The Relativity of Science

We are nearing the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. Yes, I know we’re all tingly with anticipation. But I do have a point.

Einstein had published a special theory of relativity in 1906, and both the special and general theories go way over my head, so I will not be explaining them. All I can tell you is that the famous E = mc2 equation came out in 1906.

However, the story goes, Einstein wanted to incorporate gravity into his theory. So he thought and thought, and then he came up with some mathematical equations to show how all this stuff he was thinking about might work. According to Wikipedia, “These equations specify how the geometry of space and time is influenced by whatever matter and radiation are present, and form the core of Einstein’s general theory of relativity.” Einstein presented these equations to the Prussian Academy of Science in 1915, and he published his General Theory of Relativity in 1916.

At that point, it was all arithmetic, using approximation methods, whatever those are. After the equations were published, more physicists studied and elaborated on the equations and came up with other mathematical models to explain stuff like black holes and the Big Bang. Einstein also kept working, and in 1917 he came up with a theory called the cosmological constant that assumed the cosmos is static, which later was shown to be not true. So the cosmological constant theory was tossed. But scientists continued to work on general relativity.

At the time Einstein published his general relativity equations, there was hardly any empirical data to corroborate them. Einstein had thought way outside the box and pushed concepts of the laws of physics way beyond what that had actually been tested or observed. That’s largely because at the time there was no way to test most of it.

As time went on a few things were observed that seemed to fit Einstein’s model, but serious testing of some parts of the theory didn’t begin until the 1950s, at a point technology made testing possible.  Through the years various tests and observations made possible by advances in technology have confirmed that matter and energy and whatnot do behave as Einstein had predicted they would.  And testing continues. In 2013 news stories announced that physicists had observed more stuff in space that provided an “unprecedented” test of Einstein’s predictions, and the predictions held. However,

Scientists know general relativity, proposed by Albert Einstein in 1915, isn’t the complete story. While it does very well describing large, massive systems, it’s incompatible with quantum mechanics, which governs the physics of the very small. For something extremely small, yet extremely massive — such as a black hole — the two theories contradict each other, and scientists are left without a physical description. [6 Weird Facts About Gravity]

So after all this time, gravity partly remains a mystery. Scientists are still not sure in all particulars exactly how gravity works. There’s still a lot about the universe that confounds the models and catches people off guard. Stephen Hawking wrote,

Despite having had some great successes, not everything is solved. We do not yet have a good theoretical understanding of the observations that the expansion of the universe is accelerating again, after a long period of slowing down. Without such an understanding, we cannot be sure of the future of the universe. Will it continue to expand forever? Is inflation a law of Nature? Or will the universe eventually collapse again? New observational results and theoretical advances are coming in rapidly. Cosmology is a very exciting and active subject. We are getting close to answering the age old questions. Why are we here? Where did we come from?

I think Hawking is overstepping science with the “why” question, but I concede he’s a lot smarter than I am.

Science being what it is, it’s likely someday some physics nerd will publish a theory that shows how the discrepancies between Einstein’s work and quantum mechanics might be resolved, and then they’ll spend a century or so testing it. Science at this level is never settled.

Now on to today’s most contentious science issue — climate change. (I bet you can see where I’m going now.)

A Harvard professor on the history of science named Naomi Oreskes says that scientists today are being way too cautious with their climate change predictions.  “The year just concluded is about to be declared the hottest one on record, and across the globe climate change is happening faster than scientists predicted,” she writes.

Of course, in popular media we are perpetually being told that climate change is not happening at all, but let’s go on. Professor Oreskes continues,

Science is conservative, and new claims of knowledge are greeted with high degrees of skepticism. When Copernicus said the Earth orbited the sun, when Wegener said the continents drifted, and when Darwin said species evolved by natural selection, the burden of proof was on them to show that it was so. In the 18th and 19th centuries, this conservatism generally took the form of a demand for a large amount of evidence; in the 20th century, it took on the form of a demand for statistical significance.

