Friday, May 27, 2011

Hero or crank?

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!


Anonymous said...

At this stage I see no reason to believe the incident did not happen.
She did not land the plane, which would be exceptional for a non pilot, but steered it until her husband recovered.

Future evidence may change my mind.

Little Mouse

Rattus Norvegicus said...

Get a hold of yourself (thwack!)...

Anonymous said...

She did not land the plane, which would be exceptional for a non pilot,

Incidents of non-pilots landing light aircraft safely--if not elegantly--upon the incapacitation of the pilot are rare but not exceptionally so. It happens every couple of years. Usually there is coaching by radio.

Cranks overturning established science, however, are so far batting zero, even with cheerleaders.

-Adam R.

Anonymous said...

There is this principal in science that if you cannot measure it, document it, it didn't happen. For a long time marine scientists did not accept the frequency of rogue waves, but once they were measured all was accepted.

Armatures can provide important information, occasionally even get published in the right journals. However to overturn the theories of anthropogenic climate change you would have to overturn multiple fields of science. The data is overwhelming, the theories of many science fields fit together, but not always perfectly (yet).

That said, I still believe the incident happend. John has chosen the wrong example to explain cranks, or so it would appear.

Little Mouse.

Brian said...

My approach to cranks is to try to make money off of them, by challenging them to bets over climate change. Their confidence in their approach doesn't often extent to putting money where their mouths are, though.

Anonymous said...

I don't think this is a good analogy because if the untrained pilot is successful they will have performed an action that has been done millions of times before.

A better analogy would be the untrained pilot who claims a standard landing is a hoax and that you can crash a plane and everyone will still survive. They then proceed to do exactly that. Occasionally there is a survivor and this is taken as evidence that they are right, landing is a hoax.


Lars Karlsson said...

Regarding the climate cranks, the story goes more like this:
The pilot notices that there is a technical problem and the plane is losing altitude, so he determines to perform an emergency landing. The passenger/crank disagrees, and argues that the pilot is trying to cheat him. He claims that the airplane's instruments are not reliable, and that it only appears closer to the ground because people are building houses on the ground below the plane. He then tries to grab the yoke from the pilot. In the penultimate scene, we watch the pilot and the "crash sceptic" fighting over the parachute. Then the airplanes crashes and goes up in flames.

Stephen said...

There used to be a similar phenomenon with finding a proof of Fermat's Last Theorem, which supposedly has taken millions of man years of amateur effort, without success.

Our first solution is far beyond the reach of amateurs, and it is not yet known whether any elementary proof exists (ie one using mathematics that an amateur might know).

But analogies are not the real thing. After all, the sceptical amateur Spanish prevented a religious sacrifice, despite the warnings of the experts, and the sun still came up.

Hank Roberts said...

John, couldn't find your email at your web page, but wanted to suggest this question (asked at RC) might interest you and Eli:

He asks about Franzen's explanation, which has been getting some attention in blog comments here and there -- worth a look from y'all I think. The pointers go to Franzen’s PDFs: