Corrupting the Youth

Following Pharyngula's lead I have posted a reply to this breathtakingly stupid column from the conservative website WorldNetDaily. Its author, Kelly Hollowell, repeats the usual charges about how teaching evolution corrupts the youth, turning them into a bunch of knuckle-dragging, godless moral relativists. What's novel here is her insistence that it is not just evolution, but also the theory of relativity that corrupts the youth. Here's a sample, make sure you're sitting down. This is not a parody:
The basis of Einstein's life-changing view called the theory of relativity can be summed this way: Time is not constant. Both velocity and gravity can distort time. Nearly nine decades ago, this surprising discovery shook the very foundation of human perception, understanding and reality. Mistakenly, in the minds of many, the theory of relativity became relativism. So it was in the 1920s and still today that the popular interpreter of Einstein's work finds himself saying "All things are relative" and thinks that he is voicing a scientific discovery. This notion of "all things relative" moved from the laboratory into the public domain, creating an era in which all absolutes disappeared. Relativism has become the prevailing spirit of thought and action in our modern culture, but that is just half the equation.
My reply is available at EvolutionBlog. Enjoy!


Nice reply, Jason.

Regarding Kelly’s statement that:

“With that in mind, scientists will soon launch a rocket to test Einstein’s general theory of relativity in space. “

Perhaps Kelly is referring to this project:

Or perhaps she isn’t.

Kelly Hollowell’s qualifications are detailed here:[…]ollowell.asp

Fascinating. I wonder what caused Kelly to turn into a creation scientist? I’m guessing it was reading all those First Amendment and abortion cases in law school coupled with the realization that she could make as much money spinning science into bible stories than she could as a patent lawyer (not the most fun job in the world, I can assure you of that).

On the other hand, maybe she had a revelation a few years after attacking her sleeping father with a hammer (like they guy whose tale appears on her website under “Apologists”). Roky Erikson, eat your heart out!

It was Gravity Probe B that was launched today; also see: this story this story

This probe has some precision gyroscopes onboard that will be used to look for some extremely tiny precession effects caused by:

* Traveling in orbit through the Earth’s gravitational field (geodetic)

* The gravitational force of the Earth’s spin (Lense-Thirring)

General Relativity makes predictions for both these values; alternative GR-like theories of gravity multiply them by various fudge factors. So how close are these fudge factors to their GR values? That is the purpose of this mission.

For a rather mathematics-heavy treatment, see The Confrontation between General Relativity and Experiment by Clifford Will.

<sarcasm> Oooh, I’m impressed. A JD from Regent U (a bottom-tier law school by any standard that is an adjunct of Jerry Falwell’s little operation). That has me just shakin’ in my boots at being attacked by such a fine young lawyer. </sarcasm>

Wait a minute. Maybe I shouldn’t be. Exhibit A: Paul Johnson—and he went to a much better law school.

In Clifford Will’s paper: Geodetic precession is in section 3.7.2 Lense-Thirring or gravitomagnetic precession is in section 3.7.3

Checking on STEP reveals no hint as to when it might be launched.

STEP is a test of the Equivalence Principle; it will check to see if objects with different compositions will fall at different rates. They are known to fall at the same rate to some very high accuracy; STEP will go further.

She does have one publication (under a previous name, Kelly Bodden). It’s wrongly cited on her web site, but whatever.… But such a monumental conflation of relativism with relativity does indeed leave me breathless - with laughter.

Brian Leiter, have a blast with this one.

Jason, you might have mentioned the rather stark negative correlation between acceptance of evolution and crime (e.g., school shootings). It tends to be a lot higher in America than countries in Europe and East Asia where a higher percentage of the populace accepts evolution. That kind of makes K Hollowell’s claims, for which she provided no evidence, rather hard to maintain.

Hey, there is a long & honorable tradition of corrupting the youth that goes back at least to Socrates & I for one am damn proud to be part of it.

It must be said, however, that there have no doubt been cultural effects from the General Theory, both as bastardized & as legit science–they just aren’t the effects people who decry “relativism” think they are.

To give just one brief example: In a world in which our–your & my–present(s) diverge as we walk away from each other, as they do in a physically relativistic universe, has, I would argue, an effect on narrative structure & point of view in literature.

For what it’s worth, Kelly Bodden’s 1996 doctoral dissertation at U. of Miami, which resides in the University’s libraries appears to be titled “Protein tyrosine phosphatases in neuronal development.”

You: What she really means is something like our perception of time will change depending on the velocity at which we are traveling. Or that it is possible for observers in different frames of reference to observe the same phenomenon but have different perceptions of the duration of the phenomenon.

Actually, that may be what she thinks she means, but that’s not relativity either. “Perception” is a term more often used in psychology. Its how the brain interprets what the senses tell it. One’s perception of time is already incredibly variable. Sit at at 30 second stoplight staring at the light, vs. trying to read a page from a book, for example; in the former, you feel like you’re sitting forever, but in the latter case, you’re highly likely to miss the light and get honked at.

