The War on Brains

In This video, Rachel Maddow explains recent developments in the world of anti-intellectualism

Apparently, conservapedia believes that nature is not relativistic.

The straw-man that they set up to defeat is a version of relativity plucked from the mind of someone who has had only a vague introduction to the topic, and who holds many misconceptions. The article is NOT talking about the theory that physicists actually work with. The author admits to not having learned how relativity is handled in more than one space dimension.

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?

Moreover, they expect to overturn science with fake references! Where you expect to see a citation for a peer reviewed journal article, you find poorly reasoned arguments instead.

If space were curved, one would never expect the universe as a whole to be almost precisely flat. Yet it is.

It is tempting to shrug this off as transparent nonsense. But, it is only transparent to a person who can differentiate between the straw-man version of relativity that is being challenged by these arguments and the real theory that scientists think about. After all, this is what science denialists rely on: it takes a specially trained eye to spot the difference between relativistic physics and a fake imitation. But, destroying the fake imitation convinces many untrained eyes that relativistic physics was nonsense all along.

Here’s an item by item debunking in case you need it

The Pioneer anomaly.
Anomalies in the locations of spacecraft that have flown by Earth (“flybys”).
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.[3]

There are real anomalies. It is possible that gravity will need to be modified. Scientists actively discuss modifications that would postdict these anomalies. But, throwing out relativity because of a few anomalies is the perfect solution fallacy.

The discontinuity in momentum as velocity approaches “c” for infinitesimal mass, compared to the momentum of light.

I have no idea what this means. The energy momentum relationship has an extra term when a particle has mass. But, this is not a challenge for relativity in any way.

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?

When physicists discuss mass, they are rarely talking about relativistic mass. This concept was popular in the early days of special relativity, and may still be popular in introductory courses. However, it is a confusing and unnecessary concept when thinking about relativity in more than one space dimension. In relativity, a force acting on a particle equals that particle’s (rest) mass times a time derivative of its (relativistic) momentum.

The only difference between Galilean physics and relativity is that one must put in the relativistic expression for the momentum.

The observed lack of curvature in overall space.[4]

The footnote claims that one would expect an overall curvature to the universe in general relativity, but we measure it to be flat. This is untrue. General relativity allows for the universe to be flat. However, there is a problem with flat universes being unstable. But, scientists have a well accepted explanation for how our universe came to be so flat that fits with general relativity.

The universe shortly after its creation, when quantum effects dominated and contradicted Relativity.

Very few physicists expect general relativity to be a fundamental theory on all distance scales. There are strong theoretical arguments to suggest that it should have a quantized version which would describe this early phase of the universe. But, just as Newtonian physics is true on many length scales, even though physics is quantum on others, gravity obeys general relativity on many length scales even though it is probably quantum on others. Any quantum theory of gravity will need to explain how general relativity comes about on large distance scales.

The action-at-a-distance of quantum entanglement.[5]

While there are interesting mysteries surrounding entanglement, there is no known way to use it to violate general relativity. This is why the footnote does not link to any articles.

The action-at-a-distance by Jesus, described in John 4:46-54.

The bible is not real evidence since it is unverifiable and unfalsifiable.

The failure to discover gravitons, despite wasting hundreds of millions in taxpayer money in searching.

No money has ever been spent attempting to detect a graviton. Detecting large classical collections of gravitons is our first challenge. Money is being spent on that, and the pursuit is useful science. But, no technology exists that would make detecting individual gravitons feasible, and so no taxpayer from any country has spent any money on it.

The inability of the theory to lead to other insights, contrary to every verified theory of physics.

General relativity has lead to insights in quantum gravity, semiclassical gravity, astrophysics, GPS technology, and mathematics. If the author were responding, I would expect him to claim these aren’t really insights, or they didn’t really come from general relativity.

The change in mass over time of standard kilograms preserved under ideal conditions.[6]

I have no idea what the author thinks this has to do with relativity.

The uniformity in temperature throughout the universe.[7]

The author is referring to the horizon problem. This is related to the flatness problem discussed above and most cosmologists can explain it without throwing out general relativity using inflation theory.

“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.”[8]

This is a real problem with general relativity. We do not know the quantum theory. But, the classical theory is true on the distance scales where we can test gravity.

The theory predicts wormholes just as it predicts black holes, but wormholes violate causality and permit absurd time travel.[9]

The presence of wormholes in the theory does not mean the universe will allow them to be created. Plus, if causality violation and absurd time travel are a part of our universe, they are a part of our universe. Lets find out and not toss away the ideas that make us uncomfortable.

