Recently I was looking at something on the internet and the whole science vs. religion question came up, and one thing led to another and eventually I ended up on Conservapedia. Normally I don't bother with that site but I decided to go on over and see if the list of counterexamples to relativity had grown any since I last looked at it about 2 years ago. Remarkably the list had grown, but so many of the things on the list were so high on the crackpot index that it made my brain hurt, and I was reduced to a sobbing mass of ... well ... er ... mass, despairing for the future of humanity. But I got over that and started thinking again and decided to write this post.
One thing that I noticed was that a number of "counterexamples" to the theory of relativity could be reduced down to the argument, "Relativity is false because it doesn't agree with quantum mechanics." After realizing this I thought, "Wait a minute! Why is quantum mechanics an acceptable theory but relativity isn't?" So I went and looked at the Conservapedia page on quantum mechanics and found it to be remarkably uncontroversial, though incredibly scant on details. Relativity on the other hand has three major pages (one for relativity in general, one for special relativity and one for general relativity) along with the page dedicated to "counterexamples" to relativity, and several other smaller more specific pages. So this made me wonder, what was it about relativity that prompted these "conservatives" to have such an almost dogmatic revulsion to relativity, and what was it about quantum mechanics that caused the same people to accept it or at the very least ignore it?
The Conservapedia page on Evolution is understandable due to its perceived infringement on religious creation dogma, but relativity? I was wondering just what it was about the theory of relativity that made it so controversial. Why would they expend so much energy and effort to disprove relativity but leave quantum mechanics alone, considering that quantum mechanics is much more controversial philosophically?
Upon closer inspection there are a few sentences, phrases and arguments on the Conservapedia pages that indicate that this extreme dislike of relativity has more to do with morality than with science. On the "counterexamples" page at the very top we find the sentence, "[The theory of relativity] is heavily promoted by liberals who like its encouragement of relativism and its tendency to mislead people in how they view the world."
From this we see that their main objection to relativity is not any scientific failing that it may have, but because it is associated (at least in their minds) with "moral relativism". Thus any argument that may be concocted to "disprove" relativity is in fact really attempting to undermine the concept of moral relativism. This makes me suspect that if Einstein had happened to call his theory "the theory of invariance" rather than "the theory of relativity" (or if he had referred to it as the principle of "Lorentz invariance", or even just "Einstein's pet theory") then there would not be a Conservapedia page today about counterexamples to Einstein's theory. In other words, the entire motivation for their objection to the theory of relativity is due to the fact that its name is very close to relativism, which is associated with moral relativism.
This of course reminds me of a certain song:
Now before we get too far into bashing this particular group of religious conservatives, we must also realize that this objection to relativity did not materialize in a vacuum. There were plenty of philosophers, commentators, pundits, busybodies, rabble rousers, scheming politicians, authors, crackpots and others who were more than willing to commit the same logical fallacy and insist that because of the theory of relativity (which has absolutely no moral implications whatsoever) they feel justified in making an argument about morality (or the lack there of). I have had people literally tell me that because Einstein's theory of relativity was true, that somehow justified their belief in moral relativism. So the fallacy goes both ways.
So why is this important, and how can we use this insight? One thing to note here is that for conservatives, at least those of the type that have a problem with relativity but not quantum mechanics, is to note that moral considerations and implications (or even just perceived implications) far outweigh scientific or experimental considerations. On the other hand there are those who have no interest in rectifying the misconceptions but only in perpetuating them so that they can have club to beat the opposite side with. In the end neither side is correct, and both use the same logical fallacy of convoluting an inherently amoral, mathematical theory, with the moral theory of moral relativism. This reminds me of another song,
So the next time you come across some conservative drivel about how the theory of relativity is false, take a moment, stop and think that the person writing that may ultimately be more concerned with morality and moral relativism than with whether or not GPS units actually use relativity or not. Also if you come across someone who is ridiculing religious conservatives because they are denying the theory of relativity, you can try to explain to them that the issue is much more complex than their simple characterization, and that the people they are criticizing are actually more interested in the moral implications than the scientific implications (this may be a hard one to explain, I know I've tried).
It may be very difficult and there may be a lot of misunderstanding along the way (if history itself is any indication), but there is much that we can do to overcome these misunderstandings and to help people see both points of view and understand the mindset of the person on the "other side". The end result is (hopefully) better understanding by everyone, and less false accusations, and less fallacious arguments.