Adventures in agnotology

A fun list from Ranker, on the absurdities of Bill O’Reilly, some mockery of which is now going viral. And while we’re on the subject of lists, here’s Alternet with 10 historical facts only a rightwinger could believe.

Meanwhile, Brad Delong cites an attack on relativity theory by Tom Bethell of the American Spectator and Hoover Institution. Bethell’s source is the “Galilean electrodynamics of rightwing crank physicist Petr Beckman, commemorated in the Petr Beckman award, which has been accepted by a string of the scientific luminaries of the climate science denial movement such as Fred Singer, Sallie Baliunas and Willie Soon. As DeLong observes with respect to the publication of the Bethell piece

from that moment on, my working hypothesis was that the conservative wing[1] of the Republican Party is composed exclusively of people who have completely disabled their bulls**t detectors. That working hypothesis has served me very well for seventeen years now.

Of course, this applies in spades to the Australian importers and distributors of this stuff – Bolt, Devine, Windschuttle and the entire Murdoch press.

The left has its faults and follies, to be sure. But it must be excruciatingly embarrassing to be, for example, a (genuine) scientist or historian of conservative inclinations, aware that your political allies are at best utterly indifferent, and at worst actively hostile, to scientific and historical truth.

Update There’s a response at Catallaxy, with a lengthy (and typically Catallaxian) comments thread, largely focusing on my offhand reference to Bolt and others as Australian advocates of anti-science views imported from the US. I didn’t intend to suggest that the people I mentioned are opposed to relativity theory or, more generally, that they are consistently anti-science like Bethell and Conservapedia. Rather, they take something of a “cafeteria contra-science” view, happy to endorse mainstream science whenever its implications support their political views, or provides the basis for cool new technology, but equally ready to discover a massive global conspiracy any time the science comes out the “wrong” way (on smoking, DDT, global warming, CFCs etc).

fn1. DeLong is presumably speaking in the terms applicable to the early 1990s, when the Republican Party included numerous centrists and even some remnants of the once influential “liberal Republicans” epitomized by Eisenhower.

46 thoughts on “Adventures in agnotology

  1. @Jack Strocchi
    Strocchi – you call a plague on both houses and still manage to make the conservative right somehow come out of your posts smelling like a bunch of roses.

    I call a plague on both houses because they cant figure out between then why inequality is rising and so many are getting a tad ticked off…you think your right better Jack? They started it with “trickle down”. Do I think my left better?. What left Strocchi? – you tell me the difference between the Labor party and the Liberals. They are both so right according to themselves and they are both so horribly wrong it doesnt bear thinking about. My plague on both houses ins at least real Strocchi. Yours is as artifice.

  2. One of Einsten’s greatest mistakes was to call his theory “relativity.” He could just as easily have called it “The theory of absolutivity” (of the speed of light in all reference frames). It would have avoided this whole silly mess.

  3. @sam

    I don’t know that Einstein was all that exercised by the ability of pseudo-cosnervatives a century after his time to imprison themselves entirely in magical thinking. The idea that science needs to sound like a spin doctor does not speak for itself.

  4. Apparently Einstein thought that it would be better to call his theory of cosmic gravity the “theory of invariance constancy”.

    In his original 1905 paper about invariance, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” (here translated from German into English), Albert Einstein did call his first postulate the Principle of Relativity.

    But later he regretted this name, because the logical foundation of his theory is constancy, and because he saw the silly analogies that people drew between his theory about relativity in physics and their ideas about relativity in ideology, to claim support for their ideas about relativism and subjectivism.

    People extended his claims about the relativity of specific things (time, space, and mass) into claims about the relativitity of everything (including values and ethical standards) in all areas of life, as if Einstein was saying “everything is relative.” But he never said this.

    But somehow relativity got hold, subsequently a source of endless confusion to the scientifically illiterate.

  5. racial disparities in education and employment have their origin in biological differences between the human races. Those differences are facts in the natural world, like the orbits of the planets. They can’t be legislated out of existence; nor can they be “eliminated” by social or political action.

    -John Derbyshire

    Facts of the natural world, like the orbits of the planets. Or, indeed, the effect that atmospheric carbon has on global temperature.

    The Left’s ignorance, stupidity and mendacity on most matters relating to anthropology must be embarrassing to scientific-minded Leftists.

  6. Jack (and responses) – to the sandpit please. I don’t find your preferred style of pseudoscience any more interesting than that of Conservapedia, and the political right seems mostly to have dropped it, so discussion just derails the thread.

    Gerard- careful with the irony alerts there!

  7. @Sam
    Not really. Relativity is a physics concept that predates Einstein. Einstein combined the principle of relativity – that the laws of the physics are the same for unaccelerated observers, just as in Newtonian physics – with the constant speed of light and a whole lot of stuff fell out. All scientific theories propose constancies; Einstein proposed new and spooky constancies relative to the observer.

  8. @gerard

    I just read the Wikipedia link on Mr Derbyshire. Interesting fellow. I like the title of his 2009 book “We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism”. Maybe that explains the typical conservative position on climate change. They don’t want anything done because they want to be doomed.

    And he had an uncredited role in a Bruce Lee movie!

  9. @Jim Birch
    In Galilean relativity, some phenomena vary according to the reference frame of the observer (such as the velocity of all things, including light), and some are constant across all frames (such as the observed laws of physics, the mass of an object, and the passage of time). Einstein’s great insight was that the absolutivity of physics- specifically of Maxwell’s electromagnetic equations- in all reference frames implies the absolutivity of the speed of light in all frames (1). This in turn implies the relativity of an object’s observed mass, and the passage of time (among other things).