We’ve all heard the slogan “correlation is not causation,” but that’s a misleading way to think about the issue. It would be better to say that correlation is not necessarily causation, because we need to rule out the possibility that we are just observing a coincidence. Typically, scientists apply a 95 percent confidence limit, meaning that they will accept a causal claim only if they can show that the odds of the relationship’s occurring by chance are no more than one in 20. But it also means that if there’s more than even a scant 5 percent possibility that an event occurred by chance, scientists will reject the causal claim. It’s like not gambling in Las Vegas even though you had a nearly 95 percent chance of winning.

Compare/contrast to the infamous “one percent doctrine” of Dick Cheney — if there is even a 1 percent chance of terrorists getting a weapon of mass destruction the United States must act as if this were a certainty.  So we just need 1 percent proof to launch a war, but the Right now demands 100 percent proof before lifting a finger to address climate change.

Oreskes argues that scientists have been so well trained to avoid jumping to conclusions that practically no amount of empirical proof is good enough to dispel the qualifiers and the caution. In other words, in the world of science, nothing is ever settled. No scientific theory, even stuff that’s been accepted for generations and observed and tested to within an inch of its life, is ever placed beyond all doubt.

And the absolute worst sin, the thing that will get one booted out of the Science Club, is being thought of as too credulous. So no matter how many tons of empirical evidence one may collect to support one’s theories, lectures and published papers are always embroidered in language that gives the scientist an escape hatch if part of it is challenged by new data.

And then when powerful monied factions, such as the fossil fuel industry, find science inconvenient, the simplest way to discredit it is to point to the qualifiers and the caution. Scientists aren’t certain yet, so it’s too soon to act.

But scientists are never certain. They might be certain of a particular fact, like the boiling point of water, but on the level of theory they are never certain. There’s always something more that could be learned, on some level. That’s the catch.

It’s also the case that theories are big, complicated beasts that could be partly right and partly wrong, like Einstein’s General Relativity probably is mostly right except on a quantum physics level, where it seems to be missing something. So if data come in showing that some parts of a projection are not working as anticipated, this doesn’t necessarily mean the entire model is wrong. If several scientists independently come up with different projections that don’t match in all particulars, that doesn’t mean they have no idea what they’re doing and we should just ignore them.

As I understand it, climate change theory really didn’t get off the ground until the 1970s, which makes it relatively new. Data collected by satellites and such have provided scientists with huge amounts of information about the Earth’s climate and what affects it that wasn’t available before, and so even as they collect data and formulate predictions they’re still facing a huge learning curve. So it’s no wonder they don’t speak in absolutes, but with some caution.

At the same time, the denialists seize on every uncertainty and wave it around as “proof” that climate change science is entirely debunked. For example, although the earth keeps breaking heat records every year, for the past 16 years atmospheric temperatures have not changed. As far as the denialists  (I refuse to call them “skeptics”; skeptics are people who doubt and question, and denialism is just knee-jerk dogma) are concerned, this is “proof” all models showing climate change are just a hoax. Scientists actually have several explanations for why atmospheric temperatures are stable and expect the “hiatus” to reverse itself, possibly soon.

I started this post by talking about Einstein. Recently I had an exchange with a denialist who told me that science is “black and white” and based on empirical evidence,  and (he said) there is no empirical evidence for climate change. Actually there’s tons of empirical evidence; the challenge isn’t getting the evidence, but interpreting it. Unlike Einstein’s theory, which began as ideas expressed in mathematical equations that mostly weren’t tested with any thoroughness until after the great genius had died, and which still haven’t been completely proved after a century, climate change science grew out of the empirical evidence.

But when I brought up gravity as something that still isn’t understood in any “black and white” way, this individual claimed Einstein’s theories were entirely empirical, and I didn’t know what I was talking about. I even explained the testing history of the Theory of General Relativity and provided a dictionary definition of “empirical” — based on, concerned with, or verifiable by observation or experience rather than theory or pure logic. He wouldn’t budge. Because Einstein’s theories have been proved correct today, he said, they were “empirical” all along.

