A Quack and a Crank

The whole ‘bad-science blogs’ thing has given rise to an amusing retaliation movement of ‘bad science-blogs’ run by homeopaths. There’s a little network of them and they all link to each other and post approvingly about each other’s updates. I was put onto them by Blogging The Organon, wherein Gimpy posts sections of Hahnemann’s Organon (upon which homeopathy is largely based) one at a time and then people discuss them for a bit, then it descends into farce and the next chunk of Organon goes up. But of course, they’re clearly not as good, because they haven’t got a central aggregator website.

They all have names like “good science”, “suppressed science” and “remedy reality”, and they all update every few days about homeopathy. This is somewhat pointless, because homeopathy hasn’t changed since it was invented in the nineteenth century, except for the addition of a few extra remedies and the decision to start making their magic water using preposterous machines instead of dilution and succussion (which is fair enough since neither works anyway so you might as well do it the quick way). One of my favourites is Homeopathy4Health. I think it’s always a good sign when a website carries a disclaimer like this:

Disclaimer: I am not the owner of any website named homeopathy4health.

I think you have to question the mental state of someone who would say that at homeopathy4health.wordpress.com, under the name homeopathy4health. Many of the posts do at least allow public comments, although I’m given to understand there’s some censorship there. But some posts have no comments on them. An example is “Medicine: blind and in the dark?”, which is essentially a long attack on evidence based medicine for blinding studies. The anonymous author’s thesis seems to be that looking at more than one subject is bad because it means using “statistics which are incomprehesible to the lay person and which are subject to statistical interpretation bias” instead of just looking at one patient and trusting yourself not to indulge in any confirmation bias. That, and

The foundations of the scientific approach are suspicion and doubt: both are deeply negative mental processes.  I am told that a good scientist should doubt his results as his first reaction; I would say that this is an unhealthy reaction in most normal situations: someone who doubts his reactions has poor intuition. Someone who is doubtful isolates themselves from experience. Suspicion causes peers to doubt each others results and slows progress. ... Sceptics believe that the scientific method is the answer to medical problems, I am unconvinced.

That sounds like Biblical thinking to me. The whole idea of “negative mental processes” leading to negative outcomes sounds like something Master Splinter would say. But just as I was thinking he was crazy, I saw a link in his blogroll that put that into perspective. The “Freedom of Science” blog is proper crazy. Honestly, I’m not totally convinced it’s not an elaborate joke, although the archive goes back over a year and that’s dedication if it is. It’s inextricably linked with “Alphysics”, which I think is a joke, but is a rather stupid one written by a crank in the style of Facts For Life in an attempt to discredit physics by equating it – I think; it’s not clear – with alchemy.

It’s very telling: there’s always the chance that the author of Homeopathy4health genuinely has had the astonishing good fortune claimed, and that the range of symptoms described on the “about” page genuinely did vanish just after taking homeopathic remedies. I could see something like that being very convincing, and once you’re there it follows logically that anyone who dismisses it is being overly suspicious of it. But no amount of coincidental remissions could justify listening to the cranks at Freedom of Science (which really should be called Freedom From Science). It is a website devoted to “removing Newtonism from the education process”. It says, with no apparent trace of shame,

Physics is Newtonian religion. Physicists are priests who believe in Newton’s laws as their immutable faith. Physicists are the enforcers of Newton’s occult laws in the name of God.

Now I am a physicist and I’d be the first to tell you Newton’s laws are wrong. They’re wrong because they break down when you look at very small objects. They’re wrong because they’re an approximation to the truth; an expectation value. They’re wrong because they don’t account for relativity. But they’re not wrong because

Occult does not exist therefore Cavendish did not measure the Newtonian force. 

“Occult” is the author’s favourite word to describe force:

Occult does not exist outside physics. Occult may be the official faith of physics and every physicist must believe in it as part of their professional faith but occult does not exist in nature.

This is especially vexing, since he says on the same page:

If we look at the Newtonian force closer we see that force is not really occult.

