-assed speculation.

    I think about the current discussion in our society about how popular culture contributes to behavior, especially among teens who are prone to celebrity-worship as they try to figure out what they want to be in life. We blame teen violence on exposure to violent video games, and fret about how hypersexualized music videos are prompting our kids to experiment too early. But back when I was a nerdy teenager, one of my heroes was Albert Einstein. Here was a patent clerk who rewrote the entire rules of physics, and people didn't believe him at first, but then there was that thing with the moon where they proved him right! (It's oversimplified and probably inaccurate, but that's basically the story about Einstein that you get as a kid.) Einstein is probably the only hero of science that most non-scientists know about. His name has actually become synonymous with genius. And from the popular story he proved himself to be a genius despite not working in the field of his major discovery. I think I've mostly gotten over the "arrogant, delusional self-aggrandizement" of my teenage years, but I remember wishing I could be like Einstein, not only proving myself to be the smartest person on the planet, but doing it with style by dropping my bombshell of genius from outside the scientific establishment. All this is to say, if celebrity-worship can be a bad influence on normal kids, I wonder if it might also be a bad influence on nerdy kids too. I never wanted to be a drug dealer or stripper or whatever pop culture was saying was cool, but it's a good thing I stopped wanting to be Einstein, or I'd probably be another crackpot like this guy.
    posted by vytae at 2:16 PM on January 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


    This is so fascinating, the distinction between cranks & non-cranks. I've been thinking about Carl Woese a lot lately -- Woese was most certainly NOT a crank, but his Crafoord-prize winning ideas were so controversial when they were first published that he was initially derided as a crackpot:
    That's what Woese and NASA put in their press release the next year, announcing what he then called the archaebacteria (he has since dropped the “bacteria”); the scientific paper appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), with Wolfe as one of the co-authors. But it was the newspaper accounts of the discovery that most scientists first read, and by and large, they were skeptical. Woese's tree, after all, overturned one of biology's most basic concepts—that life was divided into two large groups; it seemed outrageous to claim a third.

    And Woese's solitary years at his light table had left him with a reputation as an odd person, “a crank, who was using a crazy technique to answer an impossible question,” as one researcher put it. His tiny snippets of rRNAs were considered too fragmentary to be reliable indicators of evolutionary relationships, says Pace. Molecular biologist Alan Weiner of Yale University recalls that many leading biologists thought Woese was “crazy,” and that his RNA tools couldn't possibly answer the question he was asking.

    Few said anything to Woese directly, or even responded in journals. “The backlash was rarely if ever put into print,” says Woese, “which saddens me because it would be helpful to have that record.” Instead, many researchers directed comments to Wolfe, who was well established and highly regarded. Recalls Wolfe: “One Nobel Prize winner, Salvador Luria, called me and said, ‘Ralph, you're going to ruin your career. You've got to disassociate yourself from this nonsense!' “Ernst Mayr of Harvard University scoffed to reporters that the notion of a third domain of life was nonsense, an opinion that he and a handful of other skeptics hold to this day. “I do give him credit for recognizing the archaebacteria as a very distinct group,” says Mayr, who insists on keeping the word bacteria attached to the Archaea. “However, the difference between the two kinds of bacteria is not nearly as great as that between the prokaryotes and eukaryotes.”
    The research community (well, most of it) eventually came around, of course. And unlike real cranks, Woese had the scientific background to justify his certainty. At the end of the day, I wonder if the real difference isn't so much one's willingness to speculate or one's obsessiveness in pursuing an idea, but which end of the Dunning–Kruger effect one is on....
    posted by Westringia F. at 2:17 PM on January 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


    rather than people who feel the need to convert others, online or otherwise, and all my exposure is with that first group.

    Whereas mine is all with the latter. And when I say 'fairly common', I mean I've seen Tuskeegee raised in that context more than once. Which doesn't *really* count as fairly common, does it.
    posted by PeterMcDermott at 2:21 PM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


    I LOVE FERROFLUIDS AND IF YOU DO NOT LOVE FERROFLUIDS YOU ARE A HORRIBLE PERSON.
    posted by medusa at 3:30 PM on January 4, 2013


    I really, really want to believe that enthusiastic amateurs can contribute to science. Download a data set, open it up in R, test some hypotheses, write up a poster and show it at a conference. Even in cancer research, I bet you could find some new and interesting correlations without setting foot in a lab, or even leaving your couch. People don't actually do this very often, but I think it's more because people are busy and lazy, not that it's inherently impossible.

