BREAKING: It's time to create an institute!

FRIDAY, MAY 4, 2018

Drum, drugs, Serious Thought:
Kevin Drum wants to create a pop science masterpiece in which he explains relativity in a way that even Trump voters can fathom. If we understand his post, he's planning to do this on drugs!

Funny that! Ever since Stephen Hawking died, we've been trying to set aside a week to explore the same general topic. The difference:

While Drum wants to explain how relativity actually works, we want to detail the problems with conventional popularizations. It's a very Wittgensteinian thing to do!

The background:

By coincidence, we'd been rereading Hawking's Short History of Time in the weeks before he died. We decided to do so after watching a PBS show on his life.

When he died, we were struck by the incoherence of this piece at Slate concerning his famous book. Sub-headline:

"We desperately want to understand our place in the cosmos. Hawking’s book opened the door."

We're going to say that it didn't! For ourselves, we desperately want to understand the undying appeal of the types of bad explanations found in Hawking's book.

(For decades now, such bad explanations have been our favorite form of literature. Along with Homer, of course.)

Further inspiration! On the weekend of March 9, we watched C-Span's Q&A interview with Michio Kaku. We started rereading his 1994 book, Hyperspace, and were quickly amazed by how incoherent some of his formulations are.

We've been looking for a way to spend a week on these topics. Alas! The Chozicks and the Joe-and-Mikas make this an impossible dream. The Michelle Wolfs don't help. Truly, "It's always somethin'," just as Whatshername said.

This is why we can't have nice things! Could Mother Jones start an institute devoted to Serious Thought?

Sources of incoherence:
According to Wittgenstein, it all comes down to similarities in what he once called "surface grammar." These two sentences look alike, but one of them doesn't make sense:
It's now three o'clock in Detroit.
It's now three o'clock on the moon.
According to Wittgenstein, Serious Thought is full of sentences like the one which doesn't make sense. Because they resemble statements which do make sense, we never quite smoke them out.

As we were saying just last week, such sentences are about as useful as an empty box of tampons! Or perhaps as a condom which [rim shot] has already been used!


  1. "We're going to say that it didn't!"

    Agreed. Not an expert, but it seems pretty obvious that the Hawking hype is total bullshit.

    1. The Expert Judgments of the Non-Experts.

  2. Wittgenstein's original example was "It is five o'clock on the sun."

    He presumed that time on earth is measured by the position of the sun in the sky, and hence the statement "It is five o'clock on the sun" becomes problematical.

    Obviously, time doesn't have to be measured this way. Atomic clocks use a completely different method and can be carried to the moon, sun, or anywhere in the universe.

    But ultimately, Wittgenstein wasn't saying that one statement ("It is five o'clock here") "makes sense" whereas the other ("It is five o'clock on the sun") doesn't. The problem for Wittgenstein lies in the frame of reference in which "5 o'clock" means something different here vs the sun, or as he put it "the method of measuring time belongs to the grammar of time-expression".

    1. "According to Wittgenstein, Serious Thought is full of sentences like the one which doesn't make sense. Because they resemble statements which do make sense, we never quite smoke them out."

      This is totally untrue. We smoke out nonsensical sentences that make no sense because we use context, not just the surface grammar of a sentence, to determine meaning. Similarly, we can make good sense of a variety of kinds of expressions that violate grammatical norms because they are meaningful within our frame of reference (or context).

      The philosophy of reference has made a great deal of progress since Wittgenstein. Somerby stops with him because that was as far as his college courses took him back in the 1960s. I suggest he read Hillary Putnam, for starters.

    2. "The philosophy of reference..."

      Yup there's your Trump voter, right there. Crtitical thinkers that they are, the voted for him in large numbers when they heard this:

