Crank (person)

Crank (person)

"Crank" is a pejorative term used for a person who unshakably holds a belief that most of his or her contemporaries consider to be false.[1] A "cranky" belief is so wildly at variance with commonly accepted belief as to be ludicrous. Cranks characteristically dismiss all evidence or arguments which contradict their own unconventional beliefs, making rational debate an often futile task.

Common synonyms for "crank" include crackpot and kook. A crank differs from a 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; this term however does not imply any deep belief in the idea or product they are attempting to sell. 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.

Although a crank's beliefs seem ridiculous to experts in the field, cranks are sometimes very successful in convincing non-experts of their views. A famous example is the Indiana Pi Bill where a state legislature nearly wrote into law a crank result in geometry.


Relativity of crank beliefs

The term crank is often applied to persons who contradict rigorously proven mathematical theorems, such as the impossibility of squaring the circle by ruler and compass, or who deny extremely well established physical theories, such as the special theory of relativity, conservation of mass-energy, or a round earth (See Flat Earth Society). More engineer-minded cranks may claim to have invented a magic compression algorithm or a perpetual motion / free energy machine.

In the latter case, when scientific paradigms are overthrown, a belief previously considered cranky could in principle later be considered mainstream. Examples are rare, but they do exist; for example, the notion of continental drift proposed by Alfred Wegener was widely considered by contemporary geologists to be cranky, but was eventually dramatically vindicated, albeit by plate tectonics, a mechanism of which Wegener had never dreamed.

It appears to be even more unlikely that the opinion of the mathematical community might change concerning whether some proven theorem is true, despite nineteenth and twentieth century discoveries in mathematical logic which are often popularly misunderstood as having overthrown theorems previously regarded as true. It would be more correct to say that mathematicians have gradually become aware of subtle issues which had previously been overlooked. That is, previous mathematical knowledge has been enriched, not overthrown, by such discoveries as non-Euclidean geometry or Gödel's incompleteness theorems.

Nonetheless, since the nature of mainstream opinion can change over time, it is useful to define crankery in terms of characteristics which are independent of the allegedly cranky belief. Indeed, it is widely accepted that the true hallmark of the crank is not so much asserting that, for example, the Earth is flat as making this assertion in the face of all counterarguments and contrary evidence. Certain authors (see the references) who have studied the phenomenon of crankery agree that this is the essential defining characteristic of a crank: No argument or evidence can ever be sufficient to make a crank abandon his belief.

Common characteristics of cranks

The second book of the mathematician and popular author Martin Gardner was a study of crank beliefs, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. More recently, the mathematician Underwood Dudley has written a series of books on mathematical cranks, including The Trisectors, Mathematical Cranks, and Numerology: Or, What Pythagoras Wrought. And in a 1992 UseNet post, the mathematician John Baez humorously proposed a "checklist", the Crackpot index, intended to "diagnose" cranky beliefs regarding contemporary physics.[2]

According to these authors, virtually universal characteristics of cranks include:

  1. Cranks overestimate their own knowledge and ability, and underestimate that of acknowledged experts.
  2. Cranks insist that their alleged discoveries are urgently important.
  3. Cranks rarely, if ever, acknowledge any error, no matter how trivial.
  4. Cranks love to talk about their own beliefs, often in inappropriate social situations, but they tend to be bad listeners, and often appear to be uninterested in anyone else's experience or opinions.

Some cranks exhibit a lack of academic achievement, in which case they typically assert that academic training in the subject of their crank belief is not only unnecessary for discovering "the truth", but actively harmful because they believe it "poisons" the minds by teaching falsehoods. Others greatly exaggerate their personal achievements, and may insist that some achievement (real or alleged) in some entirely unrelated area of human endeavor implies that their cranky opinion should be taken seriously.

Some cranks claim vast knowledge of any relevant literature, while others claim that familiarity with previous work is entirely unnecessary; regardless, cranks inevitably reveal that whether or not they believe themselves to be knowledgeable concerning relevant matters of fact, mainstream opinion, or previous work, they are not in fact well-informed concerning the topic of their belief.

In addition, many cranks:

  1. seriously misunderstand the mainstream opinion to which they believe that they are objecting,
  2. stress that they have been working out their ideas for many decades, and claim that this fact alone entails that their belief cannot be dismissed as resting upon some simple error,
  3. compare themselves with Galileo or Copernicus (or in a religious context, Noah), implying that the mere unpopularity of some belief is in itself evidence of plausibility,
  4. claim that their ideas are being suppressed, typically by secret intelligence organizations, mainstream science, powerful business interests, or other groups which, they allege, are terrified by the possibility of their revolutionary insights becoming widely known,
  5. appear to regard themselves as persons of unique historical importance.

Cranks who contradict some mainstream opinion in some highly technical field, such as mathematics or physics, frequently:

  1. exhibit a marked lack of technical ability,
  2. misunderstand or fail to use standard notation and terminology,
  3. ignore fine distinctions which are essential to correctly understand mainstream belief.

That is, cranks tend to ignore any previous insights which have been proven by experience to facilitate discussion and analysis of the topic of their cranky claims; indeed, they often assert that these innovations obscure rather than clarify the situation.[3]

In addition, cranky scientific "theories" do not in fact qualify as theories as this term is commonly understood within science. For example, crank "theories" in physics typically fail to result in testable predictions, which makes them unfalsifiable and hence unscientific. Or the crank may present their ideas in such a confused, "not even wrong" manner that it is impossible to determine what they are actually claiming.

