While some have noticed an apparent increase in the "noise-to-signal" ratio on this site, what concerns me is the rise in the "incivility-to-civility" ratio.

Let us be clear about one thing - the word "crackpot" is an epithet. It is a label used all to easily to dismiss anything, anyone might have to say which is contrary established wisdom or which is in conflict with anybody's personal beliefs. Its liberal usage, especially by "authority figures" is disturbing and revelatory.

This is not to deny that there are genuine "trolls" and "crackpots" in this world, whose purpose is not to discuss but to bludgeon ideologically opposing viewpoints into the dust. However, a community, by its very definition, takes all kinds to grow and prosper. Opposing viewpoints are an essential ingredient of any community. Otherwise it becomes more of a cult or a country club than a community.

So, what does the community feel in this regard? My own personal opinion is that down-voting and critical commentary are more than sufficient to highlight perceived weaknesses in any questions or answers on this site without resorting to disparaging particular individuals or particular lines of inquiry. Obviously such etiquette is assumed to be present from the get-go in such an enterprise. However recently I have noticed a change for the worse in the tone which suggests that these "rules of the road" cannot be taken for granted. I hope that by highlighting this issue and encouraging its open discussion perhaps some balance can be restored to the force :)

Again, let me clarify, this question is not intended as a personal attack (direct or indirect) on anyone. Everyone has their own way of speaking and their own style of doing physics and we would be poorer for censoring either this or that individual for their choice of words. If anything it is an assault on the common tendency to use words such as "crackpot" and on the overall tone that we should use in approaching viewpoints we strongly disagree with.

Let's say it is an authoritative answer; form FAQ: Treat others with the same respect you’d want them to treat you – mbq Apr 4 '11 at 19:57

9 Answers 9

up vote 3 down vote accepted

I think the community should aspire to standards of polite discourse. It's one of those things that is like pornography. I don't know how to define it but I know it when I see it.

I agree with this, unless one wants to really discourage students from asking questions. I always look at the age, if available. A young 21 yr old and younger with a crackpotty question should be corrected civilly. An older questioner can be snubbed as to physics knowledge, without using derogatory language. – anna v May 21 '11 at 5:43
@anna v Age can not tell the full story. Please do correct us older questioners (or answerers) as civilly as the younger one, we might have come to physics lately. – Leonidas Aug 1 '11 at 19:06

I think we had a few exchanges over some answers I thought were not adding any value. Let me say a few things about this.

  1. Many professional physicists I know have passion for their trade, and would love to spend a couple of minutes having an exchange on interesting physics. This is a good way to stir things up, remind yourself of things you thought you knew, and have fun in the process. This is a resource I think you'd want to tap into.

  2. Those people, myself included, have enough on their plates already. This is only going to work if this is fun, and not too time consuming. Fighting with excessive amounts of noise is going to kill all the fun, and is very time-consuming, so noise control is essential to having high quality conversation.

  3. For readers, there has to be a easy and straightforward way to distinguish good answer from bad ones. So, again, quality control is the issue. In the current system, seems to me the best way to achieve that is to massively downvote anything that is pure crap, so it is on the bottom of the page and does not disturb the conversation. If there is hope for correction, then by all means add a comment, but nobody in their right mind will get into an argument with the same set of people who necessitate you having a spam filter on your email.

In all of that, I am stressing that quality control is the problematic issue. I am sorry about not being too diplomatic or democratic here, but there is such a thing as a bad answer, there is such thing as gibberish, and there should be a way to control the entropy generation. There is a range of reasonable opinions, especially about areas that are uncertain, but there are also opinions that are plain wrong. The sentiment you expressing here and elsewhere, that everyone is equal and we all need to be heard would result in a pleasant and civil conversation of no value to anyone.

And, this is already taking too much time and effort, I certainly don't want to get into an argument with you, or anyone else. If you want to have a different type of forum, which is more open to brave new alternative ideas and less aggressive about the correctness of physics, I think you'll find this is easy to achieve.

