Saturday, January 28, 2006

Tom Bethell Concedes?

Missed in all the hoopla over the new Politically Incorrect Guide to Science by American Spectator editor Tom Bethell is an interesting fact.

There’s no chapter summarizing his past vaunted attacks on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Indeed, when I browsed the book recently at B&N I must confess I was almost disappointed when I went through the list of chapters and saw no “Rethinking Relativity”. In fact, the only reference to Einstein in the book is a positive one, regarding a consequence of general relativity. But Bethell has written at least three features attacking Einstein in the past, twice for the Spectator (1993 and 1999) and at least once for National Review (1990).

Well, after a little research, I discovered something surprising. It took over six years, but Tom Bethell has finally admitted that one of the “primary” sources for his vaunted anti-relativity essays is…well, a crackpot.

For all the questionable views Bethell espouses about Darwin, almost always backed up with quotes from dead people or sources who changed their minds after he quoted them (e.g., Karl Popper, Antony Flew) or sources from so long ago no one would consider them current, he is a good writer. Bethell knows how to concede something while not seeming to concede at the same time.

First, consider this response he was forced to pen recently in the letters section of the American Spectator: (at the very bottom of the page) regarding his past efforts against Einstein, and the source for one of his articles about it: Tom Van Flandern. Russell Seitz, who obviously remembers Bethell’s earlier articles attacking Einstein, associates Bethell’s crankiness with TVF’s., as Bethell apparently recommended TVF’s work to another author. Tom Van Flandern's eccentric views have been well known amongst astronomers and cosmologists for years.

He writes:
“Tom Van Flandern, a physicist and cosmologist formerly associated with the University of Maryland Physics Department, worked for the Nautical Almanac Office of the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. Currently he puts out a newsletter called the Meta Research Bulletin. He is an independent thinker who subscribes to a wide range of views, some of which have been quoted by the eminent physicist Paul Dirac. But other of Van Flandern's views are eccentric, and one in particular is hazardous to his reputation. This is the view that a designed artifact resembling a face is visible on Mars and has been photographed by NASA. I do not and never have subscribed to that view, which is unjustified by the evidence. You only have to look at the "face" to see that it is an accidental arrangement of canyons and shadows. In my view, it was reckless of Van Flandern to make such a claim and I have never endorsed it.”
Van Flandern published a paper on the speed of gravity in Physics Letters A (Dec. 21, 1998), arguing that gravity’s propagation must be virtually instantaneous (thereby contradicting a tenet of relativity, that nothing can travel faster than light). Like most of Van Flandern’s efforts (the alleged variation of the force of gravity, for example) it has duly received attention by the mainstream specialists in general relativity and cosmology. It has also been dismissed as the logic and mathematics behind the paper have been found lacking. Indeed, in two separate papers, published within the next year, physicists Michael Ibison et al and Steve Carlip rebutted Flandern’s claim in Physics Letters A. Flandern has never directly responded to their points, and indeed, has shown that he does not fully understand the GRT field equations.

Cosmologists have moved on. But not TVF. Though his article on general relativity has been dismissed by his colleagues, he continues to promote it to the general public.

In spite of the measured tones in which Bethell now describes TVF in the TAS letter above, he was not always so reserved about Van Flandern. In his April 1999 article he took TVF’s claims much more seriously. Here’s what Bethell had to say about TVF back in that article attacking Einstein. It is no longer available at the American Spectator’s web site (I wonder why?), but it can be found on various anti-relativity and astronomy sites, like here.)

Bethell wrote:
No one has paid attention yet, but a well-respected physics journal just published an article whose conclusion, if generally accepted, will undermine the foundations of modern physics -- Einstein’s Theory of Relativity in particular. Published in Physics Letters A (December 21, 1998), the article claims that the speed with which the force of gravity propagates must be at least twenty billion times faster than the speed of light. This would contradict the Special Theory of Relativity of 1905, which asserts that nothing can go faster than light. This claim about the special status of the speed of light has become part of the world view of educated laymen in the twentieth century. Special Relativity, as opposed to the General Theory (1916), is considered by experts to be above criticism, because it has been confirmed “over and over again.”

But several dissident physicists believe that there is a simpler way of looking at the facts, a way that avoids the mind-bending complications of Relativity. Their arguments can be understood by laymen. I wrote about one of these dissidents, Peter Beckmann, over five years ago (TAS, August 1993, and Correspondence, TAS, October 1993). The present article introduces new people and arguments. The subject is important because if Special Relativity is supplanted, much of twentieth-century physics, including quantum theory, will have to be reconsidered in that light.


Dissident physicists. Sure. Note the standard breathless promise of revolution that is typical of Bethell’s pronouncements against science (including the nonsense about SRT being "above criticism.") 30 years ago he was saying the same thing about Darwin’s theory in the Atlantic Monthly. Apparently he has never spoken to a single biologist familiar with Chromosome 2 and its implications for human evolution.


