I wrote this for a science forum a while back. I am reposting it here because with the recent additions of woo to the forum, people might be interested in my take on how to quickly determine if you're reading nonsense or not. Warning - it's long, since it was the result of a collaboration and other contributors added some material as well.
Top Signs you are Reading Woo
Cranks often enjoy posting on science forums. Once they feel the thrill of making up some pseudoscientific woo, telling it to a friend and having the friend think they are clever - they come on line, find a science forum and post away, hoping for kudos and compliments on their imagination and intelligence. We see them here all the time.
But how can you tell a true crank from someone who is just confused, or someone who has a reasonable idea that is just not developed? How can you tell plain old errors from woo? Below is a guide to help with that decision. It lists several characteristics of cranks. If you see one of these characteristics, be wary. If you see several, well - either ignore the fellow or have some fun with him.
1) The Einstein gambit. This gambit is perhaps the most popular attempt that cranks use to justify their woo. "Sure, they're laughing at me, but they laughed at Einstein too, you know!" By equating his situation to that of Einstein, the crank hopes to make it seem that his intelligence is akin to Einstein's - thus granting more validity to his woo.
2) The sheeple claim. Once a crank uses the word "sheeple" for the first time - to distinguish his own brilliance from the dull conformity of all the other "sheep" on a given forum - you know he's all woo. Use of this word is nearly inevitable for some types of cranks, especially 9/11 truthers and UFO believers.
3) The mathematical obfuscation. Often, cranks attempt to "prove their point" by throwing a bunch of math on the forum. This can be done several ways. Most commonly it's just unrelated math - constants with improbably large numbers of significant digits is a good clue here. More clever cranks will often use unrelated but accurate math to support their woo. For example, someone claiming zero point energy might post a few derivations of Maxwell's Equations to attempt to prove his point, then claim "if I'm wrong, show me where the math error is!" Support for tools like LaTex increases the odds he will try this, by making it easier to post equations.
4) Webster Rescue. Often when a crank is losing an argument he will resort to redefining words to try to ameliorate a previous error. For example: "The results you have presented show greater than 100% efficiency, which is thermodynamically impossible." "Well, really, what's the definition of efficiency? Can't it mean that . . . " He will then search out various online dictionaries until he finds a definition that is at least not entirely clear, at which point he will claim that that's the definition that is in common use.
5) The retcon. In comic books and science fiction, the "retroactive continuity" trick is often used to clear up previous continuity problems.. It is in effect saying "what REALLY happened is . . . ." Perhaps the most famous retcon is in episode V of Star Wars, where Obi-Wan tells Luke "well, yes, I told you your father was dead, but in fact turns out he's Darth Vader due to this complex explanation." On-line, people often use this angle to claim "Yes, I may have said this, but what I really meant was . . ." For example, a 9/11 conspiracy theorist might claim that no steel building has ever collapsed due to fire. When examples are presented, he might change his story to "what I REALLY meant was that no TALL steel building has ever collapsed; that was obvious from my post."
6) The secret government conspiracy. Sometimes when a crank is challenged, and he feels he is unable to defend his point further, he will pull out the government conspiracy. He WOULD have more proof for his claim, you see, but the government is trying to suppress the information because blah blah blah. In general you will get no more useful information after this point, since if you try, he will accuse YOU of being part of the conspiracy.
7) Occam's Glue. In general, Occam's Razor describes the general rule that the simplest explanation that explains something is usually the correct one. Cranks use a version of that I call Occam's Glue - if something CAN be the explanation, it must be the explanation, even if simpler explanations suffice. UFO believers use this one a lot. "Yes, it could have been aircraft lights, or a meteor, or a planet, or low clouds - but how can all those explanations always be true? Some MUST be space aliens."
8) Woo prejudice. Oddly, most cranks will reject other people's woo quite strongly even when it is closely related. "There's no possible way those objects could be space aliens. They were clearly angels." This, while common, unfortunately does not help distinguish a crank from anyone else, since most people reject woo once it's clear that that's what it is.
