con-science: debating the flat earth

I have recently become pretty much addicted to watching videos of people attempting to debunk the Flat Earth idea. The more I found myself watching these videos, the more I started to wonder:

  1. Why do I enjoy watching these so much?
  2. Why do people actually believe that the Earth is flat?
  3. What would it take to convince them that they are wrong?

I want to reflect on those questions a little bit here. For those without the time or care to read it all, here’s the summary:

  1. Why do I enjoy watching these videos?
    1. They make me feel smarter than the Flat Earthers.
    1. They provide a sense of poetic justice in which the bully gets his comeuppance.
    1. They do the same things for Flat Earthers.
  2. Why do people believe that the Earth is Flat?
    1. They start with a set of Religious and/or Conspiratorial assumptions
    1. They refuse to accept that Science starts with an assumption of ignorance.
    1. They distrust the authority of Scientific theories.
  3. What would it take to convince a Flat Earther that they are wrong?
    1. Start with the same set of assumptions
    1. Provide convincing reasons to discard those assumptions.
    1. The nature of Conspiratorial and Religious assumptions makes this impossible.

For those with the time – here’s a little more detail.

1. Why do I Enjoy This Debate?

YouTube is stuffed full of videos of scientists addressing arguments that are made by the Flat Earth community, and proving those models are wrong. I can’t get enough of it. I would love to say that I enjoy watching these videos because I have a deeply entrenched desire to see the truth of Science overcome the ignorance of Pseudo-Intellectualism. But, let’s be honest – it makes me feel better than them, and makes me feel like I’m witnessing revenge on the bullies who picked on me in Junior High. Let me explain.

1a. I Feel Better Than Them

I see the holes in Flat Earth arguments as plainly as they see the flat horizon. I’m not going to bother refuting their arguments, nor will I provide justifications for my belief that we live on a globe, because that’s not the point of this. My point is that I think their arguments are ridiculous. I can’t believe anyone could be gullible enough to accept such incoherent models. I associate gullibility with a diminished intellect. Watching a Flat Earther continue to hold onto their model even after a Scientific argument persuasively debunks that model makes me feel good because it makes me feel smarter than them. And it feels good to feel smart.

But flip this on its head. When I listen to Flat Earthers attempt to debunk Scientific models, I often hear them peel into fits of laughter. Upon reflection, I realized this is because they are experiencing the same catharsis that I am. They see plainly through the Scientific arguments, and find it laughable that anyone could be persuaded by them. When they recognize that the scientist accepts these arguments as persuasive, they laugh to themselves because it makes them feel smarter than the scientist, and it feels good to feel smart.

Why is this so? Why do the Flat Earth believers and I both listen to the same exchange, and both find the arguments laughably misguided? I’ll get to that later. For now, let’s explore the other reason I find it so enjoyable to watch a Flat Earth believer debate a scientist.

1b. I am Avenged

I was bullied as a kid, as I assume everyone was to some degree. Adults told me, “Don’t hit back. Don’t seek the revenge you want. Eventually you’ll grow up and become successful, but they will end up poor, homeless, drunks.” So, I endured the bullying.

But now, I am nearing my forties and, well, that didn’t happen. Just the other day, I saw a notification on a social networking platform from the kid who punched me in the face on the playground in eighth grade and kicked me in the ribs while I lay crying on the ground. It looks like he has a huge house, a loving wife, and happy kids. WTF Universe? I silently invested in the future by enduring that pain as a child, and now he’s cashing the check? That’s not what was supposed to happen. He’s supposed to be a miserable wreck, but according to social networking, he’s doing just fine! That’s not cathartic.

So, I go to YouTube. I see Flat Earthers try to debunk science, and I see a Scientist point out how stupid those beliefs are, and I feel avenged. Somebody put the bully in his place.

