Around the world (or across the plain, as the Flat-Earthers say) many are doing their best to cope with the stress created by “fake news”. They are worried about their inability to evaluate the credibility of information, and are frustrated that they even have to worry about credibility in the first place. It is annoying, I am told, to read two articles about the same topic and not know which one to trust. How would you even know how to know which article is accurate? Is there anyone I can consistently turn to, to tell me what to think?
Out of a desire to help these people, and myself, I turned to an idea-community which believes that nearly all news is fake, and has had this belief for a long time. The “community” to which I am referring is the Flat-Earth community, or those who believe the Earth is a flat and immobile surface. Naturally, they seemed like the right people to ask for advice. What’s it like believing you are being lied to all the time? And what do you do about it?
For the most part, flat-earthers have little to offer the rest of us in terms of setting a positive example for critical thinking (notice I don’t say they have nothing to offer). Instead, they serve as an interesting example of how not to interpret information.
Some of the flaws in the Flat-Earth reasoning process are easy to spot. They often rely on ad hoc explanations that produce more confusion than clarity. When it is noted that a force pulling the Earth’s surface towards a center would result in a spherical shape, the response is that gravity isn’t real, and things fall because of density (there are alternative Flat-Earth theories of gravity besides density). But if gravity is a hoax, then what keeps the atmosphere from floating away? Well, there is a dome, or firmament, above the Earth that keeps it all in. But what about asteroids? The dome is a planetarium; the asteroids are a projection.
But what about the molten core? Doesn’t that make more sense if everything is being pulled towards the center? Easy, says Mark Sargent, a flat-earther. There is a built-in temperature control system, which includes furnaces beneath the Earth. Mr. Sargent vehemently stood by this “furnaces beneath the surface” theory in an interview with me, but emphasized that other flat-earthers disagreed with him, to which he responds, “so you can believe in Flat-Earth, but you can’t believe that the magma systems can be artificial?”
Most flat-earthers believe the Flat-Earth was built by an intelligent creator, which is what permits them to posit the existence of anything they like. In fact, some only started believing in God after realizing that the Earth is flat. If the Earth is flat, then anything is possible.
It is clear from spending time on Flat-Earth YouTube channels and from speaking with them, that they apply different levels of skepticism to information they receive. When pictures of outer space are covered in the news, they are at the height of their skepticism. But when it comes to Antarctica actually being an enormous wall of ice surrounding the Earth like a pizza crust, or the inside rim of a Frisbee, they lose whatever skeptical instincts they possessed.
When I ask David Weiss, another flat-earther and general conspiracy theorist, how he knows the Smithsonian is hiding skeletons of ancient giants that once walked the Flat-Earth, he tells me to “look it up” (gee, thanks. And didn’t you tell me the Rockefellers write all the textbooks anyway?). Similarly, when I ask Mark Sargent how he realized vaccines actually cause autism, he tells me, “go on YouTube and type in ‘vaccination’ and then ‘autism’ and watch half an hour”. I asked Lori Frary which came first for her, the Bible or Flat-Earth, and she responded, “If it didn’t jive with the Bible, then it was going to be questionable, if it did jive with the Bible then that was a bonus.” This is a curious approach to information considering how they analyze nearly everything else.
It has been said of flat-earthers that “they don’t believe much of anything until they see it for themselves”. Besides giving them far too much credit as skeptics, this wildly misunderstands the flat-earther’s thought process. They are perfectly willing to believe lots of things without seeing it for themselves (a dome above the Earth, furnaces beneath it, pre-historic giants, God, a Flat-Earth, etc.)
Flat-earthers are selectively skeptical; an easy criticism to make of strangers, until you realize you are too. They reach their conclusions the same way most people do: by deciding to believe some people but not others.
When Flat-earther’s do better than the rest of us, it is when they make an effort to find facts rather than wait for them. Flat-earther’s fact-finding attitude, as opposed to a fact-waiting attitude, is admirable, but only to the extent to which they actually have this fact-finding attitude, which in practice is severely limited.
If you’re like me, you cringe whenever you hear somebody whimper, “Let’s wait for the facts to come in”. This phrasing is not cringe-worthy because it encourages one to be skeptical of initial reports. It’s cringe-worthy because it portrays “facts” as something that roll in all on their own, and are merely reported by a mechanical process in which few important details are ever lost. As it happens, facts are difficult to discover, and harder to prove. Waiting for “facts to come in” puts you in the same state of dependence that you would have been in if you had immediately jumped to a conclusion, only that it took you longer to do so.
Facts don’t “come in”. They are investigated, disputed, and interpreted.
On some level, flat-earthers understand this, and they understand it better than most. Their ethic of personal experimentation (where applied) is worth emulating, but to what degree the median human should adopt these strategies is difficult to determine.
