Tag Archives: cranks

Why is Einstein’s general relativity such a popular target for cranks?

The Conversation

Michael J. I. Brown, Monash University

Scientists maybe celebrating the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, but there was also a death in 1915. It was one of the many deaths of simple and intuitive physics that has happened over the past four centuries.

Today the concepts and mathematics of physics are often removed from everyday experience. Consequently, cutting edge physics is largely the domain of professional physicists, with years of university education.

But there are people who hanker for a simpler physics, toiling away on their own cosmologies. Rightly or wrongly, these people are often labelled cranks, but their endeavours tell us much misconceptions about science, its history and what it should be.

I regularly browse open access website arxiv.org to look for the latest astrophysics research. Real astrophysics, that is. But if I want to take a look at what pseudoscientists are up to, I can browse vixra.org. That’s right, “arxiv” backwards. The vixra.org website was founded by “scientists who find they are unable to submit their articles to arXiv.org” because that website’s owners filter material they “consider inappropriate”.

There are more than 1,800 articles on vixra.org discussing relativity and cosmology, and many don’t like relativity at all. Perhaps one reason why cranks particularly dislike relativity is because it is so unlike our everyday experiences.

Einstein predicted that the passage of time is not absolute, and can slow for speeding objects and near very massive bodies such as planets, stars and black holes. Over the past century, this bizarre predication has been measured with planes, satellites, and speeding muons.

But the varying passage of time is nothing like our everyday experience, which isn’t surprising as we don’t swing by black holes on our way to the shops. Everyday experience is often central to cranky ideas, with the most extreme example being flat earthers.

Thus many crank theories postulate that time is absolute, because that matches everyday experience. Of course, these crank theories are overlooking experimental data, or at least most of it.

History and linearity

One of the most curious aspects of pseudoscience is an oddly linear approach to science. To be fair, this can result from an overly literal approach to popular histories of science, which emphasise pioneering work over replication.

A pivotal moment in relativity’s history is Albert Michelson and Edward Morley’s demonstration that the speed of light didn’t depend on its direction of travel nor the motion of the Earth.

Of course, since 1887 the Michelson-Morley experiment has been confirmed many times. Modern measurements have a precision orders of magnitude better than the original 1887 Michelson-Morley experiment, but these don’t feature prominently in popular histories of science.

Interestingly many pseudoscientists are fixated on the original Michelson-Morley experiment, and how it could be in error. This fixation assumes science is so linear that the downfall a 19th century experiment will rewrite 21st century physics. This overlooks how key theories are tested (and retested) with a myriad of experiments with greater precision and different methodologies.

Another consequence of the pseudoscientific approach to history is that debunked results from decades past are often used by buttress pseudoscientific ideas. For example, many pseudoscientists claim Dayton Miller detected “aether drift” in the 1930s. But Miller probably underestimated his errors, as far more precise studies in subsequent decades did not confirm his findings.

Unfortunately this linear and selective approach to science isn’t limited to relativity. It turns up in cranky theories ranging from evolution to climate.

Climate scientist Michael E Mann is still dealing with cranky accusations about his seminal 1998 paper on the Earth’s temperature history, despite the fact it has been superseded by more recent studies that achieve comparable results. Indeed, it devoured so much of Mann’s time he has literally written a book about his experience.

What about the maths?

During the birth of physics, one could gain insights with relatively simple (and beautiful) mathematics. My favourite example is Johannes Kepler’s charting of the orbit of Mars via triangulation.

In the 17th century, Johannes Kepler used elegantly simple mathematics to chart the motion of Mars. Johannes Kepler / University of Sydney

Over subsequent centuries, the mathematics required for new physical insights has become more complex, as illustrated by Newton’s use of calculus and Einstein’s use of tensors. This level of mathematics is rarely in the domain of the enthusiastic but untrained amateur? So what do they do?

One option is to hark back to an earlier era. For example, trying to disprove general relativity by using the assumptions of special relativity or even Newtonian physics (again, despite the experiments to the contrary). Occasionally even numerology makes an appearance.

Another option is arguments by analogy. Analogies are useful when explaining science to a broad audience, but they aren’t the be-all and end-all of science.

In pseudoscience, the analogy is taken to the point of absurdity, with sprawling articles (or blog posts) weighed down with laboured analogies rather than meaningful analyses.

Desiring simplicity but getting complexity

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of pseudoscientific theories is they hark for simplicity, but really just displace complexity.

A desire for naively simple science can produce bizarrely complex conclusions, like the moon landing hoax conspiracy theories. NASA/flickr

Ardents of the most simplistic pseudoscientific theories often project complexity onto the motives of professional scientists. How else can one explain scientists ignoring their brilliant theories? Claims of hoaxes and scams are commonplace. Although, to be honest, even I laughed out loud the first time I saw someone describe dark matter was a “modelling scam”.

