Pulling Together


New Year on a spherical Earth

The turn of the year is a traditional time for reflection, reviewing the previous twelve months and looking forward to the next, but today I’d like to reflect on something arising from that New Year itself. It is past noon in England, which means on the far side of the world it is past midnight and the New Year there has thus already begun.

This phased turn of the year as the world turns is a direct consequence of the approximately spherical nature of the world in which we live. That same rotation produces a slight bulge at the equator which prevents the Earth being completely spherical but, for most practical purposes, it’s a near-enough approximation.

There are, of course, people who do not accept the world is a near sphere and insist it is flat. The Flat Earth Society has existed for a long time, since a time when the idea of a flat Earth was a legitimate challenge to a scientific consensus based on the simplest explanation available. There is nothing wrong with challenging established ideas; it is through such challenges errors have been debunked and human knowledge has advanced. After all, there were times when combustion was explained by a substance called phlogisten, when space was filled with ether and when first breath and then electricity were considered as the very essence of life. These beliefs were challenged and superseded by later knowledge. Fallacies need to be challenged.

However, there comes a time when the challenge has either been successful or has clearly failed. When that comes the challenge has done its job and it is time to move on. In the case of the idea of a flat Earth that time probably came in the late 1950s when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik.

Before Sputnik, the spherical Earth was evident as the simplest explanation of navigational phenomena, astronomical observation, the shortest routes between two places, and time zones. After Sputnik, Flat Earthers were faced with a mathematical challenge they could not easily explain. The calculations which put Sputnik into orbit and accounted for its behaviour once there would still have to be valid even though Sputnik was not in the orbit it appeared to be in but, according to Flat Earthers, doing something else. They would have to provide an alternative account where the same equations would explain its alternative circuit around a flat Earth. Alternatively, they would have to argue the engineers who claimed it was in orbit were deliberately lying and their calculations were bogus. The problem was that the lies would have to extend also to the radio astronomers claiming to track it, even those in the West at the height of the Cold War. That, in turn, could only happen if the Western and Soviet governments were all colluding in the deception and would call into question whether the Cold War really existed or was itself a deception foisted on the public to serve the needs of those governments or some super-national organisation controlling them.

In other words, what had been a belief the scientific consensus could be wrong now relied on the idea of a massive world-dominating conspiracy to deceive the populace for no apparent purpose other than the power of a mysterious clique whose existence was otherwise unknown. The disjunction between observed reality and the alternative theory has thus multiplied to the point where it has ceased to be logically tenable without a neo-religious belief for which there is no evidence whatsoever. Moreover, every scientist would have to collude with the deception and there must be no dissent. This stretches credulity too far for most of us.

This is how most of us judge truth from falsehood, by weighing probability on the basis of available evidence. The problem comes if the evidence is skewed in some way by those with a message they wish to promote. They can sometimes arrange for information for which evidence is weak to be repeated so much it becomes its own evidence. The tobacco industry’s infamous conspiracy to minimise and confuse the evidence for a link with lung cancer is a well-known example. Some would argue oil companies have done the same with evidence over Climate change, and still others that the pharmaceutical industry repeated the trick with any efficacy of out-of-patent medicines toward Covid.

Such conspiracies are easier to believe because the motives of those alleged to have organised them are plausible and because the number of conspirators who would know what they are doing is relatively small. Most of the medical researchers who conducted studies into causes of cancer with grants from tobacco-funded institutes would not have known how their results would be used to obscure the strong link with smoking by highlighting other causes of unrelated cancers. They simply took the funding and conducted their research. That’s a quite different scale from maintaining an obvious falsehood by pretending to conduct impossible research, which is what would be required by every astronomer, geophysicist, rocket scientist, or anyone else involved in space technology if the Earth were really flat.

The motives of Social Media companies in distorting the evidence are different again. In fact, it’s not obvious they even realise they are distorting evidence. What they do is present people with information which suits their interest. If that interest is in some whacky belief they will be offered more examples of that whacky belief, until the weight of such an apparent consensus leads them to to believe that idea is the norm. Someone with contrary beliefs will be offered more examples of that, and so conversation is replaced with a one-sided community of believers not interacting with critics and therefore not understanding the potential flaws in their position. In that sense, Social Media is actually quite antisocial, replacing the public space with many parallel private spaces. That could starve users of balanced evidence and lead them into evermore bizarre views of the world.

Governments have responded to this problem by trying to outlaw content they consider “harmful” but that, of course, can all-too-easily mean content which disagrees with the government’s view and could prevent legitimate debate, essential for exposing scandals and holding the strong to account. A better response surely, would be to insist on changes to the commercial algorithm requiring a more diverse offering to be presented to users, and encouraging people to think more fully about what they read. The real problem, perhaps, is that Social Media is basically a sycophantic tool, designed to flatter its users and to enable them to advertise themselves. Perhaps the clue is in the names of these platforms. After all, Facebook is called Facebook, not Thoughtbook. It is designed to be superficial. Maybe we need something more thoughtful, but would people use it if it existed?

There appears to be widespread concern. The question is how to address the problem without making matters even worse. We need Free Speech. We also need truth. Truth is sometimes not what people want it to be. Somehow, we need a way to reconcile all that. I still think we need to start with how we can judge what is true against objective criteria and require those making assertions to be able to justify what they claim. Otherwise, we could finish up with lies being all we are allowed to tell.

A Happy New Year to you all!

About the Author

K J Petrie has a Full Technological Certificate in Radio, TV and Electronics, an HNC in Digital Electronics and a BA(Hons) in Theological Studies.

His interests include Christian and societal unity, Diverse Diversity, and freedoms from want, from fear, of speech, and of association. He is a member of the Social Democratic Party.

The views expressed here are entirely personal and unconnected with any body to which he belongs.

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