“Mad” Mike Hughes, a 60-something self-taught rocket scientist, whose expressed aim is to build a rocket that will shoot himself high enough the see the curvature of the Earth, or lack thereof, is actually doing something worthwhile. I’ve personally grown tired of 9/11 conspiracy theorists who still pay their taxes and ask me who I voted for as if the occupant of the White House would still matter in a country where the deep state blows up occupied buildings. Mike Hughes believes the Earth may indeed be flat, and he is doing what I would expect a sincere person to do with that belief.
But we cannot personally test everything we need to know. There isn’t enough time in a lifetime to investigate everything. When I ask Hughes how he knows Benjamin Franklin was a double agent who recently had skeletons found beneath his house, he says, “just google him, look it up”. While the first claim seems to be a misunderstanding, and the second mostly accurate, Hughes is still willing to trust the claims of total strangers on the internet. Why? Because we have little choice but to trust strangers; finding the right degree of trust is the challenge.
Much of what we “know” is actually based on a complex network of interpersonal trust, rather than personal experience. The extent to which we trust the honesty and competency of our fellow primates is astonishing. I am perfectly willing to board an airplane, without being assured that the plane is in good working order. For all I “know”, the pilot is a blind kangaroo with no hands. But my past experiences, and the faith I have in others, tell me this is unlikely. With this network of trust, you will always be vulnerable to liars and idiots, but without it, you can never move beyond your plain observations and memory.
The YouTube videos of Mark Sargent, contain the following quote from George Orwell in their description:
“Most people, if asked to prove that the earth is round, would not even bother to produce the rather weak arguments I have outlined above. They would start off by saying that ‘everyone knows’ the earth to be round, and if pressed further, would become angry. In a way [Bernard] Shaw is right. This is a credulous age, and the burden of knowledge which we now have to carry is partly responsible.”
This quote is drawn from the final paragraph of a longer essay published December 21, 1946. I want to call attention to the rest of that final paragraph, since it more nearly captures the spirit of the essay:
“It will be seen that my reasons for thinking that the earth is round are rather precarious ones. Yet this is an exceptionally elementary piece of information. On most other questions I should have to fall back on the expert much earlier, and would be less able to test his pronouncements. And much the greater part of our knowledge is at this level. It does not rest on reasoning or on experiment, but on authority. And how can it be otherwise, when the range of knowledge is so vast that the expert himself is an ignoramus as soon as he strays away from his own speciality?”
Orwell is not merely arguing that people are too credulous. He is also saying that we have little choice but to trust others, not only because there is so much to know and so little time to test it all, but because knowledge is highly compartmentalized. The master biochemist may be a genius, but he should still take the advice of his dentist.
He took this point further in another essay, called “What is Science?” in October 1945:
“Clearly, scientific education ought to mean the implanting of a rational, sceptical, experimental habit of mind. It ought to mean acquiring a method — a method that can be used on any problem that one meets — and not simply piling up a lot of facts.”
If there is one insight that flat-earthers give us, it is that science should not be seen as a body of authoritative facts, but a method of learning. Mike Hughes might seem crazy (because he is), but he is also curious, and that’s more than I can say for the majority. Truly, most people do not think any harder than flat-earthers do, and many think far less. (I’ve had people tell me “show me the science!” and I am still not quite sure what the hell they want from me).
But if flat-earthers are so skeptical and empirically minded, why do they still believe the Earth is flat? As I described earlier, they really only apply this view when it suits them. David Weiss tells me he applies additional scrutiny to claims that suit his pre-existing views. This is a good habit to get into, but I can assure you it is not Mr. Weiss’s habit. A hyper-skeptical person could simply admit he doesn’t know for sure what shape the Earth is, as Mike Hughes sometimes does.
Avoiding selective skepticism is obviously difficult. It will mean there will be some topics you simply can’t have an opinion on, because you don’t know enough about it (what a concept!) Never forget that you have little direct access to information, and you depend more on trust than on your own ability.
Another way to minimize this risk is to avoid the other major mistake flat-earthers tend to make: they identify personally with their views. Believing the Earth is flat isn’t what they do, it’s what they are.
I have seen people act as if losing their opinion meant losing part of themselves. I see now that this is because they really were. Beliefs that one identifies with often enjoy a freedom from criticism, because to criticize these beliefs would be to criticize yourself. This can make us vulnerable to wild hallucinations and distortions.
It shouldn’t hurt to find out you have been mistaken. You ought to be happy that you learned something new, and to have shed superstition from your mind. Whenever possible, avoid identifying personally with your beliefs. This will make it so much easier to analyze them fairly, and to abandon them if you have to.
It might be enough to observe that many people have no issue at all confessing they know little about physics, or archaeology, or whatever, on the grounds that they are not employed in the field and have read little about it. But ask anyone what they think of a political document they haven’t read and they are likely to give you an answer, and the answer will tell you more about who they are and what side they are on, than what they actually know. This is because they identify with political beliefs, and not relatively less politicized sciences.
All flat-earthers I have spoken with tell me they believe nearly all stories covered in the mainstream media are fake. If you are just beginning to feel this frustration, be sure to learn the right lessons from those more experienced than you.
Don’t become a flat-earther. Even if you believe the Earth is flat.