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Time Warp: On Right-Wing Rejections of Science

Recent right-wing rejections of Einstein’s theory of relativity echo Nazi dismissals of what they called ‘Jewish Physics’

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Clifford K. Berryman cartoon of Albert Einstein and a man working on his income tax, 1929. (Library of Congress)

In a slow mid-summer news cycle this year, Albert Einstein found himself unwittingly in the pantheon of the right’s culture-war targets, which already included Darwin, atheists, and paleontology. In August, the liberal-leaning site TPMMuckraker discovered that a conservative website called Conservapedia had labeled Einstein’s theory of relativity a liberal conspiracy. Conservapedia, meanwhile, had been founded in 2006 by Andrew Schlafly, the son of conservative political activist Phyllis Schlafly, with the announced purpose to counter the “liberal bias” of the user-written and -edited online encyclopedia Wikipedia while mimicking its aesthetic. Conservapedia looks to change the record on, among other topics, Richard Dawkins, the causes of homosexuality, “Hollywood values,” global warming, Barack Obama, and Judaism. (“The Talmud is another ancient Jewish writing considered by some Jews to contain traditions dating back to Moses himself,” it says.) Einstein joins this list under articles on the “Theory of relativity” and “Counterexamples to Relativity.” The latter describes relativity as “heavily promoted by liberals who like its encouragement of relativism and its tendency to mislead people in how they view the world.”

This is not the first time Einstein has met political resistance. In 1905, then working at the Swiss Patent Office in Bern, Einstein proposed that time and space formed a four-dimensional continuum with an absolute value for the speed of light, and he worked out the essential consequences of this very simple picture: special relativity. Ten years later, working in Zurich but also in Berlin, he incorporated the effects of masses and developed the theory of general relativity. The reaction in the scientific community was both a burst of experimental activity testing these theories’ predictions and a backlash of skepticism and confusion. Special relativity describes how observers moving steadily with respect to one another see measurements of space and time in the other’s frame. General relativity extended special relativity to include the possibilities of accelerating observers and predicted what happens around nearby masses. Together, the theories thoroughly upended accepted notions of space and time, and they remained controversial enough that when Einstein was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1921, it was for his work on the photoelectric effect, not relativity.

Some objections to relativity—the special and general theories are joined with this one word—were honest ones, part of the cooperative enterprise of science. The worldview that had become habitual was that the natural world was propagated on an ether, a kind of invisible loom on which the universe’s tapestry could be woven—God’s very “firmament” of Genesis 1:6-8, according to Conservapedia. Special relativity eliminated the ether. General relativity was first of all technically hard to understand, and secondly the changes it made to the predictions of the prevailing theory of gravitation—credited to Isaac Newton and dating to 1666—were only very fine ones, and small predicted effects are hard to test for. Moreover, general relativity was philosophically a radical departure from Newton’s description of gravity; Einstein’s general relativity shows that space-time is curved in the presence of masses. It was no wonder that even many physicists were honestly discomfited by relativity.

But other objections to Einstein’s ideas were not honest. Some German scientists, still harboring nationalist resentments from World War I and its aftermath (such as over English becoming the leading scientific language), found Einstein’s Jewish background, as well as his outspoken opposition to war, to be more offensive than his science. Einstein was called a “plagiarist”; his theory was called a “hoax.” And as Walter Isaacson recounts in his biography of Einstein, in 1921, a Munich party functionary named Adolf Hitler echoed a prevailing sentiment when he wrote disparagingly in a newspaper, “Science, once our greatest pride, is today being taught by Hebrews.”

