STOPPED MAKING SENSE: Einstein and the plastic giraffe!

MONDAY, NOVEMBER 30, 2015

Part 1—Days of non-explanation:
We heard some really bad "explanations" over the Thanksgiving break. For starters, consider what happened last Friday.

A young lady who's three years old was happily banging us on the head with a plastic giraffe. Challenged on her wayward conduct, she offered a shaky explanation:

She wasn't hitting Uncle Bob. Her toy giraffe was doing it!

Her 9-year-old sister quickly informed her that her "explanation" didn't make sense. But so what? Like a budding Candidate Trump, she doggedly stuck with her story!

The plastic giraffe was doing it? Now that was a bad explanation— although, we'll grant you, its author was only 3. What explains the bad explanation we'd already heard as we drove to her domicile?

It may have been the worst "explanation" in so-called human history! Last Wednesday, on NPR, Ari Shapiro was hosting All Things Considered. His interview with Professor Frank started off like this:
SHAPIRO (11/25/15): It was the discovery that changed the universe—or rather, our understanding of the universe. One hundred years ago today, Albert Einstein presented his theory of general relativity. So for the next few minutes, this is going to be a safe space for everyone who might think they have a vague understanding that maybe the theory of relativity is a really big deal, but maybe you don't really know exactly why or what that means.

Consider this a physics amnesty. Astrophysicists and NPR blogger Adam Frank promises not to judge as I ask some really ignorant questions right now. Hey, Adam!

FRANK: Hey, how's it going, Ari?

SHAPIRO: Let's start with the basics on this 100th anniversary. What exactly is the theory of general relativity?
"What exactly is the theory of general relativity?" the NPR host innocently asked. We'd have to say they were famous last words. The worst explanation of all time proceeded directly from there!

What does a non-explanation look like? If you're curious, we'll suggest you read the transcript of the Frank/Shapiro exchange, to which we'll return on Friday. For today, let's consider the larger meaning of the non-explanation NPR broadcast that day.

All across the country, people were traveling to holiday destinations. Upon arrival, they received inexpert explanations from people as young as 3.

Here's the problem:

Ari Shapiro is 37; Professor Frank is 53. Meanwhile, All Things Considered has been around since 1971. At least within our own liberal tribe, it's considered one of our brightest news programs.

In fairness, the segment in question concerned a matter of physics. It's the kind of segment certain news orgs broadcast to flatter consumers and to extend their own brand.

It doesn't matter if NPR listeners can't explain relativity. Still, what does it mean when our brightest news program can offer a segment like that?

In our view, the question is well worth considering.

Surely, we weren't the only ones who noticed the non-explanatory nature of Wednesday's segment. Surely, people in other cars must have wondered about what they heard.

That said, Shapiro showed no sign of knowing that he'd offered listeners a non-explanation—and Professor Frank didn't seem to realize either! Indeed, when their short segment was done, they closed things out like this:
SHAPIRO: That's Adam Frank, who teaches astrophysics at the University of Rochester. Thanks for the explainer!

FRANK: Oh, it was great. Thank you.
Riding along in the car, we were fairly sure that the explainer hadn't been great. Three nights later, we checked the transcript—and it turned out we were right! Indeed, we're not sure we've ever seen so perfect a non-explanation. It was handed to us by a professor who does know physics, on one of our brightest news programs.

Did NPR listeners actually know that this "explainer" didn't make sense? And if we the people can't spot a problem like that, how many other non-explanations might we be willing to swallow, ingest and accept?

It's easy to spot the non-explanations when they come from the other tribe. Increasingly, we're struck by the profusion of non-explanations which come to us from authority figures within our own liberal/progressive tents.

Many of those bad explanations concern matters of gender and race. We pondered that fact as we reread Ta-Nehisi Coates' widely-praised new book during Thanksgiving break.

We're going to start a lengthy review of that fascinating book at the start of next week. In the meantime, let's review a few of the non-explanations which seem to surround us at this time. Some of them come from the other tribe. A fair number come from us.

On this morning's Morning Joe, the pundits were explaining why our discourse seems to have stopped making sense. In a highly unusual departure, much of what they said was correct.

That said, it seemed to us they could spot the shortcomings in everyone but themselves! Their guild has dished tremendous bunk in the past thirty years. They failed to mention this fact.

Why has everyone else stopped making sense? On that, their views were fairly strong. Tomorrow, let's review what the savants said. Also, let's visit Chuck Todd.

Tomorrow: The question not asked

31 comments:

  1. It is unreasonable to expect anyone to explain the theory of relativity accurately in a segment on the radio, without even a chalkboard!

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  2. If you didn't care for NPR's take (and O how I loathe the breezy glibness of some of their presenters, Steve Inskeep), consider Nova's tutorial on general relativity. Graphics. Equations. Scary smart people with funny accents. Some surprisingly hot lady scientists. Black holes. Curved space-time. If you're semi-serious, there's Wikipedia or the Britannica at eb.com.

    For those in need of a break from the ceaseless approbations for Mr. Coates, I recommend the Thomas Chatterton Williams review in the London Review of Books for another black guy's viewpoint.

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    1. Thank you!

      Coates' book itself is a very quick read, and I recommend it -- not out of agreement in totality but as a window onto the way many view the state of the US and race. I think Mr. Williams' comments go some ways in showing some of the distorting effects of that window.

      Google as I did, or just find it here:

      http://www.lrb.co.uk/v37/n23/thomas-chatterton-williams/loaded-dice

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  3. I was happy to learn two things I hadn't known: Time changes depending on one's distance from a massive body. And, for a GPS to work right, it needs a relativistic adjustment.

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    1. I am happy you acknowledge not knowing something before stating an opinion on it.