Again, this isn’t limited to those who don’t believe in relativity. Simple misunderstandings about photography, lighting and perspective are the launch pad for moon landing conspiracy theories. Naively simple approaches to science can lead to complex conspiracy theories.

Changing intuition

Some have suggested that pseudoscience is becoming more popular and the internet certainly aids the transmission of nonsense. But when I look at history I wonder if pseudoscience will decay.

In the 19th century, Samuel Rowbotham promoted Flat Earthism to large audiences via lectures that combined wit and fierce debating skills. Perhaps in the 19th century a spherical world orbiting a sun millions of kilometres away didn’t seem intuitive.

But today we can fly around the globe, navigate with GPS and Skype friends in different timezones. Today, a spherical Earth is far more intuitive than it once was, and Flat Earthism is the exemplar of absurd beliefs.

Could history repeat with relativity? Already GPS utilises general relativity to achieve its amazing precision. A key plot device in the movie Interstellar was relativistic time dilation.

Perhaps with time, a greater exposure to general relativity will make it more intuitive. And if this happens, a key motivation of crank theories will be diminished.

Will general relativity become more widely understood via popular media, such as the movie Interstellar?


Michael will be on hand for an Author Q&A between 4 and 5pm AEDT on Tuesday, November 24, 2015. Post your questions in the comments section below.

The ConversationMichael J. I. Brown, Associate professor, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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The Rejection of Expertise

by Tim Harding

(An edited version of this essay was published in The Skeptic magazine,
September 2015, Vol 36 No 3 p.36,  titled ‘Who needs to Know?’ It has since been republished in the Australian Doctor magazine 30 October 2015. 
The essay is based on a talk presented to the Victorian Skeptics in May 2015 ).

Anti-vaccination campaigner, Meryl Dorey is on record as saying that we should ‘do our own research’ instead of accepting what the doctors and other qualified experts tell us.  Seasoned skeptics will be aware that ‘Do your own research!’ is a common retort by cranks and conspiracy theorists to those who dare to doubt their claims.  It is a convenient escape hatch they use when trying to win a debate without the bothersome burden of providing their own evidence.

Of course, what they mean by this exhortation is not to do any actual scientific or medical research.  It takes a bit of tertiary education in the relevant field to be able to do that.  For them, ‘research’ means nothing more than googling for an hour or so on the Internet. They naively equate such googling with the years of study and experience it takes to become a qualified expert.  Their message is that anybody with internet access can become an instant but unqualified expert on anything.  Or worse still, that expertise doesn’t even count – all opinions are equal.

The reality is that googling is a notoriously unreliable source of information – there are sound reasons why Wikipedia is not allowed to be cited as a source in university assignments.  The problem is that without expertise in the field in question, few googlers are capable of knowing which sources are reliable and which aren’t.  Anything found on the internet becomes ‘knowledge’.  Mere opinions become ‘facts’.

Another problem is that googlers are often unaware of the wider knowledge context of the specific pieces of information they have found on the internet. In contrast, experts are as much aware of what they don’t know as what they do know.  As Professor Stephan Lewandowsky of the University of Bristol puts it:

‘Here is the catch: to know how much more there is to know requires knowledge to begin with.  If you start without knowledge, you also do not know what you are missing out on.’

This paradox gives rise to a famous result in experimental psychology known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Named after Justin Kruger and David Dunning, it refers to a study they published in 1999. This study found that people who lack the knowledge or wisdom to perform well are often unaware of this fact. This is almost more dangerous than complete ignorance, because unlike Donald Rumsfeld, they don’t even know what they don’t know.

Professor Tom Nichols, a US national security expert wrote last year about the ‘death of expertise’; a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of divisions between professionals and amateurs, teachers and students, knowers and wonderers – between those with any expertise in an area and those with none at all.  He sees this situation as not only a rejection of knowledge, but also the processes of knowledge acquisition – a rejection of science and other pursuits of rationality.

Nichols is particularly critical of otherwise intelligent people who are ‘doing their own research’ on the internet and second-guessing their doctors by refusing to vaccinate their children, leading to an entirely avoidable resurgence of dangerous infectious diseases such as whooping cough and measles.

So how did it all come to this sorry state of affairs?  I think that there are basically four contributing factors: the blurring of facts and opinions; a misunderstanding of democracy; a misunderstanding of the Argument from Authority; and the dissipation of media accountability.  I will now discuss each of these factors in turn and then outline some benefits of listening to experts.

