Several questions recently seek to challenge Einstein's priority for relativity theory. I am all in favor of debunking personally but in this case I wonder whether this is due to his name ending in "shtein". Any thoughts what to do about it?

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I think that, in principle, questions of this type (challenging Einstein's work) are welcome on this site. If you feel that in any particular post there is a problem with e.g. the motivation behind the question, I think the best thing is to flag the post, explaining your flag by using the custom flag reason. A moderator will then have a look at it. The traffic on this site is not too high for us to spend a bit of time to take a look at individual posts.

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  • $\begingroup$ OK, thanks, will do. $\endgroup$ – Mikhail Katz Jun 26 '16 at 10:15

The question and previous answer now have some age, but I believe that they relate to a continuing problem of baseless/problematic debunking questions, a problem that deserves some attention.

Two points are offered here, (1) on the historical figures or subjects that make the targets of problematic questions, and (2) on what makes a question problematic and what can/should be done about it.

First, I completely agree, as @Danu 's answer indicates, that questions that challenge the work of any scientist or mathematician ought in principle to be welcome, and I would also say that historical-evidence-based discussion of such topics is at the core of hsm's purpose.

But the name of the website is history of science and math, not fiction and gossip about science and math. The difference between these two ideas seems to lie in the role of historical evidence. I suggest below in point (2) that there are some questions that effectively subvert what I take to be hsm's purposes by merely encouraging the circulation of fiction, myth and unsupported gossip and scandalous innuendo.

The actual question posed here was whether Einstein is specially targeted for debunking because of his name ending in 'shtein', and what to do about it.

(1) I take the first part of the question to be an indirect way of asking if Einstein is specially debunked because he was Jewish. It certainly seems clear that Einstein's science was targeted in former times, especially in the Nazi era, because he was Jewish. Perhaps one can't rule out this motivation as an occasional/possible contributory factor also to recent debunking attempts on Einstein. But my impression has been that the number of baseless debunking attempts on Newton, for example, noticeably exceeds the number on Einstein. Newton wasn't Jewish, and so it seems likely that the motives for anyhow most of such baseless debunking attempts are different. I'd offer the following candidate ideas for identifying motivations that have nothing to do with historical evidence for asking debunking questions :

What Einstein and Newton have in common is in being reckoned among the scientific greats. (The heretical streak in Newton's Christian beliefs seems unlikely to be relevant in motivating the extensive contentious debunking literature on Newton). Sometimes the standard accounts given of an eminent historical figure may seem too good to be true. Such accounts naturally motivate attempts to find flaws. I don't suggest that this is in itself problematic.

Sometimes, though, the critics miss the crucial distinction between well-attested achievements, and speculative or fictional embroidery that may have been added to the accounts of, say, Newton or Einstein.

Sometimes debunking attempts appear motivated by a prejudice that the historical figure in question is undeserving, and by a wish to reach that conclusion no matter what the evidence shows: there is a loss of historical objectivity. I suggest that this is where the matter becomes problematic through its tendency to subvert the historical purposes of the hsm website.

Sometimes, again, a figure targeted for debunking without historical objectivity may be an ideological target: a member of a class ideologically selected to be guilty of something: example, 'dead white men'. This is also a place where antisemitic targeting can enter. The problem is in the role of un-historical and non-evidence-based influences.

(2) What makes a debunking question problematic? What factors indicate a problem, and what can/should properly be done in response?

I don't suggest there are easy demarcation criteria, but do suggest that there are contributory factors that can point to a demarcation, e.g. as follows:

(i) A serious/sincere question will usually contain some element indicating at least implicitly that the questioner appreciates and respects the difference between evidence-based history and fiction.

(ii) Mere repetition of unsubstantiated comment suggests lack of appreciation and respect that historical conclusions essentially should appeal to a basis of evidence.

(iii) Use of critical double-standards suggests an ulterior and non-evidence-based motivation in a debunking attempt. E.g. rubbishing an achievement of a debunking target, while at the same time uncritically accepting a suggestion that somebody else made the achievement in question, in itself suggests disregard for the role of evidence, and a problematic motivation in raising the debunking issue.

No doubt further thought can identify other potentially useful pointers.

When issues of these kinds appear present, they can suggest that prejudice of some sort rather than objective evidence-questioning is at the root of the debunking attempt.

What can/should properly be done where a debunking question appears problematic?

Given the constraints of the question-and-answer format chosen for the stack-exchange system, there may be some limits to the amount of dialog that can in practice be invited.

I'd suggest that if a debunking question appears based on unsubstantiated suggestion, with no real sign that an evidential reason exists to give it any credibility, or if it appears to presuppose use of a critical or evidential double-standard, then it might usefully be put on hold while the questioner is invited to say why the suggestion seems to have any initial basis of credibility to distinguish it from mere fiction or prejudice. If after that invitation the suggestion still appears baseless or reliant on a double-standard, then the question might well deserve to be closed as only giving currency to baseless fiction or gossip.

Of course any response or amendment of the question can then point the way to a more productive question+answer combination.

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