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The Theory of Relativity: Is It Time to "Teach the Controversy" in America's High Schools?


Jason Kuznicki pleads for charity for creationists:

[E]volution seems rational to me [but] it could easily present problems to others.... Evolution could become a micro-religion — something people don’t understand, but that they defend fiercely anyway. They’re for it, but they’re still not rational. Or it could be that evolution conflicts with their macro-religion, and as such, it gives them the creeps — but the creeps alone aren’t a reason to reject anything. Or maybe evolution conflicts with their politics. Or maybe it conflicts with both their politics and their religion, because it can be hard to tell just where the boundary lies.... [W]hat’s called for is charity, the principle of trying to understand your interlocutors in the best possible light. This is hard to do.... I fear what I’m saying here will be taken as an apology for creationism. I fear anything short of unconditional agreement would be, regardless of how interesting these questions of mindstate actually are. But explaining why a group of people (creationists, here) have gotten things terribly wrong is not a defense of them. It’s an indictment. It always will be. Still, people arrive at the question with baggage I don’t have, and bragging that I won the race when I didn’t have to carry any of their baggage is hardly sportsmanlike of me. Our allegiance should be to truth, not tribe.

Jason Kunicki draws an analogy between evolution and relativity:

[W]here evolution seems rational to me, it could easily present problems to others in all the same ways that I have just outlined for relativity...

For Jason Kuznicki says he does not grok relativity:

Science, Non-Scientists, and the Mind-Killer — The League of Ordinary Gentlemen: I’ve read several books about evolutionary theory, and they seem convincing to me. I’ve read Darwin. I’ve read Gould. I’ve read Dennett. In college, my physical anthropology textbooks made sense to me, although I admit I’ve forgotten their authors’ names. I haven’t read Dawkins, but I suspect I can do without him. I’m already quite convinced.

Now this is not always the case when I read about science. I’ve also read several books about relativity, and I’m not convinced. The stuff just makes no sense to me, and I sort of have to shrug and give up. Where my rational side agrees that evolution is correct, I’m taking relativity on the authority of others. You don’t really want to hear what my rational side says about relativity. It’s too embarrassing.

I strongly suspect that most non-scientists who say otherwise about relativity are either talking out their asses or else have turned relativity into a sort of well-boundaried micro-religion... They can’t explain it, but fie on you if you don’t believe. Now, plenty of people do not, in fact, believe it, and not because it is nonsensical to them, but because they have never tried to understand it — what they’ve heard about it gives them the howling fantods, and they give up before they try.

First, let's not tell Jason that the Theory of Relativity is the easy, straightforward, intuitive branch of modern physics...

Second, I don't see quite where Jason is going with this.

Is he suggesting that high school physics classes "teach the controversy" about Einstein-Lorentz-Fitzgerald-Minkowski-Poincare?

It was not all that long ago that the American Spectator published articles about relativity very much like those it still sometimes publishes about evolution. The one I saw was, in fact, in the first issue of the American Spectator I ever read--the one when I was still getting my bearings working at the Treasury, and asking "who are these clowns?" and one of the Deputy Assistant Secretaries for Public Affairs handed me this:

Tom Bethell (1993), "Doubting Dada Physics," The American Spectator (August), pp. 16-17: ...solitary genius [Petr Beckmann]... publish[ing] his own ideas... a time of growing intellectual corruption in the academy... undermined Einstein's theory of relativity... showing how physics could be returned to the classical foundation from which it was dislodged at the beginning of the twentieth century.... Beckmann... spending several years on a book called Einstein Plus Two... believes that relativity theory "has been confirmed only in a narrow sector of physics, leads to logical contradictions, and is unable to derive results that must be postulated, though they are derivable by classical methods"... [and] is definitely falsified by the aberration of light from binary stars....

The problem that Einstein tried to solve, the new problems that arose with his solution, and Beckmann's brilliant resolution of all these difficulties, are not so difficult as they may sound. In fact, mystification has greatly enhanced Einstein's reputation....

The most famous experiment was carried out by Michelson and Morley in 1887. Since the earth must be moving through this ether in its orbit around the sun, it should be possible to detect an "ether wind," just as it is possible to feel the wind by putting your hand out a moving car. Albert Michelson, the first American to win the Nobel Prize in physics, designed the apparatus to measure it. But despite repeated attempts, no ethereal breeze could be detected.... This "null result" threw the world of physics into disarray.... Enter Einstein, fresh from the Bern patent office.... His famous 1905 paper.... That was where the absurdity came in. To preserve the absolute nature of the speed of light, space and time had to be distorted.... If A moves, he see B smaller than himself. But B likewise sees A as smaller than himself. Which is absurd. Reality becomes observer-dependent in opposition to the most basic precepts of science. The alpha and omega of the material world--the irreducible character of time and space--were sacrificed in order to preserve an absolute velocity. But velocity is nothing but space (distance) divided by time! This was Dada Physics. (It's interesting that the Dada movement "having as its program the discovery of authentic reality through the abolition of traditional cultural and aesthetic forms," came right after the general relativity theory.)

Beckmann says that most students of physics shrug and accept relativity theory--theirs is not to quarrel with the sainted genius of the twentieth century. Some have private reservations. Among intellectuals in general, the theory has been much admired: so abstruse, so deliciously disrespectful of the eternal verities, so marvelously baffling to the bourgeoisie.... Wonderful! The Muddled Majority who fell so reassured by their common-sense understanding of the world just don't realize that things aren't what they seem to be at all.

Pondering the theory in the late 1950s at Prague's Institute of Radio Engineering, Beckman... a student named Pokorny, a (then) devout Communist, suggested the correct answer... the medium for electromagnetic waves is the local gravitational field.... [T]he Earth's gravitational field moves along with the earth.... [T]he Michelson-Morley experiment might have been able to detect a fringe-shift after all--but a much smaller one...

From that moment on, my working hypothesis was that the conservative wing of the Republican Party is composed exclusively of people who have completely disabled their bullshit detectors. That working hypothesis has served me very well for seventeen years now.