Review: Flat Earth - The History of an Infamous Idea - Christine Garwood

Mick West

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The idea of a Flat Earth is firmly at the far end of the conspiracy spectrum. It's an extreme conspiracy theory because the belief requires that you accept that the entire space program is a fake, designed to cover up hundreds of years of an even deeper scientific conspiracy to hoodwink people into thinking the earth is round (for no good reason). On the Flat Earth GPS does not work by satellites, but from radio towers, flights between Australia and South America are fake, the sun sets via a bizarre interpretation of "perspective", and Antartica does not exist.

To the person first looking into this theory it can be difficult to believe that the proponents actually take themselves seriously. And indeed many of them do not. Many Flat Earth popularizers are simply doing it for fun, or to make a philosophical point about people's over-reliance on the authority of science. But there are are also people who take it very seriously. Mostly they do so for religious reasons - feeling that a literal reading of the Bible (or sometimes the Koran) indicates the Earth is flat.

So what's a debunker to do? Religious beliefs are largely faith-based, and so not susceptible to reason. But the Flat Earthers attempt to provide scientific proofs of their theory, and some even claim not to be at all religious, and to be approaching it from a purely scientific viewpoint.

To understand a subject it's very useful to understand its history, and to be effective in debunking a subject, you would do well to understand the history of debunking that subject. To that end I highly recommend the book Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea, by Christine Garwood.

The book details the history of ideas about the shape of the Earth, going back to ancient times. But the focus of the book is on the flat Earth movement that sprang up in the late 1800s. An integral part of the story is the role of skeptics and debunkers who attempted to address the issues. There were many points in the book at which I literally laughed out loud with recognition. Not only at situations repeated recently in in flat Earth debunking, but more generally at how the events surrounding the flat earth debate mirrored the debates over more modern conspiracy theories like "chemtrails".

The book opens with a prologue: The Columbus Blunder, describing the origin of the misconception that Columbus proved the Earth was round. In fact the rotundity of the Earth had been known for thousands of years, and very few people of learning doubted it at the time of Columbus' journey. The misconception came about from a colorful account of Columbus' life written by Washington Irving (author of Legend of Sleepy Hollow).

Garwood identifies the Columbus myth as being central to the modern misconception that until recent times everyone though the Earth was flat. This creates the backdrop for the first chapter Surveying the Earth, where she details the evolution of ideas about the shape of the Earth. The shift in thinking from flat to round is identified as being about 2,500 year ago, in the time of Pythogoras, then Plato and Aristotle. While interesting, this chapter is perhaps a little dry, and might put off the casual reader. It can quite safely be skimmed. The important points simply being that the shape of the Earth was discovered (and proven) many hundreds of years ago.

Subsequent chapters are more interesting, as they are arranged more like character portraits. Mini-biographies of the key figures in the flat Earth movements. Often overlapping, they detail the struggles of professed believers - some genuine, some joking, some possibly charlatans. Interwoven are the stories of those opposed to the spread of the false idea.

Chapter two, A Public Sensation, tells the story of Samuel Rowbotham, and opens with:

THE MODERN PUBLIC REVIVAL of the flat-earth idea was the brainchild of a travelling lecturer and quack doctor known by the pseudonym ‘Parallax’. Born in Stockport in 1816 and christened Samuel Birley Rowbotham, by the late 1830s he was managing a radical socialist commune, allied to Welsh cotton manufacturer and social reformer Robert Owen (1771– 1858), set deep in the Cambridgeshire fens. Here, in a vast, flat landscape criss-crossed by a network of watercourses and dykes, Parallax undertook various experiments to discover the shape of the earth centred on one simple question: what was the shape of the surface of water? Parallax deduced that if the earth was truly a globe, water must have a degree of convexity and this was the point he investigated with a series of experiments on a six-mile stretch of the Old Bedford Canal. During the winter when the canal was frozen, he had apparently lain flat on the ice with a good telescope and spotted skaters at Welney, six miles away, while in the summer he claimed to have seen village folk running in and out of the water, and even those who were swimming. He also made observations on boats sailing along the canal with similar results, or so he said, leading to a conclusion that the canal and the earth were flat.

Garwood, Christine (2008-08-05). Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea (pp. 36-37). St. Martin's Press. Kindle Edition.
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Here we are introduced to the idea of "zetetic" thinking, a concept that is key to understanding the mindset of the flat Earth believer, both old and new. Pure zeteticism is essentially a form a scientific skepticism where ideas are believed only if you can personally verify them. It is perhaps the ultimate form of "do your own research" where not only do you have to research the evidence for an idea, but you also have to research the very foundation of science itself.

The zetetic mindset has a surprising amount in common with the scientific skeptical mindset. The primary difference being that the scientific skeptic builds upon the solid foundation of established science, while still being open to that science being proven wrong. The scientific skeptic focusses on extraordinary claims that are at odds with established science. The zetetic, on the other hand, treats all claims as extraordinary - often relying more on a sense of personal incredulity to identify things to be suspicious about. The sun does not seem to be 93 million miles away, so for a zetetic it probably is not. Earth does not feel like it is spinning round at 1000 miles per hour, so for a zetetic it seems more likely that it is stationary. It looks flat, so it probably is flat.

The chapter details Rowbotham's attempts to popularize the flat Earth theory via a series of writings and public lectures. Somewhat at odds with zetetic philosophy he also argued from the evidence of the Bible (which he simply accepted as a universal truth). But religion was not the only motivating factor for early flat-earthers, as Garwood describes in her picture of one of Rowbotham's early converts, William Carpenter:

After spending an hour and a half listening to Parallax’s talk at Greenwich, Carpenter said he had never doubted that the earth was flat. He recognized that his belief was ‘not popular and keeps a man back in the world’ but maintained that he ‘cared nothing’ for that. As a mesmerist and spiritualist, he had already been involved in alternative forms of science and belief, and had an established interest in experimenting with physical and metaphysical reality and challenging orthodox ideas. Although he was not motivated by a particular desire to defend the Bible, the do-it-yourself zetetic philosophy and its explicit challenge to scientific authority held an intoxicating appeal. With its egalitarian emphasis on Baconian fact-finding and practical experimentation, the call to ‘find out for yourself’, zetetic astronomy embodied one attraction of the alternative sciences alongside an appeal to scriptural truth. Despite its foundation on an erroneous ‘fact’, Parallax’s two-pronged assault on science was beginning to reap rewards, for it appears that Carpenter was attracted by the anti-elitist overtones of his zetetic campaign. He decided that he would do what he could to assist Parallax.

(pp. 52-53)
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The quote "find out for yourself" was the first thing in the book to make me chuckle, for it so closely resembled the modern refrain "do your own research". More chuckles were to follow.

In 1864 an analog version of the internet existed in pen and ink. Communication was much slower. E-mail was real mail, and discussion forums were either real-life meetings or the letter pages of newspapers. The exploits of "Parallax" were often covered by local newspapers, and the letters that followed bare a striking similarity to the comments sections of more modern times.


[in 1864] the paper’s correspondence pages were crammed with letters from irate citizens of Plymouth, many of whom were disgusted by zetetic exploits in their town. Among those most appalled were amateur astronomers and local seamen, who wrote in droves complaining about Parallax’s ‘foolish assertions’ and his attempts to mislead the public about the most fundamental scientific facts. Keen to make amends, they offered a series of proofs for rotundity, from circumnavigation to the curved shadow of the earth during an eclipse of the moon. One sailor, from a naval and nautical school, even felt it necessary to add that during twenty years of voyaging he had never seen the ice barrier that was supposed to surround the disc-shaped earth, and Parallax’s claims to have observed boats at great distances on rivers and seas were impossible unless his eye had been elevated far above water level. Amateur astronomer James Willis agreed, declaring that as Parallax had posted himself as a teacher, he should be willing to replicate his experiments openly for all to see. This drew a response from Parallax who declared, on 6 October, that he was ready, willing and able to ‘do battle, inch by inch’ with his Newtonian opponents ‘and upon their own ground’.
(p. 55)
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The amateur debunkers emerge! And with such similarity to the modern flat earth debunker. Many of the arguments you would read today in a flat earth forum were first made 150 years in letter form. Including laments about the state of the education system:

It was a pity, the correspondent continued, that Parallax had not been set upon disproving the multiplication table, rather than the shape and motions of the earth, because everyone would be in a position to make their own judgement, which was patently not so in the present case. It was a sad reflection on the education system, but those who were ignorant of science ‘may just as well try to decide a dispute between two Frenchmen’ as make sense of the conflicting arguments of Parallax and a Newtonian. Personally, he concluded, he would take a sailor’s calculations over Parallax’s trickery on any day of the week.
(p. 56)
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And the tactics used by Rowbotham also seem to ring a bell:

One correspondent, ‘Theta’, from Devonport’s famous dockyard, wrote that Parallax had been careful to use the time allotted to present his ‘facts’ in a wholesale style, reserving proofs for the short discussion and only if challenged directly. Even then, Theta continued, many found his arguments difficult to disprove without doubt, because it appeared that Parallax had an answer for every refutation. When asked why the pendulum vibrated faster towards the Poles, a well-known proof of the earth’s rotation, he said that in the case of the North Pole this was due to the expansion and contraction of the pendulum
caused by a difference in temperature; tides, meanwhile, were apparently the result of the disc-shaped earth shifting on the primordial waters rather than the effect of gravity, and when asked to account for the curved shadow of the earth cast during a lunar eclipse, Parallax had retorted simply, What proof was there that it was the shadow of the earth at all?’ It was a disgrace, Theta declared, that in the nineteenth century a man should have the audacity to stand up before an intelligent audience and contradict the established axioms of nature’s laws and call the nation’s most renowned men of science impostors. Even worse, he complained, when Parallax had hit a snag in his flimsy defence, rather than admit defeat, which would have been the gentlemanly thing to do, he simply snatched up his hat and stalked out of the venue, leaving his questioners fuming.