Hear! Hear! For the time cost of policing. In any encounter with an actual, real, live crackpot you have exactly two choices dismiss them and have nothing further to do with them or see your time nibbled to death by one very persistent duck. – dmckee Jan 21 '11 at 0:27
Yes, but why a duck? youtube.com/watch?v=ECODePT6VHM – pho Jan 21 '11 at 1:25
@Moshe this forum has all the bravery and initiative needed. All it needs is a dose of of politeness on the part of "higher-ups". I have nothing taking a firm approach to nonsensical answers. I have done so myself on occasion and even been reprimanded for being too harsh once or twice. There is, however, a difference between a "firm" approach and a derogatory one. Wouldn't you agree? – Deepak Vaid Jan 21 '11 at 2:01
Yep, I'm completely with you on the name calling, and I hope that I did not demonstrate this attitude myself. I also would make a distinction between honest attempts to understand, and attempts to pollute, advertise and dominate the discussion with personal pet theories. – user566 Jan 21 '11 at 2:08
@Moshe - you absolutely did not. What you demonstrated was how to be "firm" without being "unkind", an always admirable trait :) And yes there should be a difference between genuine questions and self-aggrandizement. But each question should be judged solely on its merits as a question and not whatever controversial associations the OP might have or the popular acceptance (or lack thereof) of the theoretical framework from which the question is drawn. – Deepak Vaid Jan 21 '11 at 2:30
Well, if you hold a minority view (which I am hope I am also holding on some subjects) it is a good mental habit to realize this fact and understand why that is. This will also help give more balanced answers. – user566 Jan 21 '11 at 2:58
@Moshe that is a good point and I will try to keep it in mind. – Deepak Vaid Jan 21 '11 at 3:46

Not to be too blunt about this, but I think it's clearly useful to be fairly harsh about obviously crackpotty statements. We have to remember, most of the people asking questions here almost by definition, are not experts, and they can't distinguish between an Ed Witten and an Archimedes Plutonium (sadly, all too many professionals can't too, but that's beside the point). Sometimes, the best thing to say is just "no, that's stupid, let's move on."

You can add details and discussion too, of course, but the typical non-expert is not going to know the difference between a polite argument about a legitimately unknown issue, and a polite "argument" on a topic that's been understood for a century.

I can easily imagine asking a question on a topic I don't know much about, say, "I just heard in the news that, according to quantum computing, experiment X can determine if P=NP," and would sincerely appreciate responses like:

No, that's the stupidest thing I've ever heard and that article contradicts everything about information theory.

over a polite

Well you see the article refers to Bob's equation which says blah blah blah and you see that as a consequence of blah blah blah we know that, assuming ZFC such statements aren't decidable so the article's conclusion is fallacious.

As a non-expert, the second one could easily be interpreted to mean there are technical deficiencies, and it would be a legitimate research project to try to avoid them. The first one clearly says: no, it's wrong and unfixable, and no sane person works on this. Anyone who actually cares about the answer would certainly prefer the decisive answer. (Obviously both at once would be preferred, but I understand that the experts answering a question only have so much time, and that may not really be possible.)

You can say downvoting accomplishes this, but that can be done for many reasons. Say someone asks about the QCD beta function, and one response is correct, except that it has a minus sign error which causes it to come to the opposite conclusion. So, okay, it gets downvoted by everyone because it comes to the obviously opposite conclusion, but it's still more valuable than the nonsense answer everyone also downvoted.

So I do not see any problem with being harsh, or calling answers/theories crackpot ones. The fact is, this is science, and there's really not a lot of opinion involved on if something is correct or not. There is also a pretty sharp difference between asking a question that may not make sense, and proposing an answer that does not make sense, and the latter deserves less explanation than the former.

I agree its absolutely essential to be blunt about crackpotty statements. I just want to point out that there is a difference between saying ""no, that's stupid, let's move on." and "no, you're stupid, let's move on." – Deepak Vaid Jan 22 '11 at 19:44

As this question is apparently about me (but perhaps you have more people in mind) I'll post an answer.

While there is a grain of truth in what you write in that it can't hurt to be more civil, in general your question is just politically correct propaganda that makes me sick to my stomach. While it's true that the term crackpot can be abused sometimes, usually (at least when I use it) it does mean people that only produce bullshit more or less consistently and there is just no value for such people in the community. It doesn't make sense to criticize every individual answer of theirs and ignoring the real problem which is simply their presence.

