Peter Woit reports on the sympathy that well-known physicist Freeman Dyson has with crackpot theorists. The interesting part is that Dyson has positive feelings for these cranks, even while believing that their theories are completely wrong:
In my [Dyson's] career as a scientist, I twice had the good fortune to be a personal friend of a famous dissident. One dissident, Sir Arthur Eddington, was an insider like Thomson and Tait. The other, Immanuel Velikovsky, was an outsider like Carter. Both of them were tragic figures, intellectually brilliant and morally courageous, with the same fatal flaw as Carter. Both of them were possessed by fantasies that people with ordinary common sense could recognize as nonsense. I made it clear to both that I did not believe their fantasies, but I admired them as human beings and as imaginative artists. I admired them most of all for their stubborn refusal to remain silent. With the whole world against them, they remained true to their beliefs. I could not pretend to agree with them, but I could give them my moral support.
Dyson first writs about Eddington. I agree with Peter Woit that “this sympathy for a great physicist who headed down a wrong path in his later years is easy to understand, but the case of Velikovsky is less so. Velikovsky was a well-known author of crackpot best-sellers starting in the 1950s . . . and a neighbor of Dyson’s in Princeton.”
Woit quotes what Dyson “wrote as a proposed blurb for Velikovsky in 1977″:
First, as a scientist, I [Dyson] disagree profoundly with many of the statements in your books. Second, as your friend, I disagree even more profoundly with those scientists who have tried to silence your voice. To me, you are no reincarnation of Copernicus or Galileo. You are a prophet in the tradition of William Blake, a man reviled and ridiculed by his contemporaries but now recognized as one of the greatest of English poets. A hundred and seventy years ago, Blake wrote: “The Enquiry in England is not whether a Man has Talents and Genius, but whether he is Passive and Polite and a Virtuous Ass and obedient to Noblemen’s Opinions in Art and Science. If he is, he is a Good Man. If not, he must be starved.” So you stand in good company. Blake, a buffoon to his enemies and an embarrassment to his friends, saw Earth and Heaven more clearly than any of them. Your poetic visions are as large as his and as deeply rooted in human experience. I am proud to be numbered among your friends.
Now back in 2012, Dyson writes:
Science is a creative interaction of observation with imagination. “Physics at the Fringe” is what happens when imagination loses touch with observation. Imagination by itself can still enlarge our vision when observation fails. The mythologies of Carter and Velikovsky fail to be science, but they are works of art and high imagining. As William Blake told us long ago, “You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.”
I’m with Woit (I think) here. I don’t see the appeal of bad science. I don’t think such voices should be silenced (as Dyson puts it), but it’s probably a good thing to keep these theories off the nonfiction shelves. I see the appeal of poetry and literature and philosophy and all sorts of things that aren’t science, and I recognize that poets, philosophers, etc., can motivate themselves by all sorts of wacked-out theories. Look at Philip K. Dick. His visions are part of who he was, and I wouldn’t trade Valis for anything, but without the art the visions aren’t so exciting. My impression is that the problem with crackpot scientific theories is not that they are not beautiful but that they lead to no scientific progress or understanding. To put it another way: as a poet, Velikovsky does not have much to offer. It is only if his theories point toward scientific understanding that they have value. In contrast, Blake was an artists whose visions are appealing without any necessity for them to correspond to scientific reality.
To me, a good analogy would be with the fascinating “outsider art” done by schizophrenics, where an entire canvas is covered with tiny scribbles relating to the nature of the universe. These artworks can be just amazing and I don’t think anyone should try to silence their voices. But I don’t think it does anybody any favors to call this science.
I think my view is shared by most scientists. Dyson gets some attention here partly from his eminence and partly because of his contrary views. That’s fine—he’s done enough good work that he’s earned the right to have his ideas broadcast—but it all seems a bit odd to me. Whatever people think of William Blake’s scientific ideas now, he is admired as a poet and artist. Velikovsky is more of a historical footnote in the annals of past bestsellers, a pop-culture artifact who belongs with the Chariots of the Gods guy, the Jupiter Effect guy, the Bible Code guy, the people who made the Search for Noah’s Ark movie, etc etc. I don’t think anyone will be reading his books for the pleasure of his prose.