Garwood, Christine (2008-08-05). Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea (p. 57). St. Martin's Press. Kindle Edition.
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A series of pat answers, and then when he finally hits an objection he cannot answer he simply leaves. Many of us have experienced similar things with chemtrail believers.

The term "conspiracy theorist" was unknown back then, and not really applicable in the time before the space program required a deep conspiracy as explanation. In the late 1800s the term "paradox" was used for an unusual idea that contradicted known science, and "paradoxer" would somewhat be the equivalent of "conspiracy theorist". Debunking at the time might have been called "de-paradoxing", and we have some 19th century debunkers in those that addressed the paradoxers.

... the professor of mathematics at University College London, Augustus de Morgan, delighted in the blunders of so-called ‘unhappy enthusiasts’. A lover of puns and puzzles, he coined the term ‘paradoxer’ in the 1850s to describe proponents of strange ideas that ‘deviated from general opinion, either in subject-matter, method or conclusion’. A vague definition, which if used literally would apply as much to Copernicus as to Parallax, de Morgan’s term took hold and he became well known for his wrangles with paradoxers in public and in private correspondence.

According to astronomy writer Richard Proctor, however, de Morgan ‘bore the shower of abuse’ from flat-earthers with ‘exceeding patience and good nature’, and plundered their publications for amusing articles for the Athenaeum and his posthumous bestseller, A Budget of Paradoxes (1872). De Morgan’s work was well received and magazine editors quickly followed suit with similar stories, keen to win readers with entertaining material in the booming and competitive popular-science market.

Following de Morgan’s lead, new columns, ‘corners’ and ‘braces’ of paradoxes, appeared in publications from cheap mass-circulation papers to the more highbrow journals.

Besides humour value, editors and writers had other motives in covering ‘alternative’ subjects. Some, such as Richard Proctor, saw confuting paradoxes as a useful exercise for those learning basic astronomy, pointing out that ‘nonsense-mongers’ could act as ‘foolometers’ for the better informed. He realized, however, that proponents of strange theories could prove a danger to scientific dabblers and general readers, and placed the blame for their success on the authors of badly written books. All it took, Proctor complained, was a half-understood explanation or a carelessly worded account, and the potential ‘paradoxer’ was formulating a novel theory on any given subject. Driven by over-confidence, once the paradoxer had devised his theory it seemed to take complete possession of his mind, leading him to use any available fact with the least bearing on the topic to fit his theory.

Unfortunately for astronomers, ideas about the solar system seemed to possess an inherent appeal. One reason for this, Proctor believed, was that paradoxers had an over-developed sense of their own importance, matched with a tendency to think big.

Garwood, Christine (2008-08-05). Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea (pp. 70-71). St. Martin's Press. Kindle Edition.
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In the same chapter as the slick flat-earth salesman Rowbotham we are introduced to the more strident figure of John Hampden, a christian driven by his faith to promote the flat earth idea, rather less politely than Rowbotham:

It would be just as easy to believe that the earth had been ‘made by fairies’ as to accept it was a globe, Hampden contended, for he was convinced that the earth was a disc bordered by an immense barrier of ice. The North Pole lay at the centre, hell festered on its underside and the South Pole was nothing but a vicious myth, the invention of ‘half-witted, well-paid journalists and schoolmasters’. In fact, Hampden branded all efforts to circumnavigate the earth ‘fools’ errands’, while the idea that ‘ships and bedsteads, elephants and bishops’ were all speeding round the sun at a thousand miles an hour, like ‘squirrels in a cage or felons on a treadmill’, was an assertion of the ‘utmost idiocy’. As for common proofs of the earth’s rotundity and revolution, such as day, night, sunrises, sunsets, the seasons and circumnavigation, Hampden dismissed them all as the result of a special zetetic law of perspective, ‘optical delusion’, ‘eyesight and eyeglass failing’ or lies concocted by ‘expert’ astronomers.
(pp. 75-76)
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By 1870, Hampden was panicking that Britain was in the grip of a heinous conspiracy involving the press, the pulpits and the platforms of learned societies, all of whom were in league with science. He was particularly scornful of journalists, identifying them as the most enthusiastic scientific accomplices, bribed in secret to disseminate glaring fallacies about the shape of the earth.

(pp. 76-77).
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Another chuckle there, for what modern debunker has not been accused of being a "government shill", "bribed in secret"?


The characters (Rowbotham, Carpenter, and Hampden) fully established, we come to perhaps the most well known episode in flat earth history with chapter 3, The Infamous Flat Earth Wager. This details a wager proposed by Hampden in 1870:

What is to be said of the pretended philosophy of the 19th century, when not one educated man in ten thousand knows the shape of the earth on which he dwells? Why, it must be a huge sham! The undersigned is willing to deposit from £ 50 to £ 500, on reciprocal terms, and defies all the philosophers, divines and scientific professors in the United Kingdom to prove the rotundity and revolution of the world from Scripture, from reason or from fact. He will acknowledge that he has forfeited his deposit, if his opponent can exhibit, to the satisfaction of any intelligent referee, a convex railway, river, canal or lake. JOHN HAMPDEN.

(pp. 82-83)
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There are shades here again of modern theorists who offer cash for people who can prove them wrong. Generally though such modern challenges (such as the "Hiewa Challenge") are less tractable than this one, which seems like a pretty sure bet to anyone with surveying experience. And indeed one such man was Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer (with Charles Darwin) of the theory of evolution and natural selection.

Wallace was an interesting character. While a man of science, he was also convince spiritualism was real and attested to observing supernatural events (including levitation) during seances. This placed him somewhat on the outskirts of science, frowned upon by his contemporaries. His taking up of the wager did not help, with many feeling he was taking advantage of the mentally confused Hampden.

But the wager went ahead. The six mile long canal known as the Bedford Level was the location agreed upon. The first attempt involved fixing six flags at equal heights above the waterline, and then viewing them through a telescope. If the flags were in line that would show the water was flat, and if the middle flags were raised, then it was curved. Unfortunately it was not so simple:


Telescope in place, Walsh and Carpenter stepped forward to check the view. Confused, they discovered that the six markers along the canal bank were in disarray; they could not even judge which was which, let alone decide whether the line of sight along them was flat or curved. Heated debate ensued, an angry quarrel followed, and the experiment descended into farce while Hampden apparently relaxed, enjoying the scene from a nearby barge. It appeared that Wallace’s ‘simple and conclusive test’ had been a dismal failure.

(p. 101)
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So a second experiment was devised, a simpler version with taller targets that we now refer to as the "Wallace Experiment"

A large calico sheet was hung from the Old Bedford Bridge, with a thick black band painted across its centre. Then a telescope was placed six miles south on Welney Bridge at the same distance from the water as the black band. Last, between these two points, about three miles from each bridge, a long red pole topped by a marker disc was set up, designed to fall in line with the black band and the telescope. All three points were thirteen feet three inches above the water. The plan was to view the marker disc and the black band in a line through the surveyor’s telescope. If the middle marker disc appeared below the line of sight, this would be taken as proof of the flat surface of water and Hampden would receive £ 500 from Wallace, plus his original stake of £ 500. If, on the contrary, the middle marker disc appeared above the line of sight, it would be taken as proof of the earth’s curvature and Wallace would receive £ 500 from Hampden, plus the return of his original £ 500. Wallace calculated that, even allowing for atmospheric refraction, the central marker should appear at least five feet above the line of sight from the telescope at Welney to the black band on the sheet at Old Bedford Bridge.
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This was carried out, and the middle marker was observed to be several feet above the other markers, thus proving the surface to be curved. Unfortunately the "independent referee" John Carpenter had a bizarre reaction to the observation, literally jumping for joy and declaring that this proved the earth was flat.

Arguments followed, however the holder of the stakes, John Walsh, was quickly swayed to the side of Wallace, especially after discovering that Carpenter was not independent at all, and after a few weeks the fully sum of £1,000 was paid to Wallace. Hampden was apoplectic with rage.

Chapter 4, Trials and Tribulations, details the decades long aftermath of this wager. Hampden insisted that he had been cheated. He wrote many libelous letters to (and about) Wallace, and even threatened him with violence. Eventually Wallace sued him for libel, and Hampden was fined and eventual imprisoned several times. This was financially difficult for Wallace, who had little in the way of income from his work. It nearly led to ruin when six years after the fact a court decided that since Hampden had asked for his stake back before the wager was complete, then Wallace actually had to repay Hampden his £500. Wallace however continued to flirt with the flat earth idea.

