Conservative Dustup Over Relativity Denialism

By Chris Mooney | November 10, 2009 9:46 am

Well this is getting interesting.

Over at the website of the conservative magazine First Things, a physicist named Stephen Barr takes on Tom Bethell for his anti-Einsteinianism–which has been published, let us not forget, by another conservative magazine, The American Spectator (at least online). Barr’s piece is called “Absolutely Clueless about Relativity,” and it includes this:

I will pay Tom Bethel $2,000 out of my own pocket if he takes the following courses at a first rate research university and passes them with a grade of A- or better: Classical Electrodynamics I and II (at the level of either Griffith’s book or Jackson’s book), General Relativity, and any course that covers the Dirac equation and relativistic field theory. If he succeeds in doing that, he will at least know what he is talking about when it comes to relativity. Why is it that so many people think they can talk intelligently about extremely technical subjects without knowing anything about them?

Ouch. Bethell responds in the comments at length, and not exactly happily:

Let me tell you what I think of Mr. Barr — and I mean this literally, not insultingly. I don’t think he knows the FIRST THING about science. And that includes physics.

Ha. Stephen Barr is a professor in the University of Delaware department of physics and astronomy.

Later, Barr adds why this whole business bugs him so much:

The stakes here are that a person who writes regularly for a respected conservative journal is embracing in a very public way utterly crackpot ideas about science. That tends to bring discredit on conservatism. If Bethell weren’t writing for the American Spectator, I wouldn’t care, and neither would anyone else.

Although not a conservative, I understand Barr’s sentiments completely. Now the question is, will any other conservatives who write regularly about science come to the table and back Barr up?


Comments (45)

  1. Sorbet

    Griffith and Jackson are both excellent for electrodynamics, although Jackson is notoriously hard but pays back handsomely if one studies it carefully. I personally had enjoyed Griffith and thought its clarity was exceptional for a beginner.

  2. “Stephen Barr is a professor in the University of Delaware department of physics and astronomy.” And here’s one for those of you who believe faith and science don’t mix … he’s Catholic and also writes for First Things, and has written books on faith and science.

  3. Luke Vogel

    This is pretty interesting stuff. Do you think this will spill over into any kind of evolution denialism, or at least unsupportable claims regarding certain types of “creationism”? It would be nice to see this break out into a full fledged debate on scientific views within the conservative movement.

  4. Luke Vogel


    ~ “And here’s one for those of you who believe faith and science don’t mix..”

    Faith and science *don’t mix*, and I’m sure Barr would tell you that. I think this displays why debates surrounding religion and science get so polarized. The way they “mix” is within the minds of those that hold a religious type faith, when it comes to science the twain do not meet.

  5. toasterhead

    “It may not be easy for Mr. Barr to collect, however, because experiments have already been published showing this east-west light- speed difference. The best known was by Hafele and Keating, published in Science magazine in 1972. I am sure Mr. Barr knows how to look it up. There are other experiments but I won’t bore the readers.”

    So Bethell is trying to use an experiment that confirmed the predicted time-shift of both general and special relativity to claim that it shows a difference in the speed of light?

    This is modern conservatism in a nutshell. If you don’t like the facts as they are, just make up new ones that confirm your preconcieved notions and cast doubt on anyone who tries to correct you. It’s the conservative approach to evolution, climate science, infectious disease, health care reform, economics, and pretty much any other topic. Just unbelievable.

  6. Luke Vogel

    Perhaps the issue brought up by Ian and followed up in my last post could lead to some fruitful discussion. Perhaps only *after* people check in on the actual blogpost so we don’t have two discussions going on.

    In a way we could break the discussion down, referring to those I think Ian is eluding too.

    1) Atheistic: Science has something to say about religious faith, and by extension supernaturalism and supernatural beliefs. Example: conflicts of believing the earth is 10,000 years old, miracle’s, someone raising from the dead, prayer etc.

    2) Religious: Science has something to say about religious faith. Either ‘God’ acting within nature, nature revealing ‘God’s’ work, quantifiable personal experience etc.

    3) NOMA: Science can say something about what can be tested no matter if they are religious claims. The contradiction between religious faith and nature revealed through science tells us they should not mix. Religious faith can not mix with science, to accept nature as revealed through science one must modify religious faiths but not introduce them into their science. Science and religion are not compatible or reconcilable, but are only in recognition of personal beliefs, and there is often contradiction. Science says nothing on “supernaturalism”, outside of people believe in it, which means to we can understand how and why they do.