The theory predicts natural formation of highly ordered (and thus low entropy) black holes despite the increase in entropy required by the Second Law of Thermodynamics.[10]

Actually, a black hole stores lots of entropy. Most of the entropy in our universe is in black holes. So, this is just a straightforward misconception.

Data from the PSR B1913+16 increasingly diverge from predictions of the General Theory of Relativity such that, despite a Nobel Prize in Physics being awarded for early work on this pulsar, no data at all have been released about it for over five years.

A reference would have been nice here. Even a fake one. Actually, the decay of the orbit is in “precise agreement with general relativity”.

The lack of useful devices 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.[11] This stands in stark contrast with every verified theory of science. The only devices based on relativity are the atom bomb, the nuclear power plant, and medical scans such as PET (Postitron Emmision Tomography), but they have destroyed far more lives than they have saved so they can hardly be considered useful.

Science theories are evaluated on their ability to explain experimental results, not on their ability to produce useful inventions. Even though it is untrue that general relativity is not technologically useful, this is hardly an attack on its status as a science theory. Mentioning the atom bomb is a common theme of anti-science fear mongering.

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.

Nope. This is related to the misconception above regarding the forces at right angles to the velocity. In multiple space dimensions, it is no longer convenient to use the concept of “relativistic mass”. In fact, it can lead to the misconception displayed above. Instead, one uses relativistic momentum, and there is no confusion.

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.

In nonrelativistic mechanics, momentum is mass times velocity. The misconception above comes from applying this equation to a massless particle, but this is not the right thing to do in relativistic mechanics. Instead, the relativistic prescription says that the momentum of the photon is proportional to its energy. So, light happily carries momentum even though it has no mass.

Unlike most well-tested fundamental physical theories, the theory of relativity violates conditions of a conservative field. Path independence, for example, is lacking under the theory of relativity, as in the “twin paradox” whereby the age of each twin under the theory is dependent on the path he traveled.[12]

The physics relevant to the twins paradox has been tested (for example, the time dilation of cosmic ray muons). It is true. Shouldn’t our theories reflect that fact? We shouldn’t throw away a theory because the way reality is makes us uncomfortable (although, this is a theme with science denialism).

The Ehrenfest Paradox: Consider a spinning hoop, where the tangential velocity is near the speed of light. In this case, the circumference (2πR) is length-contracted. However, since R is always perpendicular to the motion, it is not contracted. This leads to an apparent paradox: does the radius of the accelerating hoop equal R, or is it less than R?
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.[13]

It is a useful exercise to think of paradoxes. But, often, they only reveal problems with how people understand a theory and are not real problems with the theory itself. The twin’s paradox is normally discussed and resolved in introductory relativity courses as understanding it is one of the major hurdles to thinking like a relativist. The Ehrenfest paradox is a more sophisticated paradox and was a controversial open question in science for a long time. However, its resolution is discussed in the linked wiki article. The way to deal with paradoxes is to come up with a resolution or a better theory with fewer paradoxes, not throw away an otherwise good theory!

Relativity predicted that clocks at the Earth’s equator would be slower than clocks at the North Pole, due to different velocities; in fact, all clocks at sea level measure time at the same rate, and Relativists made new assumptions about the Earth’s shape to justify this contradiction of the theory.

Again, I haven’t heard of this and there is no reference. Again, not even a fake one. But, since relativity theory is well tested in the regime of Earth’s rotational speed and gravity, one could potentially use clocks to learn about Earth’s shape. Perhaps this is what they did!

Relativity claims the aether does not exist, but in order to make subatomic physics work right, theorists had to introduce the aether-like concept of the Higgs field, which fills all of space and breaks symmetries.

The aether was a hypothetical medium that light propagated through. The idea was falsified by the Michelson-Morley experiment. The Higgs field has nothing to do with light propagation, and we can happily have relativity without a Higgs. The Higgs is only needed so that other theories make sense and it plays no role in relativity (except that the Higgs field must obey relativity).

Minkowski space is predicated on the idea of four-dimensional vectors of which one component is time. However, one of the properties of a vector space is that every vector have an inverse. Time cannot be a vector because it has no inverse.

In relativity, we use four-vector notation as a matter of convenience. Actually, a spacetime event can be represented perfectly well with a real vector. That vector does have an additive inverse. But, if a person is uncomfortable with vector notation, the ideas of relativity can be written without them. It is much more cumbersome, but perhaps less offensive to some.

