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Why pondering the flat earth theory isn’t so crazy
(with lots of juicy arguments by Stephen Hawking)
by Ancilla van de Leest
Last week, the Flat Earth Theory made a huge comeback and got some extra attention after rapper B.O.B called out physicist Neil Degrasse Tyson for “probably getting written one hell of a check”, from aforementioned “globalists”. Everyone agreed this flat earth thing was the most stupid thing ever.
I once read a phrase that talked about the importance of “being open to entertaining a thought without accepting it”. It’s important to mental health and creativity to keep the imagination muscle flexible! So when something such as, say, the flat earth story comes around, I see it as an amusing and worthwhile brain exercise, however silly. “I’m just a child who has never grown up” Stephen Hawkings once said. “I still ask ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions.” A challenging view from what you’ve believed as long as you can remember, is the perfect way to (re-)discover the how and why questions that would otherwise be long forgotten.
Looking at maps, wether imaginary or real, old (thus flat) or new, simply tickles my fancy. How many people are even aware of the difference between Peter’s projection map, the waterman butterfly projection, or the Peirce quincuncial? (check the list of Map Projections on wikipedia, it might blow your mind)
You would think most people in the Western world by now could argue why they believe the earth to be round. After all, it wasn’t too long ago we all just figured our home was flat, and it’s because of our common knowledge that we know it is not, right? Well…
To my shock and horror, when I jokingly asked around amongst my friends, why they assume the world to be round, only one in four had a clear cut answer. The fact that the earth is round is simply so matter of fact to us, that we’ve never had to explain it to ourselves. Most found the question in itself so ridiculous that they initially didn’t even want to think about formulating an answer.
“I guess if you start at one point on the planet, and you just keep walking straight, you will end up at the exact same spot.” The first one responded. This is completely physically impossible challenge to take on, no matter how much I’d love to. Circumstantial, your honour!
Another amusing answer I -seriously- got: “If this was one big global conspiracy, North Korea would have let us know by now!” — Now tell me, when was the last time we took anything Kim Jong-un said seriously?! In the year to come I plan to repeat my question regularly, simply for the hours of guaranteed conversational entertainment.
Conclusion: despite me gladly believing the world is round, some of the most intelligent and most educated people I know seem to have some difficulty logically explaining, why they believe this to be the case. They simply trust in the second hand knowledge that was handed down to them from their childhood on, by people they considered trustworthy.
But do we know things because other people have told us and we blindly accepted? Or do we know things because we have personally found them to be true? It became very clear to me there is a big difference between these two ways of learning. So vastly different even, I propose we invent new, separate words for these two distinct types of “learning” and “knowledge”.
“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” Thank you, Stephen Hawking. Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.” How do we keep our curiosity when we are constantly being told everything has already been explored and there’s no point, or it’s even harmful to ask questions about anything?
Go ahead, make it a fun game. Randomly ask five people why they think the world is round. It might lead to an interesting conversation about travel, planets, and possibly even to backyard physics experiments. (Or you can go ahead and watch that rerun again of Keeping up with the Kardashians, that’s perfectly fine too, ofcourse.)
It wasn’t until I found a friend who has a physics PHD that I got a detailed, and lengthy explanation which one could test for oneself, which I will spare you in this very moment. I count myself lucky to have friends with physics phd’s and lots of patience with their lesser educated friends. I know many people aren’t blessed like that. Luckily everyone with a tv set has access to brilliant scientist such as Neil deGrasse Tyson to explain it to us, lesser fortunate ones, right?
So Neil, being the professional celebrity that he now is, took to a late night show to respond to, what was now his “beef” with the rapper. What came next was baffling, to say the least. There was literally nothing admirable about the way one of the world’s most prominent educators — and that is what NDGT ought to be — responded.
NdGT started the “dialogue” by taking off his jacket, as if he was the big fat playground bully who was about to beat the much younger kid up. Let’s see this in perspective here: NDGT has probably come from a much more privileged background than rapper “Bob”. He’s enjoyed a much higher education, is much older and also much more famous.