When the Nazis came to power in Germany, opportunistic anti-Semitic physicists, including Nobel Prize winners such as Philipp Lenard and Johannes Stark, assailed Einstein. Lenard and Stark were not pure ideologues, at least in the earlier parts of their careers. Both made substantial Nobel-worthy discoveries in classical physics. But whether out of spite, bigotry, professional jealousy, or ignorance, Lenard publicly attacked Einstein, perhaps most famously during a 1920 meeting of the Deutscher Naturforscher-Gesellschaft, a typical scientific congress, when he said Einstein lacked common sense. (Einstein is said to have replied, “May I point out to my colleague Lenard that common sense is something very relative,” a wise-ass remark that wouldn’t have endeared him to anyone.) Privately, Lenard scribbled furious, hateful, and uncomprehending margin notes on Einstein’s 1905 article in the academic journal Z. fur Physik that established special relativity and among other things declared the now-famous equivalence of energy and mass. But this was hardly just a personal disagreement.

Under National Socialism, Lenard and Stark’s very visible attempts to discredit Einstein’s ideas on relativity were concurrent with the development of an ideologically driven Aryan version of science known as Deutsche-Physik, which adhered more closely to the classical model. Hitler himself was the symbolic leader, and said to be the premier scientist, of his nation’s physics, which was aligning with other areas of intellectual life in the prewar period in its opposition to all things non-Aryan. Deutsche-Physik represented the now unpleasantly familiar idea of a brutish political mechanism rejecting uncomfortable if well-founded science.

That new science came to be known in Nazi Germany as “Jewish Physics,” in opposition to Deutsche-Physik.  “Bad” Einsteinian ideas, and those having to do with the thoroughly revolutionary science of quantum physics, comprised a threat to the absolutism of an established order. Special relativity did away with the ether, and thereby long careers dedicated to its study. General relativity, for its part, was non-intuitive: There was no way to directly visualize through human experience the curvature of space-time. As with many paradigm shifts, scientists of the old guard turned on other scientists rather than refuting the new science, lacking the tools to do so. Relativity was deemed too “theoretical,” too mathematical, too abstract. And though relativity had nothing to do with moral relativism, it still seemed to hint at a rejection of absolute certainty, and therefore order.

Einstein, already a controversial and convulsive figure by virtue of his outspoken pacifism and the revolutionary nature of his ideas, became the figurehead of “Jewish Physics.” Jewish physicists, who for a very long time had had to fight the anti-Semitic policies of some German universities, along with many of the German physicists who defended Einstein’s work, suffered slander, lost their academic posts, or went into exile. These included the quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg, who was neither Jewish nor politically active. In 1937, Stark publicly called Heisenberg a “White Jew”: In Nazi Germany this would have had serious negative consequences had Heisenberg not also had a remote personal connection to Heinrich Himmler.

***

At least part of the current hostility to relativity seems to stem from abuse of Einstein’s ideas outside of physics. The most noteworthy of these—directly cited in Conservapedia—is an article written by Laurence H. Tribe, the influential Harvard constitutional lawyer who argued for the losing side in Bush v. Gore in 2000 and later served as judicial adviser to the presidential campaign of his former student Barack Obama. Tribe’s 1989 essay, titled “The Curvature of Constitutional Space: What Lawyers can Learn from Modern Physics,” makes vague analogies based on a misunderstanding of Einstein’s ideas and those of quantum physics to discuss constitutional law. Tribe sees, for example, an equivalent to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in the way “the very act of judging alters the context and relationships being judged.” It may have been the fashion in academia in the late 1980s to find social and cultural relevance in scientific thought—and judging may indeed have an effect on society—but courtroom law has nothing to do with ideas about the physical world. (It was in 1992, in fact, that Noam Chomsky called the postmodern idea of science as a cultural construct—“the entire idea of ‘white male science’ ”—reminiscent of “Jewish Physics.”)

