Why We Care Whether the Earth Is Flat

Much of life is Jeopardy, not Family Feud.

Posted Mar 20, 2017

NBA players are making news by saying the earth is flat, privileging their lived experience over the pronouncements of scientists and schoolbooks. After all, they’ve learned to distrust pronouncements about black people and the police, so why should they trust the party line on the shape of the planet? Matt Moore of CBS Sports writes, “As this mindset willfully ignores and rejects evidence accepted as fact by the entire scientific community, there’s no real way of arguing against it.”

Hunh? Of course, there’s a way to argue against it, since that’s exactly what scientists had to do to convince people that the world was roughly spherical. To participate in that argument, though, one had to relinquish one’s privilege of lived experience. “It seems flat to me” is, in the culture of science, not evidence for or against the proposition that the earth is flat. Science is, as Skinner said, “a verbal community especially concerned with verbal behavior which contributes to successful action.” Scientists don’t care what you believe; scientists want to know whether, in planning a flight from California to Hawaii and then to Japan, you have to head back east to California and all the way across three continents, or whether you can just keep going west after Hawaii.

But I’m not interested in whether the world is flat. If I were, I would make a tongue-in-cheek argument that NBA basketballs are flat, because my lived experience is limited to observing NBA basketballs on television. Instead, I am interested in some fundamental principles of psychology, which like the sphericity of the earth, I had thought, were established among educated people beyond all doubt, but which I have to teach to some of my graduate students every year.

Pervading the rejection of psychology (and astronomy) fundamentals is the mistaken claim that doubting received wisdom is a form of critical thinking. Thus, Moore continues, “At least it shows a level of intellectual curiosity and contemplative thought from NBA players … that has been absent in years past. After all, when you get down to it, this is really the end result of a critical mind, a presumptive rejection of accepted truths based on their very status as having been accepted.” This is dead wrong. Thinking is critical only if it adduces evidence to reject received wisdom. Otherwise, it’s merely contentious at best and autistic at worst. How the earth looks to Shaq as he drives coast to coast is not good evidence because it doesn’t distinguish between the two models; a spherical earth of the posited size ought to look flat from the surface.

So the reason to care about this is because we want to generate ideas—statements—that lead to successful action. Turning every question about reality into a political question—or a religious, cultural, or economic question—assures that “success” will be measured by the reactions of other people and not by the geographical reality that does not depend on agreements among people. We want to know whether the earth is really getting hotter (and if there’s anything to be done about it), whether people who hate us have weapons of mass destruction, and whether there’s any way to lose weight besides counting calories. Much of life is Jeopardy, not Family Feud. We want to know the actual state of affairs, not what the survey says.

One of the cornerstone ideas in psychology applies to all scientific inquiry (because scientists are only human), and that is that lived experience is a poor guide to reality. The earth moves whether you can feel it or not, as does a car, train, or plane in which you lose your sense of motion when you close your eyes at a constant speed. More specifically, our lived experience is that we do things because we decided to, and we cherish the idea of being deciders. But the big idea in psychology is that we behave as we do for reasons we are often unaware of, that we decide to do things for reasons that can be understood as a function of situations and history, and that, in short, we are not in charge of the organism we inhabit but are, instead, subject to natural laws. These laws include gravity—NBA players cannot will themselves to remain aloft once they leave the ground, the conservation of energy—you can’t lose weight unless you burn more calories than you consume, and learning theory—behavior is a function of history and reinforcement contingencies.

So every year, I have to put myself in the shoes of Freud, Bateson, and Skinner. I have to revisit the arguments for saying that people do things for reasons other than what they claim are the reasons. To me, it’s what astronomy professors would feel if they discovered that half their graduate students thought the sun goes around the earth. But somehow in psychology, it’s perfectly acceptable to say that a criminal robbed a store because he decided to, or that the student disapproves of her brother’s drug use because her brother is a burden to her parents, or that professors correct students because they want students to feel embarrassed. The students’ lived experience is privileged over science. And if you tell them that this is not an acceptable approach to graduate school in a scientific discipline, they vote you off the island.