And, you know, when someone is sunk that deeply into pure illogic, there’s not a whole lot one can do to change his mind. But while it’s futile to discuss any of this with the dogmatic denialists, I think it’s important to keep talking about this, because there are people out there who are not dogmatic denialists but just haven’t heard all the facts who might be persuaded.

BTW, this year might be the Year the Pope Stopped Being Catholic, as far as the Right is concerned. His Holiness Pope Francis is expected to issue either an edict or an encyclical, according to various news sources that probably don’t know the difference between an edict and an encyclical either, that climate change is a moral imperative that Catholics must address. Already Fox News has declared that Pope Francis has aligned himself with “environmental extremists who favor widespread population control and wealth distribution.” I project sooner or later they will declare the Pope is a God-hating liberal. With righties, either you’re with ’em, or you’re the enemy.

21 thoughts on “The Relativity of Science

  1. Yes, I think Oreskes is right. Deniers are one thing, but even among people who take climate change seriously there’s still a tendency to talk about it in the future tense. It’s happening now. If we accept the James Hansen/Bill McKibben line of thinking, the maximum non-catastrophic concentration of greenhouse gasses is about 350 parts per million. And we’re at 397 now. Oops.

    I also think a lot of people make the science sound more abstruse and inaccessible than it really is. The science of climate change is based on a fact that is as well established as the boiling point of water: Greenhouse gasses absorb infrared energy. The higher the concentration in the atmosphere, the more energy they absorb. The effects of this are hard to predict, because the climate is a complex system, but you can be sure that the extra energy is going to make itself felt in one way or another.

  2. What we may need, are for 3-4 volcano’s to go off in each hemisphere within a couple of years.

    Either that, or, a big thermo-nuclear wa…

    Hope for volcano’s.

  3. I was fortunate that my public high school had a good science curriculum, where we learned what science is and how it works – basically what the scientific method is. Like so many things taken for granted in my youth, I never dreamed I’d be using this “advanced” knowledge, gleaned in the rarefied atmosphere of the 7th grade, to rebut the buffoons of a later age: the creationists, the climate change denialists, and those who think AGW is a religion.

    There are the people who don’t get how conservative science is; and who insist on 100% proof, which is impossible. I often like to point out to them that we have no proof that the sun will rise tomorrow, but we do have a lot of evidence that suggests it’s likely to do so.

    The wingnut mind wants certainty, and sees things in black and white. And it responds to authority, and somehow Einstein is in this pantheon, probably because he’s connected with the atomic bomb, which the wingnuts worship (check out the comments someday on Slim Pickens riding the bomb in Dr Strangelove). And so of course, in their mind, Einstein’s theories are 100% proven and always were.

    People who want certainty and can’t handle ambiguity are unreachable when it comes to climate change, because the evidence is vast and sometimes contradictory, and there will always be datapoints they can cite to show it’s unproven. To say nothing of the crap being fed into their minds by those who stand to gain from the status quo.

    • moonbat — yeah, it’s kind of stunning to me that I run into so many people who blank out when you talk about “the scientific method.” *I* know what it is, and the last science course I took was freshman biology.

    • moonbat — and yes, I realized I had tapped into something in the guy’s lizard brain somewhere by mentioning Einstein. He grew rhapsodic about the great Einstein but kept insisting that his theories were all “empirical science.” But Einstein died before General Relativity had been tested much at all.

  4. I am really looking forward to Pope Francis’ encyclical, which I think is coming out in March. I’ve noticed that the winguts have laid off of him for awhile, this should change things.

    I suspect their tactic was to leave him alone (he’s 78 and won’t be around forever); it will be interesting to see what happens next.