    But this guy's a crackpot.
    posted by miyabo at 4:15 PM on January 4, 2013 [8 favorites]


    This has been a really great discussion! I'm actually happy that it's staying up in its current condition; lots of good comments have made the situation quite clear to anyone who happens upon the post.

    My initial reaction was that the OP was trying to let the guy down easy. I admit that it doesn't seem to be the case in the original question, but if the "friend" is paying attention to the question, it can't outwardly seem like the OP thinks his friend is a crank. I mean, if unlaced is a researcher s/he MUST see how absolutely nuts this is. I mean, the OP responds in the comments with, "6) He does not follow all the advice that I give to him!" Well yeah, I can see how that might be the case. I'm guessing (OK, hoping) that the OP made his friend aware of this post. Buuuuut, then again the OP seemed annoyed that we would question what seemed to be an obvious misrepresentation of what a principal investigator/research lab is. So who the hell knows.
    posted by two lights above the sea at 4:40 PM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


    In response to vytae's point about Einstein, I think that exact narrative does fuel a lot of crackpots. My husband is a physicist and gets crackpot letters and emails on about a monthly basis. 90% of them are about how "Einstein was wrong!!!!" The fact that so many of these crackpots obsessively focus on Einstein is not, I think, just because he is probably the most famous scientist to the general public. Most people have heard of Marie Curie, or Edison, or Watson and Crick but they don't focus on "disproving" their discoveries and theories. I think that it's about the idea that if you can beat Einstein then you can BE Einstein, along with all the (white dead smart guy) privilege, popular celebrity, and outsider hero narrative that represents.

    For what it's worth, my experience with the anti-vax crowd in New Zealand suggests that it is primarily lower-middle class/ upper poverty level women (although it's true, they are almost all white) who go along with it. I think that's partly because it patterns with a certain group of homeschooling religious fundamentalists who have lots of kids (like 10 or so) and that sort of lifestyle often keeps you poor. But it's also interesting to consider the cross-cultural implications. This set of anti-vax people I know are very americanized, since their church is an off-shoot of an American sect, and they use American "bible-based" homeschooling materials. Perhaps that makes them more exposed to and open to American crackpot theories than most NZers would be?
    posted by lollusc at 5:18 PM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


    Also I really LOVE that the metafilter response to the prostate thread hasn't just been unreflective outrage, or worse, pointing and laughing, but instead turned into an informed and interesting discussion about the nature of crackpot science. This is exactly how it would go in a late-night discussion with my real life friends, and it's awesome that I can find the same sort of community online.
    posted by lollusc at 5:20 PM on January 4, 2013 [12 favorites]


    I'm really enjoying this discussion. My addition:

    I was an AIDS activist for many years (still am, I suppose) and one of my analyses for the effectiveness of ACT UP (and TAG) is that it was a group composed in part of young, well-educated white men, who were suddenly stripped of much of the privilege they had had, because they had a stigmatized disease and they were gay. They responded by out-sciencing the scientists, and becoming a part of the scientific and medical establishment, but only after years of literally yelling outside the gates, scrutinizing obscure studies, coming up with wild hypotheses, and pushing for whole new ways of doing research.

    So it's the frustrated privilege set-up, but it went in a different direction, which I would theorize is different because this was young men with privilege having it taken away from them (vs. the assumption all should listen to you), and also because of the shared group experience. The anger of frustrated privilege is a really powerful force, when directed in positive directions.

    There were other things that led to ACT UP's success, and reasons why no other disease has generated the same kind of activism, so this is only part of it, but I think it's a useful adjunct to blasdelb's theory of crankery.
    posted by gingerbeer at 9:29 PM on January 4, 2013 [10 favorites]


    Quick someone write a joke with the punch line "the pot called the kettle cracked."
    posted by nathancaswell at 5:53 AM on January 5, 2013


    Also, while you're at it, write a joke about Julius Caesar salad being the "head" of the "Romaine Empire" because that shit has been driving me nuts for days.
    posted by nathancaswell at 5:54 AM on January 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


    For what it's worth, my experience with the anti-vax crowd in New Zealand suggests that it is primarily lower-middle class/ upper poverty level women (although it's true, they are almost all white) who go along with it.

