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.”
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.