22 August 2010

A short essay on relativity and relativism

There is a moderate amount of brouhaha in the intertubes, caused by one Andrew Schlafly, founder of Conservapedia and author of a brilliant (or, let's say, exceptional) article Counterexamples to Relativity that "disproves" the theory of relativity. In fact, the beef Mr Schlafly has with the theory of relativity is that "It is heavily promoted by liberals who like its encouragement of relativism and its tendency to mislead people in how they view the world".

I wouldn't go into arguing science with Mr Schlafly, who received a certificate in Engineering Physics from Princeton University and degree from Harvard Law School with a Juris Doctor. I just have to mention a hilarious point out of 30 "counterexamples" used in that article: "9. The action-at-a-distance by Jesus, described in John 4:46-54." How does Mr Schlafly know that Jesus didn't apply his intimate knowledge of the theory of relativity to the "action-at-a-distance" is beyond me...

Anyhow, the chief reason I don't argue science with Mr Schlafly is best expressed in this article by Clifford Will, professor of physics at Washington University in St. Louis:

The Internet world is full of kooks and crackpots who put out all kinds of drivel. It is pointless to attempt to refute these people with evidence, because they don't believe in evidence. People may not like relativity, but the experimental and observational evidence that supports it is so overwhelming that it is now a fact of the universe.
Indeed. I only hope, for Mr Schlafly's sake and for the sake of his clients that he is a much better lawyer than he is a physicist. And the chief reason for this post is to address my conservative and my lefty friends (and indeed, I have friends of both kinds) with a word (or two, as is my habit) of caution. Let's start with the dictionary definitions:

Physics. A theory, formulated essentially by Albert Einstein, that all motion must be defined relative to a frame of reference and that space and time are relative, rather than absolute concepts:

Philosophy. Any theory holding that criteria of judgment are relative, varying with individuals and their environments.
Even an eye not trained by Princeton University could easily grok that the first term belongs to the domain of physics and the second to the bailiwick of philosophy. While there is a lively interaction between the two, physicists don't manipulate their criteria of judgment and the latter don't vary in physics - no matter what manner of individuals deal in physics or what their environments are.

When state, ideology or religion try to interfere in physics - or any other science - what results from such an intervention is not a science anymore, in most cases.

Now I can address my friends.

To my lefty friends

I know that you personally wouldn't even fart in the general direction of relativism, especially its most revolting branch: moral relativism. But I beg you, please do not repeat this "As Einstein said, everything is relative", even as a laughing matter. Because it makes you schmucks, and this is something we would like to avoid, wouldn't we?

And more: when in a heated discourse on a political, ideological or any other related subject, please do not refer to physics if you are not qualified to do so by relevant education.

Remember, there is nothing common between relativity and relativism and, when discussing Middle East, Burma, Tibet, etc. - please leave physics alone. Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr and many others deserve peace in their eternal rest, so let's give it to them.

To my conservative friends

I readily agree that anyone deserves the freedom of expression. I just have to add, though, that the freedom of expression has some unwanted consequences, one of which is filling the bottomless reservoir of virtual space with absolute drivel and poisoning many a curious mind.

When a liberal law professor, whom you suspect of being a lefty, uses relativity as a metaphor for understanding constitutional law, you may want to consider that: a) the learned professor surely doesn't understand physics; b) he could easily be a putz and c) most probably is confusing the two terms that are presented above. But then, Mr Schlafly is definitely confusing the two terms that are presented above - which is the reason for his misplaced zeal in disproving the theory of relativity.

In no way does the learned liberal law professor (be he a putz or not) justify an unbridled and, frankly, stupid attack on Einstein and/or the theory of relativity by Mr Schlafly who, without any doubt is a putz, a kook and is hardly worth your attention, in spite of being a prominent conservative.

Remember, there is nothing common between relativity and relativism and, when discussing Middle East, Burma, Tibet, etc. - please leave physics alone. Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr and many others deserve peace in their eternal rest, so let's give it to them.



Dr.Dawg said...

Great piece. I had no idea that relativity had become so political, except for the far-Right who are upset that Einstein was Jewish and call him a plagiarist.

But I have wondered whether the notion of relativity, entering the popular culture early in the 20th century, allowed people to question the notion of absolutism in other spheres. In that sense there may be a link, if only by suggestion.

"Cultural relativism" has, however, a clear origin in anthropology. It has always meant "understanding a culture on its own terms" and marks a break with the "our past is their present" kind of colonial thinking. But it is too easily confused with moral relativism, which I agree is to be challenged. If folks were serious about moral relativism, they'd give the Nazis a pass, arguing that they were a German cultural expression duing the Third Reich.

SnoopyTheGoon said...


I had no idea of the subject too, till it was sprung on my by a friend.

Otherwise, the statement I made: "there is nothing common between relativity and relativism" is not strictly true. The root of the two words is the same, and the audio effect of pronouncing them could be confusing. No doubt this confusion has caused the long range effect you mention.

I am always thanking the whatever deity that has chosen an education in physics for me. As for the "Cultural relativism", check this out:


Dr.Dawg said...

It's more than just the word-similarity. It's a common understanding: that there is no absolute frame, no "ground" if you like, by means of which we can perceive objective reality.

Norm is really concerned about moral relativism, although I think it's important to understand why people do what they do, and he may not think that's worth the effort.

Dick Stanley said...

Well, it's all relative to me. Except my relatives, who can get very specific most of the time.

SnoopyTheGoon said...

"that there is no absolute frame, no "ground" if you like, by means of which we can perceive objective reality."

Let's try to be precise, Dr. Dawg. It physics, as long as all the multiple observers follow the established rules, the results of observation will be different, depending on the observation point. This is not Einstein, by the way - rather Galileo or even somebody before...

However, all the results of such multiple observations are objective and adhere to the same rules (physical laws).

Relativism, however, requires different rules and different methodologies in different (social or other) environments, of necessity ending up in different and hardly objective results, depending on the observers political/ideological/philosophical/etc. preferences.

Those are two completely different approaches, and I don't even want to go into comparison of the two.

And from your remark re Norm's post: it could be important for an anthropoligist to understand why people like Taliban treat women worse than they would treat their dogs. I don't argue this point.

For Mr Fergusson, though, with his attempt to persuade the world to leave the Taliban better alone, I have nothing but contempt. And so does Norm, albeit in a post full of best of British  understatement.

Vicky said...

I love this relativity thing from a woman's point of view. Non-philosophical one, that is. What appeals to me is that the general theory of relativity's gravity model can be represented by a benwa ball resting on a taut fishnet stocking. That's where philosophy starts.

Izgad said...

"As Einstein sad"


SnoopyTheGoon said...

Oops. Thanks.