Bethell Questions Einstein, Not Kidding

By Chris Mooney | November 9, 2009 9:43 am

A little bird sends me this….just WOW. The conservative science pundit Tom Bethell, author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, now has a new title out called…drum roll…Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary?

There are so many things you could say about this…so many quips you could make…but I’ll restrain myself to the following observation.

If relativity is ever to be overturned, I’m pretty confident it isn’t going to happen in a journalistic book.

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Comments (32)

  1. Wait, he’s making an argument for the existence of *ether*?

  2. Sorbet

    Seems headed straight for the dustbin of history wherein lie the Piltdown Man and Velikovsky’s “Worlds in Collison”.

  3. Erasmussimo

    I can’t figure out how relativity is a liberal theory. Conservatives don’t challenge science unless it has implications that run counter to their political agenda. Perhaps this is merely an extension of conservative anti-intellectualism.

  4. toasterhead

    The east-west, west-east speed differential is now quite well established. It is the same distance either way, so the time should be the same, too, if light speed is a constant. But when atomic clocks were flown around the world in opposite directions, “the clock that flew toward the east had recorded slightly less time,” Stephen Hawking wrote in The Universe in a Nutshell. I devote a chapter to the experiment demonstrating this. The time differences are small enough that atomic clocks are needed to detect them.

    But… it’s not the same distance either way. Does this guy not realize that the Earth rotates?

    The plane going toward the east is moving with the rotation of the Earth. The plane going toward the west is moving against it. That’s a difference, at the equator, of over 1000 miles per hour. That’s why we launch rockets to the east instead of the west. The only way one could not take this into account is if he/she thought the Earth was stationary, and–

    Oh, dear. I always knew Republicans were anti-science, but I didn’t think they’d gone so far as to abandon heliocentrism.

  5. toasterhead

    3. Erasmussimo Says:
    November 9th, 2009 at 11:35 am
    I can’t figure out how relativity is a liberal theory. Conservatives don’t challenge science unless it has implications that run counter to their political agenda. Perhaps this is merely an extension of conservative anti-intellectualism.

    __________

    It could be part of the young-Earth creationist campaign. One problem they’ll always have is the fact that their 6,000-year-old universe contains a whole lot of stuff that’s more than 6,000 light years away. But if they can “prove” that light doesn’t have a constant speed, then they can explain away all those 13-billion-year-old galaxies with the idea that the light just got held up in the aether and merely “looks old.”

  6. Bruce

    Dang! I just bought a new GPS receiver, and GPS precision depends on relativity. If my GPS stops working, I want my money back from this guy!

  7. Enzo

    he says that there haven’t been any experiments showing time dilation or contraction, what about muons?

  8. Anthony McCarthy

    A Rule of Life: Chances are that anything with the words “politically incorrect” in the title is stupid.

  9. Maybe we all need to pay attention to the Oct. 2 OpEd that Neal Gabler wrote for the LA Times I quote:

    “Perhaps the single most profound change in our political culture over the last 30 years has been the transformation of conservatism from a political movement, with all the limitations, hedges adn forbearances of politics, into a kind of fundamentalist religious movement, with the absolute certainty of religious belief.”

    I used to think that Chris’s focus on religion, the atheism vs accomodation question, was preventing us from dealing with real world problems like climate change. Maybe Chris is right and I was wrong, but you have to consider that not all religous behavior requires positing the existence of a God.

    It is never simple and getting less so.

  10. Vindrisi

    I don’t know about Bethell, but Conservapedia’s Andrew Schlafly also has an irrational hatred and disdain for relativity and Einstein (if you haven’t you really need to go look at their relativity article and the associated talk page). With Schlafly, the key problem for him is that he seems to think that ideas of moral relativism are based on the theory of relativity. As he hates moral relativism as a liberal cancer on society, then the theory of relativity must similarly be a liberal cancer on physics (much like evolution in biology) that is only supported by fraudulent data, and is thus to be attacked. There is also some aspect motivated by a conviction that Newton was correct in all things, and that, as relativity violates certain aspects of the Newtonian system, then relativity must be wrong (I don’t really understand this part, and I suspect that it will disappear if Schlafly ever finds out that Newton held a Unitarian theology, and was thus not orthodox in his Christianity). I wouldn’t be surprising if Bethell’s “thinking” is similar.

  11. Erasmussimo

    Interesting notion, Vindrisi. If some conservatives dislike special relativity because it sounds like moral relativism, what must they think of the second law of thermodynamics and Maxwell’s Demon?

  12. Sean McCorkle

    Vindrisi @10: Yeah, this also makes me think about the Relativity denialism when conservapedia was revving up. As contributors started piling up experimental evidence to contradict the initial outrageous claims of Special and General Relativity being wrong and/or unproven, the thrust then seemed to shift towards trying to credit Lorentz and Poincare for the big ideas, rather than Einstein. That made me suspect that anti-semitism was one of the driving motivators. However, its been pointed out that Schlafly is even opposed to complex numbers, so maybe the pathology is too complicated for such a simple analysis.