He is of the opinion that what he calls “physics” is actually a religion devoted to pushing Newton’s politics and never questioning his Laws:

In order to understand what force is a scientist must question it. A scientist, unlike physicists, is not bound by Newton’s authority. For a scientist there is nothing sacred about Newton’s arbitrary definitions. To understand force a scientist must take it apart and then put it back together. Since this is forbidden and illegal in physics a scientific investigator must look at the Newtonian force from outside of physics.

It’s brilliant. The lengths some people will go to be wrong has never failed to astound me. I suppose it starts with one unshakable belief in something – homeopathy, Jesus, racism, whatever – or a fundamental and equally unshakable disbelief in something – relativity, vaccination, science, maths, the holocaust, whatever – and from there you quickly hit a contradiction. Clearly either your pet theory is wrong, or else something very sinister and slightly stupid is going on, and clearly the pet theory can’t be wrong, so you end up justifying it in increasingly moronic ways…

[Force] is a placeholder because it cancels. We cannot cancel radius R and Period T from R3 = T2. But if we write it as Newton did as Force = R/T^2 = 1/R^2 = Force we can cancel the superfluous terms of force. We can also write Newton’s soul = R/T^2 = 1/R^2 = Newton’s soul. Or Newton’s wig powder = R/T^2 = 1/R^2 = Newton’s wig powder. So planets may be powered equivalently by Newton’s force, Newton’s soul or Newton’s wig powder. The last two are as good as force.

Well done for proving we can give a quantity a different name, although the idea that if something cancels it must therefore be antique powdered starch is a rather strange one. Freedom of Science thinks that Newton’s Laws are just made up, and that the actual fundamental law at work here is Kepler’s Third Law, which he calls “Kepler’s Rule”. This is, you may remember, much the same idea that Mark McCutcheon utterly failed to defend when I emailed him.

The site is also hooked into a “wiki” (which is not a wiki at all – it uses Wikimedia but it’s not a wiki because, like with Homeopathy4health’s more preposterous claims, I can’t edit or comment on it) with similarly strange ideas:

We know that Newton started from Kepler’s rule and wrote it as
where R is the radius and T is the period of the orbit. Newton then multiplied both sides by a label he invented, mass, then labeled each side by another label he invented, force, and labeled each side Newton’s laws

This guy thinks that mass is made up. Indeed, he thinks this of all quantities which cancel out even if there are other equations from which they do not cancel. Mass cancels in discussion of gravitation because the gravitational force is proportional to mass and therefore acceleration, and therefore speed and position, aren’t affected by it. Force is a slightly redundant concept when discussing gravity, although it’d be hard to discuss electrostatics without it. Presumably, therefore, he would be happy to play my game: he drops a 4g mass on my head from a height of one metre. Then, I drop a 2-tonne mass on his head from the same height. Then, assuming he survives, I give him £50. See how strong his faith in a massless universe is.

Essentially, he’s angry with Newton because he’s replaced k² with GM (when I learned this at school I never for a second imagined I’d hear even one person take umbrage with it, and here’s at least the second) and arbitrarily defined another quantity as “force”. He seems to consider this a pointless (and indeed politically motivated, although what the politic in question might be is unclear) obfuscation of Kepler’s elegant theory, which indeed it is, as long as you never want to discuss anything but planetary motion. The moment you want to discuss apples, Kepler’s Laws, brilliant as they are, just don’t apply. One of Newton’s greatest achievments was thinking in terms of general theories, rather than having one theory for planets and a separate Theory of Apples. Furthermore, introducing the concept of “force” (which we could always simply call “rate of change of momentum” which is a physically manifest quantity – although so is force if you want to talk quantum) means that we can then add three other forces and describe the whole of the universe, or at least what Richard Dawkins calls “Middle World”, in a few short equations. That has to be better than knowing how fast planets go, doesn’t it?

Well, you would think. But apparently there is what I shall generously term “some debate” about it.