Quantcast
Connect with us

Here is how to win an argument with a flat earther

Published

on

Thinking that the earth might be flat appears to have grown in popularity in recent years. Indeed, flat earthers are gathering for their annual conference this year in Birmingham, just two miles from my own university.

But the earth isn’t flat. Unsurprisingly, this isn’t hard to prove. But as scads of YouTube videos demonstrate, these proofs fail to convince everyone. A glance at the comments show there’s still vitriolic disagreement in some quarters.

ADVERTISEMENT

Philosophy can explain why. Consider one, standard, flat earth line: “Can you prove the world is round?” Maybe you point to the (often artificially assembled) photos of Earth from space. Or possibly you rely on the testimony of astronauts. The flat earther knocks it all back. The standard of proof is higher, they say. You haven’t been to space. You haven’t seen the round earth.

Perhaps you then start to appeal to science. But unless you’re unusual, you probably don’t know all of the details of the scientific proofs – is it something to do with ships and horizons? Or eclipses? And even if you know the details, unless you’ve indulged existing flat earth literature you are unlikely – right here, right now – to be able to cogently, concisely and comprehensively respond to the lengthy rebuttals flat earthers will give to each and every scientific proof.

You could double down. Getting knee deep in the vloggersphere, you might learn the details of the scientific proofs as well as painstakingly spelling out each error in every flat earther’s rebuttal.

I recommend against doing that. I recommend letting philosophy do the work. I recommend “epistemic contextualism”. To understand what this is, we first must understand a familiar idea: context shift. Consider the sentence “I’m tall”. Surrounded by five year olds at a rollercoaster park, the sentence is true – after all, I can get on all the rides and they can’t. But at the try-outs for the Harlem Globetrotters, my measly 5’11″ won’t cut it. So in that context, the sentence is false. Tallness is contextually sensitive. And it makes no sense to further ask whether I’m really tall or not. It only makes sense given a particular context.

ADVERTISEMENT

Epistemic contextualists say that knowledge is the same. Imagine you’re transferring £10 to your daughter. You know her bank details. You tap them in. You send the money. But now imagine you’re transferring £50,000. Doubt sets in. Do you really know her bank details? Are you sure? Sensibly, you phone her to double check. The contextualist says that in the first case, you know her bank details. In the second case, even though nothing about you has changed, the context has. And in that case, you don’t know the details.

Moving the goalposts

That said, I claim the flat earther is doing a “Phoebe”. In one episode from Friends, Phoebe and Ross argue about evolution. Ross piles on the evidence thick and fast. Finally, Phoebe loses her temper. Can he be so unbelievably arrogant, she asks, that he can’t admit the slightest chance that he might be wrong? Sheepishly, Ross agrees that there might be a chance. Suddenly, Phoebe has him – Ross’s admission destroys his worldview. He’s a palaeontologist and, having admitted he can’t be sure about evolution, how can he “face the other science guys”?

Phoebe has (humorously) shifted context. Ross’s proof starts off relying on fossils in museums, books and articles on evolutionary biology, and so on. But Phoebe moves him to a “sceptical context” in which if there’s a hint of doubt about something – any possibility that you might be wrong – then you don’t know it at all.

ADVERTISEMENT

Philosophers are well acquainted with these sceptical contexts. For instance, you could be plugged into the Matrix and, if you were, then every belief you had would be false. By bringing your attention to that, I put us in a sceptical context within which we don’t know much of anything. Most people, though, ignore this possibility – most people assume themselves not to be in a sceptical context.

It’s now easy to see how Ross can face the other science guys. He does know evolution is true in most everyday contexts. It is only in Phoebe’s weird context that Ross does not know evolution is true.

ADVERTISEMENT

Where flat earthers go wrong

Flat earthers are pulling the same trick. They’re right that you don’t know the earth is round. But they’re only right in a context where testimonies of hundreds are disregarded, where widely accepted facts among the scientific community don’t count, where photographic evidence is inadmissible, and so on.

The flat earther’s argument is framed in a context where you can’t set aside the possibility that there’s a pervading global conspiracy – albeit one which somehow intermittently leaves glaring errors which give them away. In that context, you don’t know the earth is round. But in that context, nobody knows much at all and so this conclusion is simply unsurprising.

ADVERTISEMENT

In the more everyday contexts that we care about, we can rely on testimony. We can rely on the fact that every educated physicist, cartographer and geographer never pauses to think the earth might be flat. And we are correct to rely on these things. If it was incorrect, we’d never get treated at hospitals – for in a context where we can’t trust the established laws of physics, how could we trust the judgements of medical science?

