Debating flat earthers

By Frederic Friedel

I’ve been a skeptic for most of my life. It began in serious when I was fourteen and a student in a Jesuit Roman Catholic school. That’s when I started having serious doubts about religion. Later in college I became deeply interested in paranormal phenomena, mainly in testing and trying to reproduce them. It never worked — the well documented miraculous and magical things always stopped happening when I was around.

In 1976 Paul Kurtz, a secular humanist and Professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, founded the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), to counter what he regarded as an uncritical acceptance of, and support for, paranormal claims by both the media and society in general. I had just begun to study the Philosophy of Science, which deals with the foundations, methods, and implications of science, at the University of Hamburg, and the philosophical position of the CSISOP, scientific skepticism, appealed to me immensely. And the fact that the founding members included scientists, academics, and science writers such as Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, James Randi, Martin Gardner, and many others, did nothing to calm my enthusiasm. I contacted Paul Kurtz and told him about my own activities in the field — and became a fellow, in charge of the German section. After that I spent some blissful years acting in and on behalf of the CSICOP (which later changed its cumbersome name to “Committee for Skeptical Inquiry” or CSI). I got to know all the founding members named above, personally, and many other equally fascinating personalities.

But all of this material for another day. It is just preamble for today’s subject, which is about arguing with people who have outlandish views.

In the early days of my involvement with CSI I was involved in recruiting scientific and technical consultants, and for that reason was visiting the London School of Economics. I had some wonderful discussions with LSE lecturers, some of whom became members. One evening, at the end of a meeting, someone mentioned that there was a lecture by the “Flat Earth” society or group, or whatever, in the city. Really? We all decided to have some fun and attend.

Flat Earthers are people who have stuck to the Bronze and Iron Age belief that the Earth is a flat disk, resting on four pillars and domed by a “firmament” shaped like an inverted bowl that kept the waters beyond it out (except when it rained). It seemed totally incredible to us that this pre-scientific notion was still endorsed by people in the late twentieth century, and we wanted to discuss the matter with them. It would be an exercise in debating with fringe elements — although in this case hideously unfair, like stepping on ants.

So we went to the Flat Earth presentation, four young and super-sharp scientists, itching for a fight. The meeting had two speakers and was fairly well attended, in majority I am sure by flat earther. Clearly they were more numerous than in Fuller’s time (that refers to hilarious sketch performed by Peter Sellers and Graham Stark in the 1950s). And they clapped quite enthusiastically during the lectures.

Then came the audience discussion, and after the first exchanges with us we were invited onto the stage so we didn’t have to argue from the darkness of the audience. We went up gleefully — this was really going to be fun.

I do not remember many details of the debate, and do not want to waste time reconstructing them. You can google ‘flat earth’ or search for it in YouTube, and marvel. All I want to say that it was a rout. Stomping on ants was the correct metaphor. Except we were the ants — the two flat earth nutters eviscerated the four science cracks. And the audience cheered rapturously.

It was a chilling experience for me, and the others, I might add. We were absolutely confounded — how could it have happened? How could modern science and knowledge have been defeated by Bronze Age superstition?

The next day I called a meeting with my colleagues at the LSE. I had spent a sleepless night and finally understood exactly what happened. And I explained it to the others. The problem was that the Flat Earthers we had confronted were experts at debating skeptics! Consummate experts. Science, schmience, they had heard it all before, probably a hundred times. We, on the other hand, were total innocents, completely inexperienced in debating crackpots. Never done it, at least at this level, ever before. We got agitated when we realized we were losing, began to bluster and stutter, while our opponents had slick canned answers, elegantly formulated, with little touches of humour and engaging sympathy for the narrow-minded fanaticism that we were clearly displaying.

The lesson learned on that evening and that night was seminal and has stood me in good stead, whether I am debating superstitious beliefs or paranormal claims. Be well prepared, don’t forget to use humour and charm, and don’t ever think your opponent are so crazy that it is going to be a slam dunk. Always remember: they have been practicing, you are (probably) treading alien territory. If Flat Earthers can win a debate, anyone can.