The Alternative-Science Respectability Checklist

Believe me, I sympathize. You are in possession of a truly incredible breakthrough that offers the prospect of changing the very face of science as we know it, if not more. The only problem is, you’re coming at things from an unorthodox perspective. Maybe your findings don’t fit comfortably with people’s preconceived notions, or maybe you don’t have the elaborate academic credentials that established scientists take for granted. Perhaps you have been able to construct a machine that produces more energy than it consumes, using only common household implements; or maybe you’ve discovered a hidden pattern within the Fibonacci sequence that accurately predicts the weight that a top quark would experience on Ganymede, expressed in femtonewtons; or it might be that you’ve elaborated upon an alternative explanation for the evolution of life on Earth that augments natural selection by unspecified interventions from a vaguely-defined higher power. Whatever the specifics, the point is that certain kinds of breakthroughs just aren’t going to come from a hide-bound scholastic establishment; they require the fresh perspective and beginner’s mind that only an outsider genius (such as yourself) can bring to the table.

Yet, even though science is supposed to be about being open-minded, and there’s so much that we don’t understand about how the universe works, it’s still hard for outsiders to be taken seriously. Instead, you run up against stuffy attitudes like this:

If there are any new Einsteins out there with a correct theory of everything all LaTeXed up, they should feel quite willing to ask me for an endorsement for the arxiv; I’d be happy to bask in the reflected glory and earn a footnote in their triumphant autobiography. More likely, however, they will just send their paper to Physical Review, where it will be accepted and published, and they will become famous without my help.

If, on the other hand, there is anyone out there who thinks they are the next Einstein, but really they are just a crackpot, don’t bother; I get things like that all the time. Sadly, the real next-Einsteins only come along once per century, whereas the crackpots are far too common.

And that last part is sadly true. There is a numbers game that is working against you. You are not the only person from an alternative perspective who purports to have a dramatic new finding, and here you are asking established scientists to take time out from conventional research to sit down and examine your claims in detail. Of course, we know that you really do have a breakthrough in your hands, while those people are just crackpots. But how do you convince everyone else? All you want is a fair hearing.

Scientists can’t possibly pay equal attention to every conceivable hypothesis, they would literally never do anything else. Whether explicitly or not, they typically apply a Bayesian prior to the claims that are put before them. Purported breakthroughs are not all treated equally; if something runs up against their pre-existing notions of how the universe works, they are much less likely to pay it any attention. So what does it take for the truly important discoveries to get taken seriously?

Happily, we are here to help. It would be a shame if the correct theory to explain away dark matter or account for the origin of life were developed by someone without a conventional academic position, who didn’t really take a lot of science classes in college and didn’t have a great math background but was always interested in the big questions, only for that theory to be neglected because of some churlish prejudice. So we would like to present a simple checklist of things that alternative scientists should do in order to get taken seriously by the Man. And the good news is, it’s only three items! How hard can that be, really? True, each of the items might require a nontrivial amount of work to overcome. Hey, nobody ever said that being a lonely genius was easy.

So let’s begin at the beginning:

1. Acquire basic competency in whatever field of science your discovery belongs to.

In other words, “get to know what is already known.” If you have a new theory that unites all the forces, make sure you have mastered elementary physics, and grasp the basics of quantum field theory and particle physics. If you’ve built a perpetual-motion machine, make sure you possess a thorough grounding in mechanical and electrical engineering, and are pretty familiar with the First Law of Thermodynamics. If you can explain the cosmological redshift without invoking an expanding universe, make sure you know general relativity and have mastered the basics of modern cosmology and astrophysics.

Just as an example, if fundamental physics is your bailiwick, Gerard ‘t Hooft has put together a list of subjects you should get under your belt, complete with bibliography! Many of them are online lecture notes; some of them are by me. So start reading! It may seem like a daunting collection at first; but keep in mind, this kind of curriculum is completed by hundreds of graduate students every year. Most of whom are not singular geniuses who will transform the very face of science.

