I’m a skeptic, and I love the flat-earth movement
The Denver Post recently featured an article about Coloradans who believe that the Earth is flat. As if that wasn’t surprising enough, some members of this community also believe they are the unfair recipients of flatearth prejudice, which I will now term “terrashapism.”
I don’t believe the Earth is flat. I have good reasons not to. I am a psychology professor who studies pseudoscience. I lecture about the fallibility of human intuition and the corresponding need for empiricism. I am a member of the National Center for Science Education. I am also a member of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and a local group called Colorado Skeptics. Skeptics generally doubt claims that lack legitimate evidence, but support claims that do.
Accordingly, one might think that I would have nothing positive to say about the flat Earthers who meet just over my horizon. Not so. I love the flatearth movement. As far as I’m concerned, flat Earthers are welcome to deflate the global Earth faster than New England Patriots footballs. To me, the flat-earth movement isn’t a threat to scientific sensibility. That threat is already alive and well. Instead, the flatearth movement exposes the contradictions that many people create when they disparage flat Earthers, but tolerate or actively support other forms of pseudoscience.
Contradiction No. 1: Conspiracy theories. Global Earthers might ask “But what about photographs of Earth taken from space?” Flat Earthers can dismiss this evidence as part of a NASA conspiracy. That might seem like delusional paranoia, but it isn’t much different than conspiracy theories employed in other pseudoscientific domains. Widespread evidence supporting vaccination has been somehow generated by Big Pharma. Widespread evidence supporting man-made global warming is the result of a politically leftist conspiracy, possibly with Greenpeace.
Contradiction No. 2: Science denial. Flat Earthers are hardly alone in rejecting or ignoring scientific evidence. Granted, the case against the flat Earth is particularly strong. It still seems hypocritical to consider people “stupid or “crazy” for believing in a flat Earth while simultaneously supporting healing crystals, the medicinal benefits of essential oils, creationism, anti-vaccination, climate change denial, and so forth.
Contradiction No. 3: Science education and fairness. Many voters want to force science education to include popular pseudoscientific theories like creationism and climate-change denial. Supporters of manipulating science education in this way often argue that providing both points of view is only fair. By this logic, however, one could argue that flat Earthers similarly have a right to be heard over the heartless prejudice exhibited by conventional scientists who just aren’t open to alternative ways of thinking. No need to worry about false equivalence. The children will surely figure out the truth for themselves.
I have made similar arguments previously. Reiterating the relationship between the flat-earth movement and other forms of pseudoscience is still worthwhile. U.S. residents continue to harm themselves and people around the globe through their haphazard promotion of the pseudoscientific. Flat-earth theory continues to provide a learning opportunity that could help the United States stem the rising tide of its pseudoscientific ways.
Besides, when I last wrote about the flat-earth movement it was in response to an individual (Kyrie Irving). This time I am writing in response to a small group. Maybe in a year I will write in response to a sizable flat-earth convention in Denver. Fine by me. I am not really worried about the flat Earth. I am worried about an old Earth becoming a hothouse Earth. We can maintain a healthy Earth by recognizing that flat Earthers are not alone in promoting scientifically untenable ideas. Susceptibility to pseudoscience is human characteristic. Together, we can temper the problems created by this susceptibility by supporting a genuine science education and embracing effective forms of scientific reasoning.
Craig A. Foster is a professor of psychology at the U.S. Air Force Academy.