Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Flat Out Crazy

It has recently come to my attention, though seemingly unrelated YouTube searches, that there is a rather large group of people trying to prove to the world, that the world is, in fact, flat.


I think.

That's the problem: I don't know how many of these people truly believe the nonsense they are spouting, how many are just trolls trying to stir things up, and how many are just trying to turn a quick buck (through ad revenues and, yes, sales of books on the subject).

The narrative is, essentially, that we only believe that we live on a globe because we've been told we live on a globe by the powers-that-be, and all the powers-that-be are lying to us. There was no moon landing, we've never taken pictures of the earth from space, there are no satellites, there is no gravity (no, I mean it, that's what they say), and no one ever flies over the South Pole.

In order to support this crazy notion, the flat-earthers resort first to conspiracy theory. Not only is NASA lying about space missions, but airlines are lying about their flight schedules, and military forces prevent anyone from setting foot on Antartica without government approval (there is a grain of truth in this; exploration is only allowed under supervision to protect its environment for research). There is a no-fly zone over Antarctica according to the Antarctic Treaty (except that there isn't any such provision in the treaty, and planes fly over the area regularly).

This conspiracy is sometimes supposed to include the Masons, the Illuminati, and satanic worshippers, depending on who you listen to. The motives for this particular conspiracy are unclear; no one seems to know what the powers-that-be have to gain by expounding a spherical model over a flat one.

Now, without this massive conspiracy, involving all the world's major governments and thousands upon thousands of private individuals, there is absolutely no way to support the notion of a flat earth. Any physical evidence a flat-earther cares to give you (which, amazingly, almost always involves amateur footage shot hand-held, or refers to century-old and long-discredited, non-repeatable experiments), can easily be refuted with basic science, or even simple geometry.

And any reference to a "flat-earth theory" is giving the idea too much credit, for there is nothing in any of these ideas that amounts to anything like scientific theory. It explains no direct observations, except in isolation and in ignorance of tested scientific theory, and it makes no predictions about how a flat earth would work that can be verified by observation and experiment.

And the flat-earth proponents fail to answer even the most basic questions about their model (except to reject "mainstream" science and point to badly-understood "laws of perspective"), which is usually, and hilariously, based on a standard azimuthal equidistant projection of the spherical earth.

Why does this worry me? I'm a little vague on that point. I mean, maybe it is just a relatively small group of nuts tossing garbage back and forth on YouTube. But I'm not so vague in my worries about the scientific literacy of the coming generation (and make no mistake: most of the flat-earthers I see on the 'Net are under 40, in other words, much too young to have witnessed Apollo 11 live on television, as I did).

If those coming up through our education system, and into our workforce, have a tenuous grasp of basic scientific principles, I think we're in big trouble. Even if these YouTubers are trolls or shills, how many people are out there, without the requisite knowledge to understand that what they're seeing is nonsense, getting the idea that anything told to them by a scientist is suspect on its face?

That's not a comforting thought.