by Barry Edelson
Become a Patron


The Ignorance of the Lambs


"Once you decide to believe, your faith becomes more precious than truth, more real than reality."
— Heda Margolius Kovály, Under a Cruel Star



In every planetarium, in every science museum in the world, there is a large sphere depicting the Earth. Usually there is also a replica of the entire solar system — if not a scale model, then at least some sort of graphic representation of the relative positions and respective orbits of all the planets, moons and other relatively large objects within the embrace of the sun's gravity. The popular appreciation of astronomy would be unthinkable without such exhibits. They are a source of wonder for children and a welcome curiosity for adults, who, though they may already understand the general order of things in nearby space, may nonetheless find themselves awakened anew from the humdrum trance of everyday life when confronted by the sheer vastness and complexity of the world we inhabit.

For some visitors, however, the last few hundred years of scientific discovery might as well never have happened. They look askance at the configuration of the cosmos, and nearly everything else in the realm of science, as if it were a form of sophistry. For these contrarians, the proposition that the Earth is flat is not a relic of prehistoric ignorance but a revelation that is intentionally undermined by a host of astronomers, physicists, geologists, cosmologists and other practitioners of the dark arts who, through their extraordinary wizardry, have worked in concert for centuries to keep mankind from finding out how the world really works.

The history of knowledge is thereby turned on its head: for some, the superstitions of our ancient forebears, enshrined in myth and religion, are more trustworthy sources than the findings of the scientific method, which is nothing more than a vast conspiracy designed to conceal the true nature of the universe from our eyes. It is not priests and demagogues who connive to perpetuate the ignorance the masses, but evil scientists who contrive to convince the unenlightened of their preposterous theories. Why they would bother to do this, and how they have managed to keep the entire scientific community, comprising tens of thousands of experimenters across many divergent fields of study over several centuries, in on the big secret for so long is anybody's guess.

The flat Earthers are not concerned with such subtleties. If you think you can stump them by asking seemingly obvious questions — Why is the Earth spherical in every photo ever taken from space? How do pilots manage to circumnavigate the planet? Why does the Earth cast the shadow of a sphere on the moon during an eclipse? — don't even bother. They have conjured such highly imaginative explanations of flatness that any self-respecting science fiction writer would blanch. The epicycles invented by ancient astronomers to explain the inexplicable motions of planets, before the heliocentric model of the solar system was understood, are mere child's play compared to the fantastical constructs of flat Earthers. It is even proposed that although the Earth is flat, it does not preclude the possibility that the moon and the other planets may nonetheless be spheres. Unfortunately, this is not a joke. There is no attempt, obviously, to make such speculations gibe with the laws of physics or actual astronomical observations. Once empiricism is reduced to magic, any conjurer's trick will do.

It becomes clear from researching this "topic" that many, if not most, proponents of a flat Earth are, in the phrase of our English cousins, taking the piss. Some simply find the whole idea amusing, and presumably think there is something precious about hanging a membership certificate from the Flat Earth Society on the den wall. What process of mind induces some individuals to try to stand out from the crowd is a subject for psychologists and sociologists, but most humans are sensible enough not to run in the opposite direction of the herd if it means being trampled to death. If one is not in an occupation that depends upon a genuine understanding of the shape of the Earth — aerospace engineering, for example — then claiming to believe that the Earth is flat has no real consequences, and can be shown off, much like a colorful tattoo, without damage to one's reputation in any academic or scientific community.

Among the demented fringe of humanity, however, there are a few who are intellectually and/or emotionally unable to distinguish fantasy from reality, and clearly do take this absurdity seriously. They may be small in number, but the Internet amplifies even the most absurd assertions, and in the absence of professional gatekeepers to act as the arbiters of good sense and taste, insane propositions are sometimes easily mistaken for reliable ones. Even worse, there can be real-world consequences of disavowing science as if it were a crackpot scheme — for example, if you are policy maker in a position to do something about climate change. The rapper B.o.B. gained some unwarranted attention a couple of years ago by engaging in a Twitter campaign to convince his fans of the Earth's flatness, prompting the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to respond with a semi-humorous smackdown about the blossoming anti-intellectualism of which flat-Earthism is but one tiny example.

It is a delicious coincidence that "Earther" rhymes with "birther". The defense rests.

