The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

More Physics Woo: The Einstein Cranks

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 19, 2009

What the hell is it about Einstein’s theories of relativity?  For some reason, physics cranks seem to have a fetish for trying to undo or modify relativity in an effort to push their own “theories” of physics.  In the process, these folks often display a glaring lack of understanding of the very physics they are proposing to overthrow, and sometimes they even venture into the realm of conspiracy mongering. I like to refer to this particular species of woo as the “Einstein cranks.”

225px-Einstein1921_by_F_Schmutzer_4

In particular, I have had an interesting series of discussions recently with one such physics crank on the JREF Forum. Allow me to illustrate some examples of how various physics woo-meisters often get physics dead wrong and display logical fallacies of all stripes when making their arguments.

It all started when a guy nicknamed “MacM” came on the Science, Math & Technology section of the JREF Forum claiming that he’d show how the scientific community had relativity all wrong.  If you feel like shoving your head through a cheesegrater, go read the thread for yourself. For the purposes of this post, I will just give some of the highlights…

MacM attempts to outline why it is that the physics community is incorrect in applying special relativity.  After going round and round with him multiple times, along with many others well versed in relativity doing the same, it became apparent that he was basically creating a straw man of relativity theory, claiming that it says things it does not.  In addition, he was failing to understand some of the most fundamental principles of the very theory he was criticizing, such as insisting in the existence of some absolute frame of reference (called the “aether frame”) when experiments have shown consistently that none exists.

Next, MacM displays a shocking ignorance of many aspects of physics in his arguments.  Not only did he (intentionally?) misrepresent relativity theory in his posts, but he also screwed up various aspects of classical Newtonian mechanics as well, including – though not limited to – inertial vs. non-inertial frames of reference, centrifugal forces, freely-falling motion & apparent weightlessness, the conservation of linear momentum, and Newton’s 2nd Law (F=ma).  Yet, when his errors were very clearly and on numerous occasions pointed out to him, he either ignored or ridiculed the criticism.

In addition, despite his appalling lack of physics understanding, it seems that MacM also has an equally appalling lack of necessary mathematical know-how.  In fact, despite his repeatedly claimed expertise, he seemed to almost disdain math because it didn’t fit with his “common sense” views on the matter.  For example, when I clearly pointed out to him (complete with fully worked out mathematical derivation) that his insistence that Newton’s 2nd Law (F=ma) applied in special relativity was dead wrong, he ignored the derivation and flatly declared that “all this math is just a waste of time.”  Yet when he thinks it’ll score points for him, he pulls very bad & inconsistent math out of his butt to (he thinks) reinforce his arguments.  This kind of “heads I win, tails you lose” method of argumentation is par for the course for many pseudoscientific cranks, and it shows how they are not really interested in genuine inquiry, just “winning the argument.”

Another interesting tidbit in our collective interaction with MacM was when he claimed that he had actually built a device (he called it an “inertial drive”) which violated the known laws of energy & momentum conservation (also known as a perpetual motion device).  The thread on the JREF Forum is here, but a quick summary of it reveals that he is either lying about his claims or (more likely) just so ignorant of the physics involved that he really does believe that he’s done what he says he’s done.  Yet, again, when his errors were pointed out – repeatedly and at length – he simply retreated to his same, tired accusations that we didn’t know what we were talking about and he had the truth all along.  In fact, his behavior smacked quite strongly of a conspiracy theorist in this regard.

MacM seems to have given up on these threads.  I think the final nail in the coffin for him was when some posters told him to simply go out and make his device work exactly as he claims it would.  In fact, more than one poster challenged him to apply for the JREF Million Dollar Challenge (or even the Nobel Prize).  He has yet to take up the gauntlet of said challenge…

So why is it that these “Einstein cranks” go after relativity so much?  I think it is at least partly because the notion of Einstein as a lone scientist working to overcome the prevailing paradigm in physics appeals to them (of course, in reality Einstein had many contemporaries with whom he worked on relativity).  Perhaps the tendancy to view Einstein as a kind of independent and anti-authoritarian figure in science who attained fame & glory gives them the sense that if they overthrow his ideas on relativity that they’ll attain even greater fame.  Who really knows?  I’m not a psychologist, I’m a physicist – and what I can tell you is most of these “Einstein cranks” don’t know the first thing about physics.

In fact, I’ll go further… it seems to me that many of them do the same kind of thing many creationists do when attacking evolution – they almost intentionally misrepresent physics so that they can attempt to topple what they think physics is with some crackpot notion they’ve dreamed up.

