November 20, 2019

The Flat Earthers

flat Earth

How concerned should we be that flat-Earth belief appears to be on the rise? Obviously, most of us wish this was not the case. At a minimum, it would seem to reflect anti-intellectualism and conspiratorial thinking. I admit that my first reaction was something along the lines of, "What the hell are our public schools doing?" I quickly realized this was unfair. I'm not sure we can expect reality-based education to compete with garbage like Ancient Aliens, at least not when it is as pervasive as it is. I am interested in whether you think the flat Earth thing is a mere curiosity or more of a problem to solve.

I have tried to have this conversation with a few people, only to find that it quickly ended up in them wanting to make everything about Donald Trump. It is no coincidence, they pointed out, that the rise in flat-Earth belief is happening now. For some, it is how we got Trump. For others, it is Trump's fault. I would be willing to go along with the notion that flat-Earth belief and Trump may both reflect a rising tide of anti-intellectualism and conspiratorial thinking, but that's about as far as I'd go. Anti-intellectualism has a long history in the U.S., and one can find evidence of it across the political spectrum. It seems to be with us all the time, but its influence fluctuates.

It wasn't that long ago that we saw an epidemic of television shows about angels and that our news media produced story after story documenting the surprisingly high number of people who believed that angels were watching over them. From what I remember, there was even evidence that some atheists believed this nonsense. Now that our political tribalism seems to be getting worse and receiving more attention, it is hardly surprising that contemporary anti-intellectualism would take the form of conspiracy theories. And with the attention climate science has been receiving, it makes sense that anti-science attitudes would be rising.

I suspect that the flat-Earth thing probably is something about which we should be concerned. I say that not because I think it necessarily matters a great deal that some people mistakenly think the Earth is flat but because this seems to be yet another symptom of an underlying problem. The combination of anti-intellectualism, mistrust and fear of science (and expertise more broadly), and conspiratorial thinking is toxic and likely to be detrimental to human progress. At its most extreme forms, it seems to boil down to the refusal to accept the reality of anything one does not like. One operates as if all one's favored beliefs have been proven while anything one finds inconvenient is unreal. A handful of individuals can probably live like that without harming anyone but their families, but as the anti-vaxxers remind us, it never seems to end there.

What do we do about it? Collectively, I think we work to strengthen public education. We make sure states are adequately funding it and that reality-based science education is provided. Individually, I think we confront expressions of anti-intellectualism, conspiratorial thinking, and opposition to science. No, I am not suggesting that we participate in the destructive call-out culture that probably helped to create this mess in the first place. I think we can do far more good by providing reasonable alternatives.

When I encounter a flat-Earther online and start calling them names (e.g., idiot, moron), I've handed them the win. Through the name-calling, I've abandoned reason and put myself on the same level as my target. All they have to do now is point to how I'm acting, and their position is strengthened. If, on the other hand, I manage to keep my cool and explain what is wrong with the positions they are advocating, they end up looking as unreasonable as they are. If I don't feel like doing this, it is probably better not to engage at all.