That Tribe’s description of what the American right now calls an “activist judge” was so egregious a misappropriation of an essential aspect of quantum physics was not what troubled those who now question relativity. Tribe’s conflation of Einstein’s relativity with moral relativism was for them, instead, evidence of something deeper. Tribe had published his essay in the Harvard Law Review and had acknowledged, among others, then-27-year-old Barack Obama for his “analytic and research assistance.” A few months later, Obama would become the first African-American president of the Review, and Tribe and Obama would continue to be closely linked. Last February, Tribe was appointed by Obama to his unusual position—one created just for him—at the Department of Justice. As Conservapedia puts it in its entry for “Theory of relativity,” under the subheading “Political aspects of relativity”:

Some liberal politicians have extrapolated the theory of relativity to metaphorically justify their own political agendas. For example, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama helped publish an article by liberal law professor Laurence Tribe to apply the relativistic concept of “curvature of space” to promote a broad legal right to abortion.

As the Conservapedia version goes, Einstein is at the root of a Great Liberal Conspiracy. His work is not science but a foundation for radicalism; relativity is not a scientific theory but the advance guard for an all-out assault on the edifice of fundamental conservatism and, by extension, on absolute authority.

There is no overt or direct anti-Semitism in Conservapedia’s articles on relativity. There are instead a list of 30 “counterexamples to relativity” that purport to discredit Einstein’s theories. The list comprises outright falsehoods, miscalculations, deep misunderstandings of relativity and of the nature of science, and irrelevancies, such as biblical events. For example, Jesus violated special relativity’s proscription against speeds faster than light when he turned water into wine in Galilee (John 4:46).

***

What makes a theory in physical science? For a set of ideas to be “scientific,” they must have testable consequences. The Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus was likely the first, roughly 2,500 years ago, to lay out the idea that all observed events have discoverable causes. It’s an idea that—because it wrests authority from man and hands it to nature—has not always been politically acceptable. But Western civilization has used it for some 500 years to bring humanity a very long way in a short space of time. When a set of physical ideas sets up a framework that has quantitatively testable consequences for a range of phenomena—and those tests bear up—then this framework in science is called a theory.

The word has little to do with the detective who when he finds a dead man in a closed room announces a theory for how the crime was committed. “Only a theory,” is a dismissive phrase, one often heard in ignorant refutations of evolution, geology, modern medicine, and global warming. But the word is high praise in physical science, where it indicates depth of meaning and breadth of application.

In science, a theory is not a closed system, perfectly insular and complete. The degree and care with which a theory has been tested (and shown to hold up) bolsters its credibility, but does not shelter it from further testing. In science, there is no such thing as “completed testing” of a theory. Isaac Newton’s theory of gravitation makes testable predictions that are nearly perfect. Einstein’s general relativity makes all the predictions of Newtonian gravitation with tiny—and not so tiny in certain astronomical domains—corrections. Do the corrections required by general relativity show up in the data gathered from tests of those predictions? Every time. For example, Newtonian gravity predicts that the orbit of a planet around a perfectly spherical uniform sun is closed—it precisely comes back around to its original position. The presence of other planets, or a slightly non-spherical sun, Newtonian gravity holds, can cause the orbit not to close. General relativity introduces on top of all the Newtonian predictions a further calculable, tiny, but testable adjustment to the orbit.

General relativity, like all scientific theories before and after it, is subject to further testing, which may make it fail. This is precisely what happened to Newton’s theory. Despite the power and accuracy of the predictions general relativity makes about gravitation in the observable world, it has for a long time been known to be incomplete. When physicists try to incorporate quantum mechanics into general relativity, serious technical difficulties arise. There have been some ideas proposed that get around these difficulties—like “string theory”—but these ideas have yet to produce unique testable predictions that are within our current technological reach. As our understanding of the universe grows, general relativity will eventually be replaced by another, more complete, theory.

