May 03 2018

What the Flat-Earth Movement Tells Us

Whenever I write about flat-earthers, those who, incredibly, actually believe in the 21st century that the world is flat, there are multiple comments to the effect that we are just getting punked. No one really believes the world is flat, they are just saying that to wind us up, and we are taking the bait.

But this view is demonstrably wrong. I have actually encountered flat-earthers out in the wild, so to speak – in meat space. They really do seriously entertain the theory that the earth is flat. Harry T Dyer also reports recently in Raw Story about a three day convention of flat-earthers. They weren’t tongue-in-cheek having a laugh. They were dead serious.

I think the flat-earth deniers, if you will, are missing the point. They are approaching the issue like most people do initially – looking at the claims from a scientific point of view. From that angle the claims of flat-earthers are beyond absurd. They are so extremely ignorant and illogical that it seems reasonable to consider that either there is some psychological pathology involved, or it’s just a hoax.

There is no doubt that the belief that the earth is flat is rooted in a profound scientific illiteracy. It is not only ignorant of the findings of science, but also of the history of science, and any knowledge of the institutions of science and the participation of countless students and citizen scientists. But flat-eartherism is not about scientific illiteracy – meaning it is not merely a manifestation of profound ignorance of science (which is also why it cannot be corrected with scientific information). As Dyer also points out, belief in a flat earth is ultimately about rejecting institutional knowledge itself.

Knowledge and Power

The modern flat-earth movement is one manifestation of the rejection of established knowledge as a tool of power. The idea is that those in power use knowledge to maintain and increase their power. “They” control the institutions, therefore any knowledge coming from those institutions is not legitimate and cannot be trusted. The result is a conspiratorial heuristic in which official knowledge is rejected out-of-hand in favor of “doing your own research” (i.e. watching YouTube videos).

There are other manifestations of this knowledge-power heuristic as well. Some well-meaning people in historically oppressed regions reject “Western” science as colonialism. Science is just part of the culture that the colonizers use to control the natives and suppress their culture. Your beliefs are wrong, our science tells a different story. This was the justification for South Africa’s rejection of the science of HIV and AIDS, resulting in hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths.

Other heads of this hydra include the overall rejection of experts and expertise as a result of the democratization of information in the internet age. Everyone now can be their own expert, can do their own research, and is not dependent on experts to know what to believe.

Those predisposed to conspiracy thinking are enthusiastically on this bandwagon as well. This is what they have been saying all along – you can’t trust The Man. Nothing is as it seems. If someone in power says it, it’s wrong.

Political populists then exploit the whole thing for their own ends. Distrusting experts allows them to wave aside any inconvenient facts. We can dismiss journalists, scientists, academics, and scholars because they may describe a reality that is at odds with our political ambitions. Any problems with the resulting narrative are painted over with vague references to conspiracies.

In this world reality is whatever you say it is, and the only thing that matters is how many retweets you get.

All this is what the flat-earth movement is really telling us. They are an extreme example of what happens when you go down this populist road. To deny the phenomenon is to deny the real battle of our age – the fight for facts, for expertise, and for the legitimacy of knowledge.

Why the Populists are Wrong

We cannot fix flat-earthers by giving them facts. I have tried, it is a fascinating exercise in futility. I think in order to have any chance of bringing a flat-earther back to reality you have to address the problems with their paradigm. You have to address the underlying assumption that institutional knowledge and expertise are solely a manifestation of power, and need to be rejected in order to free your mind. That premise is false.

But like many popular but ultimately false premises, there is a kernel of truth. Most such views are not 100% right or wrong. The error is in taking a small phenomenon and thinking that it is absolute. Sure, corporations do sleazy things, but that does not mean they always lie, are always wrong, and that they have unlimited power. Sure, the powers that be will use institutions and institutional knowledge to maintain their power, but that does not mean they have complete control (unless you are living in a totalitarian state).

The ultimate problem here is an inability to confront complexity and nuance, to think of the world in childish black-and-white absolute terms. This often equates to thinking that some vague “they” is in absolute control, and that institutions are monolithic in their purpose. There is no “they.” Institutions are complex, and they are made of people, not drones.

The scientific establishment is made of countless individual institutions, with many individual scientists with varying beliefs and perspective, in different countries, and with different motivations and biases. There are also many amateur scientists – people with their own telescopes, who can make their own observations. Power structures have also evolved over centuries, with no one maintaining control for very long.

The rejection of knowledge as merely power also fundamentally misunderstands science itself. Science, by its nature, is skeptical, democratic, and transparent. It could not function otherwise.

Science does sometimes fail. There are subcultures in which ideology or bias holds sway, and the process of science fails to break through. There is solid evidence that Chinese researchers are overwhelmed by their cultural bias towards TCM and acupuncture, for example. Chinese science, in this regard, is clearly broken. There are many examples of broken science.

But the bigger point is that I can sit here and point out the flaws in their research and logic, the sloppy methodology and the systematic errors. On a smaller scale there are certainly labs or even institutions with their own biases, but they are always opposed by others with different perspectives.

The scientific endeavor is messy and can be distorted for nefarious purposes, but it is not monolithic. The problem with the flat-earther perspective is not the belief that science can sometimes fail. It can. The problem is that they have the scale off by many orders of magnitude. For the flat-earth theory to be correct, there would have to be a conspiracy of pretty much all institutions of science over all countries, controlling all individual scientists and even many amateurs, over centuries. Many different specialties will have to be involved too, from astronomy to physics, geology, and meteorology. The extent of the conspiracy would have to be all-encompassing – the grand conspiracy of all grand conspiracies.

I find this to be a common fallacy – the simplistic confusion of bent with broken, and the false equivalency that any institution with any flaws is just as bad as any other institution. You can point to the flaws in American democracy and argue that we are no better than the totalitarian government in North Korea. Because nothing is perfect, false equivalency just becomes another tool to rewrite reality as you wish.

In the end that is the core malfunction of the flat-earthers, and the modern populist rejection of expertise in general. It is a horrifically simplistic view of the world that ignores (partly out of ignorance, and partly out of motivated reasoning) to real complexities of our civilization. It is ultimately lazy, childish, and self-indulgent, resulting in a profound level of ignorance drowning in motivated reasoning.

It may seem that these forces are ascendant, and in a way they are. We have to hope this is a temporary phenomenon, and not a long term trend. But that will only be true if there is a sufficient backlash from those with a more mature perspective. It will not happen automatically. The value and necessity of earned validity, genuine expertise, evidence, logic, and thoughtfulness need to be vigorously reasserted. This is the core struggle of our time. If we think it’s all a hoax, or it will magically fix itself, I think we will be profoundly disappointed.

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