  5. Moonbat- I think you may be a bit off on the conservatives demand for 100% certainty. This demand is only made to their opponents, and never once turn that level of scrutiny to their own positions. Things that are conservative doctrine have very little evidence to support them. Trickle down economics, rising crime, lazy poor people, and God. I think the real problem is that conservatism has turned every single issue into an article of faith, based more on what people “know” as a fact of life rather than any hard number. Because of this, all contradictory evidence must be suspect and part of a conspiracy with some dark ulterior motive. I was speaking to a friend of mine the other day and he was discussing ownership of guns to protect your home (disregarding the fact that he lives in one of the safest places in the country) when I mentioned that crime is falling and has been for some time, he suggested the notion that that was actually a falsehood put out by politicians to make people think they are doing a good job.

  6. Schlafly, that is.

    The Hawking quote is interesting. The idea that we don’t know everything, but we are getting close is reminiscent of scientific thinking in the 19th century about what we now call classical physics.

  7. Terrific post, maha; thank-you.

    Naomi Oreskes, (alongwith her co-author, Erik Conway) have a terrific book out well worth reading. “MERCHANTS OF DOUBT; How a Handful of Scientists obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming.” It explains the methods by which time and again the forces of capitalism tried, and often succeeded, for a time anyway, of keeping their fellow citizens from believing what scientists were telling them about their world. What makes the book so fascinating is that from our perspective looking back into the mid to late twentieth century, these forces,(and many of them are the same people), were dead wrong, and the scientists were the ones who knew what they were talking about. The book also shows the way opponents of caring about the environment use the fact that scientists are genuine skeptics who value doubt, but not denial of established fact,

    as a way to undermine what scientists are saying.

  8. No doubt whatsoever: climate change, by a wide
    margin is Problem Number One. Problem number 2? Either the fact Democrats can’t be bothered to vote in “off” years or cyber security, if you ask me.

    Among the fake “Fox News” problems: immigration (if it were a problem, it is easily fixable and even our dysfunctional Congress could have done so by now). Ebola (unless you live in Africa, you should get your flu shot before you even open your yap about relatively poorly transmissible diseases. But, if you DO get the big “E”, by all means shun incompetent Red state hospitals). Crime (worry about crime? I’m far more terrified of the police– and the various “concealed carry” “neighbor watchmen” running around. ISIS? ISIL? HALITOSIS? Horrible people, but if we had McCain in the White House, we’d probably be enmeshed in 6 wars, simultaneously.

  9. It doesn’t matter if they believe. It will kill them anyway. The “Summers of Death” will be coming. Heat waves of 110F at 90+ humidity won’t be survivable by the elderly and the very young. As the average temperature rise variations in the weather will bring the unbearable heat waves.

  10. The tobacco companies tried the same scam; exploiting the inherent skepticism of science to deny well-established findings.

    Einstein soon saw at least some confirmation of general relativity, in the bending of starlight by the Sun’s gravitational field. But yes, much more confirmation came much later. Science has an internal war, between the theorists and the experimentalists. They keep trying to stump each other, with theories that are hard to test, and experiments that are hard to explain.

    As for Pope Francis; many right-wingers are fundamentalist Protestants, who have never been fond of the papacy.

  11. “all arithmetic, using approximation methods”. Uhh, more like differential geometry, using tensor calculus. Still, nothing beyond the reach of a first year graduate student these days.

  12. Relativity is very complicated in the details, but it’s actually quite simple in the basis.

    It goes like this: scientists had observed a really oddball phenomena. If you measure the speed of light from the sun, which is relatively stable, you get about 2.99×10^8th meters per second. If you measure it from a star that’s known to be moving toward the earth at 10% of the speed of light, the light seems to be moving at about 2.99.10^8th meters per second.

    Well – if I’m standing stable relative to you and throw a baseball toward you at 60mph (I’m not a very good pitcher!) you’ll measure it at 60mph. If I’m moving toward you at 1 mph, you’ll measure it at 61mph; if I’m moving toward you at 10mph, you’ll measure it at 70mph.

    Why was light different?

    Well, Einstein basically said “What if we assume that’s an absolute universal truth – that light *always* travels the same speed in an ordinary vacuum.”

    This doesn’t sound like a lot, really. “Okay, you’ve accounted for a scientific observation, right? By saying ‘let’s just assume it’s an absolute truth!’ Big whoop!”