    Whereas the anti-vaxxer types I knew in NZ were all pretty well educated, including at least one PhD qualified biologist who should know better. And yeah, they're mostly white, but then most people I know pretty well are (not by intention, just how it is) so that doesn't mean anything. As with all anecdotal evidence this doesn't mean shit and, frankly, I find all the speculating in this thread about why people do whatever based on what kind of people you happen to know who does each thing to be fairly pointless.
    posted by shelleycat at 6:23 AM on January 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


    Related, I just read this in the NYT about multiple sclerosis, which is another incurable disease with devastating consequences. It explores the perspectives of both the doctors who are inventing and promoting alternative treatments for the disease and patients who undergo such treatments and want desperately to believe that they are working.
    posted by decathecting at 9:27 AM on January 5, 2013


    As a crank sympathizer (and one whose empathy with those suffering due to non-standard views of consensus reality led to his becoming a psychotherapist) I would like to share this link dealing with the problem from the standpoint of mathematics.
    posted by Obscure Reference at 8:25 AM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


    My father's work in astrophysics attracted a lot of cranks. In many cases ignoring them didn't work; the cranks would assume he hadn't received their packages or might have questions and would re-contact Dad, sometimes angrily. His solution? When contacted by a new crank, Dad would write a brief letter noting that, sadly, the work was out of his area of expertise, but that he knew someone engaged in related research who would enjoy learning about these advances and that Dad would be pleased to put the recipient in contact with... the previous crank.

    Of course this was pre-Internet, but Dad maintained a file: when a new submission arrived, he would toss the previous crank's stuff upon making the referral. The the new crank's stuff awaited similar disposition. He especially enjoyed the occasional thank you note sent by happy cranks. The gambit seemed to work pretty well.
    posted by carmicha at 10:36 AM on January 6, 2013 [50 favorites]


    Spinning out theories about who cranks are and what motivates them is all well and good, but I wonder when such speculation would turn the speculators into cranks themselves - after all, they'd be doing social science as outsiders. Crankery is a social phenomenon - are the speculators social scientists who are submitting their theories to peer-reviewed journals? No? Oh, so they're just pulling stuff out their ass in a bunch of idle speculation based on anecdata? Much less interesting than actual research. Perhaps good for entertainment, but let's not take it too seriously.

    Cranks come in all colors. W.E.B. Du Bois was a black man who was a physics crank with claims of his own "physics lab" who corresponded with Einstein until the latter stopped responding to his physics claims.

    And cranks come from all sorts of backgrounds - not all are mentally unstable weirdos. Many are actual scientists, sometimes even the most distinguished scientists the world has known. One thread that seems to run through crankery in such cases is that the scientist in question is cranky in a discipline outside the one in which s/he made his/her original reputation. Sometimes such crankery can have devastating impact when coupled with political power, as happened when a microbiologist crank had bizarre theories about how the HIV virus doesn't cause AIDS and healthcare and HIV prevention in South Africa was set back for years thanks to Mbeki taking such crankery seriously. Lives were lost.

    And what about Linus Pauling and the vitamin C nonsense? It's hard to get more distinguished than Pauling what with his multi-disciplinary achievements at the highest level. I wonder how grateful physicians are when their patients forego conventional cancer treatments for megadoses of various vitamins, based on the reputation of Pauling. And make no mistake - this wasn't simply a "wrong hypothesis" by Pauling - it was full-on crankery.

    So we should probably resist idle speculation about who cranks are and what motivates them - it may be fun, but it's not social science.
    posted by VikingSword at 10:45 AM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


    but that he knew someone engaged in related research who would enjoy learning about these advances and that Dad would be pleased to put the recipient in contact with... the previous crank.

    This is genius.
    posted by shelleycat at 11:49 AM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


    Crankery is a social phenomenon - are the speculators social scientists who are submitting their theories to peer-reviewed journals? No? Oh, so they're just pulling stuff out their ass in a bunch of idle speculation based on anecdata? Much less interesting than actual research. Perhaps good for entertainment, but let's not take it too seriously.

    Well, you're not crazy for having a theory; you're crazy if you maintain that your theory is true despite all evidence to the contrary. Step one of science is speculation! (Or you can call it a hypothesis or whatever.)
    posted by Comrade_robot at 1:21 PM on January 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


    Well, you're not crazy for having a theory; you're crazy if you maintain that your theory is true despite all evidence to the contrary. Step one of science is speculation! (Or you can call it a hypothesis or whatever.)

