But there are people who really believe this still. What do you do when confronted with one?
Let’s talk about Matt, the flat-earther, just so we have a name. Matt rhymes with flat. No offense if you’re named Matt.
What you don’t do is say “ha ha Matt you’re a moron. Everyone knows that’s wrong.” If you really want to educate Matt, you need to come at it from a place of understanding and respect. A flat-earther is just the end result of our hyper-polarized society taken to its extreme. You can blame cable news, echo chambers in social media, income inequality, urbanization, religious fundamentalism – whatever. But Matt is just making a reasonable conclusion given the information he’s exposed to. Matt isn’t necessarily dumb. He’s just following his tribal instincts, and the tribe he has fallen into subscribes to the “scientists, like most coastal elites, are the enemy” camp.
If you attack these beliefs head-on, then you’re just putting yourself into the “other” tribe, and you can expect a defensive reaction as a result. We like to think humans are special, but in many ways we’re still animals driven by these sorts of instinctive urges. Protect the tribe, find food, have sex. That’s pretty much what we’re made for. And be honest, you think of Matt as part of an enemy tribe at some level yourself.
So here’s what you do:
- Demonstrate you understand Matt’s position
- Find common ground
- Explore that common ground to find the right conclusion together
Here’s what a conversation could go like:
Matt: The Earth is flat, you know. This round-Earth stuff is all a liberal conspiracy to justify wasting money on space stuff.
You: Yeah, I’ve been hearing more and more people say that on the Internet. It’s kind of interesting. What sort of evidence have you heard about it?
Matt: Well, all you have to do is go in a plane and look out the window! Looks pretty flat to me.
You: So, you’d expect to see some curvature at really high altitudes, right?
Matt: Yeah, and you just don’t! I mean WTF man.
You: You know, I’ve looked out the windows of planes before too, and wondered why the horizon doesn’t look more curved too. If you look really close you can kind of see it, I think. But that got me wondering why there’s a horizon at all.
Matt: I guess it’s just how far you can see with smog and stuff.
You: Yeah, that can totally happen. But when it’s perfectly clear, you see a very crisp horizon line in the distance, and new cities and scenery will appear over it as you travel. Makes you think, yeah?
Matt: Uh… hm. Can’t really explain that one.
You: And the higher you go, the farther away the horizon is. Here, let me grab this really conveniently-placed beach ball I have here and demonstrate how that works, without sounding condescending in the process.
Matt: Huh. But what about that guy who took a carpenter’s level on a plane and saw that it never moved as the plane flew “around” the Earth? That proves the Earth is flat!
You: I know! If the Earth were flat that’s totally what you’d expect to see.
Matt: Yeah! Get me another beer.
You: I saw that video too, and it made me think. We agree gravity exists, right?
Matt: Well duh.
You: Gravity as we understand it pulls toward the center of mass of large objects like the Earth, right?
Matt: Sure, I think my physics teacher said that once.
You: So if you have a round Earth, its center of mass is in the center of the Earth – so gravity always pulls “down”, and keeps the level straight, no matter where on Earth you are. But here’s the kicker – in a flat Earth, the center of mass is in the center of the disc or wherever. Where exactly is the edge of the Earth?
Matt: California. They’re all gonna fall off into space in the next big earthquake. Those libtard snowflakes deserve it.
You: OK, so gravity would be pulling people in California toward the center of mass of the flat Earth, which I guess would be in Africa somewhere. They’d all be falling sideways, right? In fact, that level on the plane really would change as you moved if the Earth were flat – it’s completely opposite of what you’d expect. Mind blown! Boom!
Matt: Well how do we know gravity works that way? Maybe it just pulls in the same direction no matter what.
You: Hm. I have to admit that would explain it.
Matt: Yeah! Get me another beer.
You: But gravity also explains things like how the planets move really well. I mean, if you watch the sky over time, you can see the planets move differently from the stars because they’re orbiting the solar system’s center of mass in the sun. Hang on while I get my conveniently placed telescope; oh look, it happens to be a crystal-clear, dark night. OK, take a look at that star just over that tree. Remember where it was.
You: OK, have a look at Jupiter here. Damn, right?
Matt: That sure is purty!
You: You can even see the great red spot!
Matt: Oh yeah! Nice. I know you’re gonna say “look Jupiter is round” – but maybe it’s just a flat circle facing us! How would we know?
You: Hold that thought. Hey look, that star we looked at earlier has moved higher in the sky.
Matt: Yeah it did. Well maybe the stars just spin around us. That seems like the simplest explanation. What do you people call that? Occam’s razor or something?
You: Yeah, but it just doesn’t explain why planets like Jupiter move differently. The Earth would have to be center of everything for that to work. But if the Earth were round and spinning, that’s also a pretty simple explanation for why the stars move in the sky at night. Here, look at Jupiter again.
Matt: Yup, it’s still purty.
You: In the half hour that has somehow elapsed since we last looked at it, you can see its spot has moved a little. That’s because Jupiter spins pretty fast, once every 9 and a half hours.
Matt: Maybe it’s just moving across a flat disc.
You: But when it falls off the “edge”, it’ll come back at the other edge 4 hours later. Every. Time.
Matt: Hm. OK, maybe Jupiter is round. Still doesn’t prove Earth is.
You: And what about all those photos taken of the Earth from space?
Matt: Yeah, well we all know the moon landing didn’t happen, so those photos are fake.
You: We’ll get into that one later. But it’s not just the moon landing – you can look at pictures from the ISS and clearly see the curvature, pictures from satellites we launched – I mean, it would have to be a pretty huge conspiracy if they were hiding that the Earth is flat. You just have to get high enough (not that kind of high) to see it, since the Earth is really really big.
Matt: Ah fine. Maybe you’re right. Get me another beer.
You: It’s on me! Oh look, the International Space Station, which is orbiting the round Earth, just passed overhead. If that’s a conspiracy, it’s a pretty elaborate one. What were you saying about Occam’s Razor?
Matt: You can stop now.
Now in reality, Matt would probably have tried to change the subject quite early on in this conversation in order to avoid cognitive dissonance. People don’t like having their worldviews challenged – and this is quite literally a world view! But if I can imagine a successful conversion of a flat-Earther, I think it would go something like that. Many of them actually have an open mind; the fact that they’re willing to accept a theory like “the Earth is flat” demonstrates they have the skepticism and ability to embrace new ideas that make a good scientist. It’s just a matter of using those qualities in the right way.
(Image licensed from iStock.com/Mike Kiev)