Bethell made three claims in this 1999 article, using TVF as his primary source: A. that the Global Positioning System undercuts general relativity. B. TVF’s Speed of Gravity paper undercuts special relativity. And the whopper. C. Einstein cheated: His Mercury perihelion derivation was deliberately fudged.

Heady stuff, huh? It’s just that…well, it turned out after Bethell’s article appeared (again based almost entirely on the quotes and ‘sources’ provided to him by TVF), that in addition to thinking that Relativity is wrong, it turned out TVF also…sorta…thinks there’s a face on Mars made by aliens.

When this was first pointed out by a reader in the letters section of the Spectator back in 1999, I think Bethell was surprised and embarrassed. Why? Well, he had nothing to say in defense of his ‘source’ except to print a defense of the Face on Mars silliness written by TVF himself. (This is no doubt what led TAS reader and letter writer Russell Seitz into thinking Bethell espoused the Face on Mars nonsense himself—and Bethell was right to dispute this.) Now, I don’t know whether TVF told Bethell he believed in the Alien Face before Bethell wrote his article attacking Einstein, but I doubt it. And further, somehow I have the feeling Tom Bethell would have had second thoughts about writing his article in the first place if he had.

Indeed, the biggest bogus claim in that article, based on TVF, which I discussed in detail for an article in Salon,was that Einstein deliberately fudged his field equations to get a correct figure for the advance of the perihelion of Mercury.

Note that today this tampering by Einstein is a claim that Tom Bethell was not interested in repeating in his response to Seitz. Why? Because it had no basis in fact—and not one scientist besides TVF could I find willing to support it—including his alleged source.

I believe Bethell has realized that this just won’t do. On the other hand, he does have to defend himself for his past actions. So, as we see, in response to the letter by Seitz reminding readers of TVF’scrankiness (and by association Bethell’s own), Bethell did his best to makeTVF look like…well, an independent thinker.

Let’s look at his letter quoted above more carefully. Because a couple of items stand out:

TVF as an "independent thinker." This is the standard defense of cranks. “He’s willing to buck the tide on (insert your whipping boy here)!” It would help, of course, if TVF had more than just one paper to substantiate this. And that his peers respected his independent thinking. But they don’t. Note by the way, how Bethell implies the apparent lack of independent thinking about scientists who actually work in universities like, oh, say Scott Hughes and Sean Carroll, two prominent young cosmologists. Check out their web sites and the number of peer-reviewed papers they’ve published. Don’t exactly look like lock-step conformists to me.

But what grabbed me is TVF’s supposed association with the late great Paul M. Dirac.

Bethell is at his most careful here. And he’s right to be. I find no such corroborating source from Dirac that in regard to TVF he “quoted his views.” One site I googled, from 2003, goes so far as to say: “The famous Nobelist Paul Dirac said of him [TVF] in his book “Directions in Physics” that Tom knows more about the changing gravitational constant than anyone else he knows.”

This sounds cool. A plaudit from a renowned 20th century physicist. I’d wear that as a badge.

Too bad it’s not true.

I went and looked up Dirac’s book, Directions in Physics. He never praised TVF as knowing “more about the changing gravitational constant than anyone else he knows”. What Dirac did do, in a lecture about the gravitational constant in 1975 (over 30 years ago—again there’s that habit Bethell has with relying on old sources), is he cited TVF’s early work on the subject, saying on p.82 that: “Several people have been working on this question. The man who has done most on it, so far as I know, is Van Flandern, in the Naval Research Observatory in Washington.”

I think you would agree that “Done most on it, so far as I know” is not the same thing as “knows more about it than anyone else he knows” or “quoting his views”.

Further, after discussing TVF’s work on measuring the angular motion of the moon—Dirac went on to say why he found it unsatisfying and based on primitive theory. See p. 83. Does not sound like a ringing endorsement to me.

So, after his tepid apologia for TVF, Tom Bethell admits, he can’t cover for the guy, stating that espousing junk science views like the Face on Mars is hazardous to your reputation. (I can’t help asking—does not the reference to independent thinker above not assume you don’t care what others think about your challenging views? Whatever.)

So, it seems, even Tom Bethell has some sense of the importance of methodological naturalism when it comes to doing science. Indeed, in regards to Van Flandern’s views on relativity, he now writes, “I did not (necessarily) thereby endorse all of those views.” Well, this is interesting. Because Bethell most plainly did get very excited about those views when he wrote his anti-relativity piece back in 1999. Excited enough to write a whole article about him. I’d call that endorsement. In fact he opened his piece, as we saw, foreshadowing (again) the death knell for the established theory by touting TVF’s paper and then explaining it in detail.

But no more, it seems. It looks to me from this response in the TAS letters section –and the lack of a Relativity Chapter in his new book, that Tom Bethell has changed his mind.

This is reason for optimism. (I know, I know, the cynics are snickering at me.) For science enthusiasts everywhere, this means there is hope for Tom Bethell. If he can change his mind about relativity (even if he doesn’t outright admit it), he may also see the light on Darwin as well. (provided he starts contacting sources who are a., still living, and b., still working in the field.)

I for one hope so.

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