    Certainly. But what's happening here is hardly scientific hypothesis generation or theory. The bar is slightly higher for that, usually accompanied by some criteria by which it can be disproved. What we have here is not scientific theory generation with a view to subsequent testing and an an outline of criteria for disproving. It's idle speculation driven by nothing more than random anecdata. Which is fine - as I said - for entertainment. But we should always keep in mind that status - idle speculation.

    It's important to not overstate what we actually know. So, for example, it would be wrong to claim that a scientific hypothesis is being generated here by the posts in this thread.

    It's curious how people are quick to jump on the obvious case of the classic crank, "for the sake of people not getting hurt", while ignoring the far more pernicious cases of crankery within the ranks of scientific establishment. And the harm being done by that obvious crank who generates perpetual machine crankery is rather minor (excepting naive investors) - meanwhile cranks with scientific credentials have had disastrous effects on many thousands as I mentioned in my previous post.

    Exposing a crank is great, but perhaps we should be a bit more modest when making claims about the social phenomenon of cranks in general - in that case we're merely engaged in chatting about anecdata, not generating scientific theories, crazy or otherwise. Mischaracterizing who the cranks are, may make us miss cranks within the establishment who don't fit our anecdotal profiles, and who are far more likely to cause great harm.

    There are plenty of cranks within the scientific establishment. Pointing and laughing at the mental case writing in his basement is very easy - but also misses the crank in the ivory tower.
    posted by VikingSword at 2:50 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


    I'm not so sure about cranks in the ivory tower, unless you're talking about false ideas that seem to get propagated purely through momentum.

    The thing about academic science is that one is constantly subjected to the approval of the scientific community. To get any sort of real research done on a hypothesis, that hypothesis has to be fundable and publishable-- fundability and publishability are determined solely by one's scientific peers. Scientists are the editors at journals, and scientists sit on panels at the NSF and NIH to determine what grant proposals are going to be funded. Maybe 50-100 years ago a professor would get handed a check by his university and told to go wild, but now they're subjected to annual progress reports to sponsors, constant IRB oversight (with audits!)... There's just not an opportunity for someone "in the establishment" to get real crankish research done (unless they're siphoning funds and lying to IRBs; by that point they're basically basement crackpots anyway, with reputation and resources to match before too long).
    posted by supercres at 3:50 PM on January 6, 2013


    There are plenty of cranks within the scientific establishment. Pointing and laughing at the mental case writing in his basement is very easy - but also misses the crank in the ivory tower.

    There really aren't that many who do a lot of damage, with the exception of Peter Duesberg, whom you alluded to in passing. The guy used his platform as a famous g professor to give himself a lot of publicity, aided by the media. The scientific community shunned him, being described as a "pariah among scientists", and he lost his funding. Basically, the scientific community did everything they possibly good, but a guy with a good PR strategy and a platform was able to outdo the shunning of the scientific community-- in part because Duesberg's ability to get support in certain quarters didn't depend on his scientific support.
    posted by deanc at 5:12 PM on January 6, 2013


    Our friend the director of Shipshaw labs seems to have at least deleted his medipedia account, so hopefully maybe we've had some effect after all.
    posted by Blasdelb at 5:04 AM on January 7, 2013


    So we should probably resist idle speculation about who cranks are and what motivates them - it may be fun, but it's not social science.

    I don't know that anyone was claiming it's social science. I really resist the efforts of some to suggest that tossing around ideas about a phenomenon we've all encountered is somehow to be discouraged. No, none of us fully understand it, but thinking and talking about it is an activity we are free to do, and in fact do constantly on this site.

    If you think people are trying to advance a scientific theory and expecting it to be treated as such, o bordering on crankitude themselves, you're probably reading a lot more into the discussion than is there.

    It's an OK thing to talk about.
    posted by Miko at 5:18 AM on January 7, 2013 [4 favorites]


    very late, but this favoriting is not enough, I have to point out that this-

    The practice of crankery represents a reversal of something fundamental to the honest practice of science, where it is all about finding ways to feel smart - smarter than everyone else - whereas as good scientists are constantly finding new ways to feel stupid - pushing themselves to the edge of knowledge where they know nothing and no one can help them.


    is just outstanding, thank you Blasdelb
    posted by hap_hazard at 10:00 PM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


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