In the case of travel near or at the speed of light, time itself is distorted. The numbers, the actual mathematics, change time. When I travel near the speed of light for 30 seconds, I really have only traveled for 30 seconds, in my frame of reference; my watch really says 30 seconds. That maybe some 50 years passed to the people left behind on earth is also true.

Perception has nothing to do with it. It would be true to a clock in a ship going that speed, even without a person inside it.

As for the probe going in to space to test general relativity, that’s more looking at the “curved space” phenomena in more mathematical detail. Its already been shown by looking at stars behind the sun during an eclipse, in a rough form, but this probe will test it to much higher mathematical precision. That theory is part of the light as particle with mass concept, and is really irrelevant to her use of relativity here.

This amazing piece of inference by homonym was common when I was an evangelical in the 70s - Einstein was accused of causing a moral decline by a number of preachers at that time. It ain’t new, but it’s clearly persistent…

The confusion of relativity theory with relativism becomes even funnier if one realizes that the first is a bit of a misnomer. The theory might have been called “invariance theory” (or “covariance theory”), since it studies relationships which are invariant under Lorentz transformations (resp. general coordinate transformations in General Relativíty).

Relativity and Relativism, indeed. Consider B.Roy Frieden’s book Physics from Fisher Information. In it he shows that Fisher Information - the measure of the maximum amount of information that can be extracted from a physical experiment - can be used directly to derive the Lagrangian of a physical situation, and hence physical behaviour.

Where have we seen a limiting maximum on information before? Nietzsche! He argued that since there is no God, there can be no right answers to moral questions. By analogy, if there is no God, there is no exact answer to physical questions, only the Fisher information that can be extracted.

Hence if there is no God, then physics exists.

Of course, it is a fallacy to argue from this that God does not exist, but I wonder if Hollowell would spot what the fallacy is.

Jason, you might have mentioned the rather stark negative correlation between acceptance of evolution and crime (e.g., school shootings).

Well, as a European who hasn’t been mugged since 1966, I’m happy to believe that the level of violent crime is lower here than in the States, and I’m quite sure that most of the population accepts evolution. But I can’t see that these are correlated in the way you suggest.

I doubt if people who shoot up schools give a lot of thought to the origin of species one way or another, and although I’m open to the argument that biblical literalism is prima facie evidence of a sociopathic personality, I can’t see how it leads to violence.

If there were evidence that educational standards were generally lower in the States than in Europe (seems unlikely), then it might be arguable that the this underlay both a greater susceptibility to idiotic arguments and a bigger chunk of the population being driven to desperation by economic circumstances or stress. But otherwise, I’m afraid I don’t understand your point.

So, by her same logic, deviled eggs are causing our “modern culture” to worship the devil…

I guess it’s okay to study Relativity, as long as you drink copious amounts of Absolut vodka, then they would balance each other out.

Those are the first two I could think of off the top of my head.

I really, really hate to defend WND or any of its writers, but it seems fairly clear to me that you’ve completely twisted Hollowell’s clear meaning when you say that she is confusing the theory of relativity with moral relativism. In your blog you write:

“Surely she’s not about to argue that since Einstein talked about relativity, and that sort of sounds like relativism, that Einstein was promoting a particular view of morality? I mean, that would be too stupid even for a conservative, right?”

But of course she does no such thing anywhere in the article. She writes: “Mistakenly, in the minds of many, the theory of relativity became relativism.” It is perfectly obvious that Hollowell is accusing *other people* of confusing relativity with relativism, not doing so herself. She is making a fairly standard argument, which she does not back up but easily could have, that lefty academics and postmodernists, by way of their scientific illiteracy and political agenda-mongering, have tried to hijack Einstein’s physics in order to serve that agenda by lending it scientific legitimacy. This is evidenced by her later saying: “And what if Einstein’s theory of relativity were rightly understood apart from the concept of relativism?”

This view is not reserved to right-wingers; Sokal and Bricmont adduce several examples of precisely this sort of thing in their book debunking postmodernism, and also treat it with the contempt it deserves. Yet you do not carelessly accuse *them* of confusing relativity with relativism.

It’s rare that one needs to bother reading WND articles to know that they are generally partisan, error-laden, and poorly argued. Too bad you saw the need to descend to that level in your posting as well.


I think she’s making a parallel between trends in science and trends in people’s worldviews. As such, the comparison is apt. The non-rigorous, shorthand concepts of Relativity, Quantum uncertainty, logical incompleteness and the non-linear results of Chaos theory leave the perception of a loss of Absolute knowledge. Absolute Truth is a casualty of the modern worldview. Postmodernism represents that loss projected onto other intellectual spheres.

The Christian Right deperately want to hold on to the absolutist moral position. Any suggestion that some truths are unknowable is a threat to this particular worldview. I think she’s correct to say, in some semse, that Relativity (along with the other scientific trends of the 20th Century) leads to relativism but she’s too wedded to the idea of her absolute truths to follow the implication to its logical comclusion – that our ability to know the mind of the Absolute is itself greatly limited.