If you want to have an analogy, community, like democracy doesn't mean that everyone can do whatever they want. While it's consensus driven, when someone oversteps a line they are put in prison in real life or termed a crackpot here. What you are basically saying is that just because sometimes someone innocent is put in the prison we should disband justice altogether. Think about it ;)

@Marek the whole point of a "community" is that no single individual can play the role of judge, jury and executioner. Also, if one talks about "crime and punishment" it is commonly accepted that the way for dealing with alleged offenses is not by tarring and feathering the accused or other such draconian methods. That philosophy went out of fashion with the dark ages and it should have no place here. If you feel someone's opinion is misguided - state it simply and let others make up their own minds. Is that too hard or too much to ask? – Deepak Vaid Jan 20 '11 at 14:47
@space_cadet: not at all and that's precisely what I am doing. But besides that I also expressed my concerns here and there about the potential quality drop; I haven't accused anyone of being a crackpot explicitly (though I have few people in mind, that much I admit). But, nevertheless, some people just are crackpots (I am not saying they are in this community already) and if community identifies them as such by multiple and steady down-votes this shouldn't be dismissed under the rug of political correctness (as you do) but instead should be taken into account. – Marek Jan 20 '11 at 15:09
+1 for telling it like it is. – Anonymous Type Jan 25 '11 at 1:02
OMG. Marek - you don't need to behave like this. You can say the same things in a polite manner and appear like an adult. This site is not a loo. – Sklivvz Apr 4 '11 at 14:42
@Sklivvz: I don't follow. What is your problem? I don't use vulgar language or anything. Perhaps I was a little strict but I don't see anything wrong about being strict about certain topics. – Marek Apr 4 '11 at 15:33
Ok, let me spell it out: "your question is just politically correct propaganda that makes me sick to my stomach" should be "I disagree with your point"; "people that only produce bullshit" should be "people that only post bad posts". I am amazed that you don't see the difference. – Sklivvz Apr 4 '11 at 16:02
@Sklivvz: so am I at your preference of form before content. That is precisely the politically correct nonsense that I was talking about... – Marek Apr 4 '11 at 16:30
@Sklivvz: by the way, don't get me wrong. I can be polite when I want to. But I certainly don't see any reason to be polite all the time and at all places. This discussion right here is one such time and place. – Marek Apr 4 '11 at 16:33
For anything that happens on this site (meta or the main site), there is really no valid excuse to be insulting. And the way you phrase things does have an effect on how they are interpreted, so it's worth paying attention to. – David Z Apr 4 '11 at 20:03
@David: well, sure. But I still don't see anything particularly wrong with this answer of mine. I remember those were heated times and I perhaps reacted a little harsher than necessary but it seems to me quite fine (and I definitely won't edit it). – Marek Apr 4 '11 at 21:01
Well, given that this was more than two months ago I'm inclined to leave it alone, and let's just not be harsher than necessary anymore. – David Z Apr 4 '11 at 21:08

Having had the misfortune to be seated with a known crank at a APS meeting dinner, I can assure you that there are people who are quite incapable of holding a meaningful conversation about something that most of us would recognize as "physics". Or indeed of being diverted to less controversial subjects like partisan politics or college football ranking.


That said, most of the questions we get about...erhm...non-standard physics are not put forth by actual cranks and crackpots. They're just aspiring amateurs who don't know any better.

It wouldn't hurt to develop a gentle language for saying "Bollocks! Go read a textbook!", and we should entertain challengers to accepted theories if they are marked as such. That is "How would long range modifications of the $1/r^2$ dependence of gravity deal with galactic rotation curves? Are these theories consistent with cluster dynamics?" ought to be allowed even though these theories are in the doghouse.

But anyone who insists that we discuss his theory where energy means something different from "the orthodoxy" and "charge is an illusion" probably isn't going to find acceptance here. Because they are around the bend.

