How can people be so stupid? – A skewed perspective

There has been a slew of news recently regarding the popularity of flat-earthers. The typical reaction by most people (and especially those with some degree of science appreciation) is that these people are stupid or trolling (that they really don’t believe this). The common comment is “How can people be so stupid” suggesting that a.) they aren’t, or b.) they have less worth than those who do not reject one of the most fundamental facts of nature.

As with my previous observation regarding people who make awful life (and subsequently, death) choices who are then labeled “Darwin Award” winners, I see a callous and sometimes vicious reaction by self-styled “skeptics” towards those who do not hold a similar worldview. I don’t think such hostile reactions are the norm but the behavior is pervasive and tolerated enough to seriously scuttle any collective effort to advocate for critical thinking processes and science appreciation with the greater public.

If you browse the comments on any flat-earth article, you will see this tendency to belittle and act superior to those “morons” and “idiots” that subscribe to the flat earth idea. I do understand that reaction. But it’s not a very thoughtful one. Here is a specific example.

I wrote a post for my other site Spooky Geology regarding the popularity of flat-earthers. I briefly described the history and the underlying reasons why people subscribe to this outrageous idea. It’s not a lack of intelligence or because they skipped out on science class, it’s far more nuanced and complex than that. Whereas in previous centuries, proponents of a flat earth based their reasoning solely on the Bible, evidence provided via space exploration required a shift. That shift was heavily towards conspiracy and “cover-up” excuses. Notice the widespread acceptance of conspiracies in today’s American culture. The flat-earth idea is possibly the ultimate rejection of knowledge authorities. It’s not surprising it’s gotten attention.

I’m grateful to those who read and shared the Spooky Geology article. Most people seemed to NOT read it and just added gratuitous comments that, unfortunately, revealed their ignorance about the topic. (If you have an insight that adds to or contradicts what I wrote, I’m pleased to hear it, as long as there is some value or thought put into it.) The piece was posted to a Facebook page called “Skeptical Spectacles”, a site with 85K followers, more than I would ever hope to have. The “About” description of the page says its aim is “Clearing up myths, misconceptions, and myopia.” The content is entirely composed of shared links and memes promoting science and against pseudoscience. I was pleased to see the story included as I think it DOES address myopia – short-sightedness by many who have the typical reaction to flat-earth believers. As I guessed, the comments regarding my story revealed that several commentators likely didn’t read the article but just wanted to say something about how weird the flat earth concept was to them. In the 57 comments, excluding two by me, 15 of them were explicit references to flat-earthers as being sub-educated (stupid, moron, idiot) or somehow unfit for normal society. Several others were mocking, calling them disparaging names or endorsing public ridicule of them, a tactic, which I mention in the article specifically, that doesn’t work and can backfire. One comment expressed elimination of such people from society. Yeah, really. As with the Darwin Awards discussion, there are too many people who practice some very intolerant humanism. If I was exploring the concept of skepticism and saw that this kind of sentiment was acceptable, I’d be turned off right away.

Several expressed the disbelief flat earth belief is actually a thing. They assume these people are trolling or just want attention. I think that is true to some degree. (Also look up the philosophy behind the FES of Canada.) There are those who just want to be contrarians. But the belief is real for a minority of people and there is sufficient evidence to demonstrate this. A few commenters think it’s pointless to even talk about this with any concern and that we should not be so serious. That comment roils me. If you don’t care about the subject, don’t comment. In fact, go live your life and don’t worry anymore about us who think it’s worthwhile to address cultural beliefs.

Some people repeat proofs of the round earth that, frankly, are as old as humanity itself. As with polemicists, flat-earthers have heard these before and have a reply convincing to bystanders. Only about three commenters seemed to understand the nuance about worldview and context and that not everyone thinks this way.

It’s one of my pet peeves that intelligent, science-oriented audiences fall into the habit of scientism. They think science is the best thing ever and can solve all the world’s problems. And if we just use science on it, we can fix it. That’s not a viable position. The world doesn’t work that way. But such sentiments reflect our priorities, values, and our position in life. Many who support science and critical thinking efforts are well-educated and intelligent and have lived a privileged life compared to the average world citizen. Science has benefited them directly. But they lack perspective. They simply can’t imagine how people could not see the world as they do. It goes the other way, too. Flat-earthers can hardly imagine why they ever believed those pointy-headed scientists and government officials who tell us about space and the universe. Science arguments about flat-earth are almost besides the point. Flat earth belief is something way beyond a simple disagreement about the shape of earth.

Some people belong to communities because it makes them feel accepted, special, powerful, or smart. Groups can exist just to be in contrast to other groups. I don’t feel good about science- and skeptical-spokespersons and proponents who think it’s OK to act smug, superior, and make fun of others. Yet, it’s acceptable to do this in their social circles. As I’ve said before, it’s partly why efforts to promote causes that point out bogus claims have failed. No one will listen to you if you start your conversation by telling someone how stupid they are. That’s a basic communication skill that hasn’t been grasped by the broad audience who call themselves “skeptical”.