Actually, the absolutist position holds for crreationists’ view of science too. Their “critiques” and “arguments against” regularly cite the fact that we haven’t solved certain issues (esp. the chemistry of the origin of life) as a reason not to believe any of evolution. One chink in the wall brings down the whole edifice, whether of science or morality. Ironically, they give us more credit than we deserve; no working scientist ever makes the statement that a problem is solved in an absolutist (complete) sense.

Well, it depends on how you view “absolutism”. I’d just say that if you are an absolutist with respect to x, then you think there are such things as facts about x. So if you believe there’s such thing as a scientific fact, then you’re an absolutist about science.

Kelly Hollowell’s message, arguments, and intellectual methods are well suited to her audience.

Indeed… whereas Rosenhouse’s are not.

I was quite explicit in my essay that Hollowell distanced herself from the view that relativity implies relativism. I wrote “At least Hollowell distances herself from this view. Very big of her.” But she clearly thinks there’s something plausible about the idea, and she is quite clear that it is scientists and secularists who are to blame for spreading the myth that relativity implies relativism. There is no mention in her article about “lefty academics” doing anything.

Unlike Sokal and Bricmont she is not critizing specific statements of specific people. She is not saying that the belief that relativity implies relativism reflects badly on the people who hold that belief. She is saying that people have been duped into believing this by the advocacy of ill-defined “secularists”. Who, exactly, is advocating this? Further, since her criticism is coupled with an argument about evolution, which she does think is promoted by scientists mainly to defend atheism, I don’t think its unreasonable to conlcude that she trying to make physicists look bad by association.

If she had given some examples of anyone with any credentials using relativity to promote relativism, or if she had given any evidence that people who perform immoral acts are motivated to do so by their understanding of science, I might have been more sympathetic to her column. Instead she simply implies that scientists are trying to distort their findings to promote atheism. The fact is there are no scientists who are running around using specific scientific theories, be they evolution, relativity, heliocentrism or anything else, to promote atheism. But that is what Hollowell wants her readers to believe. She is writing for an audience that is already suspicious of science, do not like evolution, and probably know nothing about relativity. Do you think those people will come away from her column thinking they need to learn more physics? Or will they come away thinking that physicists, like biologists, are a bunch of atheists?

In your essay you explicitly accuse her of arguing that Einstein himself was promoting a particular view of morality, something she clearly does not do in her piece. The fact that you contradict yourself on this point two sentences later might be a defense, I suppose.

Similarly, you say she is attributing the spread of misunderstood relativity theory to scientists, but she never says that either (the closest she comes is “popular interpreters”, which you are undoubtedly too intelligent to have confused with “scientists”).

Anyway, I don’t have time to continue on this thread, so I’ll conclude by saying that your posting and her article had a lot in common.


I’ll accept your criticism about my statement that Hollowell believed that Einstein himself was promoting a particular view of morality. That was a poor choice of words. What I should have said was “Surely she’s not going to argue that Einstein’s theory could plausibly be used as part of a defense of moral relativism.” Beyond that I don’t see how anything in my original essay was incorrect.

Nowhere in my essay did I say that she is laying the blame for the relativity misunderstanding at the feet of scientists. I said that in my comment, since I thought that was the obvious implication of her writing. The popular interpreters of evolution who come in for the most abuse from outfits like Science Ministries are, almost without exception, scientists or philosophers of science. If there are non-scientists who are running around offering bogus interpretations of relativity, I would like to know who they are. She also implicates “arrogant academics who claimed the church wasn’t smart enough to understand science”. If the academics she had in mind were certain postmodern literary theorists, then she might have pointed out that such theorists very rarely promote evolution.

If her column had dealt only with evolution, and she blamed secularists, popular interpreters, and arrogant academics for spreading blinkered versions of the facts of biology, would you hesitate to conclude that she is talking about scientists?

What needs pointing out (at least to asg) is that advertising is a vastly more pernicious influence on society that relativity. This leads to ready acceptance of rationalizing and ignorance of correlation coefficients (for example). Hallowell is an example (or at least a correlation).

Les Lane wrote:

“What needs pointing out (at least to asg) is that advertising is a vastly more pernicious influence on society that relativity. This leads to ready acceptance of rationalizing and ignorance of correlation coefficients (for example).”

Hear! Hear!

It has not escaped my attention that, if the statistics on children’s TV watching are correct, the most time intensive part of their values education comes from TV.

Part (around 20%) of this content is advertising which teaches two “moral” laws:

Material goods = hapiness and social esteem; and

Me! Me! Me! Me!

The value lessons of advertising are the direct antithesis of Jesus’ moral teaching, and of secular humanism (come to that).

This is coupled with programming, which is not as persistently pernicious. Some programs (rugrats, and “The Wild Thornberries” come to mind - I have young children) are excellent, but there is a persistent theme from the presented social class of protagonists that you have a right to be rich; and also that violence is the solution to problems.

I believe that it is from TV that the children of America and Australia recieve their predominant moral education. Christians who argue that evolution, or secular humanism are the source of societies woes are not only wrong in fact; they ignore the true threat to the moral values they accept.

Tom Curtis

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This page contains a single entry by Jason Rosenhouse published on April 20, 2004 2:06 PM.

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