Long-time browsers of the career of Gregg Easterbrook know that one of the great mysteries of the modern world is that an innumerate simpleton lacking minimal competence to discuss scientific concepts even in non-quantitative settings is not only gainfully employed as a science writer but is a celebrated public intellectual, with a sinecure at the Brookings Institute and a reserved perch on any op-ed page in America he decides to grace with yet another column that costs IQ points to read.
So, anyway, Easterbrook just wrote a column for ESPN.com that somehow meandered into his — how shall we put it? — draft notes towards a white paper on interplanetary warfare. Wait, it gets better. To illustrate the dangers of accelerating even a small rest mass to relativistic speeds, he used the classical equation for kinetic energy instead of the relativistic equation.
I’m going to repeat that, because non-physicists might not get what the big deal is at first. Easterbrook, arguably the most prominent science journalist in America, published a ludicrous fantasy in which he used Newtonian mechanics to descrbe a relativistic system. (Consequently, his estimate of the kinetic energy in the scenario was only off by 1400%.) A comparable error by a historian would be something along the lines of referring in a published article to Lenin’s role in fomenting the French Revolution, and not due to a momentary short-circuiting synapse, but out of a firmly-held belief that Lenin was a leader of the French Revolution that on reflection doesn’t seem in any way dubious.
So I’m basically down to two marginally plausible explanations of the man’s continued lucrative and lauded credentialing as a science expert: (a) virtually the entire pundit class is even more ignorant of numbers and science than Easterbrook — these are people who laugh and laugh and laugh at Sarah Palin, mind you — or, (b) some globe-spanning Truman Show-type scenario has been afoot for decades and the big reveal — the entire history of our species was a reality show for some intergalactic civilization advanced beyond our dimmest comprehension with a sense of humor and cultural and aesthetic tastes slightly less sophisticated than those of the average fan of 24; or so I’m guessing — coming any day now.