A Story of Cognitive Bias, or simple Delusion?
There has been a growing amount of coverage on the fringe group of people claiming the Earth is, in fact, flat.
bOINGbOING have been having fun at their expense for a while, and Neil deGrasse Tyson rather infamously clashed with the rapper B.o.B. on the subject, leading to…whatever this is. Following the first Flat Earth International Conference, the BBC have gotten in on the act.
What with the current state of international politics and some of the more choice world-leaders at the moment, it’s clear that mass-delusion is the flavour of the day, but, really? Following the lead of Feyerabend and Kuhn, I’m no big fan of Scientism, but even I draw the line at some point. What is going on with these folks?
I came across an article recently, which may have been courtesy of 3QuarksDaily, which could shed some light. Unfortunately, my google-fu is proving unusually weak, and I can’t for the life of me find the piece in question. What I recall of it was roughly thus – Religion, so the argument went, is not really an irrational position to take for those who are born into it. There seems to be foible of our cognitive architecture that makes it difficult for us to question the coherent narrative we are provided with – e.g., if we are raised in a community where everyone we know, everyone we trust, says that a) the sun will rise tomorrow b) water is wet and c) the son of an obstreperous sky-god was born human and resurrected himself from death for our sins 2000-odd years ago, it all sort of hangs together. Each premise, the way we’ve come to them and the authority with which they’ve been invested provides mutual support for the next. While, consciously, we might realise that some of these things don’t sync up, the fact that we exist in a community that is at peace with the contradictions prevents us from feeling the fractious nature ourselves. Or so the argument goes.
Now, something like faith in Science(tm) can be a bit of an ask – as most of the arguments from your mates in the Flat Earth crowd go, the idea that the Earth is an oblate spheroid of immense proportion is, well, contrary to common sense. Shit looks flat, right? But then, what about the fact that we’ve all been raised in a society that is steeped in truSt and respect for the our good priests the Scientists? Shouldn’t that, according to the argument, bridge the gap?
That’s aside from one of the more redeemable aspects of science, that, assuming you have the materials and finances, you should be able to replicate any experiments under your own steam (putting aside the cascading issue of non-reproducibility amongst all streams of science…). And oh the experiments you can do. I’m not exactly “overly-proficient” when it comes to maths, but I can appreciate that the proof of the world’s roundness is pretty standard geometry – which is why it was figured out 2500 years ago.
Beyond the fairly basic maths, there’s also the various other proofs – satellites, circumnavigation going back hundreds of years, literal photos of the planet from space. GRAVITY. How do you look at all these and deny them? What alternative story do you tell?
A story of epicycles within epicycles, that’s what. The assumption of a world-wide conspiracy which would require the involvement of millions for generations beggars rational belief. The alternative idea, a disc ringed by walls of ice preventing everything dropping off the edge, has just got be beyond anyone’s willing preference. Also, in case you were curious, the sun has a diameter of 32 miles and is located – approximately – 3000 miles above the surface of Earth. So that’s a thing.
As much fun as it is to poke fun at these people, I do have to reiterate my complete confusion behind the whole thing. I suspect there are a fair few people involved simply for the lolz, but it can’t be the whole of them, can it? What’s the appeal? How do you sustain the contradictions?
Hopefully the intrepid explorer that is Mad Mike Hughes will be able to provide answers on these questions and more, using nothing but his home-made, steam powered rocket. To fly. To space. To see the Flat Earth. This Saturday.