Flat Earthers: Belief, Skepticism, and Denialism
When people reject facts, what do they really believe?
Posted Feb 19, 2017
“You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it's going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it's always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.”
― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Cleveland Cavaliers basketball star Kyrie Irving has apparently joined the dubious celebrity ranks of former The View host Sherri Shepherd, rapper B.o.B., and reality TV personality Tila Tequila by coming out in public to declare that the world is flat.
In a recent podcast leading up to the 2017 NBA All-Star Weekend, Irving said:
“For what I’ve known for many years and what I’ve been taught is that the Earth is round, but if you really think about it from a landscape of the way we travel, the way we move and the fact that — can you really think of us rotating around the sun, and all planets align, rotating in specific dates, being perpendicular with what’s going on with these planets and stuff like this.”
With this quotation, Deadspin magazine ran the headline, “Kyrie Irving Really, Actually, Earnestly Believes The Earth Is Flat.”
But does Irving, who spent his freshman year at Duke University before leaving for professional basketball, really, actually, and earnestly believe the earth is flat? Does anyone?
While it’s often said that human beings believed that the Earth was flat through the Middle Ages until Christopher Columbus set us straight in 1492, a more historically accurate account tells us that civilization had abandoned flat Earth theories at least a century before that. Educated people have therefore accepted that the world is round for more than half a millennium, with modern claims to the contrary only developing as an organizational creed when Samuel Shenton founded the International Flat Earth Research Society in 1956. Despite NASA astronauts returning with photographs of the Earth taken from the moon in 1969, the membership of the International Flat Earth Research Society peaked to 3500 members in the 1990s and now, with like-minded individuals finding each other on the internet, a number of different online “Flat Earth Societies” have gained modest followings. Armed as we are with common sense, a little bit of scientific knowledge, and the ability to fly around the Earth in an airplane and to view images taken from satellites and the International Space Station, how is this possible? How can people really believe that the Earth isn’t round?
To understand Flat Earthers, and other people who hold unconventional beliefs, we need to first consider what it means to “believe.” A belief is a cognitive representation of the nature of reality, encompassing our inner experiences, the world around us, and the world beyond. In 1965, Oxford philosophy professor H.H. Price distinguished between “believing in” and “believing that.”1 As summarized by John Byrne, author of the website Skeptical Medicine, “believing that” something is true is a relatively straightforward matter of looking at the evidence. “Seeing is believing” is one kind of “believing that.” In contrast, we “believe in” something when there’s no evidence and the belief isn’t falsifiable. Religious faith is a kind of “believing in.” Both types of believing are normal cognitive capacities, but can run amok when conflated, resulting in beliefs that are poor models of reality.
Just so, Flat Earthers often talk about planetary geometry in terms of “belief in” rather than “belief that,” as if the evidence for a spherical Earth is lacking. But that claim isn’t really so much about believing. It's denialism.
When Kyrie Irving was challenged about his flat earth beliefs, he replied:
“Is the world flat or round? — I think you need to do research on it. It’s right in front of our faces. I’m telling you it’s right in front of our faces. They lie to us… Everything that was put in front of me, I had to be like, ‘Oh, this is all a facade.’ Like, this is all something that they ultimately want me to believe in… Question things, but even if an answer doesn’t come back, you’re perfectly fine with that, because you were never living in that particular truth. There’s a falseness in stories and things that people want you to believe and ultimately what they throw in front of us.”
With those words, Irving seems to be defending a denialist position that has the potential to give way to a slippery slope of rejecting all facts. According to that extreme version of denialism, nothing can be trusted, not even scientific evidence. Or maybe, as the physician and writer Atul Gawande wrote last year, it’s not so much about mistrust of science, as it is about mistrusting scientists:
“Today, we have multiple factions putting themselves forward as what Gauchat describes as their own cultural domains, “generating their own knowledge base that is often in conflict with the cultural authority of the scientific community.” Some are religious groups (challenging evolution, for instance). Some are industry groups (as with climate skepticism). Others tilt more to the left (such as those that reject the medical establishment). As varied as these groups are, they are all alike in one way. They all harbor sacred beliefs that they do not consider open to question.
