Saturday, October 31, 2009

"Conservative Physics"

The past couple decades have witnessed attempts to cultivate what might best be called a "Conservative Physics." The largest outlet for this view is The American Spectator, and its largest proponent Tom Bethell, who's the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science.

Before I continue, (in the interest of full disclosure) I should let you know that my (real) name was proposed by a few folks connected with the "PI Guides" to write the guide to science. Even though it would have been a good opportunity for me in some ways, I think Bethell was the better man for the job. For one thing, Bethell is not a scientist, and would tend to have a more popular approach to the subject. Certainly he wrote a much more topical, philosophically lighter book than I would have (albeit one that fails to get to the heart of the shortcomings of modern science), and I expect that was what the editors of the series were aiming for. So I hold no grudge.

Bethell wrote a piece in 1993 on Petr Beckmann's alternative to Einstein's special relativity ("Doubting Dada Physics"). Not sure, but he may also have been the one who interviewed Carver Mead (Sep/Oct 2001). Much more recently—September in fact—, Bethell updates the anti-relativity argument with "Can We Do Without Relativity?" in which he plugs his book, Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary?.

The purpose of this post is to point out the severe limitations of this line of thought. My problem is not with people who question mainstream physics (heck, that's what mainstream physicists are supposed to do!), but that the "conservative" critiques are not radical enough.

Quantum Mechanics

Over the past several years, various conservative non-scientists have recommended to me Carver Mead's Collective Electrodynamics (MIT Press, 2000). The typical claim is that Mead sees the obscurantism in quantum mechanics as usually taught these days and that his thinking obviates these problems. As the September-October 2001 American Spectator interview makes clear, Mead sees (some of) the shortcomings of the current paradigm of physics. How could a conservative not warm to him?

I started read Mead's book expecting some sort of real insight into the nature of the (quantum) world. In actuality, Mead succeeds in saying very little about the world we humans live in. Even his mathematical claims are modest:

This approach does not produce a new theory in the sense that it contains startling new equations, for it does not. The results it derives for standard electromagnetic problems are identical to those found in any text on the subject. (5)

I found that even this is an understatement. On page 20 (chapter 1) he arrives at equation 1.17. On the following page he proclaims

We have, however, just encountered our first big surprise: We recognize the second form of Eq. 1.17, which came from Newton's law, as the integral form of one of Maxwell's equations!

Actually it's not so surprising, considering that 1.17 is derived ultimately (via equation 1.7) from equation 1.1, which is actually just another form of that same Maxwell equation he thinks he has derived by other means. In other words, Mead has smuggled in by assumption what he later claims to have serendipitously discovered.

I didn't make it past the first chapter, in large part because the circularity of the argument made it clear to me that it would be a waste to invest more time in a book whose mathematical argument wasn't even carefully vetted.

The deeper problem that put me off the book is that Mead isn't careful to distinguish theory-laden "observations" from what the experimental observer actually sees with his eyes and takes in with his other senses.1 You can get a sense of this in the Spectator interview when he talks about "ten-foot electrons." It's not that one sees or feels electrons that big, but that experiment filtered through theoretical conceptions indicates that the electron is that "big" (i.e., the waveform of which it consists takes up that much space). Mead himself may "see" these electrons (i.e., have a sense of their presence intuitively), but invisible to him and unexpressed are the assumptions through which his "observations" are being filtered (such assumptions are what enable stage magicians to fool their audiences). The result is that it's not clear that Mead claiming anything about reality, as opposed to the abstractions of physics.


There was a strong reaction against Bethell's 1993 piece on relativity. That the reaction of mainstream physicists and their allies against a supposedly conservative thesis was sometimes childish and unnecessarily persnickety might to some be cause for circling the wagons. But I would ask first: what are we circling around? Is it worth protecting?

I think it was around 2002, shortly after I read Bethell's 1993 piece on relativity, that I ordered the Beckmann book Einstein Plus Two. I didn't get very far into it before I stopped reading. As I recall, the problem was in Beckmann's presentation of the first example of "purely optical" evidence that he cites: his explanation of stellar aberration (1.3.1, p. 31) is rather incomplete and not open enough about how the phenomenon not only fails to support this theory, but actually undermines it. (Please forgive my poor memory of this point.)