But let’s flip this on its head as well. Flat Earthers often talk about how they are persecuted for thinking that the Earth is flat. From their perspective, engaging in a Scientific debate that the Earth is flat results in the exact same cathartic response that I experience. They have been persecuted by people who are persuaded by scientific arguments, and when the scientific explanations fail so astoundingly in front of their own Flat Earth arguments, they feel the same catharsis. Here they are, just normal people with no formal training in astrophysics, and they are able to dismantle the theories of the guy who is always calling them dumb. They are David, Science is Goliath.

But how can this be? How can we both come away from a debate feeling great because we both think we clearly won? It has to do with the reasons why both sides are persuaded by their arguments, which brings me to my second question.

2. How do People Actually Believe This?

In general, people who ascribe to the Flat Earth model tend to rely on an interpretation of sacred texts, or they refuse to accept evidence unless it is directly observable, self-evident, or they completely comprehend it. I’ll discuss each of these separately.

2a. Because The Bible

Every system of understanding will eventually come to a question that cannot be answered by that system. When this happens in a religious argument, believers can rely on faith. When this happens for a scientist, the scientist must rely on ignorance. Ask the believer, “what happened before the creation of the Universe” and they will probably say, “God.” Ask the scientist, and they will probably say “I don’t know.”

Indeed, some Flat Earth believers are not religious, so they do not rely on this at all. But for many in the community, the belief is founded on a particular interpretation of their sacred text. When this is the foundation for a belief, the scientific conversation is over. This isn’t an attack on religion, it is a simple acknowledgement that religious evidence is different from scientific evidence. A person can hold both Scientific and Religious beliefs without conflict, as long as they are willing to admit that Science doesn’t inform their religious beliefs, and Religion doesn’t inform their Scientific beliefs. This is because both beliefs rely on different types of assumptions.

Consider the Religious justification for a Flat Earth. The Earth is Flat because the Bible says so. This particular belief begins with unstated assumptions such as:

  1. The Bible is literally true
  2. The interpretation that I was taught regarding the creation account in Genesis chapter one is fully accurate
  3. God exists
  4. God is all powerful
  5. God created the Universe
  6. When God created the Universe, it created the Earth as a flat plane with a solid dome above, which we call the sky.

These religious assumptions are out of scope for a Scientific theory, and for that reason they are not persuasive in a Scientific context.

2b. Because The Conspiracy

So, religious arguments are not persuasive in a Scientific context, but why then do Atheists believe in the Flat Earth? For an Atheist, the religious claim that the Bible says there is a firmament is not persuasive. Why then is the Atheist not persuaded by the Scientist? The answer here has less to do with assumptions, and more to do with trust.

Before I get to that, I need to acknowledge that for many Atheist Flat Earthers, it is not Atheism that causes their arguments to fall outside the scope of Science, it’s the conspiratorial nature of their assumptions. I’ll explain.

Just as a Religious argument relies on Religious assumptions, so too does a Scientific argument rely on Scientific assumptions. Likewise, a Conpiratorial belief relies on Conspiratorial assumptions. These assumptions are:

  1. Assumptions must be verifiable by direct observation, self-evident, or wholly comprehended by the believer.
  2. Assumptions that rely on the authority of anyone or anything outside the believer’s perspective or knowledge are inherently suspect.

By starting with these two assumptions, the Conspiracy Theorist can find nearly all Scientific and Religious beliefs to be unpersuasive. If a Scientific or Religious assumption relies on something the Conspiratorial observer does not understand, or cannot directly observe, then it could be the case that a conspiracy exists to persuade us to accept the assumption.

Because all arguments rely on a near limitless number of assumptions, the Conspiracy Theorist must either know everything, and experience everything, or conclude that the argument is not persuasive.