Now, you may object that steering clear of such pre-existing knowledge has played a crucial role in your unique brand of breakthrough research, and you would never have been able to make those dazzling conceptual leaps had you been weighed down by all of that established art. Let me break it down for you: no. There may have been a time, in the halcyon days of Archimedes or maybe even Galileo and Newton, when anyone with a can-do attitude and a passing interest in the fundamental mysteries could make an important contribution to our understanding of nature. Those days are long past. (And Galileo and Newton, let us note, understood the science of their time better than anybody.) We’ve learned a tremendous amount about how the universe works, most of which is “right” at least in some well-defined regime of applicability. If you haven’t mastered what we’ve already learned, you’re not going to be able to see beyond it.

Put it this way: it’s a matter of respect. By asking scientists to take your work seriously, you are asking them to respect you enough to spend their time investigating your claims. The absolute least you can do is respect them enough to catch up on the stuff they’ve all made a great effort to master. There are a lot of smart people working as scientists these days; if a basic feature of your purported breakthrough (“the derivation of the Friedmann equation is wrong”; “length contraction is a logical contradiction”) is that it requires that a huge number of such people have been making the same elementary mistake over and over again for years, the fault is more likely to lie within yourself than in the stars. Do your homework, first, then get back to me.

2. Understand, and make a good-faith effort to confront, the fundamental objections to your claims within established science.

Someone comes along and says “I’ve discovered that there’s no need for dark matter.” A brief glance at the abstract reveals that the model violates our understanding of perturbation theory. Well, perhaps there is something subtle going on here, and our conventional understanding of perturbation theory doesn’t apply in this case. So here’s what any working theoretical cosmologist would do (even if they aren’t consciously aware that they’re doing it): they would glance at the introduction to the paper, looking for a paragraph that says “Look, we know this isn’t what you would expect from elementary perturbation theory, but here’s why that doesn’t apply in this case.” Upon not finding that paragraph, they would toss the paper away.

Scientific claims — whether theoretical insights or experimental breakthroughs — don’t exist all by their lonesome. They are situated within a framework of pre-existing knowledge and expectations. If the claim you are making seems manifestly inconsistent with that framework, it’s your job to explain why anyone should nevertheless take you seriously. Whenever someone claims to build a perpetual-motion device, scientist solemnly reiterate that the law of conservation of energy is not to be trifled with lightly. Of course one must admit that it could be wrong — it’s only one law, after all. But when you actually build some machine that purportedly puts out more ergs than it consumes (in perpetuity), it does a lot more than violate the law of conservation of energy. That machine is made of atoms and electromagnetic fields, which obey the laws of atomic physics and Maxwell’s equations. And conservation of energy can be derived from those laws — so you’re violating those as well. If you claim that the position of Venus within the Zodiac affects your love life, you’re not only positing some spooky correlation between celestial bodies and human affairs; your theory also requires some sort of long-range force that acts between you and Venus, and there aren’t any such forces strong enough to be relevant. If you try to brush those issues under the rug, rather than confronting them straightforwardly, your credibility suffers greatly.

For example, imagine you say, “I have a method of brewing a magical healing potion that bypasses the ossified practices of your so-called `medicine,’ and I’ve personally known several people who were miraculously cured by it, and also there was a study once in some journal that didn’t conclusively rule out the possibility of an effect, and besides you don’t know everything.” No non-crackpot person is going to pay a whit of attention to you, except perhaps to poke fun in between doing serious work. But now imagine you say “It’s true that my claimed magical healing potion appears to violate this famous law of chemistry and that well-established principle of medicine, which have been painstakingly developed and stringently tested against experimental data over the course of many decades, and it’s natural that you would be skeptical of such a claim — but here is the empirical evidence that is dramatic enough to overcome that skepticism, and this is the reason why there might be a loophole in those laws in this particular circumstance.” People will be much more likely to take you seriously.