Rowbotham (Parallax) continued apace, and new "debunkers" arose to challenge him. One notable being Richard Proctor:

By November 1881, the astronomy writer Richard Proctor had embarked on a new venture of his own, establishing a twopenny illustrated magazine, Knowledge, intended to cater for the needs of the general reader. With this publication, he was determined to challenge the increasing dominance of back-slapping specialists and the literary channel for their views, Norman Lockyer’s elitist Nature. Armed with a disdain for privilege and the ‘closed shop’ mentality that seemed to accompany the professionalization of science, Proctor emphasized that Knowledge would avoid the jargon laden analyses that blocked the participation of amateurs and ordinary people. In terms of ideology and format, he was harking back to the tradition of the mechanics’ magazines earlier in the century by championing the self-improving artisan over the professional expert. Notably he had much in common with Wallace in this regard. Anti-elitist, argumentative, with a deep-seated commitment to popularization, they were both self-employed authors who truckled neither to professional authority nor to the opinions of more cautious peers. Undoubtedly, such traits were crucial to their willingness to engage with paradoxers; it is somewhat ironic that while they were vilified as pillars of the establishment by the zetetics, in the diverse world of Victorian science neither Wallace nor Proctor could be taken as representative of a conventional professional elite. Despite Proctor’s professed reluctance to debate with flat-earth believers, from the first issue of Knowledge he set out to stir up Parallax and his followers with articles alluding to paradoxers and flat-earth theory alongside the occasional editorial assault. He even allowed Hampden column space in which to ‘calmly express his views’, an experiment that seemed to end in dismal failure. Nevertheless, Proctor claimed,

I am a little pleased with my new invention for silencing paradoxists. Reasoning has been tried in vain … ridicule is ineffective, and a bad example; denunciation is idle. The plan with paradoxists is to ask them to explain their views and to remove the difficulties, which are, of course, in reality fatal. They either give up in despair, like our enthusiastic earthflattener, Mr. Hampden, or flounder so absurdly in their efforts to explain their preposterous notions, that even the unlearned (for whom alone, of course, the thing is done) see at once how hopelessly at sea the paradoxists are.

(p. 147)
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I find Proctor's approach fascinating, because it closely matches my own "ask them to explain their views and to remove the difficulties" - i.e. ask them why they believe as they do (their evidence) and then find the errors in their reasoning or claims of evidence. Debunking.

The chapter wraps up the lives of the key characters. Wallace secures a government pension and lives a quiet life, somewhat regretting he ever got involved, reflecting that ‘fifteen years of continued worry, litigation, and persecution with the final loss of several pounds’ was not worth the wager, which he finally considered to be somewhat unethical, as he knew the outcome in advance.

Rowbotham continued to fight for his beliefs, and died while in the middle of a legal battle involving them. Hampden likewise continued to obsess over Wallace to the end of his days.

The three chapters relating the exploits Rowbotham, Hampden, Carpenter, and Wallace were for me the heart of the book, the foundational tale that was largely repeated with different flavors in later chapters.

Chapter five - Lady Blount and New Zetetics recounts the tale of Lady Elizabeth Anne Mould Blount, an aristocrat who took up the cause, and pursued it with considerable vigor. She published many books and pamphlets. Interestingly she, like Rowbotham, was an advocate of alternative medicine:

Never one to rest on her laurels, Lady Blount embarked on a new project while the controversy rumbled on. One of her primary concerns had always been health, both spiritual and physical, and the newspapers reported that even in her mid-fifties she could still cycle fifty miles a day. 47 In common with other leading zetetics, she was extremely inventive and attracted to alternative medicine alongside alternative science. In the early years of the twentieth century she formulated her own version of Dr Birley’s [Rowbotham's] syrup of free phosphorus, Lady Blount’s Muric Acid, which she sold as a cure for rheumatism and gout. On a more personal level, she had taken to wearing magnetic corsets, vests and gloves for the good of her health, and having experienced beneficial results, she decided to publish something as a mark of her gratitude. The subsequent pamphlet, Magnetism as a Curative Agency (1905), was a tour de force of advertising propaganda for the company Appareil Magnétique, wherein Lady Blount waxed lyrical about the positive influence of magnetic currents on her stomach ulcers and circulation.
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There is a similar modern obsession with health to be found in many conspiracy circles. Promoters of conspiracy theories like Alex Jones sell snake-oil remedies like "Survival Shield X-2" or "Super Male Vitality" - not really different in idea to Lady Blount's Muric Acid.

Chapter Six - Flat Earth Utopia - covers Wilbur Glenn Voliva, a deeply religious man who led Zion City - a planned fundamentalist christian community of 60,000 in Illinois. Voliva recited the arguments easily, and was immune to reason. After being asked a series of questions by a young Irving Wallace, he easily rattled off the answers:

Ships don’t disappear in the distance at all. You can see a ship twenty-five miles out at sea if you look through field glasses. According to scientists, the curvature of the earth for those twenty-five miles, allowing for refraction, should be three hundred and fifty-eight feet. If the earth is round, how can you see your ship over a hump of water three hundred and fifty-eight feet high? … As for that round shadow on the moon, the flat earth would still cast a round shadow. A saucer is round, isn’t it? … Of course Magellan sailed round the world and came back to where he started. He went round the flat earth exactly as a needle goes round a gramophone record. Millions of men have sailed round the world from east to west, and west to east. It can be done on a saucer, too. But do you know of anyone who has ever sailed round the world from north to south? Of course not. Those who tried fell off. That’s why so many explorers have disappeared.
(pp. 212-213).
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And had similar nonsensical explanations for gravity, still used today by people who assert things fall because of "density"

How is it that a law of gravitation can pull up a toy balloon and cannot put up a brick? I throw up this book. Why doesn’t it go on up? That book went up as far as the force behind it forced it and it fell because it was heavier than the air and that is the only reason. I cut the string of a toy balloon. It rises, gets to a certain height and then it begins to settle. I take this brick and a feather. I blow the feather. Yonder it goes. Finally, it begins to settle and comes down. The brick goes up as far as the force forces it and then it comes down because it is heavier than the air. That is all.
(pp. 205-206).
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Chapter Seven - Man on the Moon - covers Samuel Shenton, the leader of the International Flat Earth Research Society, in England in the 1950s onwards. This time was uniquely challenging for Flat Earther, as the space program was getting into full swing, and each new event - satellite launches, space walks, the Apollo missions around the moon, and finally the moon landings themselves - seemed like fatal blows to the flat earth idea. Shendon claimed to be initially disheartened, but quickly recovered and simply doubled down by claiming that they were all fake, the entire space program was fake, and the astronauts were either lying or had been brainwashed. He became a popular fellow for the press to interview after every success in space, but he continued on his path.

As before, Shenton received correspondence from critics and debunkers:

Such merciless remarks ranged from ‘My mother feels that you are a ridiculous bunch of holdouts’ to ‘I fully realize that many people have called you quacks and attention-getters’, and among this, there was pity in abundance. Many people wrote to Shenton seeking to explain aspects of astronomy, geometry and gravity, enclosing photographs of the earth from space or diagrams painstakingly constructed with compasses and set-squares to add emphasis and clarity to their well-proven points. Caring correspondents frequently wrote of how they were only attempting to be of assistance

Garwood, Christine (2008-08-05). Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea (p. 278). St. Martin's Press. Kindle Edition.
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Of course their careful diagrams did not work, Shenton continued his work until his death in 1971.

Chapter Eight, The View From the Edge, is rather different in that it details the work of Leo Ferrari with the Flat Earth Society of Canada. FESC was actually a satirical organization - part joke, and part philosophical statement on the over-reliance on science and technology. Ferrari explained in an interview with J. William Johnson:

‘You think we’re crazy, don’t you?’ Ferrari asked. ‘On the contrary,’ Johnson had replied, ‘from what I’ve just read, I get the feeling your stand on the shape of the earth is not really what you’re trying to say.’ Ferrari leaped on the point. ‘Exactly,’ he admitted. We’re not really obsessed with the shape of the earth. We say it’s flat to dramatize our desire to keep our God-given senses from being numbed by technology. To provide some resistance to the forces of conformity.’ Echoing the neo-romanticism of radical sixties science critics, Ferrari insisted that the FESC had been established to promote the idea that a scientific world-view was not the only possible perspective. Myths and mystery were dead, he continued, and human world-views required adjustment before rationality ran out of control. ‘Believe what you see!’ he declared; the point was critical thinking. Invoking G. K. Chesterton’s remark that ‘A man should always question the strongest beliefs of his age, for those convictions are invariably too strong’, Ferrari said that the FESC intended to present an annual award to those who ‘defied the dictates of popular prejudice and made an outstanding contribution to the Cause of Common Sense’.

pp. 299-300)
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This message caught the attention of astronomer Bryan Andrew:

Entitled ‘In Defence of the Flat Earth Society’, [Andrew] had tailored his piece to suit a scientific audience. ‘The first reaction of most of you on hearing of the Flat Earth Society was probably one of scorn, disdain and disbelief,’ he began. ‘Or to put it more simply “Cranks”.’ Andrew admitted that this had been his own reaction on first encountering the society through Take Thirty, and it was some ten minutes into the programme before he had begun to suspect that he was being duped. The experience made him question his own conditioned reflex, and after reading some FES literature he had seen that the society was more than ‘a bunch of loony jokers indulging in some relatively harmless fun’. Although such a judgement certainly had some relevance, he admitted, he informed his readers that there was an undercurrent of seriousness to the society’s purpose that was deserving of further consideration.

