Vanity thought #1649. Flat Earth Society

Mayesvara Prabhu presents many compelling arguments from scripture for flat Earth rather than a globe but there’s, of course, the infamous Flat Earth Society that does the same based on our sensory perception rather than the authority of śāstra. Personally, I find this Flat Earth Society a very curious phenomena deserving special consideration.

There are actually two of them now (this and this), one being a splinter group, I understand. Which one is the the original? Impossible to tell by simply looking at their sites and this is what fascinates me. Let me explain.

Google gives plenty of results on the topic, some sites argue for Flat Earth while others conclusively debunk it. You can read both pro- and anti- arguments, there are experiments, there are historical references, there are theories, explanations, there are complex physics and mathematical formulas involved – they got everything. At the end, though, I simply feel overwhelmed and don’t know who to believe because these pro- and anti-groups never talk to each other and never address counterarguments.

They have probably done so in the early days of Flat Earth movement, which was between five and ten years ago, give or take. By now they probably realize that they can’t cohabit the same internet space so they stay out of each other’s way and behave as if their opponents don’t exist. They do address some popular arguments against their position but they state these counterarguments themselves rather than quote them from the opposition sites.

This approach solves their troll problem – they just don’t interact with their opponents and if they ever do so they do not engage in proper discussion but quickly downgrade the discourse to internet basement level where they don’t have to be rational or logical, just rude, loud, and dismissive.

The result is that their readers are being preached to and they are never exposed to opposing views or allowed to entertain them seriously, nor do they encourage people to construct a complete model in their brains where all kinds of views fit together perfectly. That’s why they don’t explain the relation between two Flat Earth societies, though wikipedia does that.

They realize that they get more followers by simply pushing their line and that they’d lose followers or undermine their faith if they engage with the opposition in any way. This is true for both sides – even “scientists” cannot allow certain pro-Flat Earth arguments on their sites.

Another remarkable feature of Flat Earth theory is that it’s like the Flying Spaghetti Monster – no one takes it seriously but it’s fun to push the boundaries and see what you can get away with. Pro-Flat Earth arguments are intellectually stimulating, they challenge our most fundamental assumptions and they rebel against the authority – there are plenty of people who’d like that regardless of the content. Flat Earth provides its followers with something scientific authorities can’t by definition – rebellion against the authority itself. Whatever science says, Flat Earth can turn it around and argue the opposite. It’s a bit childish but there’s a demand for that kind of thing and Flat Earth fills it for science just as Flying Spaghetti Monster does it for anti-religion.

A lot of Flat Earth arguments are plain nonsense but that is not a problem – they have to appeal to the audience, not to auditing. In that sense they are like magic tricks – you know it can’t be true but just can’t figure out why exactly. There are plenty of people who’d give up and go along and those are the ones Flat Earth can call “satisfied customers”. I suppose there are some hard liners among them, too, and they not only accept FE arguments but enthusiastically preach them to others and valiantly defend them, too. They are probably examples of how some people can be truly fooled and completely convinced of outright nonsense.

The outcome is that whatever level of scientific understanding you are at there are always some FE arguments that can really challenge you. As I said – it’s intellectually stimulating if done the right way. If you find one silly “proof” and conclude that Flat Earth theory is nonsense you’d deprive yourself of tons of fun. The way some other arguments seem to be incontrovertible is uncanny, too. The further you go down that road the less faith you’d have in science, which is an interesting outcome in itself.

Let me give an example – they often confuse “level” with “horizontal”. I’ve read an account of one railway engineer who said they never account for Earth curvature when laying down railways and designing locomotives. A train travelling from south to north of Britain along curved Earth surface would have to go up an incline of three miles, which would end in the middle point of a journey, and then roll down a decline for the rest of the trip. This never happens, no one plans for it, every engineer knows that accounting for curvature is nonsense, and that is proof that the Earth is flat.

In this case the line between the start and the end of the journey is not horizontal but it’s always level because “level” here means equidistant from Earth’s center. “Incline” here would be not going up above the horizontal line but increasing the distance from the center of the Earth globe.

For the same reasons airplanes never plan for Earth curvature, too, though in many cases airplanes actually do. The closest route on a flat map is a straight line but on the surface of a globe there aren’t straight lines, they are all curved, and because Earth isn’t a perfect globe some routes are less curved than others – when going over polar regions, for example, and so airplanes would spend less fuel by flying over less curved areas of the Earth. The route from one point on the equator to the opposite on the other side of the Earth would be shorter if one flies above the North or South pole rather than along the equator itself while on a perfect globe going into any direction would be equal.

I guess Flat Earthers would give an explanation for airplanes clearly flying shorter distances and using less fuel in these cases, something about thinner air in polar regions or navigational instruments designed to measure distances over Earth globe rather than actual miles, and that’s the beauty of this theory – if you never give up you can always think of something to say in return. If you follow this imaginary conversation you will eventually reach the point where you just don’t know enough science to continue and so there’s 50/50 chance that the last comprehensible argument would be for Flat Earth. It’s not a bad ratio when preaching.

There are more interesting examples there but I’ll leave them for another day.

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