[Tyson's argument is charming and incontrovertible. It is also deeply discouraging that it had to made at all. Watch it here in a clip from Larry Willmore's erstwhile The Nightly Show.]


We are self-evidently wired for both faith and doubt. But there seems to be no discernible pattern that can predict whether any particular fact will produce credulousness or skepticism in the individual brain. We prefer to think of ourselves as rational creatures, and that we are separated from other animals mainly by that capacity alone. All of modern political science and economics has been planted in a fertile field of human reason, with its roots in the ultra-rational soil of the Enlightenment. However, study after study has demonstrated amply that our decision-making process is less than the model of balanced deliberation that we wish to believe it is. Unconscious forces guide our every move in life, no matter how sensibly we think we are behaving. This explains how we can be totally oblivious to our own contradictory views and actions. Some of the very same people who are convinced that the Earth is flat no doubt use the GPS on their mobile phones or their cars without stopping to wonder how the system could possibly work if not for the armada of satellites that are in orbit about our spherical planet. Terrorists who live in hovels in the desert and denounce Western materialism and Western values see no contradiction in arming themselves to the teeth with high-tech weapons and communicating on digital devices that are the product of Western ingenuity and manufactured in factories by Western hands.

In a piece published posthumously in The New Yorker last month, the neurologist Oliver Sacks made a point that ought to be obvious: information and wisdom are not synonymous. The Internet has given us unprecedented access to information, but it has become abundantly clear over the last quarter-century that all of this information does not automatically make us any smarter or better prepared to deal with life. Our powers of absorption and contemplation evolved for a vastly slower world. Too much data is proving to be as great an obstacle to human progress as too little, perhaps more so. If the amount of information in the world continues to expand at an ever-increasing rate, while our powers of observation remain within the biological limits inherited from our ancestors, and the number of hours in the day are restricted by the rotation of the (spherical) Earth, then we must face the fact that ignorance is only going to grow, perhaps exponentially. If there's more and more to know every moment, but not enough time or brain power to process it meaningfully, then an individual's level of knowledge relative to the sum total of the knowledge available will get tinier and tinier. We are likely to become increasingly isolated within information bubbles, with a diminishing store of shared experience upon which to predicate the institutions of society.

A convenient and particularly awful manifestation of this trend is the measles outbreak affecting communities in various parts of the United States right now. There was a time not long ago when parents had their children vaccinated without hesitation against a range of infectious diseases. These vaccines, when first discovered, were considered miracles of modern medicine, and the doctors who made them, like Louis Pasteur and Jonas Salk, became heroes and household names. A long list of previously crippling and deadly diseases were largely banished from most of human society, among them polio, diphtheria, mumps, smallpox, tetanus, meningitis, hepatitis and pneumonia. But vaccines have become, bizarrely, victims of their own success. No one alive today in a developed country, or even in many underdeveloped countries, can remember a time when all of these fevers randomly killed vast numbers of people, mostly children. As many as one-third of all the children who ever lived died from disease before they reached adulthood. Nearly all of these diseases are now preventable, or at least controllable. And yet, a cottage industry of Internet pseudo-science has convinced many otherwise well-educated adults that vaccines cause autism, and that their children, ipso facto, ought not to be vaccinated.

Even if we set aside for a moment the actual science, and accept the proposition — only hypothetically — that a rise in the prevalence of autism may in fact be a result of the widespread use of vaccines, then we are compelled as the rational beings we claim to be to weigh the risks of one action against the consequences of the other. An enterprising epidemiologist somewhere is probably already conducting a study of measles infection among populations that have opted not to vaccinate their children against it. It's not a study that could otherwise be conducted ethically, as it is plainly wrong to withhold a medication of known efficacy. Double-blind studies using control groups are sometimes stopped in the middle for exactly that reason, when it becomes apparent that all participants would benefit from the drug under study. But parents in the anti-vaccine movement have created real-world conditions that now make such a comparison possible.

