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The flat Earth debate and the status of opinions in science

BySara Rigby

Jan 15, 2018

If you asked the average person on the street what shape the Earth is, they would tell you that it’s a sphere. A pedant might describe it as an ‘oblate spheroid’, and an astrophysicist may go for ‘round’, but the principle is the same: our planet is roughly spherical.

That is what is known in scientific circles as a ‘fact’, backed up by hundreds of years of evidence. It’s not up for debate.

Well, it shouldn’t be. But that doesn’t mean that certain people don’t try. There is a growing trend of belief in the idea of a flat Earth. The general idea seems to go like this: the Earth is a disc, surrounded by walls of ice; the North Pole is at the centre, and the South Pole doesn’t exist, but is in fact the entire rim; Nasa is a governmental corporation whose job is to perpetuate the myth of the round Earth.

I’m not going to present the overwhelming abundance of evidence in favour of a spherical Earth, nor will I pick holes in the arguments presented by ‘Flat Earthers’. What’s more interesting is the mindset they adopt.

Scrolling through the Twitter feed of the Flat Earth Society reveals an intriguing counterpoint: mixed in with the usual conspiracy-theorist memes asserting without evidence that we have been lied to, we find a number of posts celebrating people who can think for themselves and accept that they are wrong in the face of overwhelming evidence.

This raises an essential question: would these people truly allow their minds to be changed? Or is that only an admirable trait when the evidence disagrees with them?

These are dangerous times for science.

When Michael Gove can assert that “the people in this country have had enough of experts” instead of providing any viable evidence in his favour, and when terms like ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’ are an unquestioned part of our societal vernacular, it is clear that the pursuit of absolute truth is taking a back seat. 

This result of this phenomenon is that, often, opinion receives the status of fact.

The BBC came under fire earlier this year for interviewing climate change denier Lord Nigel Lawson in response to a segment with Al Gore about his latest film on the subject.

By giving him airtime, they allowed Lawson to make a series of factually incorrect claims unchallenged, all in the name of debate.

In fact, a 2011 BBC report found that the broadcaster “often gives undue prominence to ‘marginal opinions’”.

The pursuit of unbiased presentation of a range of viewpoints, when done carelessly, results in situations where belief in something refuted by nearly all mainstream scientists is presented as a viable alternative.

Flat Earthers are vindicated by ‘alternative facts’. They can refuse all proof and substitute their own reality. They can demand that their  ‘alternate viewpoint’ be considered.

Meanwhile, they can check the weather forecast before they use GPS to direct them to their Flat Earth Conferences, while the planet spins heedlessly under their feet.

Image: JooJoo41  via  Pixabay

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