  7. toasterhead

    2. Ian Says:
    November 10th, 2009 at 10:48 am

    And here’s one for those of you who believe faith and science don’t mix … he’s Catholic and also writes for First Things, and has written books on faith and science.

    Catholics aren’t really the problem in the whole faith/science rift. They’ve accepted evolution, apologized to Galileo, and even have an observatory at the Vatican. As science has made new discoveries about the universe, the Catholic leadership has reinterpreted scripture to fit the science. Sometimes a few centuries late, but they’ve done it nevertheless.

    The problem are the Bible/Torah/Qur’aan literalists who want to reinterpret science to fit the scripture. The fact arrow doesn’t travel that way.

  8. Vindrisi

    Luke and Ian: I don’t disagree that you bring up good points, and the debate you allude to is important, and clearly one that rages quite often on this site. However, does it really pertain to issue presented in this post? Do we know that Bethell’s problem stems from his religious views? I don’t know, but it seems more likely to be a matter of the anti-intellectual content of modern conservative ideology. Sure, parallels can be drawn between the two issues, but I think they are largely separate. At least that is my conclusion from Chris’ book and years of following the conservative movement. This is not to say, though, that the two are always separate, and I fully acknowledge that.

  9. Sadly, no mainstream conservative pundit will back Mr./Dr./Professor Barr up. To dos ow ould be to admit that their elitist label of intellectuals/Democrats/liberals/scientists is all a schill. Plus they’d have to actually back science.

    I find it interesting that we turned to religion in this thread so quickly, as it, and accommodationism weren’t in the original post.

  10. Davo

    Such perspectives are akin to some religious beliefs in which you interpret the facts to fit your preconceived world view. After all the patron saint of conservatives Ronald Reagan did something similar (although later he later recanted), so it’s not surprising that these conservatives are following on his heels (although unlike him they have not recanted).

  11. Stephen M. Barr

    As the person dusting it up with Bethell, I should note that Bethell is an anomaly and hardly representative of conservatives.

    On the Catholic Church and science matter, I might add some relatively little-known factoids to what “toasterhead” correctly says, as I think the readers of Discover would find them interesting. Not only is there an observatory at the Vatican now, but Catholic clergy have been making important contributions in astronomy for a long time: In the 1600’s Fr. Scheiner discovered sunspots telescopically (independently of Galileo, Herriot and Fabricius); Fr. Zucchi was the first to build a reflecting telescope (in 1616); and Fr. Riccioli discovered the first binary star. In 1801, Fr. Piazzi discovered the first asteroid (Ceres). In the 1800’s, Fr. Angelo Secchi, one of the founders of modern astrophysics, developed the first classification of stars based on their spectra. Interestingly, the observatory he used to make his discoveries was perched atop the beautiful Church of Sant’Ignazio in Rome. And of course, one of the founders of the Big Bang theory was Fr. Georges Lemaitre. At the time of the American revolution, 30 of the 130 observatories in the world were operated by the Jesuit order. And this is only astronomy — Catholic clergy made important contributions to several other branches of science (e.g. Stensen in geology, Hauy in crystallography, Bolzano in mathematics, Mendel in biology, etc.) As a physicist, I find it especially strange that very few physicists know that the extremely important phenomenon of “diffraction” of light was discovered and carefully studied in the 1680’s by the Jesuit priest Francesco Grimaldi; and it was he who also named it “diffraction”. The contributions of the clergy to science is a remarkable and almost untold story.

  12. Luke Vogel


    ~ “However, does it really pertain to issue presented in this post? Do we know that Bethell’s problem stems from his religious views?”

    To be honest, no, not on the face of it. I think the discussion I do mention is in there and thought this may be a good spring board for something better than the usual fare of hostile and fruitless debate. But, you’re right and I’m willing to put it aside (I did mention we could carry on the discussion *after* others checked in on the blogpost – meaning I do recognize it would side track a little).

    However, I do think Ian brings up an interesting point that is pertinent. Also, I think I can answer your question via Wikipedia to a certain extent.

    Wiki entry (I think some of this was mentioned by Chris in another post):

    ~ Tom Bethell: “(born 1936) is a journalist who writes mainly on economic and scientific issues..”[snip]
    Bethell is a member of the Group for the Scientific Reappraisal of the HIV-AIDS Hypothesis[5] which denies that HIV causes AIDS. His The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science promotes global warming denialism, AIDS denialism, and skepticism of evolution (which Bethell denies is “real science”, promoting in its place intelligent design, a viewpoint dismissed by the scientific community as pseudoscience.” Wiki.