Blurring facts and opinions

According to the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, a fact is a state of affairs that is the case.  The usual test for a statement of fact is verifiability; that is, whether it can be demonstrated to correspond to experience.  Scientific facts are verified by repeatable careful observation or experiment.  In other words, a fact is that which makes a true statement true.  For instance, the statement ‘It is raining’ describes the fact that it actually is raining.  The rain that falls can be objectively measured in a rain gauge – it is not just a matter of opinion.

On the other hand, an opinion is a judgment, viewpoint, or statement about matters commonly considered to be subjective, such as ‘It is raining too much’.  As Plato said: ‘opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance’.

The last few decades have seen the growth of a postmodernist notion that truth is culturally relative and that all opinions are equal.  What’s worse is a gradual blurring of the important distinction between facts and opinions.  A disturbing feature of the public debate about climate change is the confusion between science and policy.  Because they conflict with some political policies, there is a tendency for the findings of climate scientists to be treated as ‘just another opinion’.  This is a marked change from a few decades ago, when the findings of epidemiologists about the links between smoking and cancer were widely accepted as facts rather than opinions.

Misunderstanding democracy

Reducing the influence of experts is sometimes mistakenly described as ‘the democratisation of ideas’.  Democracy is a system of government – it is not an equality of opinions.  Whilst the right of free speech prevents governments from suppressing opinions, it does not require citizens to treat all opinions equally or even take them into account.  Equal rights do not result in equal knowledge and skills.  As Professor Brian Cox has said:

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Deakin University philosopher Dr. Patrick Stokes has argued the problem with ‘I’m entitled to my opinion’ is that it has become shorthand for ‘I can say or think whatever I like’ without justification; and that disagreement is somehow disrespectful.  Stokes suggests that this attitude feeds into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.

Professor Michael Clark of LaTrobe University gives an example of a public meeting recently, when a participant asked a question that referred to some research, a senior public servant replied: ‘Oh, everyone has a scientific study to justify their position, there is no end to the studies you could cite, I am sure, to support your point of view.’  Clark describes this is a cynical statement, where there are no absolute truths and everyone’s opinion must be treated as equally valid.  In this intellectual framework, the findings of science can be easily dismissed as one of many conflicting views of reality.

Misunderstanding the Argument from Authority

A common response from cranks and conspiracy theorists (and even some skeptics) to citations of expertise is ‘that’s just the argument from authority fallacy’.  Such a response ignores the obvious fact that all scientific papers and other forms of academic writing are chock full of citations of experts.  The notion that the written outputs of the world’s universities and scientific institutions are all based on a logical fallacy is preposterous.  Anybody who thinks that has clearly not thought through the implications of what they are saying.

The Argument from Authority is often misunderstood to be a fallacy in all cases, when this is not necessarily so.  The argument becomes a fallacy only when used deductively, or where there is insufficient inductive strength to support the conclusion of the argument.

The most general form of the deductive fallacy is:

Premise 1: Source A says that statement p is true.

Premise 2: Source A is authoritative.

Conclusion: Therefore, statement p is true.

Even when the source is authoritative, this argument is still deductively invalid because the premises can be true, and the conclusion false (i.e. an authoritative claim can turn out to be false). This fallacy is known as ‘Appeal to Authority’.

The fallacy is compounded when the source is not an authority on the relevant subject matter. This is known as Argument from false or misleading authority.

Although reliable authorities are correct in judgments related to their area of expertise more often than laypersons, they can occasionally come to the wrong judgments through error, bias or dishonesty. Thus, the argument from authority is at best a probabilistic inductive argument rather than a deductive argument for establishing facts with certainty. Nevertheless, the probability sometimes can be very high – enough to qualify as a convincing cogent argument. For example, astrophysicists tell us that black holes exist. The rest of us are in no position to either verify or refute this claim. It is rational to accept the claim as being true, unless and until the claim is shown to be false by future astrophysicists (the first of whom would probably win a Nobel Prize for doing so). An alternative explanation that astrophysicists are engaged in a worldwide conspiracy to deceive us all would be implausible and irrational.

An artist’s depiction of a black hole

As the prominent British environmental activist Mark Lynas has said ‘…if an overwhelming majority of experts say something is true, then any sensible non-expert should assume that they are probably right.’

Thus there is no fallacy entailed in arguing that the advice of an expert in his or her field should be accepted as true, at least for the time being, unless and until it is effectively refuted. A fallacy only arises when it is claimed or implied that the expert is infallible and that therefore his or her advice must be true as a deductive argument, rather than as a matter of probability.  Criticisms of cogent arguments from authority can actually be a rejection of expertise, which is a fallacy of its own.