      TRUMP: The reporting is fake. Look, look, you know what it is? Here's the thing. The public isn't, you know, they read newspapers, they see television, they watch, they don't know if it's true or false because they're not involved. I'm involved. I've been involved with this stuff all my life. But I'm involved. So I know when you're telling the truth or when you're not. I just see many, many untruthful things. And I'll tell you what else I see. I see tone. You know the word tone. The tone is such hatred. I'm really not a bad person, by the way. No, but the tone is such, I do get good ratings, you have to admit that. The tone is such hatred. I watched this morning a couple of the networks. And I have to say, Fox & Friends in the morning, they're very honorable people. They're very, not because they're good, because they hit me also when I do something wrong. But they have the most honest morning show. That's all I can say. It's the most honest. But the tone, Jim. If you look, the hatred, the, I mean, sometimes, sometimes somebody gets, well, you look at your show that goes on at 10 o'clock in the evening. You just take a look at that show. That is a constant hit. The panel is almost always exclusive anti-Trump. The good news is he doesn't have good ratings. But the panel is almost exclusive anti-Trump. And the hatred and venom coming from his mouth; the hatred coming from other people on your network. Now, I will say this. I watch it. I see it. I'm amazed by it. And I just think you'd be a lot better off, I honestly do. The public gets it, you know. Look, when I go to rallies, they turn around, they start screaming at CNN. They want to throw their placards at CNN. You know. I, I think you would do much better by being different. But you just take a look. Take a look at some of your shows in the morning and the evening. If a guest comes out and says something positive about me, it's, it's brutal. Now, they'll take this news conference, I'm actually having a very good time, OK? But they'll take this news conference, don't forget, that's the way I won. Remember, I used to give you a news conference every time I made a speech, which was like every day. OK? No, that's how I won. I won with news conferences and probably speeches. I certainly didn't win by people listening to you people. That's for sure. But I'm having a good time. Tomorrow, they will say, "Donald Trump rants and raves at the press." I'm not ranting and raving. I'm just telling you. You know, you're dishonest people. But, but I'm not ranting and raving. I love this. I'm having a good time doing it. But tomorrow, the headlines are going to be, "Donald Trump rants and raves." I'm not ranting and raving.

      “I’m babbling like a deranged lunatic, but I’m not ranting and raving.”
      -Jim Wright at Stonekettle Station


    3. Bad on me for not linking to the original post


    4. Leroy, this is a non sequitur

    5. Non sequitur? Alright, you got me there.

      “We smoke out nonsensical sentences that make no sense because we use context…”

      Who is “we?” The typical msm viewer doesn’t “smoke out nonsensical sentences that make no sense because we use context.” Hence my reference to the stream of consciousness of Trump. How is it possible, outside of philosophical meanderings, that Trump gets away with his bullshit? He should be hung by a gibbet by his own party by now.

      Why do I have to point this out to the brainiacs who visit and criticize? Give me a break, man. You understand what Bob was saying.

      And now I know who Wittgenstein is. That’s a plus.


  3. Einstein's theories use the language of mathematics, and do not require conventionalizatons to tie them to real-world analogies. Therein lies the difficulty: most people like to relate a theory to some sort of concrete example; we are wired to think that way and tend to reject pure abstraction, especially when the theory implies things which do not seem intuitive or which counter our everyday realities.

    This is familiar territory for TDH:
    EINSTEIN MAKES EINSTEIN EASY: Ways to sell a difficult book!

    WEDNESDAY, MARCH 16, 2016


    and others.

    1. Bingo! Just like this site's biggest troll, Bob is no expert -- he won't learn the necessary math -- but he's quick to disparage non-mathematical popularizations because they don't make sense to him. Bob's favorite philosopher famously wrote Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darĂ¼ber muss man schweigen. (Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent) Perhaps Bob should heed that advice.

  4. I was a physics major in college, and round about 1975 we used this book by A.P. French (in paperback) to learn special relativity. As I recall, it only required good skills in algebra and some trig. Oops, an Amazon review says it uses a tiny bit of calculus.

    I think you can only understand relativity by understanding the axioms and working through the equations. This freebie at Stanford explains the assumptions but uses calculus notation to define velocity

    As you work through the examples and a few problems you can start to dispel the counter-intuition and even develop a little intuition about special relativity. For example, the fact that we always measure the speed of light in a vacuum to be the same constant value, regardless of motions of source and observer, simply forces all the time dilation and Fitzgerald contraction and other "weird" effects. These effects will fall right out of the algebra, no more hand waving.

    Working through the equations is so much better than reading 10 hand-waving books. It sounds like Somerby has the work ethic to do this.

    1. "It sounds like Somerby has the work ethic to do this"


    2. Perhaps not. But your "ten-hand waving books" comment makes Bob’s point, doesn’t it? If you can’t understand special relativity, or general relativity for that matter, then the public must rely on popular writing to at least get a glimpse of the underlying mysteries of our existence.

      That being said, I’d like to know what Bob means by “the types of bad explanations found in Hawking's book.” I would really, really like to read about that. Alas! He has other fish to fry.

      I got a couple of things from Hawking’s book that helped me understand. One was his explanation of the uncertainty principle in quantum physics. The other was his explanation of the “wavicle.” Though I wish Hawking had gone on to explain how single electrons could be aimed at a slit experiment! Maybe I can look it up.


  5. This kind of mental masturbation makes Somerby feel elite in the same way as reading the NY Times makes semi-educated New Yorkers feel elite.

    We all need to feel intelligent. Somerby needs to remember that next time he mocks those who like to read about things he considers trivial. I consider this so remote from anything any real person needs to think about, that it is a major waste of time, not to mention mental effort. Aren't there Sudoku somewhere that need to be solved?

    1. Somerby, a philosophy major, even manages to bungle philosophy by completely misunderstanding Wittgenstein. But hey, he knows the name "Wittgenstein".


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