[THS] E=mc2? Not on Conservapedia
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Sun Aug 15 13:32:30 CEST 2010
E=mc2? Not on Conservapedia
* 23:50 11 August 2010 by Amanda Gefter and Celeste Biever
Religious believers have quite the love/hate relationship with Albert Einstein. Some
quote the physicist's comments about God not playing dice with the universe to
support their own views despite the fact that Einstein himself said, "I do not believe
in a personal God." One young-Earth creationist site even uses an Einstein quote in a
diatribe against evolution. Now the pendulum is swinging over to hate as Einstein
goes the way of Darwin, becoming an unlikely enemy of some on the religious right.
It seems that the folks at Conservapedia a sort of conservative alternative to the
more familar online encyclopedia Wikipedia are not fans of Einstein's most famous
theory, general relativity. In fact, they view it as a far-reaching liberal conspiracy.
The website TPMMuckraker recently drew attention to a page on the site titled
"Counterexamples to relativity". It says: "The theory of relativity is a mathematical
system that allows no exceptions. It is heavily promoted by liberals who like its
encouragement of relativism and its tendency to mislead people in how they view the
In a footnote, this comment is followed up by: "Virtually no one who is taught and
believes relativity continues to read the Bible, a book that outsells New York Times
bestsellers by a hundred-fold."
Does relativity really steer people away from God? Or maybe and this is just a
theory, to use their favourite phrase the same kinds of people who study general
relativity are simply less likely to consult the Bible for answers to the questions of the
Action at a distance
The Conservapedia page then lists 30 counterexamples to general relativity, any of
which, it claims, "shows that the theory is incorrect". Many of these are bizarre, such
as "the action-at-a-distance by Jesus, described in John 4:46-54." Apparently, Jesus's
ability to instantaneously heal a child from a distance his healing powers travelled
through space faster than the speed of light was evidence enough to rule out
Einstein's theory. Of course, Jesus wasn't the only one to appear to violate Einstein's
cosmic speed limit. So-called entangled quantum particles do it in labs all the time.
(Church of the Entanglement, anyone?)
Scanning further pages on Conservapedia, it seems that the religious right's beef
with Einstein runs deep. Just as evolution dissenters say they are being deprived of
their "academic freedom", relativity deniers claim they are now in the same boat.
"Despite censorship of dissent about relativity, evidence contrary to the theory is
discussed outside of liberal universities," reads the website's main article on relativity.
In reality, general relativity has passed every experimental test to which it's been put
but Conservapedia isn't satisfied. They refer to a 1919 solar eclipse expedition that
bore out the theory's prediction that starlight would be bent by the sun's gravity as "a
dramatic but later discredited claim by Sir Arthur Eddington of experimental proof of
general relativity". It's true that Eddington's results had large uncertainties, but the
experiment has been tested and retested and the data holds up every time.
Read further and you will find this astonishing piece of information, clearly the
smoking gun of the Einsteinian liberal conspiracy: "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".
Wait. What? The article in question is "The Curvature of Constitutional Space: What
lawyers can learn from modern physics" (pdf) by Laurence Tribe, a professor of
constitutional law at Harvard Law School. Published in 1989 in the Harvard Law
Review, the paper includes a "thank you" to Barack Obama in the acknowledgments,
an unsurprising fact given that Obama was the journal's editor at the time.
In the article, Tribe uses metaphors of space-time curvature in the context of
constitutional law, including an analysis of Roe v. Wade. "I do not address the
subject because I am determined to bring science or mathematics into law," he
writes. "Rather, my conjecture is that the metaphors and intuitions that guide
physicists can enrich our comprehension of social and legal issues."
General relativity proposes that space-time is not an inert stage upon which the world
plays out but rather a dynamic medium that is warped and curved by the presence
of matter and in turn affects matter's motion. Tribe argues that constitutional law is
likewise not only the backdrop against which the nation's affairs play out but a
dynamic force that shapes those very affairs. In summary, Tribe writes, "The
question is whether the state's combination of acts and omissions, rules, funding
decisions and the like, so shaped the legal landscape in which women decide matters
bearing on their reproductive lives as to violate the constitution's postulates of liberty
'Theory of invariance'
Nearly two decades later, physicist Frank Tipler took on Tribe's paper in an article on
the Social Science Research Network entitled "The Obama-Tribe 'Curvature of
Constitutional Space' Paper is Crackpot Physics". Coming from a physicist who
authored the book The Physics of Christianity, in which he claims that without Jesus's
resurrection, our universe couldn't exist, I am forced to question the meaning of
"crackpot". It's no matter, though, because Tribe's grasp of general relativity is
irrelevant he was not writing a scientific paper, he was merely creating an analogy.
But for Andy Schlafly, founder of Conservapedia and son of anti-abortion activist
Phyllis Schlafly, the analogy was apparently enough to turn him off Einstein for good.
Despite the fact that it has passed test after test, you would be hard-pressed to find
a single physicist who believes that general relativity is ultimately the correct theory of
the universe. That's because it conflicts with quantum mechanics and is yet to be
unified with the other three forces of nature. A theory of quantum gravity such as
string theory will be needed to pick up where Einstein left off. General relativity is
certainly not wrong but it's not the whole story.
In the end there is no liberal conspiracy at work. Unfortunately, humanities scholars
often confuse the issue by misusing the term "relativity". The theory in no way
encourages relativism, regardless of what Conservapedia may think. The theory of
relativity is ultimately not so much about what it renders relative three dimensional
space and one-dimensional time but about what it renders absolute: the speed of
light and four-dimensional space-time. Einstein himself lamented the name
"relativity", wishing instead to call his theory the theory of invariance. The name
change might have avoided this whole mess.
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