Arguing with a Flat Earther

Vox: How to argue with flat-earthers, subtitled, “But not necessarily convince them.”

People committed to the belief that the Earth is flat (or that the universe was created 6000 years ago) will have answers to all your challenges, all your supposed evidence. Partly this is motivated reasoning — to find fault with anything doesn’t support your previous beliefs — but these arguments also illustrate the idea of ‘moving the goalposts’ — demanding higher standards for evidence than anyone would ever do in any other context of life. The writer here refers to “epistemic contextualism,” and gives an example from the sitcom Friends, “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.”

The piece makes the point that for virtually everything we “know” we’re relying on the testimony and experiences of others. There’s a deep philosophical pit here, but it’s unavoidable for getting through day to day life and at the same time having any idea about the world and universe around us. There’s also the cognitive bias that favors immediate experience — what I’ve been calling “intuitive physics” — over any evidence or demonstrate that the world works in non-intuitive ways. (For example, that heavy objects don’t fall faster than light objects.)

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.

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 judgments of medical science?

The process of learning how to judge the world around us and not succumb to intuitive physics and conspiracy theories takes some basic education to ground it — as in the quote from “Equus” in the previous post. And as echoed in the Richard Feynman lectures I just read (next post).

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