About idoubtit

Fluent in science, animals, paranormal culture. Expert in weird news.

4 thoughts on “How can people be so stupid? – A skewed perspective

  1. Well, I don’t feel so smug after reading this, because I had never heard the word ‘polemicists’. First I thought it meant Ptolemaic, which “Of or pertaining to Ptolemy, a celebrated astronomer who lived at Alexandria in the second century a.d.” (OED). Then I looked it up and found it referred to “One versed in polemics; a controversialist” (OED). I guess now I can be smug… I often take the approach, if you can’t change somebody’s mind, a least learning why they think that way is an education in itself.

  2. Though I write many jokes about the fringe, I generally agree with you.

    I am welcomed/tolerated on UFO blogs because I tend to limit myself to fact-checking. I almost never offer my own theories, thus avoiding the “my belief is better than your belief” situations. It’s more important (and more compelling to earnest buffs) to test the merits of fringe claims than to hector fringers about the “correct” view. And if you hang around these sites long enough, you will find buffs vigorously fact-checking wild claims themselves (the Roswell slides hoax is a recent example).

    I avoid most skeptic sites because of the incessant flow of self-congratulatory comments (PZ Myers’ followers come to mind). Also, fringe proponents tend to know more about the details of fringe claims (if not the science or logic) than do the skeptics.

    I’ve said all this before. I would like to add some comments about ridicule.

    Socrates would disagree with Hynek about the role of ridicule in the scientific method. When claims are composed almost entirely of arguments in the absence of verifiable facts, we have only logic to examine. Often, when following fringe arguments to their logical conclusions, ridiculous illogic results. This is not the fault of the examiner who points out the absurdity. In Plato’s “Ion,” the rhapsode Ion claims that because he is an expert on Homer, and Homer was necessarily an expert on everything, Ion thereby is qualified to be a general merely by the fact that Homer writes about generals. (Socrates gently mocks Ion’s military aspirations while respecting his genuine skill as a rhapsode.) As patently stupid as Ion’s reasoning sounds to us 2400 years later, it is the exact same reasoning of creationists such as Ray Comfort, who presumes to overrule actual scientists about science, by the mere assertion that he has read the Bible, and the Bible is the word of God, and God created everything that scientists study.

    But illogic, by itself, does not need to be ridiculed. Most people are honest; at least, they are not knowingly deceiving others. And some are unaware they live in a partisan bubble; when challenged, from time to time they will admit they need to re-evaluate their claims. But when illogic is dogmatically held, unchanging in the face of countervailing facts and reason, then the testing of claims is over. At that time, a well-crafted joke that distils the illogic to its absurd essence is sufficiently warranted, and, when done properly, will strip a partisan of their litany of unexamined talking points. The joke need not be cruel; aptness is enough. Finally, when fringers abandon their claims altogether to indulge in “what about-ism” or ad hominem attacks, at that moment, truly…

    …ridicule has been earned!

    And at that point, fringers learn that their lifetime of rigidly held dogmatism means they are cognitively unequipped to write better jokes than I do!

  3. “Whereas in previous centuries, proponents of a flat earth based their reasoning solely on the Bible, evidence provided via space exploration required a shift. That shift was heavily towards conspiracy and “cover-up” excuses. Notice the widespread acceptance of conspiracies in today’s American culture.”

    Like Coast to Coast AM, “All Conspiracy, All the Time. Conspiracy within Conspiracy within Conspiracy within Conspiracy…”

    In my life-long interest in High Weirdness, I first remember The Vast Conspiracy from Fifties UFOlogy (NICAP nuts-and-bolts wing) who were obsessed with “The Air Force/Gubmint Conspiracy to Cover Up The TRUTH About The Saucers!” Then similar claims about The SCIENCE Establishment from what later became cryptozoologists. (A lot like Prevention Magazine and The Medical Establishment Conspiracy.) And this Vast Conspiracy just grew and grew and grew until it consumed everything, just like in Bob Dylan’s “Talking John Birch Society Blues”:

    Problem with Grand Unified Conspiracy Theory (like we have today) is it pinches you off from any reality check (because that’s what The Conspiracy WANTS Me to Think) until you join the Deros in their underground Hell of Pain and Fear. (“The Dwarfs Are For The Dwarfs! We Won’t Be Taken In!”)

    “It’s one of my pet peeves that intelligent, science-oriented audiences fall into the habit of scientism. They think science is the best thing ever and can solve all the world’s problems.”

    No, that’s “SCIENCE!”
    (Too good a lead-in to pass up, Sharon.)

  4. Another factor, in the words of the prophet Frank Zappa:

    “Stupidity is like hydrogen. It’s the basic building block of the Universe.”

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