Furthermore, Neil has the scientific facts on his side, so all he has to do is stand there and calmly share his knowledge and facts that Bob and company are probably unaware of. If anyone’s in the position to do this, for the advancement of society as a whole, it’s one of the world’s most visible scientists. But what are kids learning from NDGT’s ungraceful response to the flat earthers? It’s okay and even admirable to abrasively call people names and humiliate them.
[the flat earth theory] “It’s a symptom of a larger problem.” NDGT said. “There is a growing anti-intellectual strain in this country. It may be the beginning of the end of our informed democracy.” You got me there. Neil. You are completely right and I couldn’t agree more. The problem is, the new generation of scientists such as Dawkins and yourself are the Kings of this strain of anti-intellectualism.
He goes on to say that in a free society you can and should think whatever you want. Only to go on to say that Bob doesn’t have the right to think what he wants. What are you trying to tell us Neil, do we not live in a free society?
“When you have influence over others” Neil goes on to argue, “Being wrong becomes being harmful to the health, the wealth and the security of our citizenry.” You’re only allowed to speak out when you’re right? What happened to having an open and honest debate? Sounds a hell of a lot like you’re arguing against freedom of speech there, Neil.
You’re seriously gonna stand there and defend science with the words “Can I get an Amen”? This would be ironic if he came up with actual scientific arguments, but no.
“There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, and science, which is based on reason.” Hawking taught us. Yet now, Neil demands us to believe him for his authority, not for his reason. Choosing to publicly respond in this insulting manner, he might as well not have any arguments, it wouldn’t even make a damn difference. Neil’s manner of communicating is not uplifting or enlightening, but down putting and limiting. The basics of science should be calm rationality and clearly explained arguments. Patience to educate.
Instead, Neil’s Spiel was nothing different than that of a baptist preacher. When science is taking the road of arrogantly shouting down the less educated, it is truly no better than good old religion. Simply by lowering the conversation to the same level that non-scientific arguments are known for, science is being turned into religion 2.0.
Neil, you are put on the foreground as one of the shining examples of modern Western society. Please find the grace to respond with patience, kindness, understanding, and actual information.
People are literally asking for it and society needs it more than ever. The school systems are failing us left and right. Kids aren’t motivated to learn and discover anymore. Why would you position yourself as an abrasive polariser, when there are so many great things you could do in response to the rise of the flat earth theory? Scaring kids into censoring themselves to ask the most basic of questions by fear of ridicule, is a harsh disservice to mankind. No question should ever be too stupid to ask, for it is infinitely more idiotic to remain ignorant in fear of being shamed.
“Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” Hawkings said. Please Neil, give us discovery, not insults. Take this opportunity to educate kids and adults alike. You have the platform. You have the audience. One could start a (better) science school program like Jamie Oliver has done with his school lunch projects. Neil could start a youtube channel gracefully explaining the basics workings and physics of the round (“oblate spheroid”) earth.
So stop goofing around Neil, you’ve got work to do. We “don’t have time for a meeting of the flat earth society” President Obama has said. We also don’t have time for arrogant scientists. If you’re not willing to be humble enough to explain basic science clearly to young viewers, your place is in a lab, not on television sets across the world.
“Communicate plainly what you are trying to do in science, and who knows, you might even end up understanding it yourself.” And “In a democratic society, this means that everyone needs to have a basic understanding of science to make informed decisions about the future.” Thank you for your patience with us, Mister Hawking. We will not accomplish this with arrogance and ridicule, but rather with arguments.
And as for B.O.B.? When “Bob” could be rapping about violence and strip clubs, he’s actually proposing to question everything around him, despite expected ridicule of all. And in the process of doing that, he might actually learn a lot. Meanwhile other rappers, who might know just as little about physics as he does, limit themselves to discussing their own essential elements; money, bitches and bling.