How to Recognize Cranks in Your Research

Ever get assigned a random market research task? You might be researching a new business area, current literature on a cutting-edge topic, or just performing a survey of the state of your industry. As you’re sifting through the electronic fever swamps of the internet, you are bound to encounter posts that sound set off your liberal arts major’s balderdash detector, even if you’re not a scientist or engineer, even if you can’t quite put your finger on it. Here are some tips to help you sort out the wheat from the chaff.

Judging a Book By Its Cover

Personal blogs websites are not always nonsense. There are some serious professionals who write about issues in their field just for fun or to offer their perspective on the latest developments in their field. Most of these folks, in addition to citing their credentials with an “About Me” page, will do their best to have a professional-looking website. This will include tasteful imagery, only one or two fonts, consistent text coloring, and consistent/neat margins. If they are citing sources, those sources are usually known/reputable publications or journals within a given industry/field or acknowledged news sources.

A great way to spot someone who might not be on the level or quite trustworthy with their facts or assertions, then, would be to invert the above:

  • No credentials in the field of interest. (This is not to say that private citizens cannot provide useful insights; they’re just not necessarily coming from a fully informed position of authority. I can write my opinions on the politics of the space business all I want, but I’d take any pronouncements I make on space architectures with a large lick of salt.)
  • Three or more fonts or font colors.
  • Use of “flashing” text or images.
  • Inconsistent/messy margins.
  • Links to citations of far-from-mainstream websites or topics. In the space business, these are typified by links to UFOs, astrology, antigravity, “warp drive,” “ancient astronauts,” conspiracy theories, etc. No doubt your industry has similar or related hoaxes.

How Does the Site Communicate?

Appearances, however, can be deceiving. A bogus website can look “official” or professional and still be full of absolute poppycock. Some linguistics tics I’ve noted on crank websites include:

  • Extraordinary claims without evidence.
  • Claims that their ideas or results are “unprecedented,” “controversial,” “miraculous,” “transformative,” or “life changing.”
  • Claims that the author’s research has been “suppressed” by the mainstream of the profession, the government, or some other powerful cabal of powers.
  • Claims of “secret insight” without proof.
  • Claiming “professional” or “scientific” backing of the ideas without citing the names of the individuals, organizations (companies, universities, laboratories, etc.), or publications.
  • Accusations of jealousy, corruption, or other ulterior motives against anyone (reputable or otherwise) who denies the author’s claims.
  • No connections/links to or grounding in mainstream research.
  • Anonymous posting out of fear of retribution from the aforementioned powerful organizations.

In short, does something seem “too good to be true” without evidence or a willingness to be open about who is doing the work and where? Odds are, it is.

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About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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1 Response to How to Recognize Cranks in Your Research

  1. That sounds like my email box.

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