It could very well be that, in the end, Einstein is wrong and that relativity theory will eventually be relegated to the dustbin of scientific history.  But it is going to take more than the wild-eyed insistence on the part of pseudoscientists on the Internet to topple relativity.  If anything will topple Einstein’s theory, it is going to be from within science, due to a careful application of the same thinking which led to the very paradigm shift he championed.

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33 Responses to “More Physics Woo: The Einstein Cranks”

  1. nathan said

    I chose not to engage MacM directly, because it looked like the equivalent of arguing with a pig. Anyway, what really stunned me was that MacM has been nurturing his pet ‘theory’ for over 50 years — he has so much of his life invested in it that it is impossible for him to discover he is wrong.

    It seems to me that many (most? all?) of these cranks work away in their basements isolated from discourse, and invent magical explanations that they then look for confirming evidence. But they don’t have a rigorous definition of their theory (possibly because they’ve never seen a real rigorous theory, only media-adapted explanations of complexity), nor do they look for contradictory evidence. When they come to announce their theory to the world, there’s far too much emotional baggage for them to listen to alternative viewpoints.

    One telling question to ask such a crank is ‘what evidence would persuade you that you are wrong?’

  2. Badrescher said

    I have actually never gotten into a relativity discussion with a crank, but I’ve been in plenty of discussion with Quantum Flapdoodle proponents. I think “What the Bleep Do We Know” set off sparks for a lot of spiritual pseudo-intellectuals…

  3. Badrescher said

    BTW, I am a psychologist – one who studies this exact behavior – and I cannot tell you why people do this. I meet many in the cyber-world (comments on blogs, in forums, etc.) who are obviously narcissistic, and this bloke may fall into that category. However, the behavior is just an exaggerated version of what typical people tend to do with information.

  4. Ken More said

    Dear skeptical teacher,

    It will serve you well to be skeptical. Please read the following quote from Albert Einstein who encouraged scientists to be “cranks”. You should take his comments seriously. He should know about the problems that “cranks” have with the memorization savants who dominate the physics establishment; he was once considered a “crank” himself.

    “Concepts that have proven useful in ordering things easily achieve such authority over us that we forget their earthly origins and accept them as unalterable givens. Thus they might come to be stamped as necessities of thought, a priori givens, etc. The path of scientific progress is often made impassable for a long time by such errors. Therefore, it is by no means an idle game if we become practiced in analyzing long-held commonplace concepts and showing the circumstances on which their justification and usefulness depend, and how they have grown up, individually, out of the givens of experience. Thus their excessive authority will be broken. They will be removed if they cannot be properly legitimated, corrected if their correlation with given things be far too superfluous, or replaced if a new system can be established that we prefer for whatever reason”.

    Also, please read the following two paragraph quote from Einstein that express his own skepticism about his relativity theories due to his lifetime problem of not being able to reconcile Special Relativity with General Relativity:

    “All attempts to obtain a deeper knowledge of the foundations of physics seem doomed to me unless the basic concepts are in accordance with general relativity from the beginning. This situation makes it difficult to use our empirical knowledge, however comprehensive, in looking for the fundamental concepts and relations of physics, and it forces us to apply free speculation to a much greater extent than is presently assumed by most physicists.”

    “I do not see any reason to assume that the heuristic significance of the principle of general relativity is restricted to gravitation and that the rest of physics can be dealt with separately on the basis of special relativity, with the hope that later on the whole may be fitted consistently into a general relativistic scheme. I do not think that such an attitude, although historically understandable, can be objectively justified. The comparative smallness of what we know today as gravitational effects is not a conclusive reason for ignoring the principle of general relativity in theoretical investigations of a fundamental character. In other words, I do not believe that it is justifiable to ask: What would physics look like without gravitation?”

  5. Your characterization fits the 9/11 “Truthers” exactly we deal with over on the 9/11 Conspiracy forum of JREF. The same woo asserted repeatedly day after day, year after year.

    Researchers, however, found that these people suffer from Apantophobia, a mental condition prevalent during the Bubonic Plague (Black Death) pandemic of 1347 – 1350.
    ;-)

  6. Rohedi said

    Would you like to explore more Einstein relativity theories? Rohedi thinks you must remember again the basic formula of pythagoras relations used by Einstein in governing his relativity theories. Okay, further Rohedi invites you all to look pi(Phi) formula at http://eqworld.ipmnet.ru/forum/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=157.