3. Present your discovery in a way that is complete, transparent, and unambiguous.

What we’re getting at here is that scientific discoveries, unlike sonnets or declarations of love, are universal rather than personal. They belong to everyone, and once they are presented to the world, they can be explored equally well by anybody. By almost any standard, I understand general relativity better than Einstein ever did. (Most parts of it, anyway.) Not because I’m anywhere nearly as smart as Einstein, but because we’ve learned a lot about GR since Einstein died. Once the theory was invented, he didn’t have a monopoly on it; it was out there for anyone to understand and move forward with. Even if he had repudiated his own theory, it would have had no effect on whether or not it was correct.

Your discovery should be the same way. If it’s a revolutionary new theory, it should be a theory that anyone can use. That means it needs to be clearly expressed and unambiguous. I’ve had more than one long and fruitless discussion with alternative scientists who would say “You tell me the experimental result, and I will explain it with my theory.” That’s not the way it works. Your theory should have a life of its own; it should be a machine that I (or anyone) could use to make predictions. And if it’s a physics theory, let’s face it, it’s going to involve math. In this day and age, nobody is going to be moved by a model of elementary particles that comes expressed as a set of three-dimensional sculptures constructed from pipe cleaners.

Likewise, if your breakthrough is an experiment, it had better be a dramatically obvious one — and the more you are violating cherished scientific beliefs, the more dramatic the effect had better be. If what you’re claiming requires a re-arrangement of the energy levels in organic molecules, in flagrant disregard of the Schrödinger equation, you are going to need much more than a two- or three-sigma effect. And, equally importantly, you have to be up front about what the apparatus is, so that anyone can reproduce the experiment. No fair saying “Well, if you come into my lab, I’ll turn it on and show you how it works.” And “This experiment was done in the ’70’s in a secret underground lab in Gdansk, and the KGB has suppressed the lab notebooks” isn’t any better. If you’re actually playing the role of a scientist, share your procedure with everyone, so that they can become true believers themselves. If, on the other hand, you just want to make money, then by all means don’t tell anyone; just start producing the free energy (or amazing stretchy widgets, or whatever) and sell it on the open market. The millions of dollars that will doubtless flow your way will be very comforting as you rail against the establishment for failing to appreciate your genius.

So there you go! Modesty aside, this post might be the single greatest favor that has ever been done for the loose-knit community of non-traditional scientists. We’ve been very explicit about what is expected, if you want to get the recognition you believe is your due. Three simple items, start checking them off!

Also, one last thing. Don’t compare yourself to Galileo. You are not Galileo. Honestly, you’re not. Dude, seriously.

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207 Responses to The Alternative-Science Respectability Checklist

  1. Roman says:

    So, there will be no more breakthroughs, ever?

  2. Aaron S. says:

    i would be interested in hearing or seeing some sort of evidence to go against peter fred’s idea.

    i am at work here (im in the military) and out computers wont let me check out his link. but instead of calling him a moron, if you think he is one, show him why.

    some people use the negative feed back to go back and try to “fix” thier theories and in doing so learn about the science.

    just a thought


  3. JoAnne says:

    Thanks, Sean. Now I have a reference to point folks at when they send me their latest theories.

    Yasaman (#2): GREAT to hear from you!! Hope all is well and hope to see you somewhere sometime.

  4. PK says:

    Yasaman, what is PDG?

  5. Jason Dick says:

    Re: Aaron S.

    Experience seems to indicate otherwise. This is largely because most of the pseudo-scientists out there really don’t recognize that easily 95+% of peoples’ ideas, even those coming from the most brilliant of minds, are simply incorrect. Thus, by large, the ideas these people are promoting need to be thrown out entirely, not merely modified. But they’re not willing to hear this, so despite the criticism they simply plod forward making the same claims over and over again. It gets tiring rather rapidly, and scientists quickly lose interest in dealing with such people.

  6. JC says:


    PDG = particle data group?

  7. Theo says:

    Ok, I’ll bite.

    The runaway acceleration in Peter Fred’s theory is a major problem. Then again, an object falling in a gravitation field also experiences runaway acceleration; e.g. the earth orbiting the sun.