Yet contrary to the view of Conservapedians, relativity qualifies as extremely successful. Nuclear power plants, PET scanners in hospitals, and radioactive tracers, for example, all have critical aspects provided by relativity. The GPS in your phone, car, or airplane works by seeing how the signals from precise atomic clocks ticking away in satellite orbit (moving at nearly 9,000 mph) are received at the position of the detecting device. When there are several orbiting clocks emitting such signals, then a detector at different distances from them will receive the signals delayed, and triangulation off the two clocks provides a position. But for triangulation to work with enough accuracy to be useful, you have to know very precisely the rate at which the clocks tick. Both special and general relativity describe calculable adjustments to the clocks’ ticking rates—since the theories predict how clocks run at different speeds when moving relative to the observer or under the influence of large masses like the Earth. Without relativity to accurately predict these effects, a GPS system might tell us that we are 10 miles off the Jersey shore even if we are standing in Times Square. For its part, Conservapedia cites a 1997 web posting to erroneously note that “GPS satellites are synchronized to Coordinated Universal Time by radio signals from the ground; therefore, they cannot currently be used to test general relativity.” Strangely, that same source reads: “GPS provides a rich source of examples for the applications of the concepts of relativity.”

There’s another real-world device that can be used to test relativity, of course. The device was developed by exiled European scientists working off the theoretical concepts of what the Nazis called “Jewish Physics.” Like Einstein’s relativity, the device overturned a habitual worldview by providing a radical new vision of the world. And the device did more than re-prove Einstein’s powerful theory: It ended World War II, and it tragically proved that “Jewish Physics” in fact provided a useful and accurate description of the physical world.

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“Recent right-wing rejections of Einstein’s theory of relativity echo Nazi dismissals of what they called ‘Jewish Physics’”

Can’t Tablet find better ideas to serve your readers than this ridiculous piece about some unknown publication, Conservapedia, in order to give the impression that right wingers are crazies and following Nazi rejectionism?

rlgordonma says:

asherZ,

Conservapedia may be unknown to you, but it is well-known to multitudes of religious home-schoolers, for which it exists. The person behind the Conservapedia project is the son of Phyllis Schlafly, the Schlafly name being what it remains.

Conservapedia follows a religious anti-Semitism. It rejects any tolerance of any ideas outside of its narrow Scriptural interpretations. The audience consists mainly of what Charles Pierce has called the Gut People, those who disdain science and merely need just one website that confirms their beliefs to reject anything scientifically established.
Evolution was just the beginning. Besides attacking that, they attack Relativity and even Galileo.

I think Fishbane is correct in drawing a straight line from Johannes Stark to Conservapedia, in that both subscribe to a fascist tradition in rejecting objective authority and putting in its place the authority of their own god.

Jonathan says:

I don’t understand your statement that Conservapedia is changing the record on Judaism, at least based on this quote:

(“The Talmud is another ancient Jewish writing considered by some Jews to contain traditions dating back to Moses himself,” it says)

That appears to be a relatively accurate description of the Talmud. How is that changing the record?

A very important article, one to keep and accessible to the non-scientist.

Re: “The Talmud is another ancient Jewish writing considered by some Jews to contain traditions dating back to Moses himself,”

This is the Traditional – Orthodox Jewish view: the Talmud is known as “Torah Sh’Balpeh” (Oral Teaching) from the time of Moses, as opposed to the “Torah Sh’Becsav” (Written Teachin), commonly known as the Tanach or Hebrew Bible. The “Torah Sh’Balpeh” (Oral Teaching) gets elaborated on and written down in the early Common Era in Babylonia (Talmud Baveli) and in the Holy Land (Talmud Yerashalmi)- these are commonly referred to as the Talmud.

So at least in this area, the Conservapedia is correct.

I have to concur with Jonathan – this was a weak point in an otherwise very interesting article. The entry on Judaism in Conservapedia is incomplete, and often inaccurate, yet it doesn’t appear to have a particular anti-Jewish bias or agenda. I wouldn’t use it to describe Judaism, but there are many web resources out there, Jewish and otherwise, that fall I would describe similarly.

