Ethics Quiz: Should Flat Earthers Be Mocked And Ridiculed? Never Mind, Just Kidding! Of Course They Should…

The Denver Post has an alarming article on the Flat Earthers, a group of Americans who deny astronomy, physics and other known and proven facts about the physical world and universe. They are, says the Post, “thousands strong — perhaps one in every 500 — and have proponents at the highest levels of science, sports, journalism and arts.”

It would be an amusing article, were it not so sad and frightening. These people, who might be nice, kind, and otherwise great neighbors and patriots, are so suspicious and so committed to their own ignorance that they say astounding things, like Cami,  who explains,

“Our YouTube channel gets people to critically think,” she said to the Fort Collins group. “The heliocentric model says that we’re spinning at 1,038 mph. They say you won’t notice it because it’s a continual motion. But you should be able to feel it. You shouldn’t be able to function allegedly spinning that fast.”

Good point, Cami.

The Flat Earthers resent that people don’t treat them with respect. “The orthodox say their faith makes them a persecuted minority, mocked to their faces by friends and strangers for nothing more than First Amendment-protected beliefs,” says the Post feature.

“We get accused of being idiots, of doing it for money,” says a leader of the group. “Believe me, there’s only humiliation in this. We do it because we believe it.”

I would have more respect for them if they were in it for the money. That they “believe it” is far more troubling.

In many ways the Flat Earthers are no worse than any other cult that insists on its own reality to give them some linear constant in a chaotic world. They are no worse that the radical sects of most religions, which also faithfully believe things that have no support in science or scholarship. Is believing that the Earth is flat less respectable than believing that one race is superior to the other, or that women are only good for having babies and housekeeping? Are the Flat Earthers worse than ideologues who deny history, economics, common sense and experience to advocate communism, for example?

The problem is willful ignorance, and the determination and capacity to spread it. Ignorant statements, like racism, sexism and other societally toxic and harmful beliefs, are indeed First Amendment-protected, as is my right to claim in print that I am Seabiscuit or Phillip of Macedonia. However, everyone else has a right to disabuse me of these fantasies, and when my sincerely held delusions threaten to infect others, it is society’s collective duty to do everything short of binding  and gagging me to persuade me be responsible, examine my counter-factual beliefs objectively and carefully, and to stop trying to make everyone else stupid and non-functional.

Bad ideas and delusions have killed more people than guns (well, it’s close). We must be wary of snap judgments about what are unquestionably misguided beliefs and toxic ideologies: what is new often seems frightening and wrong.  However, when a group, with nothing more persuasive than conspiracy theories, gut feelings and ill-begotten faith, reject the foundations of science, like gravity and the shape of the planet, it is fair to say that they need to told, repeatedly, how wrong they are and why until they either educate themselves or take up silent protest. Ignorance is dangerous. We shouldn’t pretend to respect it, or tolerate it, or be nice to the people who peddle it.

It is unethical to let ignorance thrive unchallenged, just as it is unethical to let a plague spread.

68 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: Should Flat Earthers Be Mocked And Ridiculed? Never Mind, Just Kidding! Of Course They Should…

    • Michael, please cite examples of people saying that “sex is merely a mental state with no connection to physical structure.”

      I mean, I’m pretty sure I know exactly whom you are accusing of believing this. But if you’re talking about who I think you’re talking about, then you are misrepresenting their beliefs in a few pretty obvious ways.

        • I think if you look a little closer you’ll be able to see how “sex is a social construct” is a different argument from “sex is merely a mental state with no connection to physical structure.” Then consider the false dichotomy of “mental” vs. “physical,” as if the brain is not in and of itself a physical structure. Then consider that most progressives distinguish between “sex” and “gender.”

    • Maybe this might clear up your confusion?