Most telling for him was the assertion that, while everyone accepted without question that the earth was a globe, not one person in twenty could have provided, before the age of Apollo, one cogent reason why this was so. Although everyday common sense told most people that the earth was flat, they continued to believe implicitly that it was a sphere – because this fact had been imparted to them repeatedly and with confidence. For Andrew, this was a critical point about the public understanding of science and the social role of expertise, and was ‘surely an appalling condemnation, not only of our own failure as scientists to explain ourselves, but of the unthinking gullibility of man’. That a fact becomes truth was not due to its demonstrability or even to its implicit veracity but to repetition, lazy-minded acceptance and the authority with which it was told. Andrew noted that it was an uncomfortable fact of life that ‘if you say something often enough and assertively enough, eventually what you say will be believed without question’. In a world where increasing specialization created communication difficulties and the appearance of authority could outweigh the substance of an argument, Andrew argued that the public were at risk:

In an age of overwhelming technological and sociological change … experts, self-anointed or CBC-appointed, continue to offer us facile answers to complex questions. We are told that all we need is universal love, the abolition of the motor car, health food, communes, moustaches … We are told that all we need are price and wage controls, no strikes, law and order, everybody working, and short hair. 50

For Andrew what people truly required was the ability to think for themselves, and by pinning their campaign on an eye-catching, heretical idea the FES was successfully drawing attention to this crucial point.

(pp. 300-301)
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I suspect many people who currently argue for a flat Earth do so for similar reasons. But it's very hard to tell.

Chapter Nine - The Californian Connection - tells the tale of Charles Johnson, a flat Earth promoter who was not joking. In fact he essentially inherited the International Flat Earth Research Society from Samuel Shenton, setting it up again in California as the IFERSA ('A' for America). The IFERSA had over 200 members, and is somewhat reminiscent of a type of "alternative" Facebook discussion group which provides a safe place for beleivers, but bans dissenting opinion:


Moreover, Johnson claimed that it was not merely a hardcore of fee-paying members who supported his cause: he had thousands of unregistered followers who concealed their beliefs to avoid animosity in their daily lives. For people of this type, Johnson was happy to provide confidential membership, a safe haven and a spiritual sanctuary in the IFERSA, and his recruitment flyer welcomed individuals of ‘goodwill who seek the truth [,] also known as the Facts’. Meanwhile ‘stupid, mindless, brute beasts with two feet whose only aim is to scoff’ were deemed ineligible for membership and every applicant was required to sign a statement agreeing never to defame the group.

Although research suggests that Johnson had many serious members, some inquisitive non-believers also negotiated the selection procedure and chief among them was Robert Schadewald, a science writer who assisted in making the society known to a broad audience with a series of fair-minded
fair-minded articles. Entirely frank about his globularist stance, he was careful to adopt an ethical and factual approach in his dealings with Johnson in his numerous publications about the society. Yet even this led to dispute. Much to his amusement, Schadewald was expelled from the group on the grounds of his ‘spherical tendencies’ and on another occasion received a letter from Johnson’s attorney forbidding him to publish anything pertaining to the IFERSA.

(pp. 327-328)
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Schadewald became an expert on the Flat Earth belief, wrote often about them, and worked on a book on the subject. A perfectionist, he unfortunately did not finish the book, but it was finished posthumously, and can be read online. It is very similar in structure to Garwood's book.

In the epilogue - Myths and Meaning, Garwood reflects on the Flat Earth movement. Easily dismissed and ridiculed, instead Garwood argues we should learn from it because it makes valid points about how we know what is true, and what the role of science is in that knowledge.

While the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ were more enlightened than is commonly supposed, conventional wisdom about modern-day believers is similarly limited; they are a minority so much maligned and little understood that their very existence has been the subject of some dispute. Yet contrary to popular perception, a tiny minority of people still believe the earth to be flat and simple stereotypes or invocations of insanity will not do. With Christianity playing such a critical role alongside the complexities of human psychology, flat-earth belief is deserving of notice beyond shallow ridicule and jokes. The zetetic campaigners certainly possessed a rationale, however misguided, for deviating from commonly held opinion in the face of seemingly incontrovertible proof. Neither grasping charlatans nor curious throwbacks, the principal public flat-earth believers were serious-minded individuals, widely read and irrevocably committed to their perception of truth. What they shared was an eccentric standard for the assessment of evidence and a willingness to launch a public campaign in support of a highly unorthodox world-view.

(p. 351)
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From personal interaction, political rhetoric and media coverage, to talk-show interviews and school textbooks, can you really believe what you see or read without investigating the subject at first hand? Do we possess adequate knowledge to trust without doubt what an apparent expert is telling us, or do we have little alternative in the majority of cases but to take them at their word? Besides the photographs from space or a schoolroom globe, how do you really know that the earth is a sphere? Could you refute complex counter-arguments effectively enough to conclusively prove your case? Has a teacher, author or journalist ever told you that medieval people believed the world to be flat, that Columbus discovered it round, that Galileo was persecuted for challenging flat-earth belief or that Darwin’s On the Origin of Species caused all-out warfare between science and religion from its publication in 1859? Writ large, the issue is how we receive and reject our knowledge and how we accept what is truth.
(p. 360).
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Strawman

Senior Member.
It appears to be out of print (at least not available in Europe). Do you know if there's a going to be a reprint or a second edition? It would be timely, for sure.
 

WeedWhacker

Senior Member
Mick, you summarized this concept very clearly. As someone who has actually flown airplanes around this planet (that is NOT 'flat'), I can attest to it being an obtuse globe....

Or, without particular prose....Earth is round, an orb. NOT exact in measurements, but still a sphere. In general terms...
 
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Trailspotter

Senior Member.
Or, without particular prose....Earth is round, an orb. NOT exact in measurements, but still a sphere. In general terms...
In general terms, the Earth is shaped like a suitcase. NOT exactly oblong, it has bulging walls and is very rounded at the corners. One of its corners is known as "the Bermuda Triangle":D
 

WeedWhacker

Senior Member
I don't know how to create a full laugh....BUT that post deserves FULL LAUGHTER ..... I bow to your brilliance..
 
Beautifully put.

I've said elsewhere that in my opinion most people arguing for a flat Earth do not want to prove the Earth is flat, they want to prove they can win an argument.

I also learned what 'zetetic' is. It's an argument I've come across many times (usually in terms of space research) and it seems to me to be a self-defeating one. If I haven't been in space and therefore can not directly prove it is a globe, that doesn't automatically mean I am wrong to claim it to be so or that it consequently proves the Earth is flat. This is particularly true if you haven't been in to space yourself to prove it is flat. Even if I did go into Earth orbit, you would have to go with me to prove that I did and to confirm my observations are correct. It becomes an ever complex need for direct observation to prove that the witnesses of the witness actually witnessed the witness witnessing it!
 

Mick West

Administrator
Staff member
I also learned what 'zetetic' is.

If you go further down the zetetic path you arrive at Solipsism:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solipsism
Solipsism ( i/ˈsɒlᵻpsɪzəm/; from Latin solus, meaning "alone", and ipse, meaning "self")[1] is the philosophical idea that only one's own mind is sure to exist. As an epistemological position, solipsism holds that knowledge of anything outside one's own mind is unsure; the external world and other minds cannot be known and might not exist outside of the mind. As a metaphysical position, solipsism goes further to the conclusion that the world and other minds do not exist.
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And will quite likely revisit The Matrix:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Matrix
Once one accepts The Matrix as a generated reality of malicious machines invention then this is Descartes' First Meditation, or evil demon, a hypothesis that the perceived world might be a comprehensive illusion created to deceive us. The same premise can be found in Hilary Putnam's brain in a vat scenario proposed in the 1980s. One can make a connection between the premise of The Matrix and Plato's Allegory of the Cave; once one accepts that The Matrix is an illusion, then the allegory of the cave becomes clear. The allegory is related to Plato's theory of Forms, which holds that the true essence of an object is not what we perceive with our senses, but rather its quality, and that most people perceive only the shadow of the object and are thus limited to false perception.
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Flat-Earth-Memes-118-2.jpg

It's impossible to know the above meme was done ironically or not, but it does reflect both the "awakening" moment that conspiracy theorists feel, and the messiah ("Neo") sensation that their new philosophy gives them (to varying degrees).
 

Um...

New Member
By 1870, Hampden was panicking that Britain was in the grip of a heinous conspiracy involving the press, the pulpits and the platforms of learned societies, all of whom were in league with science.

This is what is fascinating to me, that this idea has not changed, really. It's the "mainstream media", the government and educators all trying to deceive the common person with science.
 

