In today's news, a wife who had never flown an airplane, took over the plane when the pilot, her husband, became ill. The story had a happy ending.
The same unlikely event was part of the plot of the 1956 movie Julie, starring Doris Day as the flight attendant. Once again, the story had a happy ending.
Nearly two decades later, in the movie Airport 1975 , a classic disaster movie with a star-studded cast, Karen Black played the flight attendant who saved the airplane. Same plot, and (are you ready for this?) the same happy ending.
A half dozen years later, Julie Hagarty played the flight attendant in the 1980 parody movie Airplane! Believe it or not!! Yet another happy ending. This is Hollywood, after all.
By now, readers of Rabett Run realize that this plotline is tremendously popular with audiences. Faced with an emergency, a novice with no training rises to the occasion and saves the lives of dozens or hundreds of passengers. These movies have all been financial successes, sometimes very big successes. The 1980 movie Airplane! grossed $83M in North America alone, and cost only $3.5M.
That's Hollywood, that's entertainment. But in scientific affairs, how likely is it?
Here's a plot: a novice to the field of global warming/climate change reads about future disasters arising from the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The novice has no scientific background and doesn't understand much. Still the novice points out some flaws that experts in the field have somehow overlooked for decades. And the world's climate, previously thought to be in danger, coasts gently to a safe landing, with humanity's understanding strengthened by the brilliant insights of the novice.
How likely is this plotline?
In real life, a novice with no science background is more likely to be a crank than a hero. In some fields, it's routine for amateurs to believe sincerely that they have outsmarted the experts. Harvard physics professor Michael Tinkham told me three decades ago that he saved the tracts from amateurs - routine disproofs of Einstein's theory of Relativity, for example - and stored them in a cardboard box in the corner of his office, and he termed the cardboard box "the crank case".
A crank often knows a little bit about the subject, but not enough. A crank is often completely unwilling to entertain the notion that he might be wrong. A crank does not know anything about critical thinking. And a crank can be completely sincere, and totally deluded.
My approach to dealing with cranks (and noncranks) has been to explain soberly why climate scientists believe what they believe, in a 2008 piece outlining why the scientific case for modern anthropogenic global warming is an overwhelmingly convincing case, and in a 2010 followup piece. .
There's more to be said on the subject. Stay tuned!