Brad DeLong, Professor of Economics (!) at UC Berkeley, authored one of the reactions against Bethell. He really doesn't have much to say about the Bethell's claims against Einstein—relativity largely rises or falls on experiment, and no amount of experimental evidence will ever rule out the possibility that some future experiment will eliminate a long-held and cherished theory (such is the strength and weakness of modern science). He's left with "snipping around the edges" by questioning some details Bethell gets wrong, but mostly questioning the motivation underlying Bethell's critique of Einstein.2 Most notably he attributes opposition to Einstein to the right's latent Antisemitism (!)—something akin to Jimmy Carter's recent blaming opposition to President Obama's health-care plan on racism. Somehow questioning motivations is supposed to neutralize the force of an argument.

I'll leave you to read over DeLong's critique and judge for yourself.

Before I continue, I should note that I actually think Einstein's relativity is a great support to Jewish and Christian religions and moral absolutes, as I've written here.

Deeper Problems

Physicist and philosophy professor Richard Hassing once said in an introduction to a talk:

The bookstores contain quite a few books on the weirdness of quantum physics. To my knowledge, there are no books on the weirdness of classical physics, which is even described by physicists as common sense sharpened up. I don't think this is right, and so the most basic theme and more accurate title of this lecture is "Classical Weirdness."

Hassing is exactly right. Conservatives think they've been swindled with modern physics (i.e., quantum mechanics and relativity), but fail to notice that their pockets have already been picked by classical physics.3 For example, most obviously: the Law of Inertia talks about bodies unaffected by outside forces: when was the last time you saw a body isolated from all forces?

Less obviously: why does Newton's assumption of inertia make organisms less natural? If organisms are unnatural, then how much more unnatural are rational organisms (humans)! How can we ever be at home in a universe in which we are unnatural?

The real challenge for people searching for the truth (among them many political conservatives) is to come up with a way of understanding and talking about nature that is not only true to the established results of the science of the last few centuries, but is also true to much more fundamental human experience of the world, in all its sensory and moral dimensions.

That's the way that we're going to make the world a more human, more humane place more conducive to human happiness.

Regarding the connection of modern science and political divisions, I cannot recommend enough Yuval Levin's excellent Science and the Left:

Putting aside all the loose talk of a Republican assault on reason, this simpler point does ring true: There is indeed a deep and well-established kinship between science and the left, one that reaches to the earliest days of modern science and politics and has grown stronger with time. Even though they go astray in caricaturing conservatives as anti-science Luddites, American liberals and progressives are not mistaken to think of themselves as the party of science. They do, however, tend to focus on only a few elements and consequences of that connection, and to look past some deep and complicated problems in the much-valued relationship. The profound ties that bind science and the left can teach us a great deal about both.


1. A typical fault of modern science that might be understood as a consequence of talking only to one's fellow specialists who are intimately familiar with the typical experimental set-ups. Unfortunately these set-ups are completely unknown to non-specialists like you and me.

2. One of the most unlikely parts of the DeLong piece is that the sentence "First, conservatives who dislike Einstein do so for one of two reasons" precedes three bullet points. One would think that even professors of economics could count, and correct a fault after over 11 years of its being on the web.

3. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute is an excellent organization and publishes some excellent books. Unfortunately, the A Student's Guide to Natural Science is disappointingly uncritical of the received view of the sciences. ISI would have been better off retitling and repackaging Ralph M. McInerny's A Student's Guide to Philosophy, which is spot-on about the modern natural sciences.

Tom Bethell, "Doubting Dada Physics," The American Spectator 26:8 (Aug 1993), p. 16.

Brad DeLong, "Conservative Fear of Albert Einstein" (6/16/1997), accessed October 31, 2009.

Anonymous, "Carver Mead: The Spectator interview," The American Spectator 34:7 (Sep/Oct 2001), 68-76.

Richard F. Hassing, "On Aristotelian, Classical and Quantum Physics," Public Lecture, Thomas Aquinas College, March 7, 2003.

Tom Bethell, "Can We Do Without Relativity?" The American Spectator (September 2009).

Note: Work is busy. Not sure how often I'll be posting for now.

Update (Nov. 10): Brad DeLong has reposted his petulant piece on his blog (but he has cleaned up his bullet points).

As Mike Flynn has pointed out in the comments, Steve Barr has blogged about Bethell's piece on the First Things blog. Bethell and Barr have exchanged salvos in the comments. Frankly Barr is getting the better of it (so far). The exchange has come to the notice of a Discover Magazine blog.