The results of such a study, however, will inevitably be met with a collective "Duh" from the rest of society. Fewer vaccines means more people get sick and die — what a surprise! The outcome is obvious because history has already done this study for us. Look around any high school cafeteria and count heads: 1, 2, 3 … 1, 2, 3 … 1, 2, 3 … and so on. If no vaccines had ever been discovered, every third child would be dead. Ones on the autism spectrum would be dead. Ones not on the spectrum would be dead. No child was ever spared from the ravages of a pandemic, be it plague or flu or pox, because of their parents' beliefs. Before vaccines and antibiotics, premature death was a fact of life. Insect-borne disease has killed more human beings over the millennia than any other cause. Sepsis from ordinary cuts, now routinely disinfected, killed countless others. We know how this story ends: with the Black Death of the 14th century; the decimation of native Americans lacking immunity from infections of European origin; the influenza pandemic of 1918 that killed more people than the barbarous world war that had just ended. Even if vaccines did cause autism, any suggestion that stopping their use would have a result other than a return to mass premature death and disability is sheer madness.

We generally deride anti-scientific contrarianism as a right-wing phenomenon, but in this instance it is largely a product of left-wing activism. Again, there is room in our brains for entirely incompatible notions. Some of the very same people who denounce certain politicians for dismissing the science of climate change have jumped aboard the anti-vaccine train without really understanding the research in either field. (When we say "understand", this does not mean analyzing the latest "findings" with a degree earned at Google University.) Unlike the flat Earth campaign, anti-vaccination is not a vanity movement devoid of consequences. It is perhaps the clearest example of how people die for lack of rational thinking.


We ought to retire the phrase "conspiracy theory". A scientific theory is a hypothesis that can be tested by experimentation. If a paleontologist presented convincing and verifiable evidence for the extinction of the dinosaurs that differed entirely from currently held theory, scientists might at first be reluctant to shed their existing views, but they would either come around or become irrelevant. Max Planck famously said that science advances one funeral at at time.

A conspiracy theory, on the other hand, is the opposite of a hypothesis because it is not subject to reasoned analysis. Calling it a theory lends it an imprimatur of intellectual weight that it does not deserve. Its proponents are prone to assert, "What makes your theory better than mine?" Like a deeply held religious conviction, unsubstantiated suppositions do not yield readily to evidence. Indeed, the more outlandish the assertion, the more resistant it is to argument.

True believers who visit the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, for instance, will never, ever be persuaded that anything but the literal interpretation of the Bible describes the origins of life on Earth. (Despite a proliferation of Christian sects, the museum supposes that there can only be one such interpretation, but that's another matter.) The word of God is not subject to revision, though there seem to be fewer strict adherents to Biblical literalism than there were several generations ago, even among self-described believers. As Tyson has often said, scientific facts are true whether we believe them or not. For example, the Earth revolved around the sun for billions of years before human beings figured it out. But the converse is also true: belief persists in contravention of scientific fact. Logic may not allow two mutually contradictory ideas both to be true; but it is abundantly clear that the human mind is not the world's most efficient logic machine.

Perhaps we should say "conspiracy fantasy" instead. If you wish to believe that the moon landings were a hoax, then you should not be permitted the dignity of calling that a theory. If you choose to believe that Hillary Clinton ran a child sex ring out of a Washington, DC pizzeria, go right ahead, but that isn't a theory of any kind. If you take at face value the frenzied hysteria in the pages of the National Enquirer, then you will get exactly the level of reliable information that you deserve — namely, none at all. Hysteria is not an opinion, or an expression of liberty.

In an earlier time, the collapse of the Enquirer's print circulation from 6 million at its peak several decades ago to barely more than 200,000 today would be cause for optimism about the general mental fitness of Americans, until one realizes, regrettably, that the supermarket tabloids have been eclipsed a million-fold by online conspiracy fantasists of every imaginable stripe. Ignorance has metastasized in digital format beyond the wildest dreams of the junk-news peddlers of old. While some consumers of such mental garbage, just like some flat Earth advocates, are in it just for a laugh, there is a constant risk that some self-described patriot with a gun will show up at that DC pizzeria to "investigate" a "theory", or will occupy a seat in Congress and declare the scientific method a con game. You never know in which crackpot's hands a crackpot idea will end up. Preying upon the ignorant is precisely the point.

A final word of inspiration in the never-ending battle against ignorance from the late Christopher Hitchens: "Anything that can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence."



March 5, 2019


Become a Patron

Go to top of page

Return to home pageSend an e-mail

All writings on this site are copyrighted by Barry Edelson. Reprinting by permission only.