Perhaps surprisingly, many cranks may appear quite normal when they are not passionately expounding their cranky belief, and they may even be successful in careers unrelated to their cranky belief.

Internet cranks

The rise of the Internet has given another outlet to people well outside the mainstream who may get labeled cranks through internet postings or websites promoting particular beliefs. There are a number of websites devoted to listing people as cranks. Community-edited websites like Wikipedia have been described as vulnerable to cranks.[4][5]

Science fiction author and critic Bruce Sterling noted in his essay in CATSCAN 13:

Online communication can wonderfully liberate the tender soul of some well-meaning personage who, for whatever reason, is physically uncharismatic. Unfortunately, online communication also fertilizes the eccentricities of hopeless cranks, who at last find themselves in firm possession of a wondrous soapbox that the Trilateral Commission and the Men In Black had previously denied them.[6]

There are also newsgroups which are nominally devoted to discussing (alt.usenet.kooks) or poking fun at (alt.slack, alt.religion.kibology) supposed cranks.

Crank magnetism

Crank magnetism is a term popularized by physiologist and blogger Mark Hoofnagle to describe the propensity of cranks to hold multiple irrational, unsupported or ludicrous beliefs that are often unrelated to one another.[7] Crank magnetism may be considered to operate wherever a single person propounds a number of unrelated denialist conjectures, poorly supported conspiracy theories, or pseudoscientific claims. Thus, some of the common crank characteristics (see above)-- such as the lack of technical ability, ignorance of scientific terminology and claims that alternative ideas are being suppressed by the mainstream—may be operating on and manifested in multiple orthogonal assertions. For example, Hoofnagle's fellow blogger Orac has discussed crank magnetism in relation to the writings of British columnist Melanie Phillips, who denies anthropogenic global warming and who has promoted Intelligent Design and the discredited view that the MMR vaccine causes autism in children.[8] Blogger Luke Scientiæ has commented on the relationship between the number of unrelated claims magnetic cranks make and the extent of their open hostility to science.[9] He has also coined the phrase "magnetic hoax" in relation to hoax claims that attract multiple cranky interpretations.[10]


Old English cranc- is preserved only in crancstæf "a weaver's instrument". It is from a Proto-Germanic stem *krank- meaning "bend". German krank has a modern meaning of "sick, ill", evolved from a former meaning "weak, small". English crank in its modern sense is first recorded 1833, and cranky in a sense of "irritable" dates from 1821. The term was popularised in 1872 for being applied to Horace Greeley who was ridiculed during his campaign for the U.S. presidency. In 1882, the term was used to describe Charles Guiteau who shot U.S. president James Garfield.

In 1906, Nature offered essentially the same definition which is used here:

A crank is defined as a man who cannot be turned.

Nature, 8 Nov 1906, 25/2

The term "crank" (or "krank") was once the favored term for spectators at sporting events, a term later supplanted by "fans". By implication, the "kranks in the bleaching boards" think they know more about the sport than do its participants. There is more discussion of this term in The Dickson Baseball Dictionary, by Paul Dickson.

The word crackpot apparently also first appeared in 1883:

My aunty knew lots, and called them crack-pots.

Broadside Ballad, 1883

As noted in Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, the terms "crackpot", "crackbrain" and "cracked" are synonymous, and suggest a metaphorically "broken" head. The terms "crazy" and "crazed" also originally meant "broken" and derive from the same root word as "cracked". The dictionary gives no indication that "pate" and "pot" have the same root, despite their apparent similarity, and implied colloquial use of "pot" to mean "head" in the word "crackpot". However, the term "craze" is also used to refer to minute cracks in pottery glaze, again suggesting the metaphorical connection of cracked pots with questionable mental health.

The term kook appears to be much more recent. The adjectival-form, kooky, was apparently coined as part of American teen-ager (or beatnik) slang, which derives from the pejorative meaning of the noun cuckoo. In late 1958, Edd Byrnes first played a hair-combing parking lot attendant called "Kookie" on 77 Sunset Strip. The noun-form kook, may have first appeared in 1960 in Britain's Daily Mail newspaper:

A kook, Daddy-O, is a screwball who is 'gone' farther than most

Daily Mail, 22 Aug 1960, 4/5

See also

  • Kibo
  • Psychoceramics


  1. ^ Crank at Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary
  2. ^ John Baez, New improved crackpot index (an update to the 1992 list, 26 August 1998, sci.physics (archived message on Google Groups).
  3. ^ Hodges, Wilfrid (1998). "An Editor Recalls Some Hopeless Papers". The Bulletin of Symbolic Logic 4 (1): 1–16. doi:10.2307/421003. JSTOR 421003.  A paper describing several attempts at disproving Cantor's diagonal argument, looking at the flaws in their arguments and reasoning.
  4. ^ "Fact or fiction? Who contributes to Wikipedia? Despite ... ", Global Agenda, March 12, 2007, Retrieved 23 April 2010
  5. ^ "Wikipedia.(Brief Article)". Booklist. September 15, 2002. 
  6. ^ CATSCAN 13: "Electronic Text" (Bruce Sterling, SF Eye)
  7. ^ Hoofnagle, Mark. "Crank Magnetism". Retrieved 29 June 2011. 
  8. ^ Hoofnagle, Mark. "Melanie Phillips: Crank magnetism in action on evolution and vaccines". 
  9. ^ Luke Scientiæ. "A Few Comments on Crank Magnetism". Retrieved 15 August 2011. 
  10. ^ Luke Scientiae. "The Magnetic Hoax: The Giant Hoax as an Example". Retrieved 15 August 2011. 


Further reading

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