    Now, if you ask me, I would give a resounding *yes*, his personal religious views effect his other views, including on *science*, so the further discussion is fair game.

  13. John Kwok


    Not all conservatives should be tarred and feathered with an “anti – intellectual” bias. Maybe the most noteworthy example I can think of is leading Intelligent Design critic, former Provost, University of Virginia and former director, Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, MA, Dr. Paul R. Gross, co-author, with philosopher Barbara Forrest of “Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design”. However, it does concern me greatly that a conservative political pundit like George Will who recognizes the unquestionable scientific validity of modern evolutionary theory seems incapable of recognizing current climate change science as science that is just as sound as modern evolutionary biology.



    P. S. In the interest of full disclosure I have identified myself here and elsewhere as a conservative with a strong Libertarian bias.

  14. Vindrisi


    Thanks for the information you found about Bethell, and you are correct that the cluster of contrarianisms mentioned do often covary with fundamentalism. However, there are atheist followers of Ayn Rand who hold the same views. Without something overt pointing to his religious views being the source of his denialism, I don’t see any reason to posit that they are. This seems far more an instance of ideology driving an approach to science than religion, and I think that is the issue that we should focus on. Chris’ “Republican War on Science” showed very well how modern conservative ideology can drive such blatantly unrealistic contrarian views, and I think this is another instance of it. I am not saying that there is not a chance that religion doesn’t play a role, but until there is evidence that there is, I think it is better to stay away from responding as though there is. In any case, the fundamental question Bethell’s views brings up is this: What drives the modern conservative denial of so much science? Given that it is seen in conservatives of all religious traditions (or at least the narrow set of traditions seen in the movement – mainly Judaism, Christianity, with some atheism and agnosticism), it doesn’t seem to primarily be religious in origin, but ideological. So what drives the ideology in this direction? I tend to think that there are crass political considerations at the core, but that is just my opinion. Anyone else?

  15. Vindrisi


    Of course I understand that, and I didn’t mean to paint with a broad brush there. I certainly didn’t mean to offend you. What term do you suggest to differentiate more rational conservatism from the sort represented by Bethell, Palin, Schlafly, and the like? Chris, do you have any ideas? You have studied this a good bit, and might have an answer.

  16. Luke Vogel

    11. Stephen M. Barr

    Fantastic to have you comment, thank you. I appreciate your input, very nice. I think your offer to Bethell could be applied to other scientific domains as well, since he doesn’t consider evolution “real science” either. However, lets be honest, how much are we asking and do you really think that would come before his religious conviction?

    As to note on Catholicism and science, what you offer are great things to note. I would add that what the Church is doing is separating the science from their religious faith when doing science. Or in light of scientific discovery have modified at times religious doctrine.

    The above is actually a part of a larger discussion. Take someone like Jerry Coyne, now trumpeting himself as a “vociferous atheist” when he says that “God was once a part of science”, pointing out Newton’s belief that he was clarifying God’s celestial plan , while arguing that “supernaturalism is not completely beyond the realm of science” [Seeing and Believing, Feb. ’09].

    However, taking all of this into account we end up in moral debate, contradiction between religious faith and science and science done by people of faith. What Jerry Coyne has done is needlessly confuse the debates even while making sound arguments about the role of science and critiques of those who often inappropriately attempt to overlap science and religion [such as using current understandings of quantum mechanics to explain the trinity while using the authority of a scientist, for example]. Coyne simply gets it wrong and as your examples show, the methods of science and scientific discovery can stand apart from religious faiths.

    The obvious problems arise in the contradictory held beliefs, which as both Sam Harris and Theologian Douglas Wilson like to remind people, ideas an beliefs have consequences.

  17. Anna K.

    @ Vindrisi #14, who wrote: “In any case, the fundamental question Bethell’s views brings up is this: What drives the modern conservative denial of so much science? Given that it is seen in conservatives of all religious traditions (or at least the narrow set of traditions seen in the movement – mainly Judaism, Christianity, with some atheism and agnosticism), it doesn’t seem to primarily be religious in origin, but ideological. So what drives the ideology in this direction?”