The ConversationSo do you know whether the earth is round? It turns out it depends on context. But in most regular contexts then, yes, you do. And that’s even though I doubt most people could prove it, right here and now.

By Nikk Effingham, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Birmingham

ADVERTISEMENT

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. Like you, we here at Raw Story believe in the power of progressive journalism — and we’re investing in investigative reporting as other publications give it the ax. Raw Story readers power David Cay Johnston’s DCReport, which we've expanded to keep watch in Washington. We’ve exposed billionaire tax evasion and uncovered White House efforts to poison our water. We’ve revealed financial scams that prey on veterans, and legal efforts to harm workers exploited by abusive bosses. We’ve launched a weekly podcast, “We’ve Got Issues,” focused on issues, not tweets. And unlike other news outlets, we’ve decided to make our original content free. But we need your support to do what we do.

Raw Story is independent. You won’t find mainstream media bias here. We’re not part of a conglomerate, or a project of venture capital bros. From unflinching coverage of racism, to revealing efforts to erode our rights, Raw Story will continue to expose hypocrisy and harm. Unhinged from billionaires and corporate overlords, we fight to ensure no one is forgotten.

We need your support to keep producing quality journalism and deepen our investigative reporting. Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Invest with us in the future. Make a one-time contribution to Raw Story Investigates, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click to donate by check.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. Like you, we here at Raw Story believe in the power of progressive journalism — and we’re investing in investigative reporting as other publications give it the ax. Raw Story readers power David Cay Johnston’s DCReport, which we've expanded to keep watch in Washington. We’ve exposed billionaire tax evasion and uncovered White House efforts to poison our water. We’ve revealed financial scams that prey on veterans, and efforts to harm workers exploited by abusive bosses. We’ve launched a weekly podcast, “We’ve Got Issues,” focused on issues, not tweets. Unlike other news sites, we’ve decided to make our original content free. But we need your support to do what we do.

Raw Story is independent. You won’t find mainstream media bias here. We’re not part of a conglomerate, or a project of venture capital bros. From unflinching coverage of racism, to revealing efforts to erode our rights, Raw Story will continue to expose hypocrisy and harm. Unhinged from corporate overlords, we fight to ensure no one is forgotten.

We need your support to keep producing quality journalism and deepen our investigative reporting. Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Invest with us in the future. Make a one-time contribution to Raw Story Investigates, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.



Report typos and corrections to: [email protected]. Send news tips to: [email protected].
READ COMMENTS - JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Continue Reading

Breaking Banner

Trump’s economic ‘brain trust’ ridiculed as America braces for a trade war recession: report

Published

on

President Donald Trump appears unprepared to deal with a potential recession, the Associated Press reported Friday.

"Facing a trade war against China that has shaken the global economy, President Donald Trump gathered his most trusted economic aides in the Oval Office," the AP reported. "The assembled brain trust for Friday’s urgent consultations included an economics chief best known for his stint as a cable TV commentator; a trade adviser whose pro-tariff views are outside the economic mainstream; and a treasury secretary (joining by phone on his way back from vacation) who made millions off the housing crisis and then turned to financing Hollywood movies."

Continue Reading

Breaking Banner

ICE and Homeland Security busted pushing right-wing propaganda and conspiracy theories

Published

on

Donald Trump in Oval Office

Multiple federal departments have been pushing far-right propaganda to federal employees.

"An arm of the Justice Department regularly sent summaries and links to articles from an online white nationalist publication over the last year, a BuzzFeed News investigation has found. In addition, similar newsletters sent to the Labor Department, ICE, HUD and the Department of Homeland Security, included links and content from hyperpartisan and conspiracy-oriented publishers," BuzzFeed News reported Friday.

Continue Reading
 

Breaking Banner

Trump claimed North Korea missile testing ‘would stop’ — but they just launched again: report

Published

on

The upcoming G7 summit meeting in Bairritz, France will have one more issue to grapple with after North Korea reportedly conducted missile tests.

"South Korea's military confirms that North Korea has launched a projectile this morning. From South Hamgyong Province. Japan's government reported it first," Voice of America Seoul bureau chief William Gallo Tweeted Friday.

"North Korea has now conducted nine rounds of launches since early May. But this one's notable because it comes after Trump says Kim promised "this testing would stop when the exercises end." They did end Tuesday. And yet..." he noted.

Continue Reading
 
 

Thank you for whitelisting Raw Story!

As a special thank you, from now until August 31st, we're offering you a discounted rate of $5.99/month to subscribe and get ad-free access. We're honored to have you as a reader. Thank you. :) —Elias, Membership Coordinator
LEARN MORE
close-link
close-image