    I would like to complain about another aspect. PF’s proposal, as far as I can tell, is that:
    (1) The sun is hot, and so emits “infrared luminosity” (light) in all directions; the strength of this light falls off as inverse-square, which makes us happy.
    (2) Through some magic, when this light hits the earth, it provides an attractive force, rather than a repulsive force like it ought to. (If the light is carried by photons on mass shell, then I believe it must be repulsive?)
    (3) By dimensional analysis, this still isn’t enough. But never fear! All we ever need to do to apply very large forces to very large objects is to apply some small force, because that will create an imbalance in the pressure on the center of the planet. (This, of course, in every way violates Newtonian mechanics.)

    So, I would like to test the reasonableness of this proposal with another dimensional-analysis argument. To wit: if gravity is caused by luminosity, then brighter objects should create stronger gravitational fields — the acceleration felt by the earth should vary with the temperature of the sun. You’ll need some careful fine-tuning to get the appropriate force for our solar system, and it won’t work anywhere else. Of course, perhaps the laws of physics vary from place to place. But that would make it awfully hard to do science, so, like Intelligent Design, that’s a bit of a discussion-ender.

    No, the point is that there’s this miracle in gravity as we’ve observed it: the force of gravity scales linearly with the product of the masses of the two interacting bodies. And, other than their relative distance, that’s the only thing that goes into it. But PF is proposing gravity that depends on temperature, too. Many experiments have confirmed that, to first order, force of gravity scales only with mM/r^2.

    Why must gravity scale as mM? Newton explained that “every action has an equal and opposite reaction”, which in modern times is understood as “conservation of momentum” which in turn is derived from “the laws of physics are symmetric under spacial translations”. But Gallileo, et al., showed that objects fall at the same rate, in the absence of other forces (this is the principle behind Einstein’s famous gravitational breakthroughs). Since acceleration scales as 1/m, the force of gravity must scale as m, thus by symmetry as mM. Since acceleration depends on nothing else (except for location) of the object, gravity must depend on nothing else (except relative location).

    Anything else would violate these basic experiments. In particular, if PF is correct, then hot things must fall faster than cold things.

  8. PK says:

    Thanks, JC!

  9. Alejandro Rivero says:

    The problem about “basic competency” in particle physics is that model building never reached the textbooks. So a lot of current crackpotty models around the net happen to be already tried alternatives, published in the late seventies. For instance if a guy enters in your room claiming to pursue the idea “the up quark is dx^dy, the antiup is dt^dz, the electron is dx^dy^dz, the positron is dt”… would you put him aside as a crackpot, or would you redirect him to Casalbuoni and Gatto Phys Lett 88B, page 306? Most times the first option will happen, and the author of the theory will keep shouting and dressing it until eventually he becomes a real crackpot.

  10. PK says:

    if PF is correct, then hot things must fall faster than cold things.

    Especially if you’re not wearing oven mitts.

  11. It’s a funny article, but there’s some “dark energy” in this model.

    A substantial number of the ‘unrecognized Einsteins’ have quite recognizable thought disorders. Thought disorders (schizophrenia being one poorly named clob) are usually described as extremely unpleasant by those who have them, so some sympathy is indicated. They are also associated with fundamental deficiencies of introspection; these are minds that cannot know their own states. (Or know even less of their internal states than the average person.)

    You can’t reason with a thought disorder. (Ok, there are exceptions. Some very high IQ persons seem to be able to recognize and reason about their own thought disorders, but they are very exceptional.)

    So it’s a funny article for most of us, but do be gentle (redirect then ignore) those who write with a new theory of dark energy. Their loved ones will thank you, even if the afflicted cannot.

  12. BlackGriffen says:

    Re: thought disorders. How can anyone know the state of their mind in real time? It seems to me that there should be some sort of information theory argument somewhere that results in something like: it is not possible for any finite computer to simulate (in its software) itself (the full state of the hardware) in real time. If there’s not, then someone please let me know, cause that’s at least worth a BlackGriffen’s principle or somesuch. 😉

    Point being, nobody is really aware of the full state of their mind at any given time. Some people are just more capable of introspection than others.