It is impossible to perform an experiment to determine whether Einstein’s theory of relativity is correct, or the older Lorentz aether theory is correct. Believing one over the other is a matter of faith.

You can differentiate between theories when they make different predictions about the outcome of experiments. In this case, they do! In aether theory, light propagates at the speed of light through a medium. Therefore, if one imagines the Earth passing through this medium, you should be able to measure a different speed of light in the direction of Earth’s velocity than in a direction at a right angle. We tried that. There is no difference in the speeds of light in different directions. So, it is absolutely not a matter of faith. It is a matter of science that relativity is true.

In Genesis 1:6-8, we are told that one of God’s first creations was a firmament in the heavens. This likely refers to the creation of the luminiferous aether.

Not real evidence. Unfalsifiable and unverifiable.

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5 thoughts on “The War on Brains

  1. It is absolutely absurd, with the amount of readily available information, that someone would publish such fallacious claims supported by nothing but misunderstood physics and the bible.

    Thank you for the concise yet detailed explanations of phenomena and with any luck, some of the people you write about may actually read this post.

  2. Like the blog.

    I have a few problems with some of your arguments. There are mostly minor technical ones, or I have the opinion that there is a better argument.

    But, the graviton one bugs me. I think in this incidence that you felt that every argument must be destroyed and you created a type of straw man.

    I think that taxpayer money somewhere was likely spent on theoretically determining whether we could detect gravitons. Differentiating between gravitons and gravitational waves is also splitting hairs to finely. That was not the point of that person’s argument. Wasting money is the argument.

    But, these are not the points I am trying to make. I think that, despite the fact that the comment came from a religious fanatic, an opinion on taxpayer money being spent on studying gravitons/gravitational waves/etc is a legitimate opinion to hold.

    So, I don’t think you should have bothered with this point in your blog.

    Just so you know, I think money should be spent on looking for gravitational waves.

    • You bring up a good point. Unfortunately, the author of the list was too brief in his comments to be unambiguous about what, precisely, his arguments are. So, there is some ambiguity in interpreting them. In an effort to be concise, I have focused on too narrow an interpretation of what the author meant. But, I’m happy to elaborate in the comments on any of the author’s comments or my own.

      In this case, the author is saying that non-discovery of gravitons is the counter example to relativity. The point I should have focused on is that gravitons interact so weakly with other forms of matter that physicists don’t EXPECT to see them (in their quantum form). So, there has been no searching for the graviton at all and no money has been spent building the experimental tools for searching for them. You are right that money has been spent on theoretical graviton research, and some of that has been determining if an experimental search would be feasible. This is money well spent because when the theorists discover that a graviton search is not feasible, you save taxpayer money by avoiding a large scale particle physics experiment to search for it. Theory is a relatively cheap investment to inform the expensive experimental work.

      Money is being spent on gravitation wave searches. And it is true that gravitational waves have not been directly discovered. But, this is not a counter example to relativity for two reasons: 1) there is indirect (but strong) evidence to suggest that gravitational waves are real and 2) we have not yet built a gravitational wave detector sensitive enough to detect the waves we expect to see.

      The indirect evidence of gravitational waves came from the Hulse-Taylor binary. This system is losing power at exactly the rate predicted by general relativistic gravitational wave emission. Scientists do not know of any other mechanism for this power loss to explain the effect without general relativity. So it is a strong indication that gravitational waves are being radiated from the binary system.

      Building a detector with enough sensitivity to see gravitational waves takes time. It is very delicate work, so the strategy is to build small scale systems that will not be sensitive enough so that you can develop the necessary technology and discover what the major obstacles will be before spending money on the full scale detector. This is what was done with LIGO. The first stage was a “practice” version of the detector so that those involved could learn how to build and operate a gravitational wave detector before investing huge amounts of money on a full scale detector. First stage LIGO is not sensitive enough to detect gravitational waves, but they are planning ‘enhanced’ and ‘advanced’ stages. According to the plan, LIGO is not expected to be a real observational tool until the ‘advanced’ stage, expected to be completed in 2014. The purpose of the stages is to be sensitive to spending money and time wisely and not leaping into the deep end with a full scale experiment from the beginning. So, the gravitational wave searches are going according to plan, thus far.

      Also, there are recent advances in pulsar timing which are very exciting for those interested in discovering gravitational waves!

      • I’d like to add to your statements about LIGO. While LIGO is going to be upgraded, NASA hopes to accompany the improved LIGO with LISA. LISA is a space-borne version of LIGO and will have an even wider field of detection. The two projects will complement each other, if and when NASA gets sufficient funding for it.

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