the flat earth excuse

We've made it easy and virtually consequence-free to be ignorant of history and science. Now we're paying the price for coddling intellectual sloth.
flat earth

Ask a random stranger on the street to name one example of our ancestors’ ignorance and you’re probably going to hear about Columbus being told he will sail off the edge of the flat Earth, or of Medieval plague doctors trying to fend off the evil eye with their bird masks. We’re taught this from middle school as examples of how we make mistakes when figuring out the world around us, and like most things that we were taught in middle school, it’s a gross distortion of the facts. Just like the plague doctors’ outfit was in fact a rudimentary yet effective forerunner of today’s hazmat suits, the ancients knew full well that the Earth was spherical, and even knew almost exactly how big it was because they were really good at trigonometry. Those who thought otherwise were religious devotees who thought all the holy books made it clear that our world was flat, and various conspiracy theorists who are easily fooled by optical illusions played by our atmosphere and with an almost pathological distrust for any sort of authority.

So a flat earth was never actually a thing among scientists, and while their maps were wildly inaccurate for a very long time, they at least knew about how much of it was left uncharted. Still, the misconception persists and to this day we have people we’d assume to be rational adults who’ve had the chance to find out about Eratosthenes’ experiment to confirm hundreds of years of theories about the planet being round, spout off things like

Pressed on the scientific consensus [on global warming], Scaramucci challenged whether anything in science can be known. “There was an overwhelming science that the Earth was flat, and there was overwhelming science that we were the center of the world, …, we get a lot of things wrong in the scientific community — you and I both know that,” he said.

Just so you know, this was a Trump appointee telling the press why science is not to be trusted by rehashing old mistakes, real and imagined, to declare that we can just casually dismiss scientific consensus because it will change eventually. By this logic, we shouldn’t worry about bacteria because germ theory replaced miasma theory and something may come along to replace it again in the future. We should skip our vaccinations because immunology is kind of a new theory in the grand scheme of history, which he thinks shows that the Earth is 5,500 years old. And while we’re at it, we should probably distrust electromagnetic theory too, so his computers and internet access are probably on shaky grounds as well. How do people who genuinely think this way go through the world? How do they deal with daily life?

Well, the short answer is that they don’t think about it. They cherry pick the science which backs up what they want, and ignore that which doesn’t play to their confirmation bias. It’s the same psychology that enables fake news to thrive on the internet and in the decades after the industrial revolution we’ve managed to reduce incredibly complex phenomena into gadgets and gizmos for the consumer market and encapsulate all the intricacies of their operation into pushing a few buttons, or merely saying a command into the nearest microphone, no thought required. On the one hand, that just shows how far we’ve come in creating technologies that were science fiction just a hundred years ago. On the other hand, we accidentally ended up promoting ignorance of how the world really works for the sake of sales.

And this means that we have tens of millions of seemingly educated people who have no idea how the world around them works, don’t care, and their ignorance of big and complex issues drastically lengthens the time it takes for them to realize they’re mistaken, while those of us whose job it is to be experts are tasked to keep dragging all these people into whatever changes need to be made for the world to keep ticking. When those changes involve some degree of discomfort for them, they quickly trot out some variation of “well, scientists thought the Earth was flat” even though they never really did, and many actual errors they’ll point out would’ve required some sort of a time machine to get technology that didn’t exist and read basic research that had yet to be done with the precursors of this technology, saying that if the experts told them something they don’t want to hear, they’ll just ignore it and wait until these experts finally confirm their worldview.

# science // flat earth / scientific method / skepticism


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