On Cranks and Playbooks
In the comments to this previous post science writer John Farrell sent me a link to an article he wrote for Salon. It describes the antics of a handful of crackpots hostile to Einstein's theory of relativity, and uses this as a springboard for discussing scientific cranks in general. Though the article is five years old, it contains much of relevance today.
Van Flandern was hired to do some consulting work for the physics department at the University of Maryland on the global positioning system (GPS), the ring of 24 satellites circling the Earth, which, among other convenient attributes, will be able to pinpoint precise locations for befuddled automobile drivers anywhere on the planet. According to him, the confusing “rigmarole” of relativity isn't needed to maintain the GPS, even though it clearly should be.
Van Flandern has argued that because of Einstein's theory of relativity, clock rates on GPS satellites should need to be adjusted continuously to keep them in sync with users on Earth. But they're not, he told the American Spectator (April 1999). The GPS programmers don't need relativity. “They have basically blown off Einstein,” Van Flandern says.
Is this true? Could this be a real crack in the “temple” of Einstein's theory?
I asked Neil Ashby, a professor of physics who works at the University of Colorado and specializes in theoretical general relativity with practical applications. “I am acquainted with Tom Van Flandern and his view,” he told me. “It is incorrect to claim that no relativistic corrections are used after launch. Actually because GPS satellites are in eccentric orbits, they suffer frequency variations due to their varying speeds and varying heights above the Earth's surface. Information is transmitted down to the receivers from each satellite, which enables receivers to make a relativistic correction which accounts for these effects.”
He added: “Einstein has not been 'blown off.' On the contrary, a great deal of thought has gone into the problem and all of the known special and general relativistic effects have been accounted for if they are predicted to be big enough to be important.”
Other gravitation specialists, such as Charles Misner at the University of Maryland, Lawrence Mead of the University of Southern Mississippi, Clifford Will of the University of Washington in St. Louis and Steve Carlip of the University of California at Davis, confirm that special and general relativity are built into the software for GPS.
So typical. Cranks can't be troubled to get the simplest facts right. How many times have we seen precisely this from creationists? Cranks all read from the same playbook.
The article goes on to describe various (uniformly unsuccessful) attempts to prove that Einstein himself was dishonest in some way. This, too, is typical. For some reason cranks consider it terribly important not simply to show that certian ideas are wrong, but also to show that major figures in the history of those ideas were rotten. So what if it turned out that Einstein really was dishonest in some way? Would that change the fact that modern relativity theory has been tested over and over again in ways Einstein never dreamed of?
It's exactly this logic that leads creationists to spend so much time trying to destroy Darwin's reputation. Consider this recent, sleazy example from the Discovery Institute's blog. It's as if they think that discrediting an individual scientist can tear down more than a century's worth of painstaking scientific progress.
The article also contains some wise words about scientific cranks in general:
In his book “Cranks, Quarks and the Cosmos,” science writer and physicist Jeremy Bernstein points out that one of the criteria that always defines crank science is its lack of correspondence with the body of scientific knowledge that has gone before it. “I would insist that any proposal for a radically new theory in physics, or in any other science, contain a clear explanation of why the precedent science worked,” he wrote. Einstein did this, as the first page of his paper on special relativity, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,” illustrates perfectly.
In contrast, “The crank,” Bernstein wrote, “is a scientific solipsist who lives in his own little world. He has no understanding nor appreciation of the scientific matrix in which his work is embedded ... In my dealings with cranks, I have discovered that this kind of discussion is of no interest to them.”
The article is quite long and has numerous other quotable tidbits. I recommend reading the whole thing.
Incidentally, why did Farrell think to inlcude this link in a post about Tom Bethell's silly anti-evolution musings? Here's why:
Van Flandern told the American Spectator's Washington correspondent, Tom Bethell, that he had reason to believe Einstein manipulated his field equations for one of his most momentous predictions: the advance of the perihelion of Mercury, the point in orbit where a planet is closest to the sun. Astronomers have long observed that this point, like the oval end of an ellipse drawn with a spirograph, is itself subject to motion, and over the years revolves around the sun just like the planet itself. In the case of Mercury, this effect is pronounced. It was assumed to be due to gravity and the closeness of the planet to the sun, but Newtonian theory could never predict its advance accurately. It was a classic problem by the time Einstein came along, and his general theory of relativity solved it immediately.
Too brilliantly, for some.
According to the Spectator's account, Van Flandern “asked a colleague at the University of Maryland, who as a young man had overlapped with Einstein at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, how, in his opinion, Einstein had arrived at the correct multiplier. This man said it was his impression that, 'knowing the answer,' Einstein had 'jiggered the arguments until they came out with the right value.'”
Go to the article if you want to see how that little claim panned out. Short version: Van Flandern was full of it, and Bethell was duped (willingly, one suspects).
So, if you have any sort of pseudoscientific gibberish you want to peddle and if it can be presented in a way that makes the scientific mainstream look bad, let me suggest you seek out Mr. Bethell.