Why does flat Earth belief still exist?

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From Ars Technica:

https://arstechnica.com/science/2018/11/why-does-flat-earth-belief-still-exist/

There's no shortage of strange beliefs out there, and not all of them involve having a firm grip on reality. But it's truly bizarre to see one from the latter camp have a sudden surge in popularity and attention millennia after we knew it was wrong. But when it comes to the idea that the Earth is flat, centuries of accumulating evidence don't make much of a difference—its adherents have centuries of history of ignoring it, along with at least one not-nearly-as-famous-as-it-should-be instance of threatening a prominent scientist along the way.
 

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  • #2
russ_watters
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Crackpot beliefs and conspiracy theories differ only in details and degree, and though we might think some are worse than others, all of the major ones contain blatantly obvious flaws. It's pretty shocking how many people believe crackpot things and how otherwise normal such people actually are. Compartmentalized self-delusion appears to me to be a feature of humans, not a bug.
 
  • #3
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By some accounts, it is the Bible that asserts the Earth is flat. The Bible, however, doesn't say all the play takes place in 'our' dimension, so to speak, hence it is not necessarely the same Earth. We have all sorts of physics defying phenomena in science fiction, why should this be regarded any differently?
 
  • #4
HAYAO
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Well in Genesis, it says "four corners of the Earth" so it could be a flat square, but it could also be a tetrahedron, right?
 
  • #5
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Compartmentalized self-delusion appears to me to be a feature of humans, not a bug.
Sometimes I too think so. Kind of survival trait for a community at cultural evolution level to have a variety of solutions/beliefs at hand, so there will be a man for every stupid idea. Then the winner (or, at least: the one which is less at wrong) will get more followers => the community evolves.

Kind of like when neural networks mixed up with genetic algorithms.

And, to be honest I can't see much negative impacts, consequences for flat earth believers. But they have a pretty strong, close-kit community.
 
  • #6
HAYAO
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By some accounts, it is the Bible that asserts the Earth is flat. The Bible, however, doesn't say all the play takes place in 'our' dimension, so to speak, hence it is not necessarely the same Earth. We have all sorts of physics defying phenomena in science fiction, why should this be regarded any differently?
In honesty, with all due respect, I really don't like the analogy you have used here. Science fiction is science fiction for a reason. A bible is not science fiction, or at least that is what most people would want to believe.
 
  • #7
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Given the theory of a "hologrammatic" universe, they could well be right.

:smile:
 
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  • #9
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As with every conspiracy theory, it attracts many people with paranoid personality traits who feel safer by believing in an outcast theory, rather than in the mainstream view. That way, in their view, they aren't being 'fooled' and 'manipulated' like the rest of us are.
 
  • #10
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This kind of thinking often crops up in watercooler talks at work where we sense something going on and then people begin to speculate until a common theory is developed. Invariably though, the components of the theory is correct but the conclusion is wildly wrong.

As an example, there's a manager named Joe attending a high level meeting as seen on his calendar and rumors of an executive retiring and so the speculation is that Joe will be promoted to that executive position when in fact Joe is simply standing in for his boss on a confidential matter and the executive who was thought to be leaving is actually getting promoted and is not retiring.
 
  • #11
pinball1970
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Well in Genesis, it says "four corners of the Earth" so it could be a flat square, but it could also be a tetrahedron, right?
Yes we also get a 6 day Creation, geocentric universe, the moon is a “light,” bats are birds…
Those claims took a long time to unravel and counter with scientific evidence much to the distress of the various religions.
To be fair to the Bible (which actually describes the earths shape as “Flattened out like a seal” Job 38:14) ancient cultures had no reason to suspect the earth was anything but flat, far less a spinning ball. It was only when mariners noticed masts from ships appearing first from a distance in the sea that something was amiss.
Perhaps the weird shapes on the moon too during its cycle?
 
