… But they’re still wrong.
“It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry.” -Thomas Paine
Last weekend my Twitter timeline blew up when Kirk Cameron showed up at CPAC to lecture at the attendees about creationism and the worldwide mad deadly evolution conspiracy. But the mocking wasn’t coming from scientists or secular activists who work at keeping religion out of science classrooms. Those people tend to not show up at events like CPAC. No, it was coming pretty much exclusively from liberal political activist bloggers and journalists. And not only that, it was also exclusively coming from bloggers and journalists who, as far as I could tell, have never once written about biological evolution or the fallacies involved in creationist arguments. I speculated that most of them have never even opened a text on evolution before.
Now obviously Kirk Cameron is wrong about how life as we know it got here and those making fun of him are right to accept evolution. But Cameron and the rest of the professional creationists have at least spent time thinking (and I’m using that term loosely) about the debate (again, using the term loosely). All too often those of us who are on the factually correct side of an argument can’t really explain how we know that the Ray Comforts and Bill Dembskis of the world are wrong. We do the hand-wave, we use logical fallacies like ad hominem attacks or appeals to popularity, or we just go “PFFT!” way before that kind of response is even partially justified.
And that brings us to the awesome group of people I wanted to write about today, the Flat Earth Society. An understandable reaction to hearing that the FES still exists today is to go “PFFT!” and wave your hand at them to STFU and GTFO. The idea that the Earth is flat is crazy, right? Well, yeah, it is. But in understanding their arguments and how we know they’re wrong we get at a better understanding of good science.
Flat Earthers believe our planet looks something like this.
This kind of lazy, careless dismissal of fringe claims reminds me of a quote from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty:
“The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”
Of course, Mill is here talking about censorship. And it’s important to point out that refusing to engage with crazy arguments from lunatics is a very different thing from censorship. In the former case, you’re blocking only yourself off from a certain line of inquiry; but in the latter you’re blocking everyone off from it. And maybe you have other things to do than research how we know the true shape of the Earth or how we know that humans share a common ancestor with chimpanzees and other apes. But if that’s the case, you probably should leave the responding to / mocking of creationists and other kooks to those of us who’ve bothered to look into the relevant subjects.
Little known fact: John Stuart Mill was a Flat Earther!
So if you encounter a Flat Earther the first thing you might point out to them is that when we see ships on the horizon, we see the mast first and the rest of the ship later. If the Earth were flat, we would see the whole ship at the time when it first becomes visible. Flat Earthers have a response to that, and it’s a lot better than what you’re probably thinking. And the easiest way to explain it is to start off with the real science around which the Flat Earthers are trying to work.
One of the implications of Relativity is that the gravitational impact of very massive objects like stars can actually warp space itself. So one way in which Relativity was tested was to observe an eclipse extremely carefully to see if the light from distant stars shifted from where they normally appear to be at nighttime. If Einstein were right they should because the Sun’s gravity would be curving the space through which the light from background stars travel when the Sun is in between them and the Earth. And the only time we’d be able to see distant stars while the Sun was around for this effect to take place would be during an eclipse. So they tried this out in 1919, and Einstein was vindicated.
Einstein predicted the Twilight movies would suck so hard they would bend the fabric of space.
But the Flat Earthers have an alternate explanation. They say that we perceive things like this — as well as the ship’s hull disappearing on the horizon before the mast and so-called “sunsets” — due to their idea of electromagnetic acceleration, which is supposed to explain how it is light and not space which bends. In order to justify electromagnetic acceleration, they are developing a Dark Energy Model which is completely separate from the rest of physics. Apparently both theories are “under review by members,” which appears to be a way of inoculating themselves from criticisms based on basic mathematics. Like for instance, how could the same effect be just barely observable from something as massive as the Sun to the extent that nobody even noticed it until 1919 while anyone living near a coast in the past few centuries would have noticed that a departing ship’s hull appears to disappear before its mast?
At that point, they pretty much say that they’re still working on their theories to explain these problems. So they’re admitting to accepting the conclusion of a flat Earth before accounting for the facts. Sherlock Holmes would rightfully disapprove. And that’s when it’s OK to go “PFFT!” and make fun of them on Twitter.
There’s another sort of clever and provocative claim they make. The Flat Earthers also get into a lot of conspiracy-mongering. There would have to be a lot of massive conspiracies to hide the fact of a flat Earth if it really were true. So once you get tired of arguing about the validity of their “Dark Energy Model,” you might ask why those who would have to know the “truth” of the flat Earth (NASA, for instance) would bother to keep it a secret.
They have an explanation for this, too. Actually, they have a few. The FAQ page I cited earlier says the answer is financial gain. NASA isn’t really sending rockets into space and all the government funds allocated to them go directly into the pockets of the conspirators. The same goes for the other so-called “space agencies” of major nations of the world. They’re all in on this ruse together. After they cover expenses, which is mostly for advanced versions of Photoshop which they use to make up fake space pictures and security for the “ice wall” that’s supposed to exist on the “edges of the Earth,” the rest is all profit.
Here’s the Conspiracy, making sure nobody falls off the edge of the Earth.
But the other, more interesting speculation on the motives of the conspirators is that back in the day, sometime shortly after the time of Eratosthenes, when most educated people believed the Earth was spherical, some other hidden discovery was made which contradicted Eratosthenes. We don’t know what it was because of the Conspiracy. But nobody wanted to admit that they were wrong and the more ancient view of a flat Earth was correct after all once they had already convinced everyone it was spherical. So they had to perpetuate this lie as a way to save face.
Of course the Flat Earthers have no evidence for this conspiracy at all, so all of their speculations are totally unfalsifiable. So then we reach another point where it’s OK to mock them and go “PFFT!”
Anyway, what I’m getting at is that exploring something as silly as Flat Earth Theory can be a great way to develop critical thinking skills along with just a basic understanding of science. Even though they’re about as wrong as it’s possible to be, we’re better off for colliding with their error. It’s almost as if the whole organization / internet forum is an exercise in trolling where they just try to provoke people into doing the necessary research to prove them wrong. And if that’s what is really behind the Flat Earth movement at this point, then good for them.