  7. Gary Ansorge said

    Someone once pointed out that many people of genius are somewhat odd, but being odd doesn’t make one a genius.
    I once had a musician friend who purposely acted weird, in hopes people would thereby attribute his weirdness to his being a genius but he wasn’t a genius. He was just sad,,,

    The word genius is really only applicable to “one who creates something new” and,,,it has to work,,,

    Peace,

    GAry 7

  8. Rohedi said

    Okay Gary, Rohedi agree with your opinion. Next, let’s you look Rohedi’s technique in formulating the circumference and area of circle at http://eqworld.ipmnet.ru/forum/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=26515, maybe it will be useful for you and all here. Please leave some comments on the article. Happy with you.

  9. […] More Physics Woo: The Einstein Cranks […]

  10. Hugh Troy said

    “It could very well be that, in the end, Einstein is wrong and that relativity theory will eventually be relegated to the dustbin of scientific history.”

    At some point in the future relativity may be gobbled up by a better approximation, like Newton’s was by relativity. The singularities predicted to be inside black holes are the first signs that relativity “canna take it captain” and that a better approximation needs to be formulated. Pseudoscientists might think that relativity is wrong. It isn’t. It is an approximation and as such, like any scientific theory, can be made better by new data and better models.

  11. TS said

    MacM sounds like he could be related to OilIsMastery.

  12. Hardened Cynic said

    Part of the problem, unfortunately, are the popularisations of relativity. These accounts deliberately avoid using mathematics, so the reader necessarily gets only a broad conceptual understanding. (The better relativity textbooks sometimes use the apparent paradoxes to test their readers’ understanding.) It’s pretty easy – if you’re so inclined – to read one of these popular accounts, and presume that you now ‘understand’ relativity.

    A fun game is to play the target crank off against all the other cranks. Telling question #2: ‘how is it that you and all the other anti-relativity people can’t agree on an alternative?’

  13. One reason that they go after relativity is that cranks often seem to prefer a more intuitive, simpler to understand world. Special relativity is complicated and doesn’t fit with their intuitions. Similarly, you get cranks going after the notion of cardinality and all of Cantor’s work in set theory and you get other cranks going after quantum mechanics. Occasionally you get cranks going after non-Euclidean geometry as a whole.

    This isn’t just true for math/physics cranks. Look at how many purveyors of woo claim that all or almost all diseases are caused by a single issue (I’ve seen cranks claim that all problems are caused by fungi, bad bacteria, bad vibrations, negative emotions, etc. It might be interesting to take two people with different ideas of what the great cause is and put them in a room together and see what they said to each other). Similar, the purveyors of medical woo often claim that some cure will cure many or almost all or some large swath of diseases.

    This is not the only motivating element, but it is a major one.

  14. […] creationists, 9/11 Truthers, Birthers, New Age gurus, alt-med quacks, anti-vaccinationists, physics cranks, etc.  And there are plenty of people who buy into that […]

  15. […] should be noted that many pseudoscientific physics cranks – and pseudoscientists & woo-meisters in general – never even make it to this first […]

  16. A Wade said

    I just have a simple question: Why has no technology or anything useful to the ordinary person arisen from the theories of Einstein after a hundred years?

  17. A Wade said

    I’ve gone into this in some depth on my web site and I think you will find that Tom van Flandern disagrees with your sentiments. http://www.n-atlantis.com/vanflandern.htm

    • mattusmaximus said

      Yes, and the physics community disagrees with van Flandern’s ideas, for good reason: because those ideas are wrong. A big red flag is the fact that van Flandern continued to push notions like Le Sage’s theory of gravitation even after they were disproven by experiment (such as when Le Sage’s theory conflicted with the well-established results of the famous Eotvos experiment). When you continue to stick with a theory after it has already been thoroughly discredited via repeated experiments, I think it is appropriate to label you as a crank. And, based upon what I’ve read, that’s what van Flandern is: a crank. Color me unimpressed.

      • A Wade said

        I really don’t see what your post has to do with GPS apart from creating a straw man by referring to another reference about something completely different.
        Shortly before GPS became operational there were several physicists who said it couldn’t work because of relativity problems and now we find that the physicists are saying it works because of relativity. You can’t have it both ways. I think that this fact alone kinda squashes you reference to GPS as a technology that was derived from relativity. Maybe you can think of something else?
        The cat is starting to push its nose out of the bag and the ordinary proles are starting to ask awkward questions about a lack of results. The counterintuitive is starting to look like deception.
        I would think that after a hundred years, physicists would start to get their act together and at least agree on something?