In Richard Feynman’s autobiography, he recounts giving a talk at the Inst for Advanced Studies at the time that Einstein was there. Another member of the audience, Paul Dirac, noticed an inconsistency between the theory that Feynman was presenting and Einstein’s theory of relativity. At that time, Einstein, who was in the audience, pointed out that no one was sure whether relativity was correct. (I may be wrong on the exact detail – but this was the main point.)

Feynman points out that one of the greatest things about Einstein was the humility and scientific skepticism he displayed towards everything. Both Conservapedia and TPMMuckraker would do well to learn from this example.

Another point: it seems from the above quotes that Conservapedia is attacking the use of relativity as a concept in legal/ethical debates. Since relativity is a theory based on relative frameworks with regard to the question of the speed of light, it makes no sense to apply it elsewhere. Finally, relativity is probably widely misunderstood. It does provide an absolute frame of reference. That frame of reference is the speed of light being a constant. This leads to all kinds of counter-intuitive results. But there is still an absolute.

Bitter Scribe says:

Relativity, as the author points out in the last paragraph of this excellent post, got us the atomic fucking bomb. With results like that, how can anyone doubt it exists?

(I didn’t know that about GPS systems. Fascinating.)

Murali Murti says:

The final paragraph was excellent.

But it would have been truly outstanding had it also acknowledged that everything the Manhattan Project was able to achieve was also almost, ALMOST, matched by a much smaller German team under the leadership of – who else but – Werner Heisenberg, the White Jew.

http://www.thebigview.com/spacetime/uncertainty.html

(It is interesting that Heisenberg seems to have been a more sincere believer in relativity than Einstein himself !!)

Six months more in 1945 and the world would have looked very much like the map given at the beginning of Robert Harris’s “Fatherland”.

William Stone says:

There is little doubt that Heisenberg and Germany were no where even close to having a nuclear program that could have produced an atomic bomb. The historical question regarding Heisenberg is whether he acted to thwart the undertaking of such a project. This is addressed by Thomas Powers in his book “Heisenberg’s War” and also more recently in an exchange with “Copenhagen” play write MIchael Frayn.

Torbjörn Larsson, OM says:

It is quite appalling that everyone bears in their pocket a device that immediately falsification tests special relativity (which after all is used to predict basic chemical energies and specific solid state electron behavior used in phones) but also general relativity, and some dismiss this fact!

And forget the atomic bomb, *life* bear witness of relativity as it predicts chemical bonding energy. Without relativity we could still do chemistry, but we wouldn’t understand why it works.

“Evolution was just the beginning. Besides attacking that, they attack Relativity and even Galileo.”

With all respect to the author of the erudite article, but I believe the attack on relativity originated (perhaps mostly) in post-semitic creationist need to reject deep time and flag a couple of thousand year as the universe age. There are specific arguments and links from the “relativity” topic.

“relativity is probably widely misunderstood. It does provide an absolute frame of reference. That frame of reference is the speed of light being a constant.”

Actually, it provides two when it is used in standard cosmology as it must. (Which btw falsification tests GR well to very large distances.) The cosmic background radiation of the universe provides another absolute frame by its existence. (I.e. we can see how the Sun moves in relation to it.)

Steve D says:

The author really nails the point with “At least part of the current hostility to relativity seems to stem from abuse of Einstein’s ideas outside of physics.” Whereas Newtonian physics was used in a positive way philosophically, the tendency since the 19th century has been to use science in support of solipsism. Thus we have Tribe’s twaddle, people who think Einstein showed “everything is relative,” people who argue that there’s no absolute truth because 1+1=2 in normal math but 1+1=ten in binary (I actually heard a MATHEMATICIAN say that!)*, yada, yadda, gag, barf. If thr right attacked the abuses, they’d be doing a service, but they’re neither philosophically nor scientifically literate enough to do that, so they attack the science itself; first evolution, now relativity.

Also, the cosmic background radiation is a framework against which we can measure the sun’s velocity, but we cannot exclude the possibility that the CBR itself might be moving with respect to a larger universe. So it’s not as absolute as the speed of light.

