Thursday, November 12, 2009

Einstein's Political Incoherence

In a comment to my post on why western intellectuals supported soviet tyranny, pete5594 reminds us that Einstein was among the many high-profile intellectuals that chose to not dennounce the Soviet Union. Einstein's unsophisticated political and economic beliefs also came to my mind right after I wrote that post, so I'll elaborate on the topic.

Einstein's pro-Soviet and sometimes anti-American political views are well documented and perfectly fit the pattern of moral ineptitude described by Daniels. Einstein's case however is even more interesting given that his political and economic beliefs conflicted intensely with some of his most important life choices.

After the rise of the Nazis, Einstein chose to live in and later to become a citizen of one of the most capitalistic and democratic nations in the world, the US. He also never renounced his citizenship of another equally capitalistic and democratic country: Switzerland. Einstein chose to remain in capitalistic US even after having been investigated by the FBI, when he could have easily moved to any country of his choice. Throughout his life, Einstein's actions were in clear disagreement with his words.

Riniolo and Nisbet offer an interesting account of Einstein's political incoherence in the article titled "The Myth of Consistent Skepticism: The Cautionary Tale of Albert Einstein." Here's a noteworthy passage:

Einstein does not demonstrate the hallmarks of a consistent skeptic when it comes to his evaluation of the Soviet Union. It is doubtful that anyone committed to rigorous skepticism would agree with Einstein’s view that a government has the right to murder millions of its own citizens and create slave labor camps as a preemptive strategy if it believes it will be attacked at some future date. Interestingly, Einstein judged the German people to be “the land of mass-murderers” (Einstein quoted in Born 1971, p. 199) and the individual citizen personally responsible for the crimes of the Nazi regime. However, by this standard, Einstein himself would have felt it justified if he was murdered for “correct” political reasons, or himself part of a land of mass-murderers if he lived in the Soviet Union under Stalin. The great irony is that Stalin’s government, like Hitler’s, murdered millions of its own citizens and did not tolerate political liberty. Only a “true believer” could not make that assessment. ...

The case of Einstein is cautionary in another respect. Too often, we find skeptics paying rapt attention to the views of scientific celebrities regarding assorted topics to which those celebrities’ occupational expertise and accomplishments are totally irrelevant. From a logical point of view, what a renowned physicist, astronomer, or evolutionary biologist has to say about psychology, politics, economics, religion, etc., has no special status whatsoever (just like the Hollywood celebrity who speaks out on these issues). Scientists’ claims regarding these issues must stand on their logical and substantive merits alone. Too often, the irrelevancy of scientific celebrity is lost on those who (like all of us) love to be told what they want to hear, especially by people famous for their intellectual accomplishments. Yet, the love of misplaced authority is but another step in the direction of obliviousness to our own selective skepticism.

Ironically, many consider Einstein to be one of the greatest American humanists. It escapes me however how is it that offering support to murderous totalitarian regimes could have ever been considered consistent with humanist ideals.

It should be noted nonetheless that there are different interpretations of Einstein's failure to denounce communism, some of them well represented in this interesting article by Jacob Foster, which appeared in the "The American." Foster's article however only reaffirmed my impression that Einstein had a poor and frequently incoherent understanding of political and economic issues.

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