      • mattusmaximus said

        Well, if you really want to see what general relativity has to do with the GPS system, you can read this link which explicitly shows where the GR calculations come into play: http://www.usna.edu/Users/physics/mungan/Publications/TPT11.pdf

        Of course, you can ignore the physics and just continue to spin conspiracy theories, but don’t expect to get anywhere with that line of reasoning. You’ve got to do better than that.

        Incidentally, don’t you have anything to say about van Flandern’s support of Le Sage’s theory of gravity, even though that theory has already been conclusively disproven through experiments such as the Eotvos experiment? You seem to want to ignore the terribly inconvenient fact that van Flandern continued to support a debunked theory long after the rest of the physics community had moved on, and this is what led to him being labeled as a crank.

  18. A Wade said

    You have again failed to answer the original question.
    What, if any, are the benefits of Einstein’s theories to those who have paid the bill for all of these years, apart from providing jobs for physicists and mathematicians?
    Name a technology that has arisen unequivocally as a result of the theories?

    • mattusmaximus said

      Fine, here’s another technology which is based on relativity: nuclear power plants. Ever heard of E = mc^2? If that formula, derived from Einstein’s relativity, weren’t accurate then nuclear power plants wouldn’t function. So there’s another non-GPS example of how relativity theory has been used to build actual technology in real life.

      Incidentally, I’m going to guess that you didn’t even bother to look at all the evidence and calculations I’ve already provided showing that the modern GPS system wouldn’t work without relativity, so I’m going to end our conversation here. Have fun continuing to spin your conspiracy theories, but that isn’t good enough for me. You’ve just lost the opportunity to convince me, a physics professor, to treat your ideas seriously.

  19. […] Einstein Cranks – This is a link to a blog post I wrote earlier about how many physics cranks and […]

  20. newtspeare said

    The fact is that correct theories seldom get criticised once they become established. Heliocentrism and the theory of atoms were controversial when first introduced, but now attract very little criticism. If the Lorentz aether theory had been adopted instead of special relativity, then similarly there have been general acceptance even among most ‘cranks’. The problem is, that once the physics community have adopted a theory, they all defend it religiously without bothering too much about whether it is actually correct.

    The energy of nuclear fission, is the kinetic energy of the fragments, accelerated apart due to the repulsion between protons. Are you arguing in the above comment, that without special relativity protons would not repel each other?

  21. Marijak said

    Einstein was wrong FTL neutrinos show that!

  22. […] schreibt The Skeptical Teacher: It could very well be that, in the end, Einstein is wrong and that relativity theory will […]

  23. U said

    Read this book online http://www.relativity-mrp.rs/ This book proves that Einstein’s theory is wrong

  24. Unfortunately teachers at on level or another have got us into this mess. A lack of critical thinking is the bane of a science education, but often teaching says “just write what I tell you, it must be correct because no one has found fault with it”!

    Just to start something, I assume that you have been taught the mathematics of General Relativity? When you were checking through the theory, what mistakes from Einstein did you notice? What none? True that neither did almost anyone else, but that is no excuse! I recommend you to read Stephen Crothers on this
    http://vixra.org/author/stephen_j_crothers, to see what a mathematician makes of the nonsense in Einsteins paper.

    Once you have done that perhaps we can discuss SR from the correct perspective, that of critical understanding of the material!

  25. nakayama said

    Allow me to show two disprooves of relativity, please.

    From the right and the left (in outer space), plane waves of star lights (vertical) are coming. Wave length of coming light cannot be varied by observer’s motion. Frequency and light speed vary.

    Two fiber-optic cables are laid between the north pole and the equator. A laser beam (frequency is constant) emitted from the equator is reflected at the north pole and is coming back. Frequency at the three points (and every optional point of the cable) is the same. Relative motion or difference of gravity will not cause time dilation.

    Sorry, I can’t receive E-mail. I don’t have PC.

  26. If you start with an absolute frame of reference, meaning the Universe, and then logically analyze the motion that exists within it, you soon end up with Special Relativity, and you in the process of doing so, also create all of the equations involved within Special Relativity. No previous education in physics is required. About a grade 9 education is all that is required to successfully do so.

    Watch the 9 short videos located at http://goo.gl/fz4R0I if you wish to see this analysis of motion in action. ( Total time period is 1 hour and 39 minutes. )

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