Back when I first started my blog, I spent a lot more time dealing with crazy people who are convinced that Einstein’s theories of relativity are wrong (see here, here and here). More recently, I haven’t spent a lot of time on the crazy train, but I have been meaning to get back to my long-neglected series of posts explaining relativity.
Enter Conservapedia, the right-wing version of Wikipedia intended to combat the liberal bias in reality! Over the past day, Twitter has been abuzz with tweets¹ on the Conservapedia page on “Counterexamples to relativity“, provides a list of 24 “points” that attempt to show the weakness of Einstein’s crazy ideas!
In my mind, perhaps the most despicable sort of denialism or crankery, however, is that which is based on some sort of political or religious ideology. This is clearly what is going on here, and the author relies on a familiar form of rhetorical trickery known as the “Gish Gallop“: throw as many claims out there as possible, regardless of their validity, with the realization that most people will be swayed by the amount of “evidence”, and not look too closely at the details.
Looking at the “evidence”, it is clear that there isn’t a single point made that isn’t misleading, incoherent, or simply dishonest. A person reading the Conservapedia post will be measurably more ignorant afterwards, and I get the distinct impression that this is what the author intended.
But never fear, dear reader! I’m here to go through the list of some of the most entertaining assertions, and explain why they’re nonsense. Why bother, you ask? For one thing, entertainment. For another, there’s always a chance that someone may come across the Conservapedia entry and look for some sort of counterbalance… someone should write one!
One caveat: I can’t guarantee that the list I present will match the list on the Conservapedia page. I saved the tweeted list, but after all the internet attention, it was reduced to four points. Soon afterwards, it reverted to the original list again. There’s no guarantee that it will remain in its current form, though…
Let’s start with a few observations about Einstein’s relativity, which may be broken into the special theory of relativity, published in 1905, and the general theory, published in 1915.
The special theory of relativity is based on two postulates: 1) the laws of physics are the same for all observers moving at constant speed, and 2) the speed of light is the same for all observers. The first point is the crux of “relativity”: there is no such thing as “absolute” motion of an object, and the laws of physics have the same form for any observer moving at constant velocity. This statement goes back as far as Galileo, who realized that a person sitting within the depths of a moving ship has no local means of telling that they are in fact moving. The second point is the one that results in all the crazy, counterintuitive notions. In order for all observers, regardless of their motion, to agree on the value of the speed of light, traditional notions of space and time must be modified, and in fact we must consider space and time as interrelated entities. From my point of view, a moving observers has clocks which run slow, while that observer will say that my clocks are running slow. Built into the constancy of the speed of light is the fact that the speed of light is the “speed limit” of the universe, and nothing can be moved faster than that speed… with certain cosmological caveats.
The general theory of relativity adds gravity to the mixture. The fundamental idea is that, locally, a gravitational force is indistinguishable from accelerated motion in the opposite direction. The simple illustration of this is being in an elevator — when the elevator is accelerating up, you feel heavier. When the elevator is accelerating down, you feel lighter. From the theory of general relativity follows all sorts of weird stuff such as black holes and the possibility of wormholes. In general relativity, matter is viewed as fundamentally distorting the shape of space and time.
With that in mind, let’s get to the list, but start with the introduction to it (I’m leaving out the hyperlinks and citations, but will refer to them when appropriate):
The theory of relativity is a mathematical system that allows no exceptions. It is heavily promoted by liberals who like its encouragement of relativism and its tendency to mislead people in how they view the world. Here is a list of 24 counterexamples: any one of them shows that the theory is incorrect.
The first sentence makes no sense! It is not just a “mathematical system”, it is a physical theory that has been tested countless times and is used by experimental physicists on a daily basis. I have a book in my office that is all about the analysis of the different experimental tests specifically of special relativity. It is not clear what “allows no exceptions” means; physics is all about looking for “exceptions” to existing physical law, and relativity is not necessarily immune to this. The basic tenets of both the special and general theories have been well established, however, and any new discoveries are expected to build upon them, not refute them.
I hate to go all Godwin early in this post, but replace “liberals” by “Jews” in the second sentence, and the sentence might as well have been written by a Nazi circa 1930s-era Germany. Nazi scientists specifically rejected Einstein’s theory of relativity as “Jewish science”, and they founded their own theory of physics referred to as Deutsche Physik. The result of their ideological and racist hubris was to cripple Germany as a scientific giant for decades. For a good discussion of the poisonous effects of ideology on science, read John Grant’s awesome book, Corrupted Science.
The third sentence is also absurd: as I’ve said, the theories of relativity have been experimentally tested for decades, and have survived all tests. Even if a discrepancy between theory and experiment is found, it does not invalidate the entire theoretical framework, but builds upon it. Einstein’s theory of relativity built upon Newton’s earlier theory of relativity — Newton’s theory was not shown to be wrong, but rather incomplete. Assuming that a new piece of evidence somehow invalidates a century of observations shows a complete lack of understanding of science and how it works.
