I enjoy, to some masochistic degree, looking into pseudo-scientific ideas; but not just kind-of wrong pseudo science, but the really wrong stuff. The kind of stuff in which being misinformed is not an excuse; the kind of stuff where you have to actively make things up to think the way that you do.
Few things fall into this category more than the belief that the Earth is flat.
Since you’re reading this article, I assume you know that “Flat Earth Theory” is still alive and well, even if within an astonishing minority (if this is news to you, just look here). I had a brief stint researching flat Earth ideas a little over a year ago, and after dedicating a podcast episode to it, I felt the fun had reached its peak and let it alone for awhile.
Then it weaved itself back into my life with the tweets of Tila Tequila and rapper B.o.B. It’s one thing for obscure thinkers imbedded in the deep web to embrace the flat Earth, but something else entirely for it to be brought up by well-known public figures.
So I started digging into the flat earth, again; on the way finding finding a lineup of arguments that I had not heard before when I initially got interested in this conspiracy. Each more mind numbing than the last. Then I found this article: In Defense of Flat Earthers.
In fact, I found it after it had been reposted by the Flat Earth Society Facebook page. The piece in question is an op-ed by Lizzie Wade, who is a science writer whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, Science, and Wired. To be fair, Lizzie Wade is not a flat Earther, as she specifies in her article. But I do have to fundamentally disagree with her on the premise of her op-ed. It certainly doesn’t help her case that the Flat Earth Society seemed to post her article as validation for their nonsense. It makes little sense that she can say that the Earth is round, no question about it, and on the same page give credit to the flat Earthers for being intellectually curious individuals. So let me be clear: I am not attacking Ms. Wade, but I am definitely attacking this piece of her’s. Perhaps I just do not understand her argument, but I’m responding to what it appears she is implying in her writing. Perhaps it’s a conversation she’d be willing to have someday.
She starts off with this,
When I first heard that rapper B.o.B apparently believes the Earth is flat, I sighed the weary sigh of a science writer facing down an anti-science culture. Evolution, climate change, vaccines, and now #FlatEarth? “Are you kidding me?” I thought. Will Americans insist on rejecting everything that 100 percent of scientists agree on?
Fair start. Unfortunately for her, this would have been a good stopping place, as well. She condemns herself by finishing her opening paragraph with,
…this latest dustup just felt like more of the same. But then I clicked through and read B.o.B’s original arguments, and they stirred my very soul.
Phrases like this make her piece hard to differentiate from satire. She goes on to specifically reference the following tweet,
The cities in the background are approx. 16miles apart… where is the curve ? please explain this pic.twitter.com/YCJVBdOWX7
— B.o.B (@bobatl) January 25, 2016
To which, she replies,
There’s something touchingly genuine about this to me, some deep seated desire to work through confusion and toward truth. This isn’t a man who never learned science, or who has some fundamentalist objection to examining empirical evidence about the world. This is a man who has looked at the world around him and decided that mainstream science isn’t doing a good job at explaining what he sees.
How does this seem like a genuine question rather than a conspiracy tactic (that is, asking a question they believe there is no answer to)? It’s difficult to read tone through tweets, so the author seems to be making assumptions about the intent of B.o.B’s question. Moreover, it’s just flat out wrong. This is not a desire to work towards truth, because as a science writer, you know that truth is not subjective. Such is the axiom of science. A search for truth will most times lead one to the truth, especially if the truth is very well established. And as the author of this article knows, B.o.B didn’t listen to the explanations to his questions, and instead wrote a petty rap song that accused Neil Tyson of being paid to perpetuate the round earth. This isn’t B.o.B’s first flirtation (or outright supportive stance) with conspiracy theories. In the past, he tweeted a link to a photo suggesting conspiracy behind the HAARP, and himself posted a photo on Instagram that suggested his own belief in chemtrails – the conspiracy theory that the “powers-that-be” are purposefully poisoning us with airplane exhaust. So I don’t think that it’s much of a stretch to say that B.o.B is not the most objective observer of reality. And I’ll add this, though I admittedly don’t know how this applies to B.o.B. Many, if not most, flat-earthers do have a “fundamentalist objection to examining empirical evidence about the world,” because many flat-earthers are religious fundamentalists. For example,
#god #flatearth #zionist #elite #nasa THATS WHY THESE DIS INFO AGENTS GO HARD AGAINST FLAT EARTH. THEY SCARED THE TRUTH WILL GET OUT A photo posted by (@flat_earth_frequencies) on
And aside from the religious reasons for rejecting science, I would argue their are other forms of objecting to empirical evidence amongst the flat-earth community. For example, the Flat Earth Society, and other flat-earthers follow something called the “Zetetic method.” This method is, despite what the FES believes, the opposite of the scientific method. This method holds personal observations above that of repetitive experimentation, whereas modern science says that your experience, your observations could be wrong. This is especially true with a spherical Earth. We can’t see the curve at our level. The horizon is always flat. Why? Because our experience is deceptive. They do object to empirical evidence. They do reject objectivity. So we should not take conspiracy theorists at their word when they tell us that they are “just asking questions,” especially when their questions have obscenely easy answers.