NoParty

Senior Member.
For what it's worth...Mick's excellent OP got me interested enough to consider adding
Harwood's book to my collection (of books bought with the best of intentions...but...then...uh...) :p

But so many of the reviews I saw mentioned repetition and redundancy...two things
that I don't do well with...that I decided that the form would get in the way, for me...
 

deirdre

Senior Member.
For what it's worth...Mick's excellent OP got me interested enough to consider adding
Harwood's book to my collection (of books bought with the best of intentions...but...then...uh...) :p

But so many of the reviews I saw mentioned repetition and redundancy...two things
that I don't do well with...that I decided that the form would get in the way, for me...
it's 400 pages of "Flat Earth", how rivoting can it be? :)

It's nice though if she was thorough, which sounds she was, for those who want to go 'in-depth', just skip the redundant parts. It's a pretty book for the shelf.
10012031.jpg
 

Mick West

Administrator
Staff member
it's 400 pages of "Flat Earth", how rivoting can it be?

For me it was riveting in parts, but especially chapters 2 & 3 dealing with the Rowbotham and Paradox. I did read it all - or at least the 362 pages - as there's a LOT of notes, appendices, references, etc at the end.
 

Greylandra

Active Member
Love the overview Mick! Very insightful stuff there ^. The only quam I have is your inserted opinion "(for no good reason)"...Just for a moment think on what would happen, Nearly over night, if somehow it was, today, a proven fact the earth was not round. Can be flat or concave dosent matter...How much of the world (especially the west) would suddenly conclude (again): I am at the center of the universe. Something or someone must have created this, and me. There must be some reason and purpose to my being here. Likely my purpose is not to continue on in some materialistic rat race. Why was this withheld from me?...


See the size and scope of the conspiracy with this in mind? Heh... just who was it trying to square the circle again? Wonder what that was all about. Lol
 

Spectrar Ghost

Senior Member.
The Catholic Church has stated that the Earth moves, based soon their own research. They do not believe the universe to be geocentric. If The flat vs. round debate were a matter of faith, as you portray it, wouldn't they be at the front of the line decrying this conspiracy?
 

Mick West

Administrator
Staff member
Love the overview Mick! Very insightful stuff there ^. The only quam I have is your inserted opinion "(for no good reason)"...Just for a moment think on what would happen, Nearly over night, if somehow it was, today, a proven fact the earth was not round. Can be flat or concave dosent matter...How much of the world (especially the west) would suddenly conclude (again): I am at the center of the universe. Something or someone must have created this, and me. There must be some reason and purpose to my being here. Likely my purpose is not to continue on in some materialistic rat race. Why was this withheld from me?...


See the size and scope of the conspiracy with this in mind? Heh... just who was it trying to square the circle again? Wonder what that was all about. Lol

It's rather a moot point, as the Earth is demonstrably NOT flat.
 

mscottveach

New Member
The most fascinating thing about this summary was seeing how little this debate has changed in a hundred years. I can't decide if that's encouraging or depressing. One thing I keep reading in this forum is the speculation that many of the FE'ers don't genuinely believe the claim. This was most certainly the case in the 70s/80s when the FE movement was primarily represented by the FES. As Mick West pointed out, they've all but admitted that their primarily a philosophical society interested in the art of the defending the indefensible.

I don't think that's the case so much anymore. I've spent countless hours in debates with FE'ers and with but a few exceptions they've all seemed incredibly sincere in their beliefs. I have this fear that the power of the internet to provide community and support for marginalized groups has given them newfound confidence.

To me, the question comes down to: is it possible to demonstrate the truth in a way that they will find compelling? Certainly the OP would imply not. If so little progress has been in a hundred years - a hundred years that included the damn space program, mind you - then the problem may very well be intractable.

I think one thing is certain: if it is possible to persuade significant numbers of FE'ers, it's not going to happen via conventional means. Some kind of paradigm shift w/r to the way these people are approached would, I believe, be necessary. It's a question that I find interesting to think about. Is it humanly possible? Would a trip to space do it?

My father was a shuttle astronaut and from time to time, I'll trot that out in the debate in an attempt to force them to realize that NASA is not some monolithic group of lizard-people. I find there are three reactions to this: 1) they call me a liar, 2) they call him a liar and a freemason and well, you know, they go in or 3) they pity him for being gaslit by NASA into believing he actually went to space.

It's three that really stuns me. It makes me wonder if they would claim that their own trip to space was merely some kind of high-end drug-induced VR/AR experience.

And if that's true... if a trip to space can't convince them.. the surely that means nothing can?

Anyway, this got way rambly, my bad.

PS. It's worth remembering that some of the FE'ers - Dubai comes to mind - make a bit of an income off the hobby. It's not hard to imagine that this provides plenty of incentive to calcify in the belief.
 

Hama Neggs

Senior Member.
In the end, the most ardent conspiracy believer will invoke the existence of some sort of "magic" to justify their beliefs. Always. There is no argument which can dissuade them at that point. None.
 

Mick West

Administrator
Staff member
To me, the question comes down to: is it possible to demonstrate the truth in a way that they will find compelling?

When politely discussing conspiracy theories, sometimes the only sign you get that your argument worked is that the person fell silent. With FE I've seen that happen most with people discussing why mountains or tall buildings sink below the horizon, and generally when they claim they will test this for them selves with a mega-zoom camera like the Nikon P900.

I think demonstrations like this are very compelling. While you can concoct elaborate light bending schemes to explain it, it's simply so consistent with a curved surface that you'd basically have to think you are living in the Matrix for FE to be the best explanation for why there's 3/4 of this mountain missing.





(Losinji in Croatia, Original thread: https://www.metabunk.org/calculatin...in-a-p900-photo-when-distance-is-known.t8146/ )
 
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daktari

New Member
For Andrew what people truly required was the ability to think for themselves, and by pinning their campaign on an eye-catching, heretical idea the FES was successfully drawing attention to this crucial point.
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The difficulty with this is that "thinking for yourself" is a second-hand idea, passed along without critical examination. It is in that sense self-contradicting. "Thinking for ourselves" is almost never how we arrive at knowledge. Rather, we form a unstated internal theory about how how knowledge is tested, and what sources we can trust. Meta-analysis and authority are what we invariably use. Trying to "think-through" even a tiny fraction of human knowledge would be impossible, on a time scale. and quite beyond the capabilities of ordinary people.

We all take for granted that blood circulates, the heart is a central pump, etc. Who 'thinks for himself' about this? Nobody. If they tried, would they have William Harvey's capabilities? No. "Thinking" about it would be a complete waste of time, and without training in physiology and anatomy, just a mess of confusion and error. We know that it's so because we've been told that it's so by people that we trust, and if we know anything at all about how the world works we know that if it weren't so, we'd have heard about it from an expert source.

Authority isn't always correct. Most of us were taught that airplanes develop lift because of the shape of the wing, Bernoulli, lower air pressure over the longer air path, etc. Not completely untrue, but not a very complete or meaningful explanation. So do we "think for ourselves" to come up with a more complete answer? No, we just go looking for one, and when we find one that strikes us as more convincing, we adopt it. We have learned to recognize what true expertise sounds like, and when someone who works for Boeing says "Air packets don't actually meet up again at the trailing edge of the wing - the 'speeding up over the convex surface' theory just isn't correct" we believe him not because his little diagram is any sort of proof in itself, but because we know that this is someone who actually knows, not a popularizer who's relaying what he understood of an explanation a bit too complex to keep the average reader interested. So what has happened there isn't stand-alone 'thinking' but rather just an improved basis for trust. We switch authorities from a grade 7 teacher to a professor of aerodynamics. And we sniff around a little to see if anyone equally smart and trained seems to disagree.

"Thinking for yourself" in this view is really just a license to accept soi-disant authority. When a flat-earther "thinks for himself" he is actually just accepting the spurious rationalizations of someone who feeds his idea - also second-hand and unexamined - that "everything we were taught is a lie." This is not so different from what any of us does, about anything. What's different is only that the flat earther has a much narrower understanding of the world. He believes that scientists just sit around and make up nonsense, because he doesn't know any scientists and has very little idea of what science is, how it's practiced, how it's tested. So the most obvious 'debunking' of moon-landing conspiracy theory - that it just wouldn't work, you couldn't get away with it, the inter-meshing of money and planning and technique, the aleatory or contingent nature of reality, the psychology of vast conspiracy, all 'refute' the conspiracy - this isn't self-evident to him.

The flat-earther accepts low-quality ideas, information, and authority under the guise of "doing his own research" and "thinking for himself". Rather than celebrating this muddled notion, it should point us to greater caution in how we understand the sources and nature of our own ideas.
 
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deirdre

Senior Member.
When a flat-earther "thinks for himself" he is actually just accepting the spurious rationalizations of someone who feeds his idea - also second-hand and unexamined - that "everything we were taught is a lie."
well in fairness, someone had to originally make up the idea that there is no gravity and we are living in a dome ( I wonder if they have dome window washers?) that is flying through space at 1g. Although, I'm not completely sure that meets the definition of 'thinking' if it is not backed with any provable facts what-so-ever.
 

Mick West

Administrator
Staff member
The flat-earther accepts low-quality ideas, information, and authority under the guise of "doing his own research" and "thinking for himself". Rather than celebrating this muddled notion, it should point us to greater caution in how we understand the sources and nature of our own ideas.

One thing I do when engaging with Flat Earthers is to encourage them to actually "do your own research" by performing simple physical experiments with measurable results. In part I do this as a way of verifying the consistency of conventional science (for example you can verify that the elevation of Polaris is the same as your latitude as seen in Google Earth).