  • #13
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Given the theory of a "hologrammatic" universe, they could well be right.:smile:
It still brings quite a headache to call a - let's say - 10 dimensional boundary 'flat', so I would prefer you ask them (I mean, the flat-earth believers) firs if they are OK with this interpretation o_O
 
  • #14
jbriggs444
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  • #15
Borg
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What a phenomenal paper!
Thanks. Is it wrong that it also fits with some of my preconceived notions? :oldwink:
 
  • #16
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Folks let’s try not to mention or disparage religions or their books of faith here in this thread.

They were developed in a time before scientific techniques became widely available to everyone and were written to assuage peoples grief in times of despair, to give them hope for the future and provide a direction on how to get there.

Much of our civilization today however flawed is a result of the profound influence of these books and religious beliefs. We must not discount or forget that fact even if we no longer believe in their teachings.

It is also true that sometimes these writings describe actual physical events where the words of the time were inadequate to describe. In one narrative by Pliny the Younger in describing the eruption of Vesuvius, he described a plume going high into the air. For a long time, most scientists believed his writing was nonsense or was embellished since all volcanoes that they knew of flowed lava. However things changed as the science of volcanology began to mature.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plinian_eruption
 
  • #17
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It's when you go all "Crazy Eddie" (https://everything2.com/title/Crazy+Eddie) and push such nonsense too far that things go wrong.
Yeah, I remember those Crazy Eddie ads they were hilarious but there was never a store nearby to actually visit.


and the real story behind it as a scam:

 
  • #18
jbriggs444
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Yeah, I remember those Crazy Eddie ads they were hilarious but there was never a store nearby to actually visit.
I was going for the "Crazy Eddie" from Niven's novel: "The Mote in God's Eye". It is a more obscure reference, but very much more on point.

My recollection (it has been decades since I read it) is that Niven paints a picture of a powerful conflict between We Must Avoid Disaster and We Cannot Avoid Disaster By Any Possible Means. The Crazy Eddie syndrome is when someone envisions a loophole in the Cannot Avoid Disaster and gets people to try to exploit it. The results tend to be bad.
 
  • #19
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Yes, I read the article you referenced and immediately wondered if the real Crazy Eddie was somehow the influence for the Niven book or just no connection and of course skipped the real intent of the post. Oops.
 
  • #20
fresh_42
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I think it is a necessary consequence of our curiosity. We all know that when we read a proof of some statement, the attitude along the way is always: "I do not believe this. Convince me!" It is a necessity in every single step in order to come to the conclusion: "Yes, it's right." at the end. We use this all the time, from correction reading to learning, and often even while consuming popular science or even politics. It's the most important part of a scientific character.

Now, having Gauß' bell curve in mind, there will be necessarily people who skip the "Convince me!" part. There are several reasons for that, most of all convenience, since this is the hard part. And we know from millions of instances throughout the species, that the willingness to change opinion is a rare good. It's probably us at the margins of the bell curve, and the majority those who cannot be convinced in its center.

And Russ is right when he says
Crackpot beliefs and conspiracy theories differ only in details and degree ...
It's within the range of convenience. I had to think about of one of our standard complaints, when people come around with some absurdity: "You must think outside the box!" which in principle contains the accusation "Mainstream science is the death of innovation!"

Of course, it is not. People miss an enormous gap here: To call growing a pumpkin from a rose nonsense is not the same as calling the breed of a new rose from other roses nonsense. Whereas it is pretty obvious in this botanic example, it's far less obvious - to them - in science. Again the range of convenience.

In this sense, I believe that crackpottery and conspiracy theories are the statistical price we have to pay for the necessary property of skepticism otherwise. I only wished people could see this pumpkin when they come around with an idea.
 
  • #21
ZapperZ
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I hate to bring in psychology into all this, because I'm no expert in it. However, I have read several studies that consistently showed that people who have strong beliefs in something (be it religion, politics, mysticism, etc...etc...) will tend to: (i) stick with their beliefs, in spite of empirical evidence against them and/or (ii) pick and choose expert opinions that are aligned with such beliefs, even if the overwhelming expert consensus is the opposite.

