Flat-Earthers, Dissent, and Conformity of Opinion

Flat-Earthers, Dissent, and Conformity of Opinion May 4, 2018

What’s the real reason science fans hate flat-Earthers? The answer may surprise you.

Image courtesy .earth Domain

According to Steven Novella at the Neurologica Blog, flat-Earthers aren’t just wrong, they’re sincere, numerous, and resistant to correction. He dismisses the notion that these are just hoaxers having us on:

Whenever I write about flat-earthers, those who, incredibly, actually believe in the 21st century that the world is flat, there are multiple comments to the effect that we are just getting punked. No one really believes the world is flat, they are just saying that to wind us up, and we are taking the bait.

But this view is demonstrably wrong. I have actually encountered flat-earthers out in the wild, so to speak – in meat space. They really do seriously entertain the theory that the earth is flat. Harry T Dyer also reports recently in Raw Story about a three day convention of flat-earthers. They weren’t tongue-in-cheek having a laugh. They were dead serious.

Pick Your Pseudoscientific Poison

While reading Novella’s overheated broadside, I wondered exactly what was so threatening about the flat-Earthers. As conspiracists go, these folks are on the harmless end. Anti-vaxxers, by contrast, could cause a significant amount of death and legitimate suffering by not vaccinating their children and therefore compromising the herd immunity that protects us from epidemics of treatable diseases. 9-11 truthers and other black-helicopter conspiracists push a really pathological view of human nature and society, as their beliefs assume an endless supply of people willing to kill, destroy, and lie for their soulless overlords. Creationists at least annoy podunk school boards periodically, pushing textbooks full of incoherent nonsense in lieu of natural history. But flat-Earthers just don’t seem that threatening.

Novella is flat-out wrong in one sense: the Flat Earth Society of Canada, for example, was set up in the 70s with very satiric intent by academics who wanted to demonstrate how willing people in our tech-obsessed age are to accept scientific theories as received wisdom. Even his implication that the flat-Eathers are legion is questionable. I can’t find any attendance figures for the flat-Earth convention Novella mentions in his post, but by the looks of the presenters for this tinhat hoedown, it’s probably not something that would excite much interest outside the fringe of the fringe.

So what’s the big deal?

The Problem with Power

Novella is well within his rights to debunk the flat-Earthers’ approach to empirical inquiry. But he makes the point in his article that he primarily objects to their approach to the power and authority of science in our society:

The modern flat-earth movement is one manifestation of the rejection of established knowledge as a tool of power. The idea is that those in power use knowledge to maintain and increase their power. “They” control the institutions, therefore any knowledge coming from those institutions is not legitimate and cannot be trusted.

This is a very different matter. Novella merely assumes that, in describing the idea that the institution of science has power and authority in our culture, he’s demonstrating its self-evident absurdity. However, he’s not dealing with the the fact that science has long been a tool of domination and control, he’s just dismissing it as if it’s not a fact at all.

Modern science came into being at a time when the European powers needed the ability to demarcate their colonial property from that of their competitors; natural hierarchies to validate the social order and their racial and gender superiority; and weaponry to do battle with their enemies as well as maintain control of their subjects. Nowadays technological progress is a boon to corporate interests and military powers, and scientific fields are specialized and inaccessible to laypeople except as spectators. We aren’t supposed to point out the close relationship between science and power.

An Inconvenient Truth

I’m not implying that this validates what the flat-Earthers say by any means. Conspiracism is not only a parody of the democratization of science, but also a symptom of powerlessness. People without influence in their communities maintain the illusion of control by rejecting dominant narratives.

The point of Novella’s scaremongering is clear. These people are dangerous not only because they don’t believe the right things, they reject the power and authority of science:

All this is what the flat-earth movement is really telling us. They are an extreme example of what happens when you go down this populist road. To deny the phenomenon is to deny the real battle of our age – the fight for facts, for expertise, and for the legitimacy of knowledge.

In other words, the burden isn’t on science to be more democratic, and less of a tool of the powerful. It shouldn’t have to work to gain the trust of the populace. In Novella’s opinion, people simply need to submit to the authority of science.

That’s not what freethinking is all about. If we respect science as a mode of investigating and understanding the world, we shouldn’t use it to crush dissent and impose conformity of opinion.

What’s more important? Freethought? Or getting everyone to think exactly the same way?

[Warning: This is NOT going to devolve into a debate on the shape of Planet Earth. There’s only about a million other places on the Interwebz where flat-Earthers and debunkers can have at it. Stick to the topic.]

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