The curious case of the Flat-Earther and the Social Justice Warrior

Recently I attempted to engage in a debate with a Flat-Earther on Twitter. Before you judge me as being the naive fool that I was, hear me out for a moment, as I explain my motivations. Recently a few liberal friends of mine had started to listen to Jordan B Peterson, and found themselves seriously questioning the post-modernist movement that had been ingrained into us at university, as an axiom to the modern academy. It got me thinking:

‘Can I plant that seed of doubt in just one Flat Earther’s mind, enough to allow it to grow of its own accord?’

It was profoundly naïve and arrogant, and it cost me three days on Twitter. Also, I am possibly masochistic. The conversation went as you might imagine. I began:

 “I am not a physicist, an astronomer, or a geologist”, I prefaced. “So can we come at this from a critical thinking perspective?”

I started this way because I had noticed ‘facts’ had been flung around from both sides, which seemed to do nothing for moving the debate forward. So I thought, why not invoke cognitive dissonance, and see what happens. As a psychologist, I know how cognitive dissonance works, and I know the outcome very rarely elicits change. But still, I gave it a fair crack, applying the logic and critical thinking skills I had picked up in grad school, and as a therapist. Like any therapist worth their salt, I knew that changing people’s minds starts with winning their heart. You can’t throw cold hard facts at someone, and expect change. You need to make yourself a member of the in-group, you need to be on ‘their side’, or, at the very least, not the enemy. The latter is probably more realistic in 2017. I asked questions about how such a conspiracy might be kept for so many years? How many people would have to be in on the lie, how many pilots, physics PhDs and academics, the military, government agencies, and of course, the world space agencies? I was polite, I did not use progressive, angry left wing tactics that helped get Trump into power (you’re a bigot, fascist, racist idiot scum if you do/vote/believe in X). I was there to win hearts, then minds. The response:

 “Scientists are evil, and greedy. They’re scared/bribed/threatened if they don’t continue the norm. Use your eyes over NASA CGI! You can see the earth is flat.”

I suggested that this rhetoric dehumanized scientists, and asked if any had a chance to sit down and talk to one? Having met physicist who studied the expansion of the galaxy during my studies, I know that they were so poor, and low on the food chain, they could easily be bribed with a hot meal and a beer. Not exactly the type to swear a blood oath to keep a grand conspiracy explained to them as they were sat down at the beginning of their studies by a ‘NASA shill’. I explained that many of the PhDs I had met were there to pursue knowledge and to quench their unrelenting thirst for knowledge. They spend years fiercely debating the smallest equations; they are not some homogenous group in it together.

I got called stupid, and close minded. Some attempted to link me a plethora of YouTube videos documentaries about the flat earth and dome in order to help me ‘wake up and not be a sheeple’. Others were less hostile, noting that they too were once ‘asleep’, and explained how if I just ‘used my eyes’, it would become obvious to me. One person linked me a YouTube video about how hand signals are used by a secret cabal like Illuminati members, and they use these subliminal and hidden messages to communicate to each other and brainwash the masses.

This brought me to my next point: Our eyes are not infallible objective measurement devices. I explained that science is used to move beyond our limited observation and processing skills, which had evolved to keep us alive in our particular environment, and were not designed to understand the horizon, the curvature of the earth etc. In psychology we know how easy it is to trick the brain, to create visual tricks to the mind, and how we connect dots in our mind to form patterns, as our brain looks to categorize and comprehend the world around us.  I noticed the science I was describing was ignored, I was drowned out with ‘Gravity is bullshit, you really think it makes sense that we stick to a flying ball of water’, or ‘how do your senses deal with moving 100km an hour through space, without feeling it?. Which quickly became ‘lying Nazi NASA’, based on ‘project paperclip’. I was about to get ready to mount my final point, which was questioning the logic behind the largest global Navy fleet required to be able to defend the entire circumference of Antarctica, which the flat earthers claim surrounds the flat earth, and is naturally patrolled to prevent exploration of the ice desert.  Something then occurred to me: these individuals have some serious skin in the game. A glance at their profiles made it clear that a high percentage of these individuals were Christians. If the Earth was flat, and had a firmament, well that would be line with scripture. Further, if the earth was the centre of the universe, and the sun and the stars revolved around the Earth, this is more evidence toward a God based globe, in which a personal God created us in his image. This would also give an opportunity to debunk other areas of Science such as evolution and palaeontology. If one area of Science was a lie, what else could be? After all, it’s offensive, disgusting to be evolved from a poo-flinging monkey, right? Crucially, they were coming from a place of fear: they felt they had stumbled upon a massive conspiracy, and that I, or anyone else, was attacking their belief, and faith. They had drunk the Kool Aid, and I was challenging that.

