A Theory on Flat-Earthers

The modern-day flat-Earther movement is one of the strangest phenomena in modern times. It’s an organization that’s exactly what it sounds like- a group of people who legitimately believe that the Earth is a flat disk. One of the more well-known doctrines of this system is that the Earth is a disk with the North Pole at the center and a wall of ice around where Antarctica should be. The account for gravity apparently by stating that the world is perpetually traveling up at 9.8 meters per seconds squared. Of course, the specifics of they’re theory aren’t particularly captivating; the real question of their movement is “why?”.

It’s probably easy to dismiss these people as lunatics, simple gullible fools who got tricked into believing this rancid hogwash. Perhaps we can argue that mental illness or egotism plays some part. Unfortunately, these explanations work only for cartoon villains and shallow caricatures: and flat-Earthers are real people with lives and families. No, in my opinion, it’s neither satisfying nor respectful to simply label anyone as stupid and close the book. There has to be a compelling reason for holding this set of beliefs; something that justifies a person holding these ideas (from a human perspective, not a scientific one).

A while ago I read this nice article about a brave individual who dove headfirst into this movement. One paragraph, in particular, intrigued me:

For millions, technological advances meant not freedom, but utter misery—and just as it declares that everything can be known, instrumental reason abstracts that knowledge beyond immediate experience. “Enlightenment,” Horkheimer writes, “has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened Earth is radiant with triumphant calamity.” Faced with a reality that could no longer be intuitively understood, whose secrets had become the property of a small class of scientists and administrators, the early flat earthers tried to claw back some of their autonomy.

Now, this is an interesting point. These days, it almost seems like people aren’t allowed to have opinions anymore. So many issues are topics with exactly one correct answer, and if you ask for justification, you’re told, “because science says so.” What was in the past reserved for simple truths about the basic physics and chemistry is now being applied to nearly everything. Science now says that carbs are bad for you and coffee is good for you. It’s even dictating the most personal aspects of people’s lives. Science will even tell you the right way to raise your kids. Also, atheists are less tolerant than religious people, so if you’re an atheist you should probably stop because your atheism is causing you to be closed minded. Just don’t become religious either because then that’ll cause you to be dumber.

These aren’t “suggestions” either, this is science, after all. These are absolute truths. Therefore, you must follow them exactly or be content with being the moron who questions the literal experts and the unchanging nature of reality. Every day, there are fewer and fewer things about which the average person is even allowed to have an opinion on. As science discovers more and more information about the world the average person must sacrifice more and more of their autonomy. There is a right side and a wrong one and you need to be with the former. No debate, no arguing. This shouldn’t be a problem, because people should do this with information if that information is the truth. It’s pure mental pathology to try and argue with facts.

That’s true, but none of those articles I linked were from peer-reviewed journals. They were from random new sites and similar sources. Those ones are known for misrepresenting scientific data. This is important because this is generally all that non-scientists read. Heck, even the primary source material has issuesCoffee, in particular, is known for being a case study for this weird phenomena.

The point is, we have people being told how to live more and more aspects of their daily lives by information which, as far as Joe Schmo can tell, doesn’t stand up to the scrutiny that science is supposed to stand up to. What this boils down to is that people can quite justifiably start thinking that they’re not only being controlled in an increasingly totalitarian way but by sources which cannot be trusted. This is a recipe for rebellion. Science is about as close to absolute truth as humans can get. So much so that critical thinking is almost discouraged in certain situations. If a large group of scientists in a field agrees to proposition X, and you’re not an expert in the field, you should defer to their opinion. This is not a bad thing. Scientific information compels authority because it is undeniable. However, if you are fed bad information, then it is deniable, and it’s not scientific. It’s an opinion, perhaps even an unfounded one. And all that critical thinking and skepticism you were expected to put aside becomes essential again.

Maybe these flat-Earthers are the end result of a system has allowed enough untruth into itself so that it has instead become more like forcing opinions on people. If the newspaper says that scientific experts now believe X and you find out that X must not be true, then why trust the person who told you to believe X? Clearly, the scientific experts don’t know what they’re talking about! Remember, this example person hasn’t read the peer-reviewed journals, he just reads newspapers and watches TV. At that point, why not start following some guy on youtube? Sure, you’re questioning science and looking at a guy whose only qualification is that he has a camera and can upload videos, but when you can’t trust a source of information, it is your duty as a scientific mind to find the truth elsewhere. Watch this clip of Joe Rogan arguing with a flat-Earther; listen to Eddy Bravo’s constant refrains:

“It looks fake to me!”

“you can’t trust that!”

“The pictures are terrible!”

He doesn’t trust the way the data was collected; he doesn’t trust the scientists to tell the truth, and if he had spent years reading the above examples, it’s understandable how someone could think that way. Granted, it’s still not justifiable for him to think that way. The media’s inability to get the stories right all the time doesn’t mean that NASA is concocting a grand conspiracy, and trouble within medical journals doesn’t change the fact that geologists all believe the earth to be round, but it makes a leap to such a bizarre belief much more explainable.

What if these flat-Earthers are just a group of people who feel alienated and ostracized from the pursuit of truth? We live in a world where more and more facts about life are dictated by a small handful of experts in a way that can barely be understood by the layman. A world where it is expected that everyone believes these facts unquestioningly or risk social excommunication. A world where, even so, the “science” that the average person sees is often subject to correction unbecoming of an epistemology that demands total submission. Is it any wonder then that some would latch onto a belief system that at least gave them back their autonomy? Their humanity? In the flat-earth community, you’re free to do your own research and your own critical thinking, no Ph.D. required.