    Here’s the thing: How do you decide two things have happened simultaneously?

    Because as far as you can tell, light from each event has reached you at the same time. And while the *light* from an event hits you at 2.99×10^8th meters per second, if the source is moving toward you fast enough, the light hits you a bit sooner. If one source is moving toward you, and the other away from you, and both are looking at their watches, and sending you a light beam, you’ll record the light beams arrival at different times, even though they were trying to send you the signals at the same time.

    Which means that it’s not just about light. It’s about time and space.

    Time – because our notion of “when” changes. Space, because distances change when the time to cross them does. (You might say “No, wait, we measure distances by the length of the king’s foot – or some other arbitrary constant involving the size of the earth, which, at least, has hung around longer than ol’ mr. bigfoot” And that’s true for things where we can lay down a ruler. But when we’re figuring out the distance between the Earth and Mars, we fire a beam of light or other EM radiation, and wait for the reflection to bounce back to us.)

    The point of the “relativity” in “The theory of relativity” is that you must make all measurements of time, distance, and mass (!!) *relative* to where you are and the motions through space.

    This sounds ridiculously weird. And it *is* – if the relative speeds are merely 10s, or even hundreds, or thousands, of miles an hour. At that point, the relativistic differences are *tiny* – odds are, you can’t even detect the differences at this stage. But once they become a significant fraction of c (the speed of light in a vacuum) they start becoming measurable – and they meet up with Einstein’s predictions.

    (Where does E=mc^2 come in, which say that matter and energy are precisely the same thing? I’m not sure – it does follow from the amazing path this lays out for you, but I’m far too uneducated to explain where.)

  13. Um. I made one mistake above: when do you consider two things to have happened simultaneously? When light from two events that happened *the same distance from you* reaches you at the same time.

    Because, duh, if something happens on a star that’s 4 light years away, and something happens on the moon (a bit more than 1 light second away), you don’t say they happened “simultaneously” because they light reaches you at the same time. You say one happened about 4 years ago, the other, about 1 second ago. But if two people send you a radio message from the moon, and they arrive simultaneously, the messages were sent simultaneously.

    Unless it’s Superman and the Green Lantern, both moving at a significant fraction of c, over their Justice League communicators. Then we’d have to correct for relativity.

  14. There is a difference in confidence of the basic science of carbon dioxide’s ability to hold heat and the less basic science of exactly how much that capability, when mixed in with other variables, is affecting the temperature of the earth.
    CO2’s ability to hold heat is better understood than gravity — Most of the light energy from the sun is emitted in wavelengths shorter than 4,000 nanometers (.000004 meters). The heat energy released from the earth, however, is released in wavelengths longer than 4,000 nanometers. Carbon dioxide doesn’t absorb the energy from the sun, but it does absorb some of the heat energy released from the earth. When a molecule of carbon dioxide absorbs heat energy, it goes into an excited unstable state. It can become stable again by releasing the energy it absorbed. Some of the released energy will go back to the earth and some will go out into space. That part of the theory is basic and you can empirically prove it any time you want by getting a glass box, put a light on it, increase the CO2 and watch the temperature rise.
    Since every scientist knows more CO2 means more heat, the only question is how much more heat is the increase in CO2 in the atmosphere caused by burning of fossil fuels causing, not whether it is happening. That is beyond question.

  15. Arguing with wikipedia can be fun, but such was not my intention here. More like making sure credit is given where due. I do numbers for a living. The math behind general relativity is more accessible than it was when Einstein first used it, but it is not trivial.

  16. Personally, I don’t like the bat crazies of either side of agw or on coming ice agers. And I hate to waste money on either solution, but we little ones will be taxed by either solution. But what can the people do? There is no safe harbor from those engeneers. They will do something to heat/cool the planet, or to limit the co2 to less then 200 ppm, which I have read is a tipping point for no recovery, and then kill a planet. Only trouble, it’s the only one we have. That’s why, I say, if you are going to terraform, start somewhere else first, make a safe harbor…

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