The following week I was defending Dave Rubin’s comment about the homophobic butcher who refused to serve a gay couples wedding. Again, a three day twitter debate ensued, this time I was not alone, people came to flesh out my arguments and give their perspectives. This time, however, I was debating for the sake of the audience, not to plant the seed of doubt into the person I was debating with. I got the idea after a discussion with Doctor Amitay, who recently told me that when you debate with someone, don’t try to convince them, try to convince the audience. When you go in with that mind-set, a lot of your frustration melts away, thus I was able to continue the debate longer than I normally would. The argument briefly went like this:

Rubin is a hypocrite, how can he denounce YT (YouTube) for demonizing all of his videos due to their collective ideology (owned by Google), but be OK with a baker refusing service to LGBT individuals?”

Myself, and a few others attempted to explain that 1) no one is attempting to force or mandate YT into anything, he is simply using his platform to make a point about the dangers of such an ideology, and he is likewise protecting the freedom for the baker to respect his own religious beliefs, by refusing service. Rubin surely dislikes the baker’s ideology (being a gay man himself), yet still protects his right to have such views. 2) YT is a virtual monopoly at this point, you can’t compare the virtual censorship of certain ideas by a monopoly, to one family run bakery, and 3) you have to look at the costs and benefits of giving the government power to tell people what to say, and really, taken to the nth degree, think, vs protecting people’s rights not to be discriminated against. Unfortunately, the counter points resulted to name calling (bigot, racist, homophobe), and very extreme, black and white thinking responses (it’s one, or the other; he can’t have it both ways). Everything was boiled down to reductionist dichotomies, or extreme examples, such as “what if you’re a black person in a town, and this is the only bakery?” How this became about race, instead of sexuality, I do not quite know; my more pessimistic side wonders if it has something to do with the ranking of victimhood; being a person of colour is ranked as more of an oppressed minority than being gay? I noticed terms started to mean something else, such as racism being attributed to power, or how Rubin was using his ‘gayness’ as an excuse.

It’s at this point a realisation occurred to me: both of these individuals are acting like conspiracy theorists: they react toward you with ignoring the presented argument, make the argument about something else, focusing on very specific terms (one challenged my definition of a monopoly, another attempted to make it about Alt Righters), and extreme arguments based on very unlikely examples. These are typical logical fallacies, which allow one to share a type of group think which bypasses new contradictory information, and allow one to engage in censoring or rewriting our scientific knowledge.  They are totally immersed into a world narrative that supports an underlying conspiracy. There is total cognitive dissonance when having new information that science provides. Be it how the brain and eyes work, to biological differences, both will attack you with name calling. They will defend their new position by using a bunch of logical fallacies, and immerse themselves into groups that reassure their decision. There is an underlying philosophy that keeps them were they are, that they are somehow special in the knowledge they have come across, and are doing something with their life to make a difference. They will make increasingly nuanced arguments to combat ‘your science’. For them the conspiracy is the patriarchy, and the solution is post-modern thought which they see as exposing the patriarchal tools. Take Darwin, for example. To the SJW, Darwin paved the way to Eugenics, was a liar, a thief, and in favour of slaves. His contribution to our knowledge of evolution and biology therefore is ‘oppressive science’. As oppressive science, it should be ignored, censored, and exposed for the lies that it is.

Both have created a situation in which any rebuttal on the basis of critical thinking and knowledge of the sciences is met with a vitriolic reaction, a knee jerk response of being personally attacked, and by consequence, being labeled as something undesirable.

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