    I think it’s fueled by a certain subset of views about capitalism and fears about increasing government expansion. The denialism seems to go hand-in-hand with any scientific conclusions that would appear to threaten a certain free market ideology. (Of course how ‘free’ a market actually is when it’s dominated by a very few transnational enormous corporations which lobby for govt policies that favor them and squash competitors is open to debate.)

    If dealing with global warming means that we have to make significant changes to the current economic system & introduce more govt regulations which would impede economic growth, then these folks will find ways to oppose it, starting with questioning the science.

  18. Sorbet

    Another noteworthy conservative who I think is misguided about almost everything else but who also strongly rejects the teaching of ID is the Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer.

  19. Sorbet

    Dear John, while your point about the scientific validity of climate change is well-taken, I still wouldn’t think it’s as well supported as evolution. While the basic facts of climate change have been very well validated, I think there is more debate about exact details in this field compared to evolution.

    I think there is a good reason why those like Will who support the modern evolutionary synthesis would still try to tar climate change. It is simply because actions inspired by climate change, unlike acceptance of evolution, will have huge economics and political consequences which the conservatives are not comfortable with. I consider myself a “moderate libertarian” and it has been depressing to me how otherwise very intelligent libertarians would go so far in their efforts to cling to their ideology as to deny the science itself.

  20. Luke Vogel

    14. Vindrisi

    Good points.

    ~ “Without something overt pointing to his religious views being the source of his denialism, I don’t see any reason to posit that they are. This seems far more an instance of ideology driving an approach to science than religion, and I think that is the issue that we should focus on..”

    I tend to agree with you here, and I certainly hold we need to attempt to focus our attention appropriately to ascertain the appropriate remedies. However (bet you saw this coming), it appears to me often to be like a feedback loop between the reinforces of religious faiths and other ideologies (and you are absolutely right to point out Ayn Rand in your argument). Further, it becomes exceedingly difficult at times to parse apart the drives or reinforces, and even more so when the one arguing from religious faith is masquerading their argument in unsupported science.

    I believe that is what Bethell is doing in large part. He, like many new wave ID proponents are careful enough to use what they perceive as negative evidences (such as claiming the debates about the mechanism of natural selection points to disputes over evolution as fact) and to veer away from claiming a “God did it” openly when trying to be scientific. This only gives the appearance of being scientific, when it is nothing of the case. That we see many conservatives support ID and “creationism” (though both are actually a form of “creationism”) can be, I believe, attributed to the feedback loop of religious faiths and political ideology (I am obviously including the supporting groups and familial influences etc.).

    I would hold, though I haven’t look further into this, that the feedback loop is alive and well for Bethell and could be very difficult to track down precise examples because he’s being very careful (though intellectually astoundingly sloppy). What I mean here is that we may possibly surmise is underlying problem with relativity may come from a problem with overall materialistic explanations in general, and with global warming it may very well come from an idea of humans as a special creation. That he leans in a pseudoscientific direction may have it’s influence from his faith, no less than pseudoscience promulgated by someone without faith, but from some other reinforcer.

    Recognizing the fact that liberals tend to accept evolution much more so than conservatives is interesting (even when factoring in faiths), but certainly doesn’t explain everything since we can certainly find a liberal who believes in evolution who knows much less about it than a conservative who doesn’t accept it. We can’t assume “religion is off the hook” here, what we see more than likely is a willingness to modify faith beliefs in light of prevailing scientific authority. However, we also can note that even though the Catholic church may accept evolution and has advanced scientific understanding in certain regards, it is far from a “liberal institution”. Even though modifications to doctrine have come, at times slowly and at times an awful expense, should we therefore assume it will continue to do so with current understandings?

    We of course end up back at moral debate. Conservatives holding different aspects as morally important than liberals, though at times we find overlap. I’ve seen it argued by conservative religionist that the reason why liberals accept evolution is because of the idea of progressiveness in the facts and theories. That in fact this theory explains liberal beliefs to a certain extent and there are moral dangers.

  21. Jon

    So what drives the ideology in this direction?

    I agree with what Anna says about a certain view about capitalism. I would say another driver is keeping the political base activated. The GOP base, as Josh Marshall put it “suppl[ies] votes, phone-bankers and general grunt work.” They respond to the cultural issues, and are decidedly anti-elitist .

    The best explanation I’ve heard for how the conservative movement works is in this talk by Sam Tanenhaus (although I find it hard to appreciate Nixon the way he does): (It contains lots of political detail that may not be relevant to you, but if you stick with it, it’s incredibly rich.)

