Aquiles.me

202101021008

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Despite dismissing flatearthers as unscientific, I do think there are a lot of valid reflections that can be done on what they represent. Somehow we managed to build a society more educated than ever before, with access to more information than ever before, but we still see the appearance of this kind of believes, propelled by the same media used to educate.

Each one of us carries biases based on the context in which we have been raised and lived. These biases are further enhanced by the education (formal and informal) to which we have access. Scientists are not absent from these biases, which span from topics such as gender diversity in academia, all the way to their daily scientific work. Sometimes it may not feel correct to call them biases, they may be legitimate prior knowledge.

Let me illustrate with an example. Recent archaeological findings are shredding the prejudice that men were hunters and women were gatherers [@dyble2015Sex equality can explain the unique social structure of hunter-gatherer bands], contradicting all the cartoons we've seen as kids. More importantly, they also point to the fact that our understanding was built on our own prejudices. Scientists pushed their own systems of belief all the way to pre-agricultural societies. And once these structures are repeated over and over and built upon, it becomes very unlikely that someone will question them.

Probably no one will argue against the scientific genius that Newton was. In many respects he managed to change the course of science forever. His law of gravitation was wildly successful and is still in use by professional astronomers. However, there was a detail that required a closer look: the orbit of Mercury does not fit Newton's model. A more sophisticated theory was needed to explain it. Relativity came along and the rest is contemporary history.

However, the important point is the discrepancy between the theory, in this case Newton' s model, and the observations. This is where scientific progress can be quickly made. And this is where flat-earthers got it somehow right. If we see our surroundings, right now, we will probably not experience any curvature. This observation contradicts what we are taught, and therefore we must seek further explanations.

I do think that questioning our previous knowledge is a very valuable activity. However, we must be consequent on that questioning. If I do think Earth can't be spherical, I must think of ways of proving or disproving it. I may learn from what other's have done, such as Eratosthenes thousands of years ago or European cartographers from the XVII to the XX century. This is where pseudo science and science diverge. The first stays in the questioning, and seeks questions as the end themselves. Scientists seek interesting questions to answer, and their job is finding proof or disproof of what they propose as an answer to their question.

Considering a locally flat earth is handy and is, in practice, a daily experience for most people. In the same way astronomers consider a Newtonian universe instead of a relativist universe when dealing with small scales or slow speeds. No one will ever see a football field as a portion of the surface of a sphere. It is, by all practical means, a rectangle, with 90 degree angles in its corners and the goals are facing each other.

We are free to question the knowledge we are imposed, and it is healthy to do so. However, we must always remember that questioning something is not enough, we must seek also valid answers. This process is normally called the scientific method. And one of the most challenging tasks is to be humble to recognize that we were wrong.

Galileo tried to measure the speed of light. He sent an assistant to a hill with a lantern, and he climbed a different one with another lantern. The idea was simple. He would uncover the lantern, when the assistant sees the light, he would uncover his, and Galileo could record the time it took for the light to go back and forth between two distant places. We can imagine the situation and how it went. There could have been many possible conclusions out of this experiment, but Galileo wrote down: "light moves much faster than what my method can measure".

I think it is incredibly inspiring. He could have claimed that light moves instantaneously from one place to another. However, he concluded that his method could only set a threshold. Higher speeds, or even instantaneous propagation, could not be measured with his approach, and therefore he did not speculate further.

Even though many flat earthers think the words conspiracy theory are a valid answer to their claims, there are others with a scientific approach. I have seen someone proposing experiments with lasers, or with hot air balloons. I have seen many of my colleagues laughing at them, but I think they must be encouraged. If we dismiss someone's approach just because we have different prior knowledge, we are using an ad-hominem argument, not a scientific one.

We can laugh at someone who comes up to us and tells us that the earth if flat. We could also laugh at someone who comes and tells us that we are made of tiny little things that reproduce, eat, and die.

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Aquiles Carattino
Aquiles Carattino
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