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The CrackPot Detector


The CrackPot Detector

Brett Holverstott

I am a first time author of a 400 page nonfiction book. (Really it is 450 pages, but the last 50 are citations.) I have thought about the topic for 15 years, and written about it for 6 years. Now it is published, and my readers love it.

Some of them have said that it is a "truly great" book. I interpret that as meaning something more than a slap on the back with "Hey - that's great!" as it is used in casual conversation. Others have said it has the potential to become a science bestseller.

The notable climate change advocate who I recruited to write a forward for the book calls it  "a monumental effort" and one laudatory Amazon reviewer called it "the greatest scientific story ever told" by which I assume he thinks the story is up there with that of, say, Galileo versus the Catholic Church. The same reviewer said that I am "equal parts scientist, philosopher, and wordsmith" or something like that, which tickled my author bone.

I've sold a few hundred copies, and my readers are forcing it on friends and family, rereading it multiple times, and writing 5-star Amazon reviews.

This is all well and good. 

But one is never content with a small, laudatory readership. One wants to blanket the world in print. Sell a million copies. Be interviewed on NPR. Ascend to the nirvana of nerdom. I don't have a lot of resources because I published with a small publisher. So I need to start advocating to those who can give me what every author seriously needs: PRESS.

Now here's the stickler. Suppose someone asks me: "What is your book about? "

I freeze.

I can scarcely utter a word.

Part of this must be what every author feels. What I had to say couldn't be contained in a soundbyte, which is why I wrote a fucking book. So I want to tell people: "Read it, then you will know what it is about."

But part of this is something unique to the topic. I know that if I give someone with a strong scientific background a synopsis of the book, they won't hear it. It will shatter against a cognitive barrier we might call the Crackpot Detector.

The Crackpot Detector is like a light switch that we flip when we hear something that appears to have all the qualities we associate with something that isn't true and or produced by a delusional mind. When we flip the switch, we immediate form an opinion of the subject matter, and assume (without actually looking at the topic) that it is some combination of deep speculation, mystical reasoning, invalid reasoning, wishful thinking, pseudoscience, and so on.

I wrote the book about a topic which is legitimate, but regarding which there is a cloud of misinformation and misperception in the scientific community. Everyone thinks it is junk, because everyone else thinks it is junk. Nobody bothers to learn more because they have already activated the Crackpot Detector. Those 50 pages of citations? A lot of that is references to experimental journal articles published in the scientific literature on this topic, that have important stuff to say, but no one is listening.

I know that what I am about to tell the person will activate the Crackpot Detector, and so I desperately search for a way to introduce the topic that sells it short enough to be believable. But this does a serious disservice, because it makes the book less interesting and less important.I effectively have to lie about how the book is not so great in order to get someone interested in the book. It is as if someone writing about Darwin's theory of evolution sold it as "a curious and enjoyable diary of a zoologist and his observations of animals."

Sometimes I stay awake at night, trying to figure out how to introduce the topic in such a way that it will sneak around the Crackpot Detector.

Let's start by testing yours.

The book is a work of science journalism, exposition, and memoir, following three interwoven threads:

First, it is the story of the discovery of a new theory of nature that revolutionizes our understanding of nearly every facet of modern physics - but which has not yet been accepted or seriously engaged by the scientific community.

Second, it is the story of twenty-five years of research and development that is bringing about a revolutionary new source of clean energy that is almost ready to deploy, with hardly a hiccup of interest by the scientific community or press.

Third, it is a reflection on the nature of science. It explores how the most important discovery of our time was fiercely criticized and ignored by the scientific community, despite the repeated attempts by scientists to spread awareness.

Did I activate your crackpot detector?


Add to this that I am not even a physicist by trade. Nor a science journalist. I am a fucking architect with degrees in architecture and philosophy. Of course, I have several years of undergraduate work in both physics and chemistry at a really good college, and several years of participation in the research that I am writing about. But it really isn't enough to be saying what I am saying. I mean, even if a Nobel Laureate said what I am saying, people would think they were off their rocker.

I mean, I don't believe in ghosts. I don't believe in UFO's, or cold fusion, or spiritual healing, or God, or in 911 conspiracy theories. I don't believe in miracle cancer cures, or perpetual motion, or astrology. I am a rationalist, an atheist, and a firm believer in the value of the scientific method, and the ability of the scientific community to vet new ideas.

And yet, here I am throwing that faith in our enlightened machine into question. And not just on a small thing, but on a really really big thing.

But that is what makes the book so important. I am being Carl Sagan, introducing science to a wide audience, while being Richard Rhodes, telling the story of a scientific discovery, while being Richard Dawkins, in deriving a philosophical understanding of the topic on multiple levels.

That's a lot of hats. Which is why the book is so awesome.

But it also makes my project almost indistinguishable from a free-energy nuthead spouting unsubstantiated ideas.

For now, I am the Crackpot.

The Author