Of course with the true believer there's little hope of any kind of sudden realization that they were wrong. The Flat Earth theory is near the far end of the conspiracy spectrum and requires considerably mental strength to stay there. But like any theory there are those who have only recently been introduced to it, or who have not thought much about it. Those people, especially the young people, might be helped.
 

daktari

New Member
One thing I do when engaging with Flat Earthers is to encourage them to actually "do your own research" by performing simple physical experiments with measurable results. In part I do this as a way of verifying the consistency of conventional science (for example you can verify that the elevation of Polaris is the same as your latitude as seen in Google Earth).

Of course with the true believer there's little hope of any kind of sudden realization that they were wrong. The Flat Earth theory is near the far end of the conspiracy spectrum and requires considerably mental strength to stay there. But like any theory there are those who have only recently been introduced to it, or who have not thought much about it. Those people, especially the young people, might be helped.
We see though, what happens with any of this 'research': it is used to support what the investigator has decided in advance is true. Flat earthers settle on the idea of "seeing the curvature" because that is a vague and error-prone method of measurement. Nothing is changed or advanced one iota by the many simple demonstrations available to define the shape of the planet, or indeed the very existence of gravity. The flat earther dismisses them and says "It has been proven a million times that if you just zoom in the whole ship reappears". Or "You can't measure the curvature: it is flat". If you say "Go and do it yourself" he won't. If he does he will make such hash of it that the results will be completely meaningless. And then he will say "I did the experiment and proved it was flat but you just refuse to accept it because you are indoctrinated by NASA".

That is what what happened with the Lake Balaton Laser Comedy, as you know all too well. It wasn't really an experiment in the ordinary sense, so much as boys with toys mocking up the external appearances of an experiment. They came away feeling that they had done meaningful research because their whole idea of science and experimental design is inadequate.

But in fairness, the infamous "Genius" (aka 'Steven Hawkins') experiment was hardly any better. It's just that it agreed better with what we know to be actually true from more sensible methods of inquiry. But the people involved in that would say "We proved it ourselves!" with as much satisfaction, and as little actual justification, as the Lake Balaton team.

And this is the danger, if you will, inherent in the idea that we 'think for ourselves' or 'do our own research'. That's not how we acquire and verify knowledge except in special cases, but people tend to unthinkingly accept it as a rational and virtuous idea. When they are confronted with the fact that they haven't in fact thought about much of anything, they may be surprised and dismayed and feel that the ground has fallen away beneath them. Whereas in fact we actually 'know' almost nothing in rigorous, first-principles terms and should look instead to why we trust what we are told, rather than the root substance of it.

Or something along those lines.
 

Hama Neggs

Senior Member.
And this is the danger, if you will, inherent in the idea that we 'think for ourselves' or 'do our own research'. That's not how we acquire and verify knowledge except in special cases, but people tend to unthinkingly accept it as a rational and virtuous idea.

I experienced this way back with Nancy Lieder and the "planet X" debacle(which still sees her soldiering on, by the way). She would tell people to "look for yourselves", but that didn't result in people actually looking for themselves. It resulted in people seeing her suggestion as confirmation that she isn't hiding anything and must be right. The few people who dared to suggest that they couldn't see what Nancy claimed they could see in the sky were scolded for not looking carefully enough or, of course, being part of the conspiracy against her. :rolleyes:
 

daktari

New Member
well in fairness, someone had to originally make up the idea that there is no gravity and we are living in a dome ( I wonder if they have dome window washers?) that is flying through space at 1g. Although, I'm not completely sure that meets the definition of 'thinking' if it is not backed with any provable facts what-so-ever.
People rationalize promiscuously. It's our best skill. Birds have wings, skunks have scent glands, humans rationalize. It's a sort of thinking. It certainly happens somewhere on the cortex. Something from the "cause" pile is thrown together with something from the "effect" pile and the result is approved and sent off into the world.

"Why does the sun appear to rise and set?" "Perspective". It's very nearly random, something conscripted from the 'visual effects' pile. But it feels good enough, because the mind is just looking for a way to get from an obstacle to a conclusion it has already determined to be true.

The lovely thing about these rationalizations is that they are disposable. If they run into tough opposition they can simply be abandoned, because they're not integral to any understanding, they're just ways of bridging over narrative difficulties. "Maybe it's not a dome. That's my point: we need to vacate the NASA lies so we can spend those billions of dollars on real science. We know that the world is flat, but now we need to spend as much on finding out the truth s we've spent on NASA CGI."

I'm reminded of the old George Formby song, "When I'm Cleaning Windows" about a voyeuristic window cleaner who is happy in his work. Don't know quite how to make a joke of it in relation to the dome, but I am confident it could be done with a careful application of comedy science.
 

deirdre

Senior Member.
They came away feeling that they had done meaningful research because their whole idea of science and experimental design is inadequate.
I don't think their design was seriously flawed per se. They just made some mistakes they didn't think of before the experiment.
Some of their science understanding was flawed (like the spread of the cone over distance) but people have to start somewhere. That's how they learn.

I don't personally think they walked away thinking they had done meaningful research. They mostly speak as if they did, but that's more along the lines of humans having a need to 'save face' in front of their admirers and critics (a completely different philosophical topic).



Flat earthers settle on the idea of "seeing the curvature" because that is a vague and error-prone method of measurement
You tend to make very concrete, all encompassing statements that aren't true for every case. I doubt most flat earthers focus on the curvature because they know they can 'fake' the results.
 

Mick West

Administrator
Staff member
Nothing is changed or advanced one iota by the many simple demonstrations available to define the shape of the planet, or indeed the very existence of gravity. The flat earther dismisses them and says "It has been proven a million times that if you just zoom in the whole ship reappears". Or "You can't measure the curvature: it is flat". If you say "Go and do it yourself" he won't. If he does he will make such hash of it that the results will be completely meaningless. And then he will say "I did the experiment and proved it was flat but you just refuse to accept it because you are indoctrinated by NASA".

Again, I agree that many of them - and particularly the more vocal ones you end up arguing with - are beyond reason. But I think a lot of them have simply not been properly exposed to the actual evidence that they can verify themselves. There are things as simple as looking at the moon through some binoculars or a super-zoom camera. Back in Rowbotham's day, in the 1860s, such observation opportunities were not available. Nor did people have the double edged sword of YouTube, or the ability to take and share high resolution photos.

So back then people were told "if you just zoom in the whole ship reappears", and the debunkers said "no it doesn't, I checked" - basically debunking by assertion, like in this ~1870 example from "The Spherical Form of the Earth", page 12.
20170430-093416-1803f.jpg

Even back then the more resourceful investigator would be limited to comparing a naked eye view to one (or perhaps two) telescopes - and there would be no way of sharing the results.

Now we have cheap cameras that can video a continuous zoom and allow you to demonstrate that the hidden portion of the hull remains the same regardless of zoom. We can share high resolution photos of hull down boats that are fully zoomed in - and show that only altering the altitude of the camera makes the boat visible again.

DSCN3193-comparison.jpg

So there are great examples out there. Of course no matter what there will be people who continue to argue - but that's always going to be the case.
 
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daktari

New Member
I don't think their design was seriously flawed per se. They just made some mistakes they didn't think of before the experiment.
Some of their science understanding was flawed (like the spread of the cone over distance) but people have to start somewhere. That's how they learn.

I don't personally think they walked away thinking they had done meaningful research. They mostly speak as if they did, but that's more along the lines of humans having a need to 'save face' in front of their admirers and critics (a completely different philosophical topic).




You tend to make very concrete, all encompassing statements that aren't true for every case. I doubt most flat earthers focus on the curvature because they know they can 'fake' the results.
It is true that flat earthers use a fairly small range of arguments, which they claim as proofs. Foremost among these is the 'see the curvature' trope. It figures centrally in the book we're digressing upon because it was Rowbotham's party piece. His killer app. He traded on it for decades, and this one trick may be said to have been the cornerstone of the modern flat earth cult. It was conclusively debunked by Wallace getting on for two centuries ago, but it was clung to, fought over, revived again and again and is still trotted out as one of the main proofs that the earth is flat. It may still be the only actual 'experiment' used by flat earthers - nearly everything else is argument based on "what makes sense", or on the proposition that everything we were taught is a lie.

There may be an explanation for the popularity of 'measuring the curvature' optically, over water. It is an inherently flawed method, that can be made to give more or less any result. There are many easy and incontrovertible ways to demonstrate the general set-up of astronomical reality, and there accurate and relatively accessible ways to measure the geometry of the earth. These are ignored, but this one ancient long-refuted dearly beloved trick, of low-altitude optical complexity, is enacted or referenced again and again. And again.

I don't believe that I suggested they would fake results. I said that they select and prefer this method because it is vague and error-prone. It is vague and error prone, and that is what makes it attractive to anyone seeking to confirm what they are determined to believe.
 

Z.W. Wolf

Senior Member.
An important issue in FE belief is the concept of intuitive thought and analytical thought. I'm once again going to point to this review of Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking, Fast and Slow:
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/27/b...-and-slow-by-daniel-kahneman-book-review.html

Kahneman describes two different ways the brain forms thoughts:

System 1: Fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious.

System 2: Slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious.