    The strange thing is how much movement conservative populism owes to ex Marxists (who originally were struggling against New Deal technocrats). The culture wars are in many ways an inversion of Marxist class warfare (again, it’s very strange, but compelling once you wrap your mind around it). As Sam Tanenhaus puts it the original movement “philosophes” learned to think as Marxists in the 30’s, then switched sides during the cold war. Tanenhaus argues this formed a lot of the tenor of the conservative movement we have now.

  22. gillt

    Stephen M. Barr: “The contributions of the clergy to science is a remarkable and almost untold story.”

    The very subtitle of PZ Myers’ new book.

  23. Luke Vogel

    22. gillt

    Ha! Very good. You offer so much to this “slimy cesspool of smear tactics”.

  24. Sean McCorkle

    The contributions of the clergy to science is a remarkable and almost untold story.

    Brother Astronomer: Adventures of a Vatican Scientist by Guy Consolmagno is a good read.

    Dava Sobel’s Galileo’s Daughter describes the man as having almost as many allies in the Church as enemies.
    My impression after reading it is that things could have easily gone the other way for him but for a few individuals that ended up in power at the wrong time.

    Also, I remember seeing story several years ago in something like Sci. Am., Sky and Telescope, or somewhere about the Vatican fostering a lot of renaissance astronomy research. I wish I could remember what magazine it was in.

    Didn’t know about Grimaldi and diffraction – neat!

  25. gillt

    I do what I can, Vogel.

    Vogel: “I’ve seen it argued by conservative religionist that the reason why liberals accept evolution is because of the idea of progressiveness in the facts and theories. That in fact this theory explains liberal beliefs to a certain extent and there are moral dangers.”

    I’ve heard this dastardly smear a few times myself.

    That pro-evolution liberals would presumably let them get away with is whine demonstrates a deeply flawed understanding of evolutionary theory on both sides.

    Contra Mooney, people’s ignorance is the entire picture here. If your ideology, politics, or religion relies on misrepresenting what science knows, it’s no good insisting that science and said ideology are two complimentary (or complementary!) “ways of knowing.”

    The reality is that most voting-age Americans are motivated to learn enough about science to combat anti-science rhetoric. More and better science/critical thinking education is a generational goal. In the interim I think it’s worthwhile displacing existing authorities with either science itself or something more science-friendly.

    Pretending there’s no basic conflict in the service of civility or political maneuvering is naive, and if you’ve been paying attention neither Mooney nor Rosenau apply their accomodationism when it comes to IDiots, creationists and, for the most part, conservative Republicans. The great disagreement between the two camps is where to draw the line.

  26. gillt

    Make that “are not motivated…”

  27. Woody Tanaka

    “Now the question is, will any other conservatives who write regularly about science come to the table and back Barr up?”

    I would have thought that you would have called on the conservatives to accomdate Bethel’s opinions on Einstein, so that they can all jointly advance their presumed goal of advancing conservatism.

    Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work? You accomodate the irrationality of those on your “side” in order to advance a joint goal?

  28. toasterhead

    27. Woody Tanaka Says:
    November 10th, 2009 at 4:12 pm

    I would have thought that you would have called on the conservatives to accomdate Bethel’s opinions on Einstein, so that they can all jointly advance their presumed goal of advancing conservatism.

    Why would a liberal do that? Why would someone who has any respect for scientific integrity do that?

    If you really think that we liberals want all conservatives to be ignorant whackos trumpeting pseudoscience and antiscience so we can score cheap political points against them, you’re fundamentally misunderstanding the liberal mindset. That tactic may be well and good for conservatives, but we don’t see it that way.

    We would love nothing more than for conservatives to embrace the reality-based world. If you want to debate policy and outcomes, great. But let’s start from the same set of facts, not some bit of antiscience tripe that you made up.

    Believe me – we would be MUCH happier without the teabaggers and creationists and Westboro Baptists and climate deniers and other assorted reality-averse people on the conservative side.

  29. Marion Delgado

    It’s not good PR to say so, but who gives a rat’s ASS what some joker who writes political op-eds THINKS someone else knows about physics? Does he think he’s a mind-reader?

    Those of us who have actually studied physics are astonished. Yes, at the GUT fringes it’s pretty sociological and so on because of the nature of the check-out, check-in kind of work they do in string theory. But at its core, it’s infinitely more objective than anything else people do.