  13. Chris Mooney

    You folks are making me seriously wonder whether relativity denialism is something more serious than an amusing example of extreme fringe thinking. Especially if it is non-trivially present in modern conservatism, it may require more poking around…

  14. Sorbet

    Wasn’t there also something about quantum mechanics being incompatible with Soviet communism?

  15. Vindrisi

    You might be thinking about Mendelian genetics, which was rejected by Soviet science under Trofim Lysenko on ideological grounds as fascist and bourgeois in favor of a sort of neo-Lamarkian concept of inheritance of acquired characteristics deemed more in line with party orthodoxy of the time. After he became the head of Soviet agriculture, Lysenko was able to get Stalin to execute dozens of geneticists as counter-revolutionaries. Lysenko eventually fell from power after Stalin’s death, but his influence set Soviet genetics and agricultural breeding research back decades. I haven’t heard of any objections to quantum mechanics, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there weren’t a similar story there, too.

  16. Jon

    It gets to the point where the book’s arguments themselves are not that interesting. The interesting thing is the publishing phenomenon. Who is buying books like this? (And if it’s not many people, why do they keep getting published?)

    Schlafly seems like an interesting case: home schooled and the son of a conservative icon. Kind of a echo-chamberish upbringing, no? (He’s not alone in being the son of prominent conservatives and finding a home in the movement.) In this kind of situation, if you think the “liberal establishment” (Buckley’s term) isn’t worth consulting, you can come up with all sorts of harebrained ideas and really not have an idea of how wrong they are. (And if you’re really a true believer, when attacked you can claim victimhood in the service of the culture wars…)

  17. bad Jim

    An astronomer in Arthur Koestler’s “A Darkness At Noon” was compelled to switch between supporting a static and an expanding universe depending on the Soviet Union’s foreign policy of the moment.

    Some of the Nazis viewed relativity and quantum mechanics as suspect due to their “Jewish” origins. Wikipedia has details. Perhaps someone could let Bethell know about Philipp Lenard.

  18. Sean McCorkle

    Chris,

    There might be some widespread correlation with conservatism, but I’m not so sure how malevolent it is. I have personal experience with folks who claim, as it appears some are doing in the comments on the Bethell piece, that the speed of light was faster in the past, allowing us to see objects millions of light years away in a 6000 year old universe. I’ve always chalked that up as creationists trying to wrestle with astronomical evidence.

    Also, physics crackpots have been around as long as I know. I think relativity (and also quantum physics) tend to trigger some disbelief because of elements that seem very counter-intuitive even while they simultaneously attract interest in their exotic nature. I remember being enthralled with the Life Science Library book “Time” when I was in high school – the images of Lorentz contraction, time dilation, and the twin paradox were mesmerizing. But on the other hand, a limiting velocity was incredibly annoying. I don’t want to say how many hours my friends and I spent trying to cook up crazy ways to exceed the speed of light. Fortunately, we had a good teacher who could patiently point out the flaws in our reasoning each time. I suspect there were many other kids who weren’t so lucky that way.

    On the other hand, conservapedia is particularly malodorous, because they’re taking a beautiful,
    but tricky subject thats dear to my heart, and propagating their own stupidity and ignorance, rather than trying to clarify things for folks.

  19. Sorbet

    The subversion of biology is well known but I think Soviet chemistry and physics also ran into trouble with the elucidation of resonance structures in molecules like benzene. I remember reading something about the physicist Leon Rosenfeld.

  20. toasterhead

    13. Chris Mooney Says:
    November 9th, 2009 at 6:22 pm

    You folks are making me seriously wonder whether relativity denialism is something more serious than an amusing example of extreme fringe thinking.
    ___________

    What, like a deliberate effort to undermine public confidence in all areas of science, including basic and highly accepted theories like special relativity, in order to make it easier to cast doubt on evolution and climate science and other areas that are politically inconvenient for the religious-industrial complex?

  21. Vindrisi

    Sorbet,

    They had ideological issues with resonance structures? Now that is weird (to say the least).

  22. Marion Delgado

    All the “Politically Incorrect” guides, without exception, have been a trifecta of Teabaggerism, market psychosis, and Christianism. It’s as if the guy read “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” and decided it sounded better than MPLA style as a guide to writing his attacks on “liberal” science.

  23. Brian Too

    No, I disagree with the thinking here on where the attack on relativity comes from. It’s much simpler than that.

    To a certain kind of conservative, religion is Good and science is Bad. Science is the enemy. Now who is revered among the science community? Science doesn’t have a Pope but it has leading figures, people who transcend the science and the scientific world. People that almost anyone would know, even citizens who had no interest in science or who actively disliked the field.

    That brings us to Einstein. Undermine him, take out his highest achievement, and you strike a righteous blow for the conservative side. See how this goes? Pick off the leader, or at least one of the leaders, and the enemy is deeply wounded.

