Underwood Dudley published a book called mathematical cranks that talks about faux proofs throughout history. While it seems to be mostly for entertainment than anything else, I feel it has become more relevant in modern mathematics. Especially with the advent of arXiv, you can obtain research papers before they are peer reviewed by a journal. So how does one tell between a crank proof and a genuine proof? This seems to be tough to discern in general.

For instance Perelman's proof was not submitted to any journal but published online. How did professional mathematicians discern that it was a genuine proof?

So how does one spot a crank proof? It seems that John Baez once (humorously) proposed a "crackpot checklist". Would this seem like a fair criterion?

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    $\begingroup$ My personal opinion is that this question is a bit on the off-topic side. But I don't feel strongly enough about it (so even were I not a moderator I would not have bothered to vote to close it). But that's just my personal opinion. $\endgroup$ Jun 12, 2012 at 10:20
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    $\begingroup$ Ten Signs a Claimed Mathematical Breakthrough is Wrong $\endgroup$
    – sdcvvc
    Jun 12, 2012 at 10:32
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    $\begingroup$ @Eugene: but de Branges had a hard time getting his proof of Bieberbach taken seriously in part because he had made claims of some false proofs earlier in his career. And it certainly didn't help his case when parts of his approach to GRH require a complete revision due to counterexamples found by Peter Sarnak and also by a former student. $\endgroup$ Jun 12, 2012 at 11:46
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    $\begingroup$ @Eugene: reputation is not a sufficient criterion. But a claim coming from well-respected professor X with lots of experience and previously checked paper in subject Y will turn more heads than the same claim coming from someone with no (or god forbid, poor) reputation and fails to follow some scientific publishing norms in the presentation of the paper (use of LaTeX, proper and numerous citations, an introduction section appropriate to the intended audience, that kind of thing). It may be unfortunate that we use context clues, but men are social animals and we only have so much time to read. $\endgroup$ Jun 12, 2012 at 11:59
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    $\begingroup$ @Eugene: which point? (Sorry, I really don't get it.) We have a rumour that someone may have proven a long-standing conjecture, with no official announcement by that someone yet (not on his website) nor any known circulated pre-prints. As far as I can see, there's no proof, crank or otherwise, to be spotted. $\endgroup$ Jun 13, 2012 at 7:23

3 Answers 3


This really should be a comment: but it is a bit long and perhaps important enough (since it addresses a common misconception) so I will post it as a community wiki. I want to address the mention of Perelman's proof in the original post.

Firstly, one should be aware that Perelman, despite his current somewhat indistinct status, is and was a professional mathematician. He has a pretty impeccable academic pedigree from Soviet Union, and has worked in research positions in major North American universities in the 1980s and 1990s. Furthermore, the geometrization conjecture is not his only contribution to the field: in 1994 he was already quite renowned for having proven the Cheeger-Gromoll Soul Conjecture which stood open for 20 years, and he was also known for his work in comparison theorems in Riemannian geometry. So not only was he a known variable to the other professional mathematicians on a sociological level (having worked both in the east and in the west [using the cold-war era splitting]), he was a well-known variable in the sense that he has already demonstrated extreme technical proficiency. (Note, his proof of the soul conjecture was published in traditional manner in the prestigious Journal of Differential Geometry.)

In short: Perelman is not just some nobody who makes an astonishing claim.

Secondly, it was not clear from the get-go that Perelman did not intend to publish his proof in traditional media. Furthermore, he actually did not ostensibly claim a proof of the geometrization conjecture (emphasis mine):

... We also verify several assertions related to Richard Hamilton's program for the proof of Thurston geometrization conjecture for closed three-manifolds, and give a sketch of an eclectic proof of this conjecture, making use of earlier results on collapsing with local lower curvature bound.