  13. Qubit says:

    If someone comes up with a Theory of Everything, then the chances are that this one person would change mankind forever, right up to the point of being a race that can control space-time. That person would have to be very brave or very foolish; it does not take much thinking about, to realise that he would put him self in a very dangerous position, taking the glory for everything is not a good idea. The next Einstein will have to be smart enough to give mankind everything without us knowing how we got it. So that number 3 would be(in this case);

    3. Present your discovery in a way that is complete, transparent, and ambiguous.

    Number 2 would not be necessary.

    Number 1 would be down to chance because there is no field of everything and it quite literally could blow you away! So that’s not necessary either.


  14. PK says:

    BlackGriffen, check out the “halting problem” and Goedel’s theorem on wikipedia. They seem intimately related to BlackGriffen’s principle.

  15. Sam Gralla says:

    This post is a hilarious read, but far to condescending to actually convince a crackpot. You should write up another version with the same ideas, but less arrogance. You might actually get an email from a crackpot saying he sees your point of view–that would be rewarding, wouldn’t it?

  16. Peter Fred says:

    But never fear! All we ever need to do to apply very large forces to very large objects is to apply some small force, because that will create an imbalance in the pressure on the center of the planet. (This, of course, in every way violates Newtonian mechanics.paper. Please tell me without “dimensional analysis” how small change of the surface gravity of the earth will not effect the pressure at the center of the earth given that:

    Pressure center =g*rho*r.

    Say the surface gravity changes by 0.006m/s^2 and that rho=10^3 and r= 10^6. This a six orders of magnitude change of pressure at the center of the earth.

    If you read my paper you will see an equation indicating that with an increase of the surface gravity for earth’s night side hemisphere of 0.006 m/s^2 over earth’s day side hemisphere there is a 10^11 net force produced between the night side and day side hemispheres that is a factor or 4/3 shy of the Newtonian force emanating from the sun.

    This Newtonian force is somehow able to use some yet-to-be specified property of the mass of the sun that is somehow capable of warping space and attracting large astrophysical bodies but incapable of accounting for the higher than expected rotation curves of galaxies and acceleration of the universe.

  17. graviton383 says:

    Good to hear from you Yasaman(#2) !!!!

  18. Elliot says:


    Thanks/Not Thanks


  19. Van says:

    Peter Fred,
    I gather that you attribute the sun’s gravitional force on the Earth as somehow being due to the radiation pressure from the sun on the Earth. Assuming this would work, how do you account for the the gravitional attraction between the Earth and the Moon?

  20. crackpot detector says:

    Peter Fred:

    I have not read this post very thoroughly. But what I feel is more important that those on this post read what I have written and linked to.

  21. phil says:

    I don’t see how anything that follows those rules could be considered alternative-science…

  22. boreds says:

    Peter Fred:

    I have not read this post very thoroughly. But what I feel is more important that those on this post read what I have written and linked to.

    I think that’s the crucial point, isn’t it? At the very least it’s simply rude, as an alternative scientist, posting an alternative scientific theory under a posting about alternative science, to, er, not read the post itself.

    Peter Fred, do you not agree it’s a little rude of you?

  23. TomR says:

    Last month, my construction projects lead me to derrive the equation for the curve of a cable with weights hanging from it. Last week, without even meaning to, I built a water clock while trying to make something that would automaticaly change the water for my fish. And just the other day, I was playing with the pulleys on the machines at the gym, and my workout buddy called me Galileo.

    Aw, shucks.

  24. Khurram says:

    This is a most excellent post Sean! I am constantly amazed at the shear effort that people put in to what they think are revolutionary theories- beautifully typed in Latex with equations and references. It is not hard to find whole treatises on why GR or QM is wrong on in the internet. Who are these people that have so much time on their hands?
    I think that some of these people can be described as having just enough information to be dangerous.

  25. BlackGriffen says:

    Forgot to add: just saw Copenhagen recently. Wonderful play, and it seems to at least tangentially address the issue of knowing one’s own mind.