Let’s get to the list:
1. The Pioneer anomaly.
Humankind has launched a number of unmanned spacecraft that are on course to leave the solar system. These craft, such as Pioneer 10 and 11, are continually slowing down under the influence of the Sun’s gravity, but observations in recent years suggest that they are slowing down slightly more than expected. A number of explanations have been proposed to explain this effect, including observational errors and previously unobserved gravitational effects. There is a small possibility of new physics — we have relatively few direct measurements of the effects of gravity over long distances and at slow speeds, and it has been suggested that the familiar Newtonian laws of gravity may be slightly different at large scales.
Notice that I didn’t mention relativity in that paragraph? Though any new physics could potentially involve changes to relativity, the Pioneer anomaly doesn’t directly relate to relativity, and there’s no reason to say that this small effect in any way invalidates the long established theory.
2. Anomalies in the locations of spacecraft that have flown by Earth (“flybys”).
This is really in essence a repeat of point #1! In 1990, it was observed that the Galileo spacecraft, passing close to the Earth, experienced an unexplained change in speed as it went by. Similar observations have been made of other spacecraft. These anomalies are quite exciting for science, as they do offer the potential for new physics. However, they don’t threaten to do anything to relativity other than perhaps modify it.
3. Increasingly precise measurements of the advance of the perihelion of Mercury show a shift greater than predicted by relativity, well beyond the margin of error.
The first success of Einstein’s general relativity was providing an explanation for a previously-unexplained slow evolution in the motion of planet Mercury. No reference is provided on Conservapedia for these so-called shifts “well beyond the margin of error”, but even if they do exist they will likely involve a correction of existing theory, and do not invalidate relativity.
4. The discontinuity in momentum as velocity approaches “c” for infinitesimal mass, compared to the momentum of light.
Completely nonsensical. Special relativity results in expressions for the momentum of massive particles, which approaches infinity as the speed of the particle approaches the speed of light. The energy/momentum relation for a massless particle is perfectly well-defined, and the expression for the momentum of a massive particle as a function of speed contains a “loophole” that suggests that massless particles with momentum are possible. The specific expression for the momentum of light comes from Maxwell’s equations, and the momentum of photons (light particles) is associated with quantum mechanics.
5. The logical problem of a force which is applied at a right angle to the velocity of a relativistic mass – does this act on the rest mass or the relativistic mass?
I’ve never heard of this being a problem for anyone studying relativity. In classical, pre-relativity Newtonian physics, momentum is directly proportional to velocity, while in Einstein’s relativity, the momentum of a particle approaches infinity as the speed of the particle approaches the speed of light. There are two ways to interpret the new momentum formula: you can keep Newton’s formula and interpret mass as increasing, or you can just accept that Newton’s formula doesn’t hold for really fast objects. The idea of relativistic mass is hardly ever taught these days, because it leads to pointless confusion as given in point 5 above.
6. The observed lack of curvature in overall space.
Another point without external reference! As I noted, general relativity supposes that mass creates a curvature of the fabric of space and time itself, with a greater distortion associated with greater mass. In a footnote, the author argues that space is “almost flat”, but doesn’t say how they reach that conclusion, or how that point disproves relativity.
7. The universe shortly after its creation, when quantum effects dominated and contradicted Relativity.
Why is this a counterexample to relativity, and why do quantum effects “contradict” relativity? The author doesn’t say, and clearly doesn’t know.
8. The action-at-a-distance of quantum entanglement.
“Quantum entanglement” refers to the idea that two quantum mechanical particles can in principle have a “connection” even after being separated by great distances. A measurement of one entangled particle supposedly must “instantaneously” influence the behavior of the second particle, seemingly at odds with special relativity. In fact, Einstein himself used this to argue against the idea of quantum mechanics, referring to this effect as “spooky action at a distance“. A more sophisticated analysis, and experimental tests, however, have shown that it is impossible to use this “spooky action” to convey information at a speed faster than that of light. Entanglement has in fact broadened our understanding of quantum mechanics and relativity, and not discounted either. There is still some subtlety to the story of entanglement, and investigations are still underway, but the author of this post clearly understands none of it.
9. The action-at-a-distance by Jesus, described in John 4:46-54.
Seriously? You’re kidding, right? Okay, let me explain something about science to this sad Conservapedia author: Bible quotes are not scientific evidence. Now let me explain some theology to this author: pretty much by definition, a miracle is an act that goes against the laws of nature. If you think that Jesus’ acts disprove relativity, you’re saying that Jesus wasn’t performing miracles at all. Idiot.
10. The failure to discover gravitons, despite wasting hundreds of millions in taxpayer money in searching.
Luv the conservative whine about taxes, dude! The problem is: the graviton isn’t a part of relativity. A graviton is a hypothetical elementary particle that is the origin of the gravitational force, just as the photon is the origin of the electromagnetic forces. It is not a part of special or general relativity, however, and was introduced as a way to try and explain gravity in a similar manner to other fundamental forces such as the strong and weak nuclear forces. The validity of general relativity does not depend on the graviton’s existence.
11. The inability of the theory to lead to other insights, contrary to every verified theory of physics.
If you neglect all of cosmology and astronomy, I guess you could say that relativity provides no insights. That would be a pretty big neglect, however.
