Saturday, June 6, 2009

Cranks & Crackpots: A Test Case

Scott Bailey has engaged in a debate (on Jim West's blog) that aptly illustrates the futility of arguing with individuals who are devoted to a fringe theory in spite of its general lack of acceptance by the academic community. These individuals are often called cranks or crackpots, and there's even a Wikipedia entry devoted to the phenomenon.
"Crank" is a pejorative term for a person who holds a belief that a vast majority of their contemporaries consider false. A "cranky" belief is so wildly at variance with commonly accepted truth as to be ludicrous, and arguing with cranks is useless, because they will invariably dismiss all evidence or arguments which contradict their unconventional beliefs.

Common synonyms for "crank" include kook and crackpot. Crank differs from fanatic in that the subject of the fanatic's obsession is either not necessarily widely regarded as wrong or not necessarily a "fringe" belief. Similarly, the word quack is reserved for someone who promotes a medical remedy or practice that is widely considered to be ineffective. Crank may also refer to an ill-tempered individual or one who is in a bad mood, but that usage is not the subject of this article. (emphasis added)
I want to draw Scott's attention to the highlighted phrase above - "arguing with cranks is useless." His interaction quickly descended into veiled insults and blatant condescension on both sides. I used to engage crackpots in debates (attempting to prove to the KJV only people that they were insane, for example). It was pointless and I got no where. Now I avoid direct engagement if possible. It serves no purpose. I now follow the "don't dignify it with a response" rule. And no, this is not a response. It is a reaction to the debate, not a direct response. (That's why I'm not highlighting what was being debated.)


  1. as i learned a LONG time ago- along the same lines- arguing with a fundamentalist is an utter and complete waste of time.

    that holds true of many, many people as well who aren't fundamentalists but who have views that few others hold but who hold them in spite of and in many cases because of the fact that they are idiosyncratic.

  2. It's ALL Jim's fault.

    He posted the guy's evasion of my (as you rightly assumed) ad hoc response to his essay.

    I think Jim posted that with a smirk knowing I'd have to respond something.

    I suppose with the many jabs at Zwingli and shots at Jim that I've taken at my site the last few years I probably deserve that... and more!

    And I agree with you: after years of experience in church communities and interacting with very conservative students at the U it is (mostly) pointless arguing with them... unless you like seeing people freak out when you start grilling their sacred cows! Now that can be fun.

  3. I would encourage Scott not to get involved in these types of conversations because regardless of the merits of his arguments they do not reflect well on his potential collegiality. As someone who has served on search committees at research universities, I am serious when I say that this is the type of thing that could sink his candidacy because it makes him look like a poor colleague even if he is a fine scholar. Search committees in many religious studies departments often only have one or two other faculty members in a given field, so a lot of the voting does not come down to the specifics of the scholarship, but whether this someone that I'd enjoy working with closely on committees for the next several decades (assuming its a tenure track position). Google searches do happen for finalists and this is the type that could hurt Scott in the future. PhD candidates are rarely told who much more discussion of collegiality than scholarship goes on in search committee meetings, so bloggers should keep that in mind since I’ve noticed that many of them are graduate students at various levels.

  4. Thanks for the insight, Anonymous. It's a good reminder that getting an academic job often has more to do with making a good impression than with mastery of the material that you need to be able to teach.

    Image is important, and I think most of us grad student bloggers realize that our blogs are essentially part of our CV whether we officially mention them or not.

    Now by the time Scott get's around to looking for work, this small exchange will just be a needle in the haystack buried deep under thousands of more relevant hits in Google's search results. From now on, maybe Scott will adopt my "don't dignify it with a response" rule.

    In Scott's defense (again), he initially left a brief comment about how nutty the guy's paper was. Jim West usually can spot a dilettante a mile away, but he put this up as legit and then posted his hugely overblown response to Scott's brief observations. Any one of us would have been on the defensive after that, and Scott had the added stress of moving on top of it.