9) Magical thinking. If part of someone's proof for their woo is the list of wondrous boons that this technology will grant mankind, the odds are high that he or she is engaging in magical thinking - the belief that a fervent desire for something will make it valid. Cold fusion believers, for example, often will list all the beneficial changes in society that cold fusion will bring about - and therefore declare that it is a real power source.
10) The Googleblast. Some cranks, facing skepticism, will make a somewhat late attempt to justify woo by searching the Internet for support. They cannot, of course, do any serious research, since that would tend to disprove their woo. However since anything is available on the Internet, they can always find something to at least marginally support them. Their cycle goes like this: Read (forum) Search (google) Pick (something that says something close to what they are claiming) Post (link to related information.) This read-search-pick-post cycle can go on for dozens of posts. They feel that by posting enough marginally related links they have found independent proof of their claim.
11) Cyberturfing. This is related to the point above. In politics the term "astroturfing" is used to describe the false "grass-roots" support that politicians can fabricate. By funding political media efforts and making it look like the support is coming from many independent voters, they can claim much wider support than they otherwise could. Likewise, cyberturfing attempts to generate so many emails, websites, links, studies and articles that the crank can point to the mass of material and say "see? EVERYONE agrees!" They will often use tactics like submitting papers to vanity journals so they can claim their woo is "peer reviewed." 9/11 truthers are especially good at this.
12) The Patriotism Ploy. Often a crank will attempt to confabulate his woo with some other laudable ideal like patriotism, family values, freedom, prosperity etc. Thus, rather than arguing the validity of his woo, he can argue the desirability of prosperity - which is a much easier argument to make. For example, a climate change denier might say "you can't believe in climate change! If you do it will bankrupt the US and make Al Gore rich. Do you really want that?"
13) Quote-mining. Often cranks will search out quotes from well-respected people to support their position (the classic "appeal to authority") - and often will not be able to find the support they want. However, a carefully extracted quote might make it appear that they have such authoritative support. The most popular is a quote from Charles Darwin, ofen used by creationists: "To suppose that the eye . . .could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree." The next lines then go on to explain how it is NOT absurd, but since cranks often gather most of their information via the above-mentioned read-search-pick-post method, they will generally miss that.
14) Prove Me Wrong. Cranks who propose an unusual theory (say, that UFO's are space aliens) will often not listen to alternative explanations that better explain the data. Instead they will propose their woo and ask "can you prove that that's NOT what's happening? Can you prove that that sighting was just a weather balloon?" This lets them sit back and wait for someone to provide an impossible level of proof for the more-reasonable explanation.
15) As seen on TV! Links to Youtube videos are one of the hallmarks of cranks. Whether this is due to cranks getting most of their information from videos, or whether it is due to the fondness of conspiracy theorists for Youtube, masses of Youtube links are one of the most common signs of the crank.
16) The argument from incredulity (i.e. "if I can't understand it, it is incorrect - and thus the explanation that I DO understand must be the correct one") is very common among cranks. Since they invariably have a very high impression of their own intelligence, any theory/explanation/process they do not understand must be incorrect.
And last but not least:
17) The Grand Trampling Exit. Often cranks, once they have realized that they are not going to get kudos and attaboys for their unconventional thinking, will make a "final post" that is usually along the lines of "you're all a bunch of idiots! I'm going to leave this once and for all, and deny you all the pleasure of my company. Instead I am going to post on a board where intelligent people have open minds!"
Reading the Grand Trampling Exit, readers of the forum might be tempted to breathe a sigh of relief as the signal to noise ratio improves. However this relief is often short-lived. Cranks love attention, and thus more often than not they come back sometime later, often with a statement along the lines of "well, I just had to say one more . . ." or "I realized you wanted me to leave, so I'm going to stick around to get back at you!"