12. The change in mass over time of standard kilograms preserved under ideal conditions.
Finally — an external link! Unfortunately, said link demonstrates that the point in question is irrelevant. Unlike all other fundamental metric units, the kilogram is not defined by some sort of physical phenomena but by a block of platinum and iridium kept in Paris. In recent years, it has been found that this lump of metal is losing mass, or that copies are gaining mass. What does this have to do with relativity? Nothing.
14. “The snag is that in quantum mechanics, time retains its Newtonian aloofness, providing the stage against which matter dances but never being affected by its presence. These two [QM and Relativity] conceptions of time don’t gel.”
Ah, now we have an out of context quote from Scientific American! It has been a long-standing problem in physics to try and combine quantum mechanics and relativity. The Scientific American article describes one hypothesis for modifying gravity to incorporate quantum effects. The quotation in question describes a problem that physicists are trying to overcome, not an experimental problem with relativity. Quote fail.
15. The theory predicts wormholes just as it predicts black holes, but wormholes violate causality and permit absurd time travel.
Scott Adams of Dilbert fame once compiled a really killer list of logical fallacies relating to science, including the fallacy, “Incompleteness as proof of defect.” That is, pretend a theory is wrong because it can’t explain every problem anyone has ever proposed! Nobody pretends that general relativity is complete; it does, however, explain cosmological observations really well.
18. The lack of a single useful device developed based on any insights provided by the theory; no lives have been saved or helped, and the theory has not led to other useful theories and may have interfered with scientific progress. This stands in stark contrast with every verified theory of science. The only device based on relativity is the atom bomb, but that has destroyed far more lives than it’s saved so it can hardly be considered useful.
The second part of this point is just a repeat of point 11! The first part is somehow an argument conflating the “accuracy” of a scientific theory with its “usefulness”, though the two are not equivalent. A theory must be accurate to be useful, but an accurate theory does not necessarily have direct uses. Reality is reality, regardless of its usefulness. However, it should be noted that all of high-energy physics, including the operation of particle accelerators, depends on the results of special relativity to function — particles are accelerated to speeds that are within a fraction of a percent of the speed of light. The third part of this statement is again a statement of usefulness, which is utterly irrelevant to the accuracy of the theory.
19. Relativity requires different values for the inertia of a moving object: in its direction of motion, and perpendicular to that direction. This contradicts the logical principle that the laws of physics are the same in all directions.
Nonsense. The term “inertia” itself is usually described as an object’s “resistance to a change in motion”; in Newtonian physics, this is typically equated with mass. In special relativity, however, the effect of forces on an object are typically described in terms of the object’s momentum, and there is no problem of “different values”. This is, in fact, an undergraduate-level calculation.
20. Relativity requires that anything traveling at the speed of light must have mass zero, so it must have momentum zero. But the laws of electrodynamics require that light have nonzero momentum.
*BUZZZZ!!!!* Wrong answer! The problem is the statement, “so it must have momentum zero.” As noted in point 4, special relativity actually suggests the opposite. If one looks at the equation for the momentum of a massive particle in special relativity as a function of speed, it turns out that the expression has an undefined form in the limit of zero mass and light speed. This provides a “loophole” that allows a massless particle to have nonzero momentum. (Update: As noted by a commenter below, the relation between energy and momentum in relativity is perfectly well-defined for a massless particle.)
23. The Twin Paradox: Consider twins who are separated with one traveling at a very high speed such that his “clock” (age) slows down, so that when he returns he has a younger age than the twin; this violates Relativity because both twins should expect the other to be younger, if motion is relative. Einstein himself admitted that this contradicts Relativity.
*BUZZZZ!!!!* Wrong answer, again! The “twin paradox” hasn’t been a paradox of relativity theory for pretty much 100 years. The statement of the problem is roughly correct, if oversimplified — as noted in the introduction, observers in uniform motion relative to one another both, correctly, observe each other’s clocks as running slow. The key, though, is the word “uniform”: in the twin paradox, in order for the two twins to end at the same place, one of them must have accelerated — undergone non-uniform motion — in order to return home. Counter to footnote 13, this acceleration can never be “neglected” — a weaker acceleration must be applied over a longer period of time in order to send the twin home. The calculation and resolution of the twin paradox is not that difficult to do, actually, and I will return to it in my future relativity posts.
So, where do we stand? Other than a few points I got too tired to explain (the power of the Gish Gallop), everything we’ve seen has been deceptive, incorrect — or just plain crazy.
Really, to assume that relativity is a liberal conspiracy requires one to believe that physicists for over one hundred years have been conspiring to hide the “truth” from the people, and that none of them have ever stepped forward to reveal said conspiracy! If you believe that, you’re probably hiding in your mother’s basement, wearing a tinfoil hat and living on a diet of grade school paste.
Update: Tom at Swans on Tea tackles the Conservapedia claim that GPS doesn’t use relativity, and convincingly shows the stupidity of that claim.
¹ I have to credit Sarah at The Language of Bad Physics for pointing me to the link.