      This case raises issues central to amici’s mission as advocates for intersex youth. Petitioner maintains that the word “sex” in Title IX must refer only to an Individual’s so-called “physiological” sex, rather than the sex with which an individual identifies and lives every day. This is so, Petitioner argues, because “physiological” sex—purportedly unlike gender identity—is binary, objective, and self-evident. The intersex youth for whom amici advocate are a living refutation of this argument.

      Petitioner’s simplistic view of “physiological” sex is demonstrably inaccurate as a matter of human biology. Moreover, it demeans many thousands of intersex youth by erasing their bodies and lives and placing them outside the recognition of the law. Physicians who treat individuals with intersex traits recognize that the key determinant of how individuals navigate sex designations in their lives is their gender identity—their internal sense of belonging to a particular gender.

      Amici Have a strong interest in ensuring that The Court does not endorse Petitioner’s misguided View of “physiological” sex, and in seeing the Court interpret Title IX in a way that respects all children.

      Notably, the legal system has struggled for decades to answer the definitional question that Petitioner simply begs. By the time Title IX was enacted, courts well recognized that “(t)here are several criteria or standards which may be relevant in determining the sex of an individual.”
      M.T. v. J.T., 355 A.2d 204, 206–08 (N.J. App. Div. 1976) (listing chromosomes, external genitalia, gonads, secondary sex characteristics, and hormones, as well as gender identity).

      Commentators have noted the “variability of standards that courts employ” in making such determinations.

      Even courts in the same jurisdiction have disagreed about how to determine sex when physiological features do not align.

      Petitioner and its amici also assert that “physiological” sex has the virtue of being an “objective” classification. Pet. Br. at 32; McHugh Br. at 3–6, 12–13.

      Gender identity, they suggest, is “fuzzy and mercurial,” id. at 8, while “physiological” sex simply is. But the foregoing discussion should make clear that this assertion is similarly flawed. An intersex student’s “physiological” sex may depend entirely on which Physiological trait one chooses to privilege. Indeed, because of the diversity of medical perspectives, trained experts can and do disagree on the “correct” sex to assign to an intersex child.

      Interpreting “sex” to refer to a student’s gender identity would avoid (or at least mitigate) these problems. Unlike “physiological” sex, all parties appear to agree on what gender identity means: it is “[an] individual’s ‘innate sense of being male or female.’” Pet. Br. at 36; cf. Resp. Br. at 2 (similar). It is not subject to competing definitions depending on which expert or court is consulted. Moreover, unlike “physiological” sex, a student’s gender identity by definition cannot be subject to differences in medical opinion: each student is the ultimate arbiter of their own gender identity, as they (and they alone) experience it first-hand.

      Accordingly, when Congress enacted the provision at issue here, it knew—or, at minimum, should have Known—that not all students could be straightforwardly categorized as “male” or “female” based on Their anatomy alone. Congress could not have believed otherwise without ignoring millennia of Western history, science, and law.


      Click to access 16-273_bsac_interact_advocates_for_intersex_youth.pdf

        • Interpreting “sex” to refer to a student’s gender identity would avoid (or at least mitigate) these problems. Unlike “physiological” sex, all parties appear to agree on what gender identity means: it is “[an] individual’s ‘innate sense of being male or female.’” Pet. Br. at 36; cf. Resp. Br. at 2 (similar). It is not subject to competing definitions depending on which expert or court is consulted. Moreover, unlike “physiological” sex, a student’s gender identity by definition cannot be subject to differences in medical opinion: each student is the ultimate arbiter of their own gender identity, as they (and they alone) experience it first-hand.

          So what would be the point of sex segregation? Why should sex be recognized at all, if it is merely an internal feeling? How can there be a thing as women’s health if sex is just a state of mind?

          • Please define exactly how you would determine every human being’s sex.
            Without that definition leading to obvious absurdities, by your own standards.

            Determining sex based on Gender Identity – which itself is determined by the physical anatomy of the brain – has problems. Just fewer ones than any other method.

            While we’re at it, can every single human being be accurately classified as male or female?