Example: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1549444

So this goes deeper than just people believing that the earth is flat. Rather, it is a symptom of a broader issue with many in the public of not wanting to accept, for lack of a better phrase, that the emperor has no clothes, despite the evidence. It is why this type of silliness persists.

Unfortunately, as we have seen many times throughout the history of human civilization, the tail end of the Gaussian distribution sometime gets power, or becomes loud, that it starts to influence and affect the rest of the distribution. This is where things can go wrong very quickly.

Zz.
 
  • #22
TeethWhitener
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However, I have read several studies that consistently showed that people who have strong beliefs in something (be it religion, politics, mysticism, etc...etc...) will tend to: (i) stick with their beliefs, in spite of empirical evidence against them and/or (ii) pick and choose expert opinions that are aligned with such beliefs, even if the overwhelming expert consensus is the opposite.
It happens in science, too. From Feynman's "cargo cult science" lecture:
Feynman said:
We have learned a lot from experience about how to handle some of the ways we fool ourselves. One example: Millikan measured the charge on an electron by an experiment with falling oil drops and got an answer which we now know not to be quite right. It’s a little bit off, because he had the incorrect value for the viscosity of air. It’s interesting to look at the history of measurements of the charge of the electron, after Millikan. If you plot them as a function of time, you find that one is a little bigger than Millikan’s, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, until finally they settle down to a number which is higher.


Why didn’t they discover that the new number was higher right away? It’s a thing that scientists are ashamed of—this history—because it’s apparent that people did things like this: When they got a number that was too high above Millikan’s, they thought something must be wrong—and they would look for and find a reason why something might be wrong. When they got a number closer to Millikan’s value they didn’t look so hard. And so they eliminated the numbers that were too far off, and did other things like that. We’ve learned those tricks nowadays, and now we don’t have that kind of a disease.
On a personal note, Feynman's a little more optimistic than I am that scientists no longer fall into this trap.
 
  • #23
ZapperZ
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It happens in science, too. From Feynman's "cargo cult science" lecture:

On a personal note, Feynman's a little more optimistic than I am that scientists no longer fall into this trap.
While that may look similar, I do not consider them to be the same. The main and obvious difference here is that scientists DO change their minds, and scientific paradigms DO make dramatic change, once clear and convincing empirical evidence is available. I will quote the late Dan Koshland on this:

The trouble is that journals can easily become too conservative, because editors find it easier to reject the unusual than to take a chance on the unthinkable.
.....

The existence of multiple journals provides the final safeguard against too much conservatism and is the ultimate reason that science is more receptive to non-conformity than any other segment of our society.
D.E. Koshland, Jr., Nature v.432, p.447 (2004)

We see many examples of that just within the 20th century, where science had to completely change our fundamental world view based on new ideas and discoveries. Such seismic change seldom, or never happen, in beliefs that are based on faith, for example.

Zz.
 
  • #24
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There's a related issue here in that journals like to publish positive results and not so much negative ones so the journals act as a kind of filter discarding some info in favor of others. One personal case in point was my niece's paper which had negative results which refuted other papers published by earlier grad students. Her paper won't be published while the others may be retracted.

Often strange things happen which cause people to believe some old-fashioned notion because they don't have all the facts. This often occurs in ghost stories where its easier to believe in a ghostly presence rather than some infrasound source affecting the environment.
 
  • #25
ZapperZ
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There's a related issue here in that journals like to publish positive results and not so much negative ones so the journals act as a kind of filter discarding some info in favor of others.
I'm not convinced that this is true. If the negative results are useful in discarding the phase space for something to occur, that itself is valuable info. After all, Fermilab's Tevatron, while it was in operation in looking for the Higgs, published papers reporting energy range that they didn't find the Higgs. As recently as this past couple of weeks, we have papers published negative results in the search for an electron electric dipole moment. The same can be said in looking for supersymmetric particles, looking for violation of SR's postulates, etc.... etc. One can even go back even further to the granddaddy of all negative results, the Morley-Michelson experiment.

Negative results are frequently published!

Zz.
 

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