By the way, Einstein did not “prove” there are no absolute reference frames. He showed they are unneccessary in physics, which is not the same thing.

* Re: 1+1 = 2 vs. 1+1=10. one plus one equals two in all notations. Just because we write it “10” in binary doesn’t make it ten.

shriber says:

I wonder how many conservatives who reject Einstein understand his theories? Can any of them decode E=mc2?

Phillip Cohen says:

This was an informative article by Paul Fishbane. It was a review of many things I had forgot over the years. It was quite enlightening.

Excellent article.
This phrase from “Conservapedia” is particularly revealing :
“relativity is not a scientific theory but the advance guard for an all-out assault on the edifice of fundamental conservatism and, by extension, on absolute authority.”
– This all out “assault on authority” seems to be an important current in the resistance to Einsteins’s work (and generally anything which can shake up the world view of those in power – Copernicus, Galileo being persecuted by the Catholic church, etc.) and shows the tight relationship between US ultra-conservative thought, and its total, almost totalitarian, deference to authority, which can be very destructive.

“Jesus violated special relativity’s proscription against speeds faster than light when he turned water into wine in Galilee (John 4:46)”
– Absolutely mind-boggling, total ignorance on display…
A lot of this gobbledy-goo stems from the fact that many simply don’t bother trying to understand Relativity – which results in all types of vague, peudo-rationales and ideas which have nothing at all to do with science.

Peter E Dant says:

Thank You Steve D – you reminded me of a statement:
“There are 10 types of people in the world – those who understand binary mathematics and those who don’t.”

shriber says:

“Time Warp:” “Recent right-wing rejections of Einstein’s theory of relativity echo Nazi dismissals of what they called ‘Jewish Physics’”

Some wag said, tragic history repeats itself, the second time as FARCE.

Rafael says:

Conservapedia does not have anti-Jewish bias?

About two thirds of the way down, there is a section on the Jewish “Life Cycle”. Not “rites of passage”, not “sacraments” but “Life Cycle”.

Surely you don’t need a PhD in history or linguistics to see the deep evil inherent in that phrase.

The problem with using Conservapedia as an example of anything is that bored trolls try to make the articles a ridiculous as possible while still passing the casual inspection of an editor. This may just be another instance of Poe’s Law.

J ROSEN says:

@shriber: The wag in question was Karl Marx, writing about Napoleon III.

“The Talmud is another ancient Jewish writing considered by some Jews to contain traditions dating back to Moses himself” –

Someone help me out here. That statement is true. Many consider the Talmud Torah sh’ b’ al peh – oral tradition going back to Sinai. What’s the problem?

Nice blog here! Also your web site loads up fast! What web host are you using? Can I get your affiliate link to your host? I wish my site loaded up as fast as yours lol

I’ve said that least 1678503 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

Eliezer Pennywhistler says:

It was the Michaelson-Morley experiment in 1877 that disproved the existence of the aether – not Einstein’s Special Relativity.

Does anyone actually use this right-wing echo chamber device? What would happen if a student quoted it in a non-homeschool science class?

Eliezer Pennywhistler says:

More bullshit from the right-wing Fundamentalists:

“Most Muslims and Christians, including Messianic Jews, however, consider the theological findings and argumentation of the Talmud to be invalid after the advent of the birth of Jesus Christ.”

And “Messianic Judaism” is listed as one of the “five large branches within Judaism”.

“The Return of the Jews to Israel is seen as a fulfillment of the Scriptures and is called Kibbutz Galuyot, the ingathering of the Exiles.”

And “Jewish humor” is a major listing, right after “Jewish identity”.

“The Sign of the Cross: of Jewish Origin” is a particular favourite of mine.

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Time Warp: On Right-Wing Rejections of Science

Recent right-wing rejections of Einstein’s theory of relativity echo Nazi dismissals of what they called ‘Jewish Physics’

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