(Note that the above e-print was followed by this and this.) Furthermore, one should factor in the fact that for the prestigious Annals of Mathematics (where results of this nature would usually be submitted to), the average time from submission to acceptance is 19 months, with the average time from submission to print being 3 years. Many of the groundbreaking results in mathematics would've been read, torn apart, verified, understood, and possibly even improved upon before the paper copy actually hit the shelves (in this case it took a little bit longer, the full verification was completed by several groups working independently by 2006; this is partly due to one particular theorem in Perelman's papers that was only accompanied by a particularly sketchy proof). That is to say, whether a paper is important is usually not judged by the fact that it appeared first as a pre-print on arXiv.

Lastly, a very important point that is often glossed over in the popular account of such stories (not just that of Grisha Perelman but also that of Andrew Wiles) is that despite the solitary working styles of the main protagonists, they do not conjure their solution out of thin air entirely by themselves. In particular, based on already known works there already exist compelling evidence that the pursued line of attack has some chance of working. In the case of Wiles, he did not prove the FLT per se: instead he proved the modularity theorem for semistable elliptic curves. Following a strategy described by Gerhard Frey in 1984, two ingredients were needed to settle Fermat's Last Theorem. The first ingredient was concretely identified by JP Serre and was called the epsilon conjecture (now Ribet's Theorem) and was demonstrated to be true by Ken Ribet in 1986. The second ingredient is what is now called the modularity theorem, which was conjectured in the 50s and 60s as a general statement about elliptic curves (only some special cases of the general statement is needed for FLT) before its close connection with Fermat's Last Theorem was recognized. So in Wiles's case, the approach is already previously well justified, and that the technical ingredient ought to be true is already expected/hoped-for based on other previous works in algebraic number theory.

The setting for Perelman's work is not all that different. That Poincare conjecture is a subcase of Thurston's geometrization conjecture is well-known (and trivial). That geometrization holds in certain special cases (hyperbolization for Haken manifolds) was proven by Thurston. And as mentioned in the quoted abstract above, Richard Hamilton developed the Ricci flow at least in part due to his interest in the geometrization conjecture, and has established a program and identified the main technical ingredient needed (a good procedure for Ricci-flow with surgery) to use the Ricci flow machinery to prove geometrization. So at the level of the "large picture" the approach seems reasonable. Furthermore, the main insight, the "entropy formula", gives a nice and tangible description of the mechanism which drives the proof. While the details still needs to be checked, it is something that looks believable, especially given some of the justifications derived from theoretical physics.


In addition to Willie's answer/comment:

About a year ago, last June, a paper by Gerhard Opfer got a bit of attention for claiming to solve the Collatz Conjecture (it didn't). It was submitted to Mathematics of Computation, which may have given it the seeming credibility that propelled it into the spotlight (this is always a mystery - I don't know what made the recent kid-who-sort-of-solved-an-old-Newton-problem thing such a firestorm either). It even got to a question here.

This prompted me to write a short blog post about the Collatz Conjecture, Opfer's paper, and as a soft-answer to this soft-question, a bit about cranks and crank papers. (Ironically, writing that blog post somehow threw the spotlight on me as a destination for crank papers, and I've received a great many since.)

I think a large part of this aspect of the post can be summed up in two links: The Alternative-Science Respectability Checklist and Ten Signs a Claimed Mathematical Breakthrough is Wrong.

But I also happened across some articles from the writer-physicist or physicist-writer Jeremy Bernstein (much of whose work is published in periodicals like the New Yorker). He wrote an article called How can we be sure that Einstein was not a crank? (this is a link to a book containing the article), and he discusses two criteria for determining whether a new physics paper is from a crank or not.