Consider a very simple Scientific theory:

“A dropped ball will fall”

If Science listed every assumption that this is reliant upon, Science would have to say,

“Assuming that:

  1. We live in a real Universe
  2. Our experience of the universe is trustworthy
  3. Our measurement of those experiences is reliable
  4. This experiment is carried out in the real Universe
  5. Physical behaviors in the future will remain unchanged from what they were in the past
  6. Our ability to fully comprehend all of the physical laws does not impact the outcome of the experiment
  7. Mathematical theorems are true
  8. Those theorems can be used to explain the phenomenon of gravitation
  9. This experiment is carried out on a mass of sufficient size such that the gravitational force exerted on the ball by the mass beneath it is greater than the gravitational force exerted by the ball on the mass beneath it
  10. The space between the ball and the mass beneath it is comprised entirely of a medium with a density that is lower than the density of the ball
  11. The space between the ball and the mass beneath it is not occupied by a medium that has a significant gravitational effect on the ball or the mass beneath it
  12. No other object enters the space between the ball and the mass beneath it until the end of the experiment
  13. All electromagnetic or kinetic or nuclear forces exerted on the ball are less powerful than the force of gravitation exerted by the mass beneath the ball on the ball
  14. The ball is larger than quantum particles
  15. At the start of the experiment the ball is suspended above the mass beneat it
  16. The lexical definitions of the words that are used here carry the same meaning for the audience as they do for the author
  17. I’m sure the savvy ready could come up dozens of additional assumptions that I didn’t include here.

A dropped ball will fall.”

For the Conspiracy Theorist, every one of these assumptions is a potential chink in the armor of the Scientific conclusion. Unless all of these assumptions are self-evident, or directly observed, they could be the result of a Conspiracy. Because these assumptions could be the fruits of a Conspiracy, they are not persuasive.

In our ball example above, one of the assumptions is that mathematical theorems can be used to explain the phenomenon of gravitation. For the trained scientist, this is not problematic. That scientist has either fully studied those, or trusts the conclusions of the Scientists who have. For the Conspiratorial thinker, this reliance on authority is problematic – perhaps the experts who claim to have fully studied these things are unwilling participants in the conspiracy, and for that reason their conclusions cannot be trusted. Because the list of assumptions for any scientific theory is nearly infinite, requiring someone to directly observe them, or fully comprehend them puts an impossible burden on the argument. Therefore no scientific theory will ever be persuasive to a Conspiracy Theorist. Any discussion with this person will come down to an argument about the validity of one of the assumptions on which a conclusion is based.

Why then are any arguments persuasive to the Conspiracy Theorist? The Conspiracy Theorist constantly makes claims that a conclusion “can’t be disproven.” Instead of demanding proof, they offer the potential of contradiction. This doesn’t mean that a conspiracy theorist’s arguments are all invalid, it means they are different from Scientific arguments.

That brings me to the last part – how can we persuade people that the Flat Earth theories are not true.

3. How Can You Persuade a Flat Earther?

You can’t.

Religion relies on assumptions regarding the authority of an interpretation of a translation of a modern compilation of ancient sacred texts. Science relies on unstated assumptions made in the fields of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, Neither of these beliefs are better or worse than the other – they simply rely on different kinds of assumptions, and as a result have little persuasive power over one another.

In order to do so, the people who hold these beliefs must posses the capability to be persuaded to accept their assumptions to be false. For the religious Flat Earther, this can’t be done through Scientific means, because the religious discussion is not in the scope of a Scientific discussion. For the conspiracy theorist, this can’t be done because the conspiratorial assumptions live outside the scope of a Scientific discussion. So, how can you persuade a Flat Earther that the world really is an oblong spheroid? You can’t. Stop trying.

4. What Should We Do?

Does this mean that we shouldn’t try to contradict the Flat Earth model? No. There is a whole audience of people with the potential to be persuaded by the Flat Earth arguments, who might also be persuaded by scientific arguments. If this audience is trained to be persuaded by the Religious or Conspiratorial arguments for the Flat Earth, then they will no longer be persuaded by Scientific thought. If enough of the population distrusts the sciences, Science will became culturally unpersuasive. If that happens, there will be no cultural drive to advance the Sciences, and the progress that Science has provided our culture will begin to erode.

So, while you may never persuade a Flat Earther that they are wrong, we should still offer the Scientific arguments for the sake of the yet-unpersuaded audience, and for the sake of Humankind – who stands to benefit most from Scientific Theories.

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