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”.