The Argument from Authority is sometimes mistakenly confused with the citation of references, when done to provide published evidence in support of the point the advocate is trying to make. In these cases, the advocate is not just appealing to the authority of the author, but providing the source of evidence so that readers can check the evidence themselves if they wish. Such citations of evidence are not only acceptable reasoning, but are necessary to avoid plagiarism.

Expert opinion can also constitute evidence and is often accepted as such by the courts.  For example, if you describe your symptoms to your doctor and he or she provides an opinion that you have a certain illness, that opinion is evidence that you have that illness. It is not necessary for your doctor to cite references when giving you his or her expert opinion, let alone convince you with a cogent argument. In some cases, expert opinion can carry sufficient inductive strength on its own.

Dissipation of media accountability

I have no doubt that the benefits of the internet generally outweigh the costs.  However, there are some downsides that need be considered rather than just glossed over.  An obvious negative is the decline of newspapers and competent professional journalism.  Specialist science or medical journalists are a rarity these days.  Generalist journalists often get their science stories wrong, or engage in misleading false balance – the equating of professional expertise with amateur ignorance.

Another problem is the blurring of the distinction between journalism and blogging – and I say this as a blogger myself.  Unlike bloggers, journalists are subject to professional standards and editorial control. Some bloggers are anonymous, which removes their accountability to even their own readers for the accuracy of what they write.

There is a risk that when non-experts google, they are inclined to give equal weight to information from both professional journalists and amateur bloggers, regardless of its reliability and accuracy.

Benefits of expertise

Whilst experts are human and can mistakes, they have a pretty good batting average compared to laypersons.  The advice that experts provide is far more likely to be true than advice from non-experts in the field in question.  This has obvious benefits for society as a whole, for example in terms of public health and safety, environmental protection and managing the economy.  There are good reasons why we don’t let amateurs design aircraft, bridges and tall buildings.  But there are also some major benefits for the individual in listening to advice from experts as opposed to non-experts.

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For instance, if you trust your doctor, you’re actually more likely to do better when you’re sick, according to a study recently published by General Hospital Psychiatry.  This study, of 119 people with either breast, cervical, intestinal or prostate cancer, found that from three months following diagnosis, those patients who did not trust their doctors were not only more distressed but also more physically disabled.  They were less likely, for example, to be able to go for long walks or take care of themselves.  Patients who felt anxious about being rejected and abandoned suffered the most from not trusting their doctors.

Trusting your doctor has clear health benefits. You’ll be more likely to try new drugs, follow your treatment plan (jointly agreed with your trustworthy doctor), share important medical information, take preventative measures (e.g. screening) and have better-controlled diabetes and blood pressure.

Up to half of the failures in treatment reported by patients are due to not following the regime suggested by doctors.  This increases the risk of hospitalisation and extended ill health.  Another study at the University of California has found a small but statistically significant association between how much patients trusted their doctors and how much their symptoms improved within two weeks (allowing for different factors that could have influenced the outcome).

As Professor Michael Clark has said, people who use Dr. Google to diagnose their symptoms before visiting an actual doctor, sometimes ask to be tested for diseases they do not have, or waste time seeking a second opinion because they are convinced that their ‘research’ has led them to a correct diagnosis. If it were really that easy, would doctors have to spend all those years in medical school? Prof. Clark has also said that:

“Using Google to find the answer to Trivial Pursuit questions is not the same as researching a complex question. Experts do have skills and one of those is the ability to use high quality sources, up to date theoretical frameworks, and critical thinking based on their experience in a particular field. This is why an expert’s answers are going to be more accurate and more nuanced than a novice.”

References

Clark, M., and Lawler, S., ‘Why we need to listen to the real experts in science’.  The Conversation. January 1, 2015.

Harding, T., ‘Argument from authority’. The Logical Place. June 23, 2013.

Hinnen et al. ‘Lower levels of trust in one’s physician is associated with more distress over time in more anxiously attached individuals with cancer’. Gen Hosp Psychiatry. 2014 Jul-Aug;36(4):382-7.

Lewandowsky, S., and Pancost, R., ‘Are you a poor logician?‘ Logically, you might never know’. The Conversation. November 6, 2014.

Nichols, T., ‘The Death Of Expertise’. The Federalist, January 17, 2014.

Stokes, P., ‘No, you’re not entitled to your opinion’. The Conversation. October 5, 2012.

Thom, D.H., et al. ‘Measuring Patients’ Trust In Physicians When Assessing Quality Of Care’.  Health Aff (Millwood), University of California. 2004 Jul-Aug;23(4):124-32.

Further reading

Nichols, T., ‘The Death Of Expertise’. Oxford University Press, 2017.

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