    Thus Einstein’s contribution was to take something that had been considered relative to the observer and show that it was really absolute. The consequence of this is that other things previously considered absolute are in fact relative. So I repeat my claim; “Einstein’s theory of relativity” could just as easily have been called his “theory of absolutivity.”

    @Alan
    Einstein didn’t just suffer at the hands of 21st century right wing American shock jocks. As Strochii shows, moral relativists immediately used his work to back up their own social philosophies. This was something he publicly regretted.

    (1) In fact, Hendrik Lorentz deserves much of the credit for this and is relativity’s under-recognized hero.

  10. @sam
    I was disputing your claim that calling the theory relativity was one of Einsten’s greatest mistakes. This sounds a wee bit far fetched, perhaps? Especially if you compare it to the stuff he actually got wrong, eg, locality.

    It’s a good enough name. The theory integrated a number of phenomena so saying that this implied that, or, that the “absolutivity” outweighs the “relativity” is a bit lyrical for me. All science aims to discover constants, doesn’t it?

  11. @Jim Birch
    Oh sure, I was joking with my “greatest mistake” line. It just would have avoided his theory being both co-opted by silly cultural relativists who didn’t understand the theory, and rejected by silly cultural absolutists who also didn’t understand it.

  12. @sam

    Moral relativism is a slogan the right uses to try and escape logic, like Benedict XVI hanging his entire pontificate on a denunciation of moral relativism, so long as no-one mentions the children. In fact the right is quite happy to relativise morality. Even on this very blog, for example, some have actually had the temerity to argue that Arab democracy is undesirable because it would be bad for Israel.

    Einstein himself denounced any link between his theory and the artistic and literary experiments that claimed it as authority.

    Einstein himself often insisted that his theories had no relevance for anything except science. He called the hullabaloo surrounding his findings “psychopathological,” and he disabused those who would misapply his ideas. Asked what effect his theory would have on religion, he said: “None. Relativity is a purely scientific matter and has nothing to do with religion.”

    Paul Johnson invented this particular agnatomeme in a classic exercise of post hoc ergo propter hoc and even then he had to move the date of Einstein’s popular acclaim from 1929 to 1905 to sustain his argument.

    I look forward to the germ of a conspiracy theory by which Einstein, a man of the left, deliberately chose the name in order to engender ‘moral relativism’ even though the position had been argued for centuries before Einstein’s existence.

  13. @Alan
    I’m only going to address your first paragraph, all the others seem to not disagree with me.

    First, “moral relativism” is not just an epithet used by the right to attack the left. People on both sides of politics have openly held this as a philosophical position. There are left wing moral absolutists such as physicist Alan Sokal, and there are right wing moral relativists such as apartheid era South African prime minister Pieter Botha.

    Also, in a somewhat tiresome way, you have dredged up an old and irrelevant disagreement between the two of us. I’m not sure why. Perhaps the insinuation goes along these lines:

    1 Sam doesn’t like moral relativism.
    2 He is pro-democracy in some cases but not all.
    3 This is an example of moral relativism.
    4 Therefore Sam is a hypocrite.

    Assuming this was your point, here is my response:

    1) I haven’t expressed an opinion on the rightness or wrongness of moral relativism, but only asserted that special relativity would not inform this debate. Do you disagree with me on this?

    2) Yes, this is so. Tyranny of an ethically challenged majority is not always preferable to tyranny of a less ethically challenged minority.

    3) This is not moral relativism.

    4) Unproven.

    If you want to continue this discussion, I suggest we go to the sandpit.

  14. John, I’ve posted a reply to Alan but it says that my comment is awaiting moderation. I don’t believe I have violated the discussion policy. It was perhaps a little off-topic, but I was replying to a specific point another contributer had made. Is this an error on the part of the blog’s software? Would you like me to repost in the sandpit?

  15. I dredge it up, sam, because it exemplifies the way the phrase ‘moral relativism’ has degenerated into a slogan by which the right attacks the left. Benedict specifically invoked the alleged ‘dictatorship of moral relativism’ at the last mass before his conclave. Stripping away all the verbiage and looking at the guy’s actual record values like truth and justice are a long way down his list of priorities from avoiding scandal to the church. It should be noted that scandal is apparently not what actually happens but whether priests get caught or not.

    As it happens, I agree with Benedict on the dangers of moral relativism. I do not agree with him on the content of those evils. In your own case, once you start making assumptions about an ethically charged minority having the right to overrule a less ethically charged majority all you are doing is window-dressing tyranny.

    Who authorises the minority to proclaim themselves ethically charged?

    I do not say you are a hypocrite. I say your ethical position is deeply flawed. You may well hold it sincerely. Sincerity would not prevent it from being an objective moral disorder.

  16. As a general point, if a comment goes into moderation it is usually because either
    (a) a word (coarse language or one commonly found in spam)
    (b) links (too many or suspicious
    has set off the automatic filters

    If I don’t like a comment, I’ll usually say so

  17. @sam

    Once before the word: soci@lism set it off because it encloses the string ci@lis which is connected with sp@m for vi@gra. I found that really amusing.

    Sidebar: PrQ the site speed is down to a crawl. The above is a repost after the first failed (after 3 minutes) to load. Navigating within the sirte is taking about 45 seconds and sometimes failing

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