These are technical terms which I'm referring to here as intuitive thought and analytical thought.

My contention has always been that FE believers are functioning, for whatever reason, largely in the intuitive mode and to seem to have great difficulty with the abstract concepts presented by basic physics, astronomy and geodesy.

Apropos of this, is this study from 1989:
https://www.ideals.illinois.edu/bit...epv01989i00468_opt.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

KNOWLEDGE ACQUISITION IN OBSERVATIONAL ASTRONOMY Stella Vosniadou University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki/Greece April 1989
Abstract

In this paper we present preliminary findings from research on knowledge acquisition in observational astronomy to demonstrate the kinds of intuitive models of astronomy children form and to show how these models influence the acquisition of science knowledge. In this study 60 children of approximate ages 6, 9, and 12 were given a questionnaire to investigate their knowledge of the size, shape and motion of the earth and the sun and the notion of gravity. The results showed that children form an intuitive understanding of the world around them according to which the earth is flat and stationary rather than a rotating sphere, things fall in a downward direction rather than toward the center of the rotating sphere, things fall in a downward direction rather than toward the center of the spherical earth, and the sun and the moon move in an up/down or east/west direction, causing the day/night cycle. Children eventually change their intuitive understanding as they are exposed to the Copernican theory of the solar system. The process of conceptual change is a slow and gradual one and one that goes through different levels of understanding.
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This 1989 study refers to "intuitive models" and "phenomenal models." This is just earlier nomenclature. Kahneman's term "System 1" hadn't been coined in 1989, but we're talking about the same basic concept:

One class of mental models is intuitive models. The defining characteristic of intuitive models is that they give an account of the observed world as it is experienced through the human perceptual/cognitive apparatus. Thus young children believe that things are perceived directly (Anderson & Smith, 1986), that matter is solid (Novick & Nussbaum, 1978), and that objects fall down (Nussbaum & Novak, 1976). As children are exposed to scientific theories they develop scientific models which frequently involve a theoretical framework which, initially, appears to deviate from the world as phenomenally experienced. Thus, children must shift from initial phenomenal models to scientific models according to which things are perceived by reflected light, objects respond to gravitational fields, and matter is composed of particles.

Although experience with astronomical phenomena is not as direct as the behavior of objects in the physical world, it is nevertheless more than enough to create strong beliefs about the size, shape, composition and movement of the earth, the sun, the moon, and the stars, and to give rise to certain kinds of explanations of natural phenomena such as the day/night cycle, the seasons, and the phases of the moon. In this research, we hypothesized that children create an intuitive model of observational astronomy which is based on the "common sense" view that the earth is flat and motionless, that gravity operates along an up/down gradient, that the sun and moon move and exchange positions during the day/night cycle, and that the earth is in the center of the universe.
Content from External Source
Intuition is largely based upon experience... without any analysis. In other words, simple association based on personal experience; or "phenomenal models." One example we run across in the FE community is the rejection of gravity as an unnecessary theory (by which they mean "conjecture") which was invented in ad hoc support for the globe Earth.

Apropos of that is this section of the 1989 study:

Gravity

Children's gravity concept was investigated by asking two key questions, both in response to a drawing that showed a figure standing upside down at the bottom part of the earth (i.e., a circle that was meant to represent the earth). In the first question, the children were asked "Can this man live here at the bottom of the earth?" The responses to this question appear in Table 7. Most of the kindergarten children and quite a few of the older children in both samples said that the man would fall. This response is consistent with the hypothesis that children start by forming a naive concept of gravity according to which things fall in a downward direction, and that people cannot live at the bottom of a spherical earth because they will fall down.
Content from External Source
That "down" and "up" are themselves fundamental properties is implicit in the FE theory of density and buoyancy: Things fall down because they are dense. They fall or rise through other media at a rate according to relative density.

But what establishes the direction that things fall? The FE concept of "down" seems to be simply an unquestioned intuitive association made by personal observation. In personal experience, things drop to the floor or ground. That's just the way things are... when only intuitive thought is engaged.

FE believers will also imply that "down" is an immutable direction when they talk about things hanging onto the bottom of a spherical earth, water always being flat because it seeks its own level, and describing northward flowing rivers as flowing "uphill". The second unquestioned assumption based on personal experience is that north equals "up" simply because globes are traditionally made to be displayed northern hemisphere up.

This gravity problem is just one of many. Another example is their problem with Newton's three laws of motion which leads to all sorts of problems, which I should save for other threads. I'm sure you all can name numerous other problems.

Intuitive thought is based in personal experience, which I think is one reason why FE believers stress personal observation over "hearsay." The "Zetetic Method."

The tension between FE believers and "Globeheads" is fundamentally this: FE believers have an absolute confidence in their intuitive mode of thought. The analytical arguments presented to them really do sound like complete nonsense. We Globeheads are equally confident that the FE arguments are nonsense and that our arguments based in analytical thought are valid.

We're confident that the FE believers simply have a blind spot to analytical thought, which is why they can't understand our arguments and make such basic mistakes. While they are equally confident that we are simply parroting nonsensical stuff. We have been indoctrinated, and can't break our programming because of pride or because we have a weak, flawed personality that isn't brave enough to ask fundamental questions and to challenge authority. (A weakness very possibly caused by poisoning by fluoridation, vaccines and chemtrails.)

An interesting example of mental relativism.
 
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Inti

Senior Member.
An important issue in FE belief is the concept of intuitive thought and analytical thought. I'm once again going to point to this review of Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking, Fast and Slow:
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/27/b...-and-slow-by-daniel-kahneman-book-review.html

Kahneman describes two different ways the brain forms thoughts:

System 1: Fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious.

System 2: Slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious....
Content from External Source
Just wanted to say that I'm profoundly impressed with your analysis.
 

deirdre

Senior Member.
Intuitive thought is based in personal experience, which I think is one reason why FE believers stress personal observation over "hearsay
just for the record, as an aficiando of intuitive thought, there are several claims put out by modern day FEers that don't make even intuitive sense.. like the horizon being eye level. ever.

But I think that instead of reanalyzing over and over again 'why' Feers do such and such, it would be more helpful to use these hypothesis to figure out better debunking methods.
For example, I agree many FEers have problems, just like the public at large, in understanding complicated abstract concepts. Pointing it out doesn't help anything. Discussion should focus more often on HOW to make abstract and/or complicated science easier to understand.
 

daktari

New Member
An important issue in FE belief is the concept of intuitive thought and analytical thought. I'm once again going to point to this review of Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking, Fast and Slow:
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/27/b...-and-slow-by-daniel-kahneman-book-review.html

Kahneman describes two different ways the brain forms thoughts:

System 1: Fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious.

System 2: Slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious.

These are technical terms which I'm referring to here as intuitive thought and analytical thought.

My contention has always been that FE believers are functioning, for whatever reason, largely in the intuitive mode and to seem to have great difficulty with the abstract concepts presented by basic physics, astronomy and geodesy.

Against that we have, for an obvious example, the rising and the setting of the sun. That the sun (and moon) 'come up' from somewhere below the visual horizon and go down again beneath it at the end of the day has been intuitively obvious to everyone for all time, broadly speaking - including those who saw the earth as a kind of stage resting on the backs of turtles, etc. It's nearly as primary as gravity in the truly 'zetetic' world. Even Samuel Rowbotham would have stipulated that the sun comes up and the sun goes down and hurries to the place of its rising, as per Ecclesiastes.

It is only the modern flat earther who is caught by the abstract knowledge that the sun is always shining somewhere, who therefore adopts the bizarre, extremely counter-intuitive view that the sun sinks away into the ocean bottom-first, same size as when overhead, due to 'perspective'. That's not at all what our senses tell us - it is an absolutely counter-zetetic narrative that contradicts both the appearance of the heavens and our experience of the intuitive mental calculation we call perspective. It is hardly anything more than the word "perspective" stuffed willy-nilly into a catastrophic void in the flat-earth pseudo-reality. It is a verbal abstraction - an analysis if you will - used to over-ride an overwhelmingly convincing 'pure' perception.

I would argue that while many flat-earthers struggle with basic physical intuitions, particularly those involving frames of reference, this is not really the defining element of flat-earth belief. Rowbotham's 'zeteticism' is used as glibly as the notion of 'perspective' - it serves as a narrative to fill a void but isn't an analytic rule.

Rather, the fundamental truth of the flat-earth philosophy is simply this: everything we have been taught is a lie. You hear this repeated over and over, in so many words or in variations. It is this conviction that makes NASA the focus of so much hatred in the flat earth fancy. NASA is of course completely irrelevant to our understanding of astronomy and geodesy, but moon-hoax theory - which is an extremely detailed abstract analysis - is a useful pre-made set of arguments that advance the principles of distrust, paranoia, and rejection that truly characterize flat earth belief.

An analysis of flat earth belief that is built solely on the idea that it's about physics, and that the flat earther is only stuck in an inadequate, primitive/intuitive model, isn't fully explanatory. It leaves out the very large element of conspiracy theory which is, I think, primary. Flat earth belief is not, in many or most cases, about the shape of the world but rather about lies, manipulation, and theft. NASA, Jews, Masons, Satan, conspire with all of the governments of the world to hide something, some birth-right, some secret, because they want to control people etc. This is not at all 'zetetic' or intuitive. It's garbage-grade political philosophy that owes more to schizophrenia than to physics.
 

