Relativity Denialist: A perfect example of "Not even wrong" (though he's actually wrong, too)

Dec 05 2007 Published by under ... the Hell?, Physics

Note: Wow, this post has gotten a lot of traffic!  I feel duty-bound to note, though, that mine is not the only analysis of this relativity crackpot: Blake Stacey at Science After Sunclipse has been compiling a list of some of the other responses, each of which has something a little different to say.   Everyone is in agreement that the crackpot is wrong, wrong, wrong!

I've talked a little bit about relativity denialists, for example in the form of biblical geocentrists. Relativity theory is a theory of both surreal consequences and profound implications, and it's not surprising that there are people out there that just don't like it. Not surprising, but completely annoying.

PZ Myers at Pharyngula, in an attempt to spread the misery and irritation that biologists experience in the form of evolution denialists, has posted a link to an article by a "mathematician graduate" who attempts to argue that Einstein's theory is more metaphysics than physics. Instead, he demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of physics (and mathematics), and demonstrates perfectly what the phrase "Not even wrong" means.

The article is jammed from beginning to end with falsehoods, misrepresentations, and just a whole lotta stupid. This in itself is a typical crackpot strategy: throw so much shit out there that people can't completely clean it all up; the lingering stench then counts as a 'victory'. We'll discuss some of the specific problems with the article in a moment, but let's start with a look at the overall 'argument'.

The summary, at the end of the article:

Mathematical models are composed of abstract, idealistic, imaginary characteristics and impossible objects which cannot exist in reality.

Physical models are composed of real physical objects in which all of the characteristics cannot be known or accurately measured.

CONCLUSION: Because of the totally different systems (math and physics) in which these two models are conceived and utilized:

1. The deductive conclusions from the abstract math model cannot be applied to the physical model. To do this, produces the fallacy of analogy abuse. Analogies are used in science to help convey ideas, not to form judgments or inferences.

2. Also because of this difference, the two types of models cannot be mixed or mingled. This only produces metaphysical, sophistical, pseudoscience models which have nothing to do with reality and produce no physical conclusions whatsoever. Metaphors and allegories are literary devices not appropriate in scientific theories.

The failure of the Special Theory of Relativity to produce conclusions which were logically and physically sound, essentially resulted from a repeated failure to recognize this relationship between mathematics and physics. From imaginary sophistical metaphysical models, the Special Theory produces conclusions which are contradictory to reality and contrary to common sense.

Let's start at the end: "the Special Theory produces conclusions which are... contrary to common sense." Here the author demonstrates a complete lack of knowledge of the history of science in general, and physics in particular. Most of the scientific discoveries of the past 300 years, at least, were "contrary to common sense." Among them: the idea that the Earth essentially orbits the Sun, the idea that microorganisms cause disease, the idea that the Earth's crust consists of floating continents, the idea that the Earth is spherical, and so on. Common sense is a terrible technique for understanding physical reality. Even something so simple as the idea that a projectile will follow a parabolic arc was not "common sense" until the time of Galileo:

Scientists from the time of Galileo onwards have understood that "common sense" is quite unhelpful in understanding the way the world works.

Now let's look at the main point of the article: the author claims that mathematics deals with "abstract, idealistic, imaginary characteristics and impossible objects which cannot exist in reality," while physics deals with "real physical objects in which all of the characteristics cannot be known or accurately measured," and apparently leads to the conclusion that "the two types of models cannot be mixed or mingled." To use a mathematical model to predict physical reality is apparently engaging is "metaphysics." Long story short: to be charitable, he seems to be arguing that if you use a mathematical model to predict a physical effect, you might get a wrong answer, and therefore you shouldn't do it.

Unfortunately for him, this again demonstrates how little he understands about scientific work. Physicists are constantly using mathematics to model physical processes, and those mathematical models often suggest some new physical effect. A good physicist will then look for that effect, and if they find it, the model has some validity; if not, the model is scrapped. Predictive power is an important aspect of any physical theory, and quantitative predictions only come from using mathematical tools. What the author calls "metaphysics" a physicist would call a "hypothesis."

So his central thesis demonstrates a complete ignorance of science. Is his argument logically sound? I would say not; it seems to be a perfect example of a false dilemma: pretend that there are only two possibilities or answers to a particular problem, and ignore the middle ground. You can either do mathematics, which involves abstract, imaginary things that don't exist, or you can do physics, which involves taking measurements of mushy, real world things, and nary the twain shall meet. The middle ground he's leaving out is what most people would call "science." No physicist believes that a mathematical model is a perfect representation of reality, but a good model can be a damn good approximation to reality. For instance, quantum electrodynamic theory agrees with experiment to about 0.00000000001%, which is quite amazing. To pretend there's no value in this, or 'meaning' to it, is idiotic.

There's also a very nice straw man in his argument: "The deductive conclusions from the abstract math model cannot be applied to the physical model. To do this, produces the fallacy of analogy abuse." The implication here is that somehow we believe the mathematics without any physical evidence, which is completely wrong. The combined math/physical models in science are constantly being tested; this includes special relativity, which is tested again any time anyone figures out a new way to do so. The author would have you believe that physicists just said, "Well, the math looks good; let's not investigate further."

So we take serious issue with both the author's understanding of science and his logic. There's lots more to criticize here, but I'll get back to that in part II later tonight; I've got to meet some people for dinner!

6 responses so far