@dmckee - It wouldn't hurt to develop a gentle language - that is all I am advocating! A gentler, kinder, less intimidating approach. And there have already been a fair number of troublemakers who have attempted and failed to breach the walls of the physics.SE fortress. As for MOND and other controversial topics - being controversial alone does not rule out a theory, only experimental evidence does. And even the evidence can be misinterpreted for the longest time. For the first decade on this century it was accepted, beyond reasonable doubt, that WMAP results implied cosmic acceleration. – Deepak Vaid Jan 20 '11 at 18:36
... while there are still those who hold fast by those conclusions, in the past few years there has been a flood of papers on arXiv about voids and inhomogeneous cosmological models which are a far more accurate representation of our clumpy universe and which suggest that the primary reason we believe in the LCDM (Lambda-Cold-Dark-Matter) is because of the homogeneous Friedmann models that are used to fit the data. In other words, if our cognitive filters are themselves damaged our best theories could turn out to be illusions. So we should always leave room for doubt and skepticism. – Deepak Vaid Jan 20 '11 at 18:40
@sapce: Bear in mind that I advocate being extremely firm about the non-physics nature of crackpottery. It not gentle language in general, it is a refined way to say "You're not even wrong, go away and stop wasting our time." An open mind, yes. Being able to use ones skull as a resonant cavity, no. – dmckee Jan 21 '11 at 0:32
Perhaps, if I retire someday I'll find the time to write a monograph along the lines of "They all said I was mad, but I'm still sure I'm right. Now what?" one the off chance that one of these goofs is actually onto something and socially adept enough to take advice. – dmckee Jan 21 '11 at 0:34
The issue of inhomogeneous models is a perfect example of what I have problem with. If I am asked what is the WMAP data all about, lambda-CDM would be the body of the answer, and inhomogeneous models would be the footnote, reflecting their current status in the community. Maybe this will end up being right, but in my mind it is misleading not to emphasize also that only a tiny tiny minority believes in them currently, that they have well-known issues, and therefore the overwhelming majority of working cosmologists are not impressed. Impolite maybe, but correct. – user566 Jan 21 '11 at 1:23
@Moshe: That'd be my fault for bring up that in particular example...I flailed around for a recent example of a serious "alternate" theory: one that worked hard to respect all the science of the time (which was before COBE, much less WMAP, before baryon acoustic oscillation, before much of the data that has led to the Era of Precision Cosmology), to treat the subject in detail, and was worked on by people who were known to be able to do science in the dominate model. Such theories are pretty scarce on the ground, and I settled for one that was around when I was in grad school. Mea Cupla. – dmckee Jan 21 '11 at 1:42
@Moshe - absolutely. But you wouldn't dismiss a perfectly good theoretical framework based on whether a minority or majority believes in it would you? There is such a thing as a tyranny of the majority. Who knows, tomorrow you might have an epiphany and find yourself out in the cold because of an unconventional idea. To give you a real idea of the numbers on this issue Inoue and Silk's 2006 paper has 73 citations on spires and Celerier's original 1999 paper has 161 citations. Not too shabby for an upstart idea. – Deepak Vaid Jan 21 '11 at 1:46
I need a drink. // suddenly realized the implications of grad school no longer being "recent" – dmckee Jan 21 '11 at 1:51
@dmckee you might be right. My enthusiasm for free-er speech might simply be a reflection of my inexperience. Perhaps once I've had the chance to sit next to cranks at APS meetings I'll recant this question and join you for a drink :) – Deepak Vaid Jan 21 '11 at 1:55
One example in the field of cosmology are the cosmological constant (which was thought to be zero), so I take your point, alternative models are certainly part of the story, and omitting them paints a distorted picture. But concentrating on them to the exclusion of everything else is an equally distorted view. – user566 Jan 21 '11 at 1:56
@dmckee, I wasn't referring to your example, but to the one given by space_cadet (which my previous comment was directed to). I am of course not advocating "suppressing" those alternatives, just labelling them as such. No problem being enthusiastic about low probability research, as long as you realize this is what it is. – user566 Jan 21 '11 at 2:00
So for example, the sentence by space_cadet "there are still those who hold fast by those conclusions" fails to mention that this is pretty much every working cosmologist he is referring to. But, anyway, I think I am beating my point to death here. – user566 Jan 21 '11 at 2:04
@moshe again you're right. I should phrase it differently - "the current consensus being such and such, there is a minority viewpoint which says that ..." etc. – Deepak Vaid Jan 21 '11 at 3:47
Every new theory of physics is around the bend. The point here is what we call people. – Carl Brannen Jan 21 '11 at 4:45
Good point Carl. Amazingly it took 25 years for SR to gain acceptance. Take a look in arxiv.org/abs/1403.7377 section 2.1.2 where ClifforD M Will says "led to its acceptance by mainstream physicists by the late 1920s". – John Duffield Aug 2 at 9:38

If you over censor comments, the blog will lose its fun aspect and you get self-appointed censors controlling the content. Obvious insults should be removed by a moderator.