    Ever since its first achievement correctly modeling the orbit of Mercury, relativity has had many very, outrageously precise tests and always passed perfectly.

    Maybe we could say “can we please agree not to bring up what either of us thinks, and instead point out ways to actually know for sure?”

  30. bad Jim

    Vatican looks to heavens for signs of alien life

    In the interview last year, Funes told Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano that believing the universe may host aliens, even intelligent ones, does not contradict a faith in God.

    “How can we rule out that life may have developed elsewhere?” Funes said in that interview.

    “Just as there is a multitude of creatures on Earth, there could be other beings, even intelligent ones, created by God. This does not contradict our faith, because we cannot put limits on God’s creative freedom.”

    Funes maintained that if intelligent beings were discovered, they would also be considered “part of creation.”

  31. John Kwok


    There’s a lot we still don’t understand about evolution, and one could make persuasive arguments that there are key areas which are as contentious – maybe more so – as climatology, paleoclimatology and other climate change-related science. For example, there’s still a healthy debate over tempo and mode of evolution, which, depending on whom you’ll believe in, is either a minor tempest in the teapot (as both John Maynard Smith and Ernst Mayr contended) or something that’s really of fundamental importance in trying to understand speciation and persistence of species through vast amounts of time (which has been argued by the likes of Niles Eldredge, Stephen Jay Gould, and, was recently the subject of an important review article from four years ago, written by Eldredge, Dartmouth College ecologist Mark McPeek, and a few others, including, most notably, University of Chicago invertebrate paleobiologist David Jablonski and Michigan State microbial ecologist Richard Lenski (whose decades-long E. coli experiment is the best ongoing example of laboratory research on natural selection’s effect on populations):

    Eldredge, N., J. N. Thompson, P. M. Brakefield, S. Gavrilets, D. Jablonski, R. E. Lenski, B. S. Lieberman, M. A. McPeek and W. Miller III. 2005. The dynamics of evolutionary stasis. Paleobiology 31:133-145.

  32. I’m a conservative with a strong libertarian bent as well (note the lower case l). I’ve blogged about my embarrassment to be called conservative in an era of so-called conservatives spokespersons who deny entire bodies of science because they don’t fit their belief system.

    As to a prominent (in a very limited sense) conservative who decries and debunks pseudoscience, I’d recommend Professor Steven Dutch at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay. His Science, Pseudoscience, and Irrationalism articles are outstanding.

  33. John Kwok


    Thanks for the tip. Not only would I add Dutch to my list, but I believe that noted skeptic Michael Shermer could be described as politically somewhat to the right, in light of some of his written commentary that I have read.

    I am glad you’ve admitted your own politicial bias merely to remind others that there are thankfully many conservatives who do recognize what is – and what isn’t – valid science, though our observations tend to be drowned out by shrill nonsense emanating from the likes of Ann Coulter (who has praised none other than one William Dembski for rendering “scientific” assistance in one of her recent books).

    Appreciatively yours,


  34. Sven DiMilo

    Interestingly, Bethell cut his teeth as a Darwin-denier. He wrote a pair of notorious articles for Harper’s Magazine back in the early eighties (?) that demonstrated a breathtaking lack of understanding. Natural selection is an empty circular tautology, and biologists secretly know it kind of stuff.
    He’s just repeating what’s been successful for him in the past. Next article: Newton was Wrong!!

  35. John Kwok

    @ Sven –

    Bethell is also the author of “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science” in which he amply demonstrates his propensity for evolution and Darwin denial. His latest attack on Einstein is merely consistent with his longstanding distrust of modern science. It shouldn’t be viewed as part of an ongoing philosophical and political formula of his – which you seem to imply in your comment (@ 35) – but instead, regrettably, as something that he finds quite credible from his own personal point of view.

  36. David Kathman

    Bethell also wrote an article for The Atlantic Monthly in 1991 arguing that the Earl of Oxford wrote the works of Shakespeare:

    This was part of a “debate”, with Irvin Matus writing in favor of Shakespeare and both authors getting a chance to respond to each other:

    Bethell’s Shakespeare denialism is no more valid than his denial of relativity or evolution (see my Shakespeare Authorship web page at, but they’re all tied together in a sort of contrarian anti-elite anti-intellectualism.