She continues with,
In the last 150 years or so, physics has taken a turn away from the intuitive and toward the abstract. It’s not rolling balls and falling apples anymore; it’s quantum states and curved spacetime. (And let’s not even get into string theory, which might as well be an outsider theory itself for all the experimental evidence it has backing it up—i.e., none so far.) That turn has left some people—perhaps B.o.B included—extremely unsettled. Physics is supposed to be about understanding the world I live in, they think. But I don’t see any time dilation/entangled quarks/curvature of the Earth when I look around me. Why should I trust this math I can’t understand over what I see with my own eyes? Most of us are content to passively swallow the harsh truth that the fundamental laws of the universe are too complicated to grasp without a graduate education in math.
Right, many things in physics are hard to understand. What does this have to do with the Earth being flat? You don’t need differential equations to prove the Earth is round. I would argue you barely need any math at all. And though not everyone (unfortunately) has access to a graduate degree in mathematics, you don’t need a graduate degree to understand these ideas conceptually, or to understand the evidence behind them. All that takes is Google, which we can assume B.o.B has access to. And string theory? I don’t understand why that is brought up in a defense of people like B.o.B. Moreover, string theory is still very controversial in the physics community, and physics may very well be plunging into a realm where experiment can no longer help us, and we have to count on mathematics to help us based on what we could do with the tools the universe allowed to us. I mean, we are still fighting over the Copenhagen interpretation after a century.
Flat Earthers are very far behind if they can not conceive of ways to interpret the world without using just their eyes.
And finally, the last thing that I’ll respond to,
That, to me, is what makes #FlatEarth fundamentally different from climate change denial, creationism, or the anti-vaxx movement. It’s not really about exposing a supposed scientific “fraud,” it doesn’t have a political or religious agenda, and it’s not out to stop professional scientists from doing their important work and applying what they learn to improve the world. It’s just a bunch of amateur theorists trying their best to feel at home in the universe, in a way many scientists might well recognize if they let themselves. Theoretical physics isn’t brain surgery; unless you are in charge of Soyuz reentry paths or something, no one is going to die if you do it wrong. At worst, you’ll irritate some mainstream scientists or become briefly infamous on social media. At best, you’ll blaze your own trail through the universe’s mysteries and end up somewhere wondrous—even if you’re the only one who knows it. So let a million theories flourish, including #FlatEarth. When they come from a place of such genuine curiosity and creativity, who cares if they’re wrong?
I care. I care very, very much if they’re wrong. They’re being wrong illuminates a fundamental misunderstanding about how the interpret the world around them and evaluate evidence. This misunderstanding does not live in a vacuum, but does damage to the rest of the (very round) world.
And here, Ms Wade, is where you are fundamentally wrong. Flat Earth theory is about exposing scientific fraud. It does have a political agenda. Many times, it is tacked on with religious fundamentalism. And it is very anti-NASA. This is where you seem to misunderstand the flat Earthers. They are conspiracy theorists. They believe that NASA is wasting our money. That humanity has never been to space. If flat Earthers had a button to cut NASA funding to zero, they would push it. The moon landing hoax? That is just one in a string of lies told by NASA and Big Brother, they believe. The powers-that-be want to make us feel insignificant here on a space dot so that they can steal our money.
They are conspiracy theorists, but because of how ludicrous their assertion is you seem to have missed the point. You expect these people to be smart enough to do science, but not smart enough to come up with the objectively correct answers. Doing so is condescending to the intelligence of your fellow primates.