Absolutely @Gordon. There is no attempt to censor any speech here. However, the fun aspect of the blog is also lost if people fear to speak out because they will be called "crackpots" for expressing non-mainstream opinions. – Deepak Vaid Jan 22 '11 at 3:29
Also the science aspect will be lost if too many crackpots get on here an have "fun". Your choice space_cadet... – Anonymous Type Jan 25 '11 at 1:05
It is easy to call people "crackpots" when you haven't had a great deal of experience in life. I'm not saying by any means that I've seen as much as some of the senior people on this site, but I've seen my fair share. And I know that the sanest of people can be crackpotty and the crackpottiest of people can be incredibly lucid and insightful. By not leaving room for the unexpected all you do is strip the community of its vitality and potential for seeding something new as opposed to regurgitating conventional wisdom. Everyone should have the option to chime in without fear of such labels. – Deepak Vaid Feb 1 '11 at 19:33

What's a more appropriate term? "Reality deprived"? "Methodologically challenged"?

Its not a question of terminology, but of conduct. – Deepak Vaid Feb 3 '11 at 12:38
But you said "the word "crackpot" is an epithet". – Andrew Grimm Feb 3 '11 at 12:40
Yes. And the use of epithets ("crackpot", "reality deprived" etc.) is not helpful for constructive debate. – Deepak Vaid Feb 3 '11 at 13:24
So you'd rather there not be a word for a concept that exists? Newspeak anyone? – Andrew Grimm Feb 3 '11 at 22:00
Whatever floats your boat @Andrew – Deepak Vaid Feb 4 '11 at 19:57

This is really a hard question, its very odd, I actually don't mind it so much if used when I know if I have been overly arrogant. I think its a problem to call someone a crackpot when in instances the recipient isn't claiming knowledge but only proposing ideas in order to get better guidance.

So I think it is partially excusable when someone takes a position that is clearly wrong and fails to strive to understand why they are wrong. I think someone who claims authoritatively that the earth is flat is clearly a crackpot, but someone who suggests it is flat out of ignorance, but is willing to accept it isn't when presented with proof is not a crackpot.


I, for one, have not problem in being called crackpot in a private exchange, or during the lenghtly progress of a public discussion. In such cases, it is used by one of the members of the discussion to call attention about some point, and it is just an emphasis, as tone or corporal language. The problem about epithets, either "crackpot" or "genius", in short messages or as rethorical introductions is that they help to do "groupthinking", in this case they can induce upvotes and downvotes without real analysis of the topic.

Bloggers have this same problem in the contrary direction, they keep telling one another how good and nice they are, and sometimes they neglect to analyze the contents. Not to tell about microbloggers "How excelent is this!" "This lecturer is a real luxury".

Perhaps we could do a list of "bad words" and pay one reputation point for each use in a comment or reply :-D It will not be a big cost for the people in the thousands, and will avoid the entry level trolling.

A marginally related question: am I right in assuming that deleting an entry clears all the positive and negative reputation gained/lost by the author of such entry?

Reputation gained or lost on deleted entries goes away at the next rep recalc. The team can instigate one for you at your request, and the occur occasionally on their own. – dmckee Jan 21 '11 at 0:36
the language someone uses in a private exchange is not governed by the same conventions as public speech - which is what all speech on this site is. And yes, overly flowery language - in either direction - has a negative effect on the integrity of the discussion. BTW I am absolutely not advocating any form of censorship with a list of "bad words". My observations were also not directed at the entry-levels folks but the elite who have a propensity to rest on their own laurels and are too quick to resort to ridicule and disparagement are weapons of debate. – Deepak Vaid Jan 21 '11 at 1:53

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