The criteria don't quite port over to math so well, but there is an idea behind them that's true, just as the ideas behind the very humourous Ten Signs a Claimed Mathematical Breakthrough is Wrong are accurate in many ways. If I were to summarize some of his key points, I would say that Bernstein looks at 'correspondence' and 'predictiveness.' In the physics sense, 'correspondence' means that the result should explain why previous theories were wrong, and how the proposed idea agrees with experimental evidence. 'Predictiveness' is just what it says: a physics breakthrough should be able to predict some phenomena. If I were to cast these in a mathematical nature, I suppose 'correspondence' would say that the math shouldn't contradict things we already know (now we can solve all quintics with radicals, for example). But if the result is a big, old one, like Collatz or the Millenium problems, I should think that one needs to introduce something new so that there is some explanation of why it hadn't been done before. Predictiveness really doesn't port so well. I suppose that the strength of a mathematical result is sometimes measured in how much 'new math' it creates, and this is a sort of predictiveness... it's not a great match.

But I'd like to end by noting that sometimes, especially in math, simple arguments for nonsimple results (whatever that really means) exist. One of my favorite examples is the paper PRIMES is in P!, the paper detailing the AKS algorithm for quickly determining whether a given number is prime. The arguments are entirely elementary, despite how big the result it. And, funny enough, there is capitalization and excitement, indicators on some of the crank-checklists. Yet the result is valid.

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    $\begingroup$ This is an old post, but I have to say, capitalization in "PRIMES is in P!" is not a sign of crank, since name of complexity classes are capitalized by convention. $\endgroup$
    – 4ae1e1
    Nov 15, 2013 at 2:59
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    $\begingroup$ From reading the article, correspondence isn't quite "why previous theories were wrong." It's actually more of "why previous theories were so right, that is, why they agreed so well with previous experimental evidence" -- the example given is that relativistic effects are only seen at incredibly high precision or incredibly high velocity, which is why classical theories worked for experiments done before. $\endgroup$
    – cpast
    May 7, 2015 at 5:03
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    $\begingroup$ What impossibility result does Opfer's paper conflict with? $\endgroup$ Mar 24, 2018 at 10:35
  • $\begingroup$ The Alternative-Science Respectability Checklist link is broken $\endgroup$ Dec 13, 2022 at 12:53

I like to believe I was a legitimate 100% Organic GMO-Free Crank back in high school. I was running around doing things like solving the twin prime conjecture and trying to find a way to solve factoring in polynomial time.

These days i'm not.

So I think I am well suited to answer this. I think the quickest way to differentiate a crank from an actual researcher is just simply competence. They give you a paper, you start reading the paper, and don't try to use any hints or razors, just read that thing line by line until you run into the first sentence that doesn't make sense.

You email back the researcher, and they should be able to elucidate and make that obvious so you can proceed.

When you email back the crank, they will not succeed in making it obvious.

There you go, that is it. That's your crank test. Cranks are dangerous because not all of them believe in conspiracy theories or are angry or make you sign an NDA before your read their paper etc... Some cranks can really slip through the cracks but (assuming you are competent) that test above is really bullet proof.

Unfortunately, none of us can accurately judge our competence and in that case only god can save us because you might think something made sense when really it didn't and the crank thinks that you-thinking-it-made-sense validates their work leading to more crankery that goes undetected.

The only solution to that is going to be computer verified proofs. But we still have a while to go until it is easy to make them as it is to say program in python, and moreover the habit of verifying-proofs-via-computer-as-precursor-to-publishing should have infected the mainstream as widespread as say the pandemic of LaTeX.

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    $\begingroup$ I suppose if you claim to have a way to factor numbers in polynomial time, a simple thing someone can do is send you a number to factor $\endgroup$ Aug 7, 2022 at 4:48
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    $\begingroup$ yea i've had a number of evenings as a kid where something looked like it was scaling and then you throw an actual RSA number at it and watch it fail. Those initial heartbreaks always were tough. $\endgroup$ Aug 7, 2022 at 4:50
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    $\begingroup$ @AkivaWeinberger not necessarily. I could have a way to factor in constant time, but if the constant was large enough I couldn’t actually use it for anything practical. Even without a large constant in front, an $O(n^{1000})$ algorithm is likely practically useless. People conflate polynomial-time with practical, and while there is significant overlap, they are not the same. $\endgroup$
    – Aaron
    Aug 7, 2022 at 5:45

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