Tuesday, February 06, 2018

No, the earth is not flat.

There really is such a thing as the Flat Earth Society. It is not a joke. At least, there really seem to be people who take this sort of thing seriously. My perception is that there are more of them lately; and I am not the only one who thinks so. Do an Internet search, and you will find articles here and there on the phenomenon.

Have you ever talked, face to face, with someone who believes this? I have not; but I have exchanged comments online with flat-earthers. Forgive this if it seems rude, but my impression is that the folks I talked to aren't very smart. But they aren't overly dumb, either. They are capable of bandying about a lot of patter, sprinkled with science-y sounding assertions and theories, which they draw from flat-earth websites.

I hesitate writing about this, because it's like getting near a black hole: you can't help being sucked in, and once in a black hole, everything becomes crazy. I am a firm believer that you pray for people who live in Crazyland, you wish them well, and even spend time with them -- but only outside of Crazyland. Don't. Ever. Go. There.

This has been confirmed by actual experience, as I am one of those people who can never quite give up hope in the ability to reason things out, no matter how many times that hope is dashed, and ground into dust by bitter experience.

So let me tell you what happened when I didn't follow my own rules recently, and actually read a thread somewhere on this subject. I didn't really read much of it; but it only takes a little for it to get into your brain and work like an "earworm," burrowing in and driving you crazy.

About 3:30 am Sunday, I woke up and couldn't get back to sleep. Before long, I was thinking about the stuff I'd read the day before on flat-earthers. I told myself, "No, don't start thinking about that! You'll never get to sleep that way!" But it didn't work, and before long, I gave up the ghost. I was awake the rest of the morning.

What was I thinking about? How would I refute the flat-earth theory without recourse to any complex science, which I, myself, am not master of?

Flat-earthers love to cite all sorts of things. They claim all sorts of supposed evidence that proves their case. (Meanwhile, a little voice in my brain is screaming, "but it's all flipping nonsense, remember that! DON'T TAKE THIS SERIOUSLY!!!" I agree with myself, but real people are taking it seriously, and that is not nothing. Do you see what happens when I even get close to Crazyland?) They are like many of those folks who knock on people's doors on Saturday mornings; they have their prepared remarks and rebuttals, ready to deploy. Unfortunately for them, I really am an expert on theology and Scripture. I don't mean I have advanced degrees; but I do mean that I know a lot more about these things than the door-knockers. They've learned not to knock on my door (the church next door also has something to do with it).

But I'm not especially conversant in the science the flat-earthers are surely distorting, so I can't really call them on it. So what would work? (Remember, it's a sleepless 4 am when I'm pondering this.)

Then it hit me: geometry. Simple geometry. Let me know what you think. And if this is too long so you won't read it (tl;dr), skip down to where I show why this might actually matter.

Proof 1

The earth -- as a globe -- has longitude lines. They begin at a single point, the north pole; they widen to the equator, and then narrow again, until they converge at the south pole. But according to flat-earthers, the earth is a disk with the north pole at the center; they claim Antarctica is a ridge of ice that circles the disk, containing the oceans. If so, then these lines never converge, right?

Well, that creates problems for navigation, wouldn't you say?

Here's an easy experiment. Take an orange, and treat the navel as the north pole. Locate the equator. Take a marker, and just "north" of the equator, make a few dots, keeping them close to the equator.

Now, cut your orange in half. Take the "north" half, and clean out all the pulp, without tearing the skin. Now, take a sharp knife and carefully make cuts, so that this hemisphere can be laid perfectly flat. Notice what happens to those dots? They spread out apart, didn't they. Had you kept the skin intact, as a ball -- rather than cut the orange in half -- and then spread the whole sphere out, the portion representing the southern hemisphere would be even more spread out, wouldn't it?

So guess what? All the timetables for air travel, train travel, bus, truck and car travel, are all based on the globe. So if the flat-earthers are right, there is a problem. Do you see it?

Either Australia is much, much, MUCH larger than we all think it is -- and it takes many, many times longer to drive or fly across it...

Or else, it's the same size, but it's east and west coasts aren't at the longitudes we all think they are.

Either way, all travel along east-west routes that happens right now -- planes are in the air as I write -- simply must take vastly longer than it actually does. People will show up today who shouldn't show up for several days, because the distance would be so much greater if the earth is flat.

Well, I could go on to proofs 2 and 3, which had to do with triangles and something else, but you get the idea.

Meanwhile, there is the problem of arguing "conspiracy" -- which is exactly what these poor folks must argue. My proof, above, made their conspiracy vastly larger; I made it involve, I guess, many billions of people. But even without my help, they still concede there must be some significant conspiracy, in order to account for all the fake satellites and space travel and what-all.

Here's the thing about secret conspiracies: they mostly aren't real, because they don't stay secret and they don't stay well coordinated. It's one of the easiest things for people to believe: all the energy companies are in a conspiracy, or, the CIA conspired to kill President Kennedy, or...you get the idea. If you felt very smug so far about the poor flat-earthers, can you honestly claim you never took the bait on any conspiracy theory? I'm betting not. Most of us give them credence at some point or another. But it's all bogus; and it's not hard to see this, if you stop and think about how very hard it must be to pull it off. A conspiracy of even three or four people is pretty hard. For every new participant, it gets more and more certain that it will break down, and certainly become known.

My point is not really just crowing about flat-earthers. Rather, what interests me is why this sort of thing even has a few adherents; and why do more people seem susceptible to it (if that is indeed the case)? And I have a theory.

In recent decades, there have been three notable trends. One is that we aren't educating people so very well, particularly in how to think critically. That isn't as prized a skill as it used to be. Look at our college campuses: do they prize critical thinking? On the contrary: ask the wrong questions, disagree, and you are guilty of a "microaggression," you are a hater and you must be shut down and driven out. Quite a lot has been written about this. It is depressing.

A second trend is that we live in an era of disillusionment. One institution after another has been discredited before the eyes of the world. The Church. The free press. The government. Business. Sports. Entertainment. And, yes, Science.

And then, third, we live in a time when fakery is quite impressive. Special effects in movies and TV are so routine anymore that we forget just how marvelous they are. This feeds the notion that pretty much anything can be faked.

Maybe all this is a flash in the pan, but maybe not. It may be we will see more and more of this.

And in the meantime, if you find yourself simply dismissing science as all "fake," and there's a conspiracy to keep this afloat -- i.e., evolution, or climate change -- maybe you have more in common with flat-earthers than you want to admit?

1 comment:

rcg said...

It seems to me that the widest common ground for people of science and Faith is that blissful area where we become aware and comfortable with how little we actually know.