THR Web Features   /   February 4, 2016

Against Flat-Earthers (No, Really)

Guest Blogger

A "flat-Earth" map drawn by Orlando Ferguson in 1893. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Last week the Twitterverse was abuzz over the argument between rapper B.o.B and astronomy popularizer Neil DeGrasse Tyson over whether the earth is flat. The hip hop star’s recently released song “Flatline” included samples from Tyson, as well as lyrics implying that the division of the oceans into thirty three degrees of latitude is a Masonic conspiracy. (The oceans are not divided into thirty three degrees of latitude.)

Songwriting is not a very effective means for providing evidence and scientific argument, but B.o.B did take to that most conducive forum for public reasoning, Twitter, to provide evidence in the form of cameraphone photos of the apparently uncurved horizon, along with some aerial photos of the pyramids, from which the surface of the earth does not appear noticeably round. Still, weighing in on the controversy yesterday, PolitiFact issued a “Pants on Fire” rating for B.o.B’s claim on Twitter that “You've been tremendously deceived” by those who say that the earth is round, so we can all rest assured that we need not take the claim that the earth is flat too seriously.

Not surprisingly, however, think piece writers have come to B.o.B’s defense—not because contrarian nonsense makes for great clickbait but because the defense of the flat-earther attitude (as opposed to the actual claim that the earth is flat) isn’t contrarian at all. It taps into an idealized version of how the scientific community is supposed to work. As Lizzie Wade argues in her defense of B.o.B at the Atlantic:

B.o.B’s Twitter crusade illuminates the best qualities of outsider physics: its skepticism, its curiosity, and its fierce desire to make sense of a confusing world in a rigorous way. These same values lie at the heart of mainstream science, too. They are what make science special. They are what make science science.

Thinking of science as iconoclastic and free-thinking draws ultimately on the memory of Galileo, who, in standing up to the Church and the schoolmen, refused to accept their authority when it contradicted what he found by his own reason and senses to be true. How far that memory corresponds to the actual history is beside the point. It’s become a myth because it is such an appealing image for scientists to have of themselves—courageous and skeptical, holding evidence dear and dogma cheap.

Galileo’s famous contrarian streak has made him not just the mythic founder of scientific bravery, but has also made him, as Isaac Asimov observed, “the patron saint (poor man!) of all self-pitying cranks.” That both cranks and respectable scientists see themselves in the same way makes even the idea of scientific authority difficult to champion. As soon as an authoritative body of scientific knowledge is invoked, any challenger to that authority immediately gains a rhetorical upper hand, whether they are a rapper arguing that the earth is flat, a psychoanalyst arguing that Venus nearly collided with the earth some five thousand years ago, or, more troublingly, some crankish racist ideologue.

And yet, while such would-be Galileo-types might appear to embody skepticism, intellectual bravery, and, most importantly, a willingness to think for themselves rather than accept received opinion, most people can still tell the difference between a crank and a scientist. Though these traits are what people list when they are idly defining science in a think piece or a philosophy seminar, they are not what we look for if we have some actual reason to find someone who knows something about the natural world. If we want to build a bridge or launch a satellite, we look for someone who has a PhD. Institutions matter more than abstract criteria for defining what makes science science—or at least for what makes scientists scientists.

Does this mean that science is no better than the dusty old scholasticism that the heroes of the Scientific Revolution overthrew? Is science just another stultifying institutionalized tradition that suppresses individual initiative? The best way to respond to these rhetorical questions is just to remove the pejorative adjectives—what we call “modern science” is quite continuous with the perfectly good science done in the Middle Ages, traditions and institutions need not be stultifying, and what some may call the suppression of individual initiative might be better described as the channeling of individual effort toward fruitful avenues of research.

Tradition-bound scientists who work away at solving scientific puzzles without questioning the dominant paradigm are at least as important as the rebellious geniuses who reject all received wisdom and strike out on some new path. These two types of scientist—the closed-minded dogmatist and the open-minded iconoclast are at the two poles of what Thomas Kuhn described as the “essential tension” in science. Though Kuhn is often remembered as an advocate of the kind of scientific revolutions he described in his famous Structure of Scientific Revolutions, his more original discovery was arguably the importance of tradition in science.

For Kuhn—but not for scientists’ favorite philosopher, Karl Popper—scientists usually do not and in fact should not challenge or attempt to falsify the big theories of their day. Scientists need big, well-accepted theories to make sense of the world so that they can carry on with the small-scale, puzzle-solving experiments that will lead to progress in knowledge and that will eventually culminate in big changes in the way we see the world. Science can’t make progress when everyone is constantly contesting basic assumptions. One of the reasons we see progress in the natural sciences but not in the humanities and social sciences is that in the latter fields lack widespread agreement. Such a lack of consensus leads not to progressive scientific work but to persistent conflict among different schools of thought.

Most scientists are more like paradigm-bound traditionalists than iconoclastic revolutionaries, but the kind of “puzzle solving” that characterizes what Kuhn describes as “normal science” is hardly the stuff of myth. We’re bound to look up to the brave, skeptical iconoclast more than the unassuming puzzle-solver. But we should resist the temptation to valorize scientific iconoclasm. It is not an accurate description of the scientific enterprise, and it gives cranks and frauds an air of plausibility that they don’t deserve.

But even if B.o.B isn’t really an exemplar of the scientific spirit, isn’t his idiosyncratic bit of free-thinking about the shape of the earth just a harmless error? Perhaps, though the deep skepticism about scientific knowledge exhibited by the benign absurdity of a flat earth can also contribute to more dangerous and troubling absurdities. For instance, the second verse of his flat earth song contains some disturbing anti-Semitic tropes, including a reference to Holocaust denier David Irving. Holocaust denial is wrong not only as a matter of history, but also morally, so even those who have loose standards for judging truth have reasons not to believe the repellent conspiracies theories of Holocaust deniers. But those who are inclined to see authoritative knowledge as stultifying and deceptive are that much more likely to believe in conspiracy theories of all kinds. Not only cranks peddling pseudoscience, but demagogues peddling pseudopolitics benefit from the appeal of the skeptical, straight-talking outsider.

Scientists are not always right, and no scientific consensus is perfect. The same can be said for governments, laws, customs, and any of our other authoritative institutions. But in basically well-ordered societies we should work to reform these institutions by building on what is best in them and not by cleaning the slate and starting fresh by overturning their most basic foundations. The attitude fostered by the Galilean myth of the truth-speaking outsider gets in the way of the needed project of reform by encouraging us to think that knowledge or justice are ultimately to be pursued by the individual, detached from and standing in judgment over traditions, institutions, and communities.

Brendan P. Foht is associate editor at The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society.