This American Life featured a fascinating–as in, car-crashtastic–example of the war on expertise that I thought many of you academic readers might be interested in, if you haven’t heard it already. In a story called “Sucker Mc-squared” (Mc-squared as in Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, not Mc- as in McDonald’s), Robert Andrew Powell tells the story of Bob the Electrician, and of Bob’s conviction that he alone had discovered a fatal flaw in Einstein’s theory. You can hear the entire story here–it’s well worth 20 minutes of your time.
To summarize: Bob takes a year-long self-funded sabbatical to study physics and prove that Einstein had it all wrong. Powell tries to get real physicists to read the paper that Bob produces over the course of the year, which turns out to be quite a chore because it turns out that Bob is kind of like the old joke about asylums being full of Napoleons: there are thousands of cranks around the world who believe Einstein’s theory–and by extension all of modern physics–is wrong, and they are a plague upon real, working, university- and U.S. government-affiliated physicists in much the same way that Holocaust Deniers, Constitutional Originalists, and Lost Causers are to historians; climate change denialists are to real climate scientists; and anti-vaxxers are to real physicians. In sum, these cranks have no confidence whatsoever in expertise or in the value of the credentials that real historians, scientists, or doctors have. But yet, they crave their respect and demand to be acknowledged by the experts.
Why does Bob believe that all of physics has it all wrong? Why is he argumentative and defensive when finally Powell convinces a real physicist (Brant Watson of the University of Miami School of Medicine) to explain to him why he’s all wet? Why does he admit that he doesn’t understand the advanced training in mathematics that physicists receive, and still believe he’s right? SPOILER ALERT!
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