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    2. David, that's the gravitational red shift. On the surface of the sun, atoms release light at the usual frequencies. To us, high up in the sun's gravitational field, it looks like lower frequencies.

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  4. This is a recurring theme of TDH. I think he is off base with this peeve. i don't understand the theory of relativity. I assume in order to do so, I'd have to undertake years of study. My inadequate brain can't comprehend how there could be a beginning of time, or how there could not be a beginning of time; or how there could be a limit to space, or no limit. Or for that matter, how all the matter in the universe came into being - was it always there - or did it just form out of nothing. Maybe there are answers and someone knows them. Lots of more mundane things are also pretty complicated, with no clear answers.

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    1. Eh.

      They said they'd explain. They congratulated themselves for explaining.

      They didn't explain.

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    2. Then the problem is smugness, not explanatory ability.

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    3. The professor acts like time-space continuum is an obvious thing but underneath he doesn't seem to get it either. Einstein wrote a book for laypeople that I thought had a good example involving the way two atomic clocks, one on earth, one in a travelling spaceship would end up with different times after a journey because the little photon bouncing between mirrors had actually had to travel a farther distance when the spaceship was moving. That's a example I could visualize, the kind of examples good teachers should use instead of jargon.

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    4. Ah, but AC/MA, it's Bob's blog and he gets to write whatever he wants. You told us so many times.

      And you have also asked the question, many times, that if you don't like the "recurring themes" then why are you here?

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    5. Anyone can claim to be AC/MA

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    6. anon 5:51, you are a sorry person, lacking the ability to reason. You, in my view idiotically, constantly issue stupid, sarcastic, annoying complaints about TDH and his "fans" - reading the blog religiously in spite of your unwarranted scorn for it. Your rationale (assuming you are that "anon") is that you derive "guilty pleasure" from mocking TDH and the "bobfans", while lacking any insight into how dumb you are. I read the blog because it often has an interesting and intelligent perspective (in my opinion). There is no inconsistency in disagreeing with the blogger on any particular point. (note that AC/MA 5:53 is not me, as he illustrates that anyone can sign as "AC/MA"

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    7. I don't think you're you either.

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  5. One of the best explanations of all time, in my view, is that we all have no clothes, but with the gatekeepers we didn't need to notice.

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  6. The explainer was very poor. Here is an extremely brief summary of general relativity:

    * Space and time are different aspects of one thing: spacetime

    * Curvature (in 4 dimensions) of spacetime, is what we know of as gravity

    * The higher the strength of gravity, the more time will slow down for the person/thing in the gravitational field.

    * Gravity and acceleration are equivalent. i.e. Accelerating in space at ~10m/s/s is the same as experiencing a 1g gravitational field here on Earth

    * The theory of general relativity makes observable predictions (universe expanding, gravitational lensing, clocks (or satellites) at high altitude experiencing different rate of time).

    * Even Einstein was surprised by the idea of his theory implying an expanding universe, and tried to introduce a fudge factor to correct for it (later calling that his greatest blunder)


    Sorry if the formatting is poor

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  7. It seemed to me he could spot the shortcomings in everyone but himself.

    It doesn't matter if Howler readers can't explain self contradiction. Still, what does it mean when our brightest blogger can offer a post like this?

    In our view, the question is well worth considering.

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  8. Did general relativity change everything? Did it change anything for anyone except physicists? E = mc2 is from special relativity, published in 1905. What is going to change for humans as a result of general relativity? Generally things may be hard to explain if they don't have real practical consequences.

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  9. It is sad that Bob Somerby no longer understands simple, clear explanations and does not realize how embarassing he makes this pitiful state of affairs.

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  10. During the short time I had Mourning Joe on they were bemoaning that the candidates ALL are liars. To include our party they had to stretch to cite Hillary's lies about her mail server. But, hey, both sides do it!

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  11. Today Hillary Clinton announced her plan for rebuilding the nation's infrastructure. You'd think someone would be talking about it, but no, it is all about Trump's 100 black clergy and Cruz's transwoman remark.

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    1. Huffington Post has a very large article about it. The picture was nice as well.

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    2. Why would anyone believe any politician's plan to rebuild the nation's infrastructure? First of all, this is the ongoing job of the cities, states and federal government. They should be maintaining infrastructure as a matter of course.

      There was President Obama's early plan to rebuild the infrastructure: The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) (Pub.L. 111–5), commonly referred to as the Stimulus or The Recovery Act. Much of that spending went to groups supportive of Obama, while the infrastructure remained impaired. There's a big infrastructure amount in Obama's 2015 budget. And so it goes.

      Spending promises from candidates are the other side of the coin of tax cuts. Republican candidates promise unaffordable tax cuts, while Dems promise unaffordable new spending.

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    3. Authority direct from Prof. Otto Yerass - as usual.

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    4. Dave the Guitar PlayerDecember 1, 2015 at 1:14 PM

      David, listen to what you just said. You said maintaining infrastructure is the ongoing job of government as a matter of course. Then you said that Republican candidates promise unaffordable tax cuts instead of new spending (like on infrastructure). Aren't you just saying that Democrats are promising to maintain the infrastructure and that Republicans will shirk that responsibility? Your statement appears to support the idea that anyone who cares about government doing its job would not consider voting Republican.

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    5. "Listen to what you just said."

      Asking the impossible.

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  12. I hate NPR so much. I'd rather listen to Cotton Mather reading from the Bible, frankly.

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    Replies
    1. I love NPR and have sent them another donation in your name.

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    2. That's fine, I sent one to Cotton Mather in your name.

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    3. I sent one to Planned Parenthood in Carly Fiorina's name.

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    4. The Rule of Three strikes again.

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