To defend those beliefs, few dismiss the authority of science. They dismiss the authority of the scientific community. People don’t argue back by claiming divine authority anymore. They argue back by claiming to have the truer scientific authority. It can make matters incredibly confusing.”
Sure enough, in a follow-up interview in which a reporter asked Irving if he’d seen photographs of the Earth from space, he replied, “I’ve seen a lot of things that my educational system said was real, but turned out to be completely fake.”
That kind of conspiratorial mistrust of established dogma was mirrored in a Paste magazine interview last year with John Davis, President of the American Flat Earth Society. When asked why he believed the world to be flat, Davis instead explained how he’d arrived at that belief:
“One day while walking in the woods as a young man I had a notable experience that lead me to question everything I’ve taken for granted as true over the years; all those things we simply accept without properly examining their logical and rational basis and foundations. One could say like many today that up to this point I was standing on the shoulders of giants, but I had a deaf ear to both what they had to say about the matter as well as what assumptions they had to take to lead them to their position. This led me to a lengthy study into various ways we view the world, both orthodox and unorthodox, and their rational consequences and foundations. During this period of study and examination I came to some literature from the Flat Earth Society.
Something about it just resonated with me—not only on a personal level, but also on a strictly logical level.
On another level, it seemed to me that some of the method used by this supposedly ridiculous group was far closer to the method of the aforementioned giants than what we see today from science as a whole. I remember thinking, ‘These are people who truly value knowledge, and they do so at a real cost—social stigma.’”
This account suggests that Flat Earthers often see themselves as approaching questions about reality like scientists do, from a philosophical perspective of skepticism. But while superficially related, scientific skepticism and denialism aren’t the same thing at all.2 The former teaches that evidence is worthy of belief when an observation is repeated under properly controlled conditions, while the latter teaches that evidence, no matter how reproducible, can always be rejected out of hand as a matter of principle (for more on the distinction, check out Michael Shermer's Living in Denial: When a Sceptic Isn't a Sceptic and Steven Novella's Skepticism and Denial).
When B.o.B. and Tila Tequila defended their flat earth beliefs, both fell back on the claim that the Earth can’t be round because it appears flat on the horizon. While this position could be dismissed as mere ignorance grounded in the natural but error-prone tendency of the brain to treat perception as reality, the simultaneous rejection of the mountain of objective evidence to the contrary may further reflect a modern democratization of opinion, with personal belief placed on a equal footing with expertise. That kind of narcissism emboldened B.o.B. to feel qualified to debate physicist Neil Degrasse Tyson and for many others seems to be an increasingly adopted epistemology in today's “post-truth” world.
So, does Kyrie Irving really, actually, and earnestly believe that if he kept going in a straight line, he would eventually run smack into the end of the Earth? I doubt it.
Instead, he seems to have chosen a provocative example of scientific consensus to argue, perhaps with tongue in cheek, that we should seek truth and question authority along the way. That’s reasonable advice, so long as we maintain a clear boundary between scientific skepticism and nihilistic denialism.
In terms of psychological and social health, we would all do well to be more flexible with our personal belief convictions, keeping an open mind to the possibility that we might be wrong. But at the same time, we would also do well to “believe in” the process of “believing that.” According to that advice, denialism holds us back, tethering us to false beliefs that are inconsistent with the facts and worthy of ridicule.
For more on Flat Earthers, see my other blog posts:
► Flat Earthers: Conspiracy Thinking on a Global Scale
► Behind the Curve: The Science Fiction of Flat Earthers
► Flat Earthers Redux: Subjective Belief, Science, and Reality
1. Price HH. Belief ‘in’ and belief ‘that.” Religious Studies 1965; 1:5-27.
2. Lewandowsky S, Mann ME, Brown NJL et al. Science and the public: Debate, denial, and skepticism. Journal of Social and Political Psychology 2016; 4:537-553.