Why we need Flat Earthers
In the last 2 years, the old flat earth theory has seen a sudden surge in popularity. Accompanying this almost baffling rise of contra science has been the expected raging social media battles over the topic. The latest installment of JP Sears satire suggests that the battle has gone mainstream and is starting to annoy the masses. It’s easy to dismiss the flat earthers as the latest round of crazy kooks (and I certainly fall on the side of mainstream science in this regard) but something far more important than the settled debate over the shape of the planet may be unfolding here. I believe the flat earthers are unwittingly playing a very important role in the healthy ecology of idea dissemination and that they reflect the early stages of a germinating information society that is increasingly learning through networks, rather than hierarchy.
Most people these days don’t turn to encyclopedias, old textbooks or standard tv channels to settle questions. In fact I’d argue that a great deal of what we learn isn’t even sought out; it floods onto our social media feeds. I’ve started scrolling my facebook feed as I write this and I’ve already become familiar with conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton’s health that I never would have bothered to seek out otherwise. So it is with the flat earth. I’m sure that for most of you reading this the topic wedged its way into your life, almost against your will. Unlike paging through the dead pages of an encyclopedia, the theory of flat earth was probably inserted into your circles of interest because one of your facebook friends commented on a flat earth article.
Far from being a silly topic blowing past on the wind, you see it influencing the minds of real people. The thought that voters are walking around dismissing gravity as government propaganda might elicit some feelings of anger or even panic in you. Perhaps you should set them straight? This brings me to the first important social benefit of flat earthers.
You can’t appeal to authority when convincing them. The very decentralization of information networks is what insulates them from retorts that start with “most scientists say…” or “this is a settled issue” or “no textbook even vaguely mentions”. We’re living through a second Protestant Reformation where all orthodoxies are fair game. Instead of just revisiting Christianity as taught by a central Church, the internet is giving us the opportunity to unravel every false doctrine and dismantle all propaganda. The current attitudes about learning increasingly reject information from authoritative sources not because they’re wrong but because they’re backed by too much power. We’re gradually moving from knowledge doesn’t only come from authority to no true knowledge can come from authority. The inability to swiftly dismiss their arguments with appeals to authority and see them shrink back into the shadows means that you have to engage them as equals to change their minds. This equality of footing naturally fosters a plurality of ideas whether the status quo approves of such liberal free exchange of information or not. Every era of enlightenment in human history was preceded by a rise in opposing and conflicting ideas so at the very least, this is a good omen.
Suppose, however, that you’re not satisfied with simply tolerating an explosion of both good and bad ideas. Instead you only want good ones to survive. In that case you’re left with 2 options:
Since cryptoanarchy and radical decentralization have made impossible the option of censoring flat earthers, you might just throw up your hands in disgust and ignore them. This brings me to the second valuable social function of flat earthers: tolerance. What you will find when ignoring what you think of as crazy ideas is that nothing profound happens. Your life carries on as usual. This might even be sufficient to diffuse your outrage to the point where you regard them with patronizing affection at most and indifference otherwise. You’ve now learnt one of the first lessons of being an adult in a diverse society: live and let live. Maybe now you can apply this concept to other areas in your life where you’ve been less tolerant about non-violent activities such as gay marriage or typewriter carrying hipsters?
But no, you still want to set them right, even though you gain little from the act of doing so. If you’ve pushed this far, you’ll discover a lesson very few of us are lucky to stumble upon.
Abandon your Zeitgeist
In order to convince the flat earthers of the truth, you have to meet them on their battle ground. You have to learn all of the arguments and seriously play with them in your mind. You have to put yourself in their shoes, join their forums, ask honest questions but beyond merely participating, you have to actually learn the exact flaws in their arguments. This may require you to move beyond traditional physics. In fact you may end up delving into metaphysics and even epistemology as the flat earthers force you to re-evaluate the very axioms of your life. Louis CK points out how parents are often humbled in the face of seemingly infinitely curious children socratically tearing apart their unquestioned assumptions. This experience of reevaluating everything you know is usually only the privilege of intellectual minorities. Most serious libertarians can rattle off Keynesian National Income accounting and the tenets of Marxism quicker and more eloquently than the academics who teach those topics, for instance. But that’s because, as intellectual minorities, they’re always outnumbered and on the back foot. As inconsequential, they can be dismissed out of hand by the mainstream without much more than a passing caricature about being pro-business and in the pockets of Big Oil.
The explosion of Flat Earthers, on the other hand, is giving everyone who accepts the mainstream of physics (a sizable majority) the opportunity of exploring outside of their Zeitgeist and reevaluating some of the questions that aren’t on what Tom Woods would call the 3x5 card of allowable opinion. My definition of an enlightened society is one that peacefully tolerates and actively explores heterodox ideas. In many regards, our current world is anything but enlightened (see the treatment of Austrian economics by mainstream economists for 1 of many examples). In the quest to intellectually arm yourself against the Flat Earthers, you might inadvertently tumble down a rabbit hole of wikipedia browser tabs.
If you’re willing to be proven wrong on ideas, you might even hear a tiny voice in the back of your head when fighting against flat earthers: “What if, against all odds, you’re somehow wrong about all this?” As you’ve probably guessed by now my opinion on your inner turmoil, however small, is a sign of a healthy mind capable of growth.
You may in fact need all of the above lessons before engaging in topics that actually matter. Politics is filled with ideas that can do outstanding damage and you owe it to every other human (and animal) on earth to make sure that you’re not supporting one of those ideas. The Flat Earthers give you the safe sandpit to allow your very intellectual foundations to be thoroughly tested without anyone being harmed. And who knows, in the end they still might be convinced of their folly but you’ll emerge just a bit wiser.