    It’s a more sophisticated version of something I saw as a child. I had a very good friend and his entire family was profoundly religious. His father did the whole missionary thing. Anyhow one day my friend’s brother brings a comic book (a comic book!) to school and it’s an anti-scientific diatribe. It claimed that an archeological dig found a tooth, from which an archeologist extrapolated an entire ancient hominid. Except that the tooth turned out to be from a pig that died last Thursday (or whatever).

    Anyhow this child, naive as he was, genuinely thought that he had proof that would undermine my whole belief structure in science. Didn’t go well for him as it turned out.

    So to recap: Destroy the Great Man’s reputation and maybe all those scientists will abandon their Godless ways and see the light. At long last.

  24. Sean McCorkle

    pretty interesting, Brian. Darwin is also a target – for the same reasons maybe?

  25. Hank Roberts

    > Darwin is also a target – for the same reasons maybe?

    Yup. They see the world in terms of a Great Founder and a Foundation on which all else rests; knowlege is a monolith, a giant structure built up on a single solid base.

    They think any kind of science must be Founded on an Original Belief, because, well, everything has to be because That’s The Way The World Works.

    Regrettably for them, science starts from “Hm, that’s funny” and often goes through a range of early notions that can be wildly wrong, and if nobody finds anything interesting after a while, the early work quits being cited.

    If people find interesting things to follow up, the early work keeps being cited. It may be cited not because it was “the foundation,” or even right, but because it started people poking at something funny to try to understand it.

    I don’t know of any religions that grew on that basis. Anyone?

    Science is a different way of thinking — not “do I trust the Founder?” but “what can I find out about this stuff if I poke at it?”

    But if they understood that they wouldn’t be attacking Darwin, would they?
    They’d be going to college and learning about the field, not the founder.

  26. Sean McCorkle

    I don’t know of any religions that grew on that basis. Anyone?

    I’m not an expert, but I think there’s a lot of experiential/experimental aspects in
    branches of Buddhism which stress meditation. That doesn’t change your point though.

    Science is a different way of thinking — not “do I trust the Founder?” but “what can I find out about this stuff if I poke at it?”

    I really like this – not only does it contrast the two systems of thought, but it also points out something which I think is at the core of the whole issue of science illiteracy problem: lack of trust. I’ve known that trust is an issue on a personal level and a group level when trying to convince someone, but you’re saying that its even an issue with the author of the idea, who may be dead! brilliant! Maybe its not the idea so much, its who came up with it that they find suspicious. Or maybe that if they are having trouble understanding accepting an idea with which they can’t argue, they instead “lock in” on the person at the source.

    This statement is also a succinct description of what I think of as the Enlightenment experience – Galileo rejecting what has been taught by the authority and going out and dropping two different weights to see if the heavier one really does fall faster.

    The goal is to this across to folks somehow, that its not really an issue of trust, its about going out and testing things. A good way is to get them to try things themselves, to get used to the methodology. That’s what should be happening in science classes in public education, but by and far isn’t. Also, trying to sell folks on physics which they can demonstrate for themselves is easier than more exotic subjects like relativity and quantum physics, that describe realms of nature that are far-removed from everyday life of most people.

    I think earning trust is going to be the key if we want to combat science illiteracy.

  27. Sean McCorkle

    PS I know that sounds contradictory – “trust me – you don’t need to trust me, or anyone for that matter!”

  28. Brian Too

    @Sean,

    You’re absolutely correct, they attack Darwin, and to a lesser extent people like Newton, Galileo, and so on. I thought of raising those examples but they weren’t needed for my point and the OP was about Relativity.

    One thing I very nearly mentioned was my thesis that recent leading scientists would get more attacks than those from long ago. I suppose more recent figures like Einstein have a higher public profile and their ideas seem more threatening. Although Darwin seemed to really get the creationists goat in particular with the idea that mankind descended from apes. I suppose it’s offensive from the creationist viewpoint if you consider that they believe man was created in God’s image, so where do apes figure in?

    Intelligent Design is an intellectual fig leaf, and was proven so in a Pennsylvania court of law in 2005. The Plaintiffs eventually found drafts of the offending textbook. References to “creation” and “God” were systematically replaced with “design” and “intelligent designer”. The work was sloppy and introduced grammatical errors that could be used to deduce exactly how the changes were made. One could say that the evolution of the book’s text was made plain, and was not irreduceably complex (couldn’t resist!).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kitzmiller_v._Dover_Area_School_District

    ID is creationism in a better suit of clothes. The purpose is to bypass laws concerning the separation of Church and State.

  29. Irony-lover

    http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/jamesdelingpole/100018556/climategate-its-all-unravelling-now/

    “Tom Bethell is a fool for challenging mainstream science,” say the fools who believed in Global Warming.

    Welcome to December 2009!

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs.For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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