Hama Neggs

Senior Member.
Rather, the fundamental truth of the flat-earth philosophy is simply this: everything we have been taught is a lie.

I arrived at the conclusion, some time ago, that various conspiracy theory believers basically believe in exactly that... CONSPIRACY, above all else. They are unable to accept information which would take away that basic belief. The reasons for that are multiple. It seems to involve a need to blame external forces for the situations of their lives and also provides a feeling of "specialness" for having discovered something others have not.
 

Rory

Senior Member.
An important issue in FE belief is the concept of intuitive thought and analytical thought. I'm once again going to point to this review of Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking, Fast and Slow:
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/27/b...-and-slow-by-daniel-kahneman-book-review.html

Kahneman describes two different ways the brain forms thoughts:

System 1: Fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious.

System 2: Slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious.

These are technical terms which I'm referring to here as intuitive thought and analytical thought.

My contention has always been that FE believers are functioning, for whatever reason, largely in the intuitive mode and to seem to have great difficulty with the abstract concepts presented by basic physics, astronomy and geodesy.

Apropos of this, is this study from 1989:
https://www.ideals.illinois.edu/bit...epv01989i00468_opt.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

KNOWLEDGE ACQUISITION IN OBSERVATIONAL ASTRONOMY Stella Vosniadou University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki/Greece April 1989
Abstract

In this paper we present preliminary findings from research on knowledge acquisition in observational astronomy to demonstrate the kinds of intuitive models of astronomy children form and to show how these models influence the acquisition of science knowledge. In this study 60 children of approximate ages 6, 9, and 12 were given a questionnaire to investigate their knowledge of the size, shape and motion of the earth and the sun and the notion of gravity. The results showed that children form an intuitive understanding of the world around them according to which the earth is flat and stationary rather than a rotating sphere, things fall in a downward direction rather than toward the center of the rotating sphere, things fall in a downward direction rather than toward the center of the spherical earth, and the sun and the moon move in an up/down or east/west direction, causing the day/night cycle. Children eventually change their intuitive understanding as they are exposed to the Copernican theory of the solar system. The process of conceptual change is a slow and gradual one and one that goes through different levels of understanding.
Content from External Source
This 1989 study refers to "intuitive models" and "phenomenal models." This is just earlier nomenclature. Kahneman's term "System 1" hadn't been coined in 1989, but we're talking about the same basic concept:

One class of mental models is intuitive models. The defining characteristic of intuitive models is that they give an account of the observed world as it is experienced through the human perceptual/cognitive apparatus. Thus young children believe that things are perceived directly (Anderson & Smith, 1986), that matter is solid (Novick & Nussbaum, 1978), and that objects fall down (Nussbaum & Novak, 1976). As children are exposed to scientific theories they develop scientific models which frequently involve a theoretical framework which, initially, appears to deviate from the world as phenomenally experienced. Thus, children must shift from initial phenomenal models to scientific models according to which things are perceived by reflected light, objects respond to gravitational fields, and matter is composed of particles.

Although experience with astronomical phenomena is not as direct as the behavior of objects in the physical world, it is nevertheless more than enough to create strong beliefs about the size, shape, composition and movement of the earth, the sun, the moon, and the stars, and to give rise to certain kinds of explanations of natural phenomena such as the day/night cycle, the seasons, and the phases of the moon. In this research, we hypothesized that children create an intuitive model of observational astronomy which is based on the "common sense" view that the earth is flat and motionless, that gravity operates along an up/down gradient, that the sun and moon move and exchange positions during the day/night cycle, and that the earth is in the center of the universe.
Content from External Source
Intuition is largely based upon experience... without any analysis. In other words, simple association based on personal experience; or "phenomenal models." One example we run across in the FE community is the rejection of gravity as an unnecessary theory (by which they mean "conjecture") which was invented in ad hoc support for the globe Earth.

Apropos of that is this section of the 1989 study:

Gravity

Children's gravity concept was investigated by asking two key questions, both in response to a drawing that showed a figure standing upside down at the bottom part of the earth (i.e., a circle that was meant to represent the earth). In the first question, the children were asked "Can this man live here at the bottom of the earth?" The responses to this question appear in Table 7. Most of the kindergarten children and quite a few of the older children in both samples said that the man would fall. This response is consistent with the hypothesis that children start by forming a naive concept of gravity according to which things fall in a downward direction, and that people cannot live at the bottom of a spherical earth because they will fall down.
Content from External Source
That "down" and "up" are themselves fundamental properties is implicit in the FE theory of density and buoyancy: Things fall down because they are dense. They fall or rise through other media at a rate according to relative density.

But what establishes the direction that things fall? The FE concept of "down" seems to be simply an unquestioned intuitive association made by personal observation. In personal experience, things drop to the floor or ground. That's just the way things are... when only intuitive thought is engaged.

FE believers will also imply that "down" is an immutable direction when they talk about things hanging onto the bottom of a spherical earth, water always being flat because it seeks its own level, and describing northward flowing rivers as flowing "uphill". The second unquestioned assumption based on personal experience is that north equals "up" simply because globes are traditionally made to be displayed northern hemisphere up.

This gravity problem is just one of many. Another example is their problem with Newton's three laws of motion which leads to all sorts of problems, which I should save for other threads. I'm sure you all can name numerous other problems.

Intuitive thought is based in personal experience, which I think is one reason why FE believers stress personal observation over "hearsay." The "Zetetic Method."

The tension between FE believers and "Globeheads" is fundamentally this: FE believers have an absolute confidence in their intuitive mode of thought. The analytical arguments presented to them really do sound like complete nonsense. We Globeheads are equally confident that the FE arguments are nonsense and that our arguments based in analytical thought are valid.

We're confident that the FE believers simply have a blind spot to analytical thought, which is why they can't understand our arguments and make such basic mistakes. While they are equally confident that we are simply parroting nonsensical stuff. We have been indoctrinated, and can't break our programming because of pride or because we have a weak, flawed personality that isn't brave enough to ask fundamental questions and to challenge authority. (A weakness very possibly caused by poisoning by fluoridation, vaccines and chemtrails.)

An interesting example of mental relativism.
Thanks for pointing to this post: terrific stuff, and so eloquently put forward.

One difference between our two view points is that: we can see where they're coming from. In the sense that we were once there, and can analytically understand why the intuitive view is 'common sense', we get it - but also understand why it's wrong.

I suppose the analytical view, therefore, though having transcended the intuitive, still includes it - much as the way the adult mind is not completely different from the child's mind, just larger than it.

You would put it much better, I'm sure. :)
 

Rory

Senior Member.
Tho, having said that, it occurs to me that flat earth reasoning may have less to do with using intuitive thought, and more to do with appealing to intuitive thought.

Belief in the flat earth often appears to be a decision, rather than an outcome arrived at through thinking. Frequently this decision is religiously or ideologically motivated, so that the thought - the rationalisation - the reasoning, such as it is - comes after the belief, rather than preceding and leading to it.

I mean, do flat earthers really feel that we should trust our senses? Or do they use this argument because it's the easiest way to support their adherence to what they think their religion teaches them, and because this is the only system of thought which includes the possibility of supporting their beliefs?

Likewise, do we not feel that they would be just as likely to appeal to and utilise analytical thought, if it supported what they wanted to be true? And, indeed, hasn't this been shown to be the case?
 
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edby

Member
This is all good stuff. The challenge is not to convert FE believers. I doubt that is possible. Rather, to understand what underlies their belief.
 

Mick West

Administrator
Staff member
This is all good stuff. The challenge is not to convert FE believers. I doubt that is possible. Rather, to understand what underlies their belief.
Well for me the challenge is to convert flat earth believers. Understanding what they actually think is quite helpful though.
 

Rory

Senior Member.
The challenge for me is to understand that the world is full of mad beliefs and there's basically nothing I can do about it other than accept and let go, recognising that seeking to change that situation is probably not the best use of my time.

And if I ever meet an actual flat earther and converse with them about it, the challenge will be to not be an ass, and maybe offer them something positive, on whatever level.

Mainly I see it as akin to a crossword puzzle: an interesting mental workout, a hobby and a diversion. It's fun. :)
 

edby

Member
It's interesting, plus there is educational value for those who are not committed Flat Earthers. The guy called 'Wolfie' makes some great YouTube vids which clearly explain the concepts involved. I doubt that he has persuaded those who will not be persuaded, but perhaps those who were not sure in the first place, or those who don't know why they are sure.

I mean, do flat earthers really feel that we should trust our senses?
The problem is that my senses, right now, tell me all that exists is a screen on a writing desk, a keyboard, and some noise coming from the TV next door. So if you trust only your senses, you can't believe in very much.
 

Rory

Senior Member.
The problem is that my senses, right now, tell me all that exists is a screen on a writing desk, a keyboard, and some noise coming from the TV next door. So if you trust only your senses, you can't believe in very much.
I also imagine there's a voice in your head, and some physical sensations. And maybe you can smell and taste something too. ;)

But I get what you mean: to a certain strain of flat earther, when their backs are against the wall, that's where the argument inevitably leads: what is reality anyway?
 
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