  37. John Kwok

    @ David,

    It’s been alleged too that Christopher Marlowe was really Shakespeare in disguise, but I haven’t seen any compelling evidence that would substantiate either Marlowe or the Earl of Oxford as the individuals who actually wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Both are rooted in the assumption that a rural lad like Shakespeare couldn’t have written as eloquently as he did about love, murder, betrayal and other major facets of human nature.

  38. JMW

    Well, it’s been years since I read Einstein’s relativity, but…

    Bethell claimed that neither relativistic foreshortening nor mass increase have been measured in experiment. If memory serves, the equations that cover these phenomena contain, in part, sqrt( 1 – ( v ^ 2 / c ^ 2 ) ), or in plain English, square the velocity of the object in motion, divide this by the square of the velocity of light; take the resulting number and subtract it from 1; then, take the square root of this number.

    The fastest object humans have ever been in a position to measure travels about 17,000 mph, which is about .000025 of the speed of light. So, solving the (v squared divided by c squared part) of the equation gives you a value somewhere around 0.000000000625. Subtract this from 1, and you still get pretty darn near 1. Doing the square root of ( 1 – this number ) gets you .99999999969. If you have a 6 meter long satellite orbiting earth, the relativistic foreshortening would amount to about 0.00000011 centimetres, or about 1100 nanometres (sure hope my math is right).

    And we haven’t measured this yet? For shame

  39. sinz52


    Modern conservatism’s suspicion of science is a cultural and philosophical phenomenon.

    The fact that most evolutionary biologists are atheists, whereas Christianity is a pillar of modern conservatism, is just one dimension of this.

    Science tends to be cosmopolitan and transnationalist; modern conservatives are often fiercely nationalistic.

    Scientific research is concentrated in the major universities in big cities, mostly on the East and West coast; modern conservatives uphold the virtues of rural small-town life, and the base of modern conservatism is the Deep South and Mountain States.

    Beginning with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and continuing with Carl Sagan and the various “social responsibility” movements among scientists and computer professionals, scientists began taking ever stronger left-wing stances on political and economic issues, putting them in direct opposition to conservative proposals. Conservatives never forgave scientists for largely opposing Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, for example.

    So you have this cultural and social self-segregation.

  40. Re: #40 – Thanks, good point sinz52.
    These themes are traced further in a number of books on American intellectual history that I’ve come across recently, thanks to a book club, including:

    What’s the matter with Kansas? : how conservatives won the heart of America / Thomas Frank. [New York : Metropolitan Books, c2004. 1st ed]

    The age of American unreason / Susan Jacoby. [New York : Pantheon Books, c2008]

    Architects of fear : conspiracy theories and paranoia in American politics / George Johnson.
    [Los Angeles : J.P. Tarcher ; Boston : Distributed by Houghton Mifflin, c1983. 1st ed]

    and of course the founding classic, cited extensively by Jacoby:
    The paranoid style in American politics : and other essays. Hofstadter, Richard, 1916-1970. [New York : Knopf, 1965. 1st ed]

    A key theme in several of these, also picked up in Chris Mooney’s writing, is the predilection toward anti-science or more generally, anti-intellectualism, among a (possibly self-defined) “out-group” such as rural, non-college educated, or “red state” residents. Recurring themes include: “they” (big city liberals, university professors, political elites, mainstream media) have been taken over by bad ideas that pose a threat to “us” (grassroots, regular joes, PTA members). “They” may be seen as imposing alien values or systems on us from above, manipulating public policy, pulling strings in secret, engaged in a great cover-up, etc. “We” may be reduced to following quixotic contrarians who dare to question the system, face ridicule and scorn, etc. Not all such “out-group” worldviews embrace conspiracy theory, but many do.

    The range of “dangerous ideas” is quite broad, from Freemasonry to Communism, religious relativism and atheism, evolution, fluoridation, vaccination, support for the U.N., up to most recent instances like gay marriage, “socialized” medicine, and global warming.

    Many opponents of these ideas are neither paranoid nor acting on a contrarian impulse, and there can be rational bases for arguing any of these topics. The problem noted in the above books is that there is a subset of the public who are open to arguments suggesting that a viewpoint that seems to be coming from a mainstream/scientific/urban/liberal source is not just wrong, but dangerous. This reactive base can be mobilized in a response that is not open to reason, evidence, or argument, and is unwilling to defer to experts when these are associated with the “dangerous” viewpoint.

  41. Gus Snarp

    Hey, how about links or citations for those electrodynamics texts? Now I have to google them and hope I find the right ones.


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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 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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