            • I’ve been meaning to let you know how much I appreciate your input, Sue. You make my (training) job much easier since these questions come up frequently and the volunteers (mainly psych majors and grad students) need to get away from textbooks and start dealing with human beings. Thanks.

        • Common sense realism says the Earth is flat. It’s a reasonably accurate model when walking to the corner store for example. Good enough for most purposes.

          Not good enough as soon as you go outside everyday, common experience.

          Much like the strict, simplistic models of sex and gender.

          There are many cases where Common sense realism is factually accurate. It should not be rejected out of hand, and in fact, should be accepted as default true until evidence comes along showing that it isn’t, or more usually, that it’s only an approximation valid in a limited domain.

          Do I reject it? Sometimes yes, of course I do, when it’s demonstrably absurd. Mainly not though.

          • Common sense realism is NOT flat earth, and your attempt at a smear is dishonest.

            As expressed in another thread, CSR was what glued this country together for well over a century. It took two political assaults by socialists to make the break between reality and whatever bubble progressives live in. Progressives question physical fact, as if their opinions make that change, and then name call any who do not fall into line.

            All of your multiple sex and gender arguments boil down to ‘you neanderthals are too ignorant and/or stupid to understand.’ It is a way to signal virtue, to feel good about your enlightenment, without accomplishing anything actually positive for society.

            The ‘unfair to the tiny minority’ argument is, frankly, no different than a teenage angst issue. Life is not fair, and nothing can make it so. Progressives have yelled about something being unfair for decades, and this is yet again another excuse to yell. We address inequalities as best we can without making the situation worse for society, serving the most good for the most people. This is ethical. Progressives wish to impact every family across the country to cater to a few with rare conditions or mental problems. This is not a net positive for society. This is coercive, and totalitarian.

  1. Not so sure I agree, the “Flat Earth” view was at one time the “Consensus,”
    or CON US for short, which we’ve been assured is the proper approach to scientific inquiry and its attendant recommended policy-making, am I right?

    Say, wasn’t Geocentrism once prevailing consensus thought as well?

    Two notable skeptics, I mean SCIENCE DENIERS, Galileo Galilei & his contemporary Giordano Bruni, were found “vehemently suspect of heresy.”

    The former had to endure the ignominy of house arrest during his twilight years.

    The latter didn’t fare so well, he was burned at the stake clad in a pitch shirt, a conflagration that must have contributed to the Global Warming that’s here and worse than the models predicted.

    • It was the consensus because of ignorance and insufficient data. When there is no longer insufficient data, a consensus that once was respectable is no longer respectable. Stephen Jay Gould wrote a terrific essay about how Lamarckian evolution, much ridiculed now, made perfect sense before Darwin figured out natural selection. He opened ‘a door’ in a house the had no access before. In the previous house without a door, Lamarck’s solution was creative and brilliant. NOW it would be idiotic.

      • ”It was the consensus because of ignorance and insufficient data.”

        The current “consensus” isn’t because of brilliance and a surfeit of data, is it?

        97 %* of, you know, like, everyone, couldn’t possibly be wrong, could they?


        • But the climate change issue isn’t analogous, as I suspect you know. The whole point there is that we don’t have the data, and the data there is isn’t unequivocal. If the earth isn’t spherical, literally nothing makes sense. One doesn’t need a conspiracy theory to doubt the doomsday predictions about climate change.

  2. “It is unethical to let ignorance thrive unchallenged, just as it is unethical to let a plague spread.”

    I don’t know particularly about flat earthers, but it’s typical that people who subscribe to fringe theories or conspiracy theories know much more than average about the specific subject. This should just be common sense: the theories subscribed to usually consist of connecting various factual dots. To just subscribe to the prevailing wisdom, you don’t have to know of the existence of any of those dots, and most people don’t bother to learn about them.

    I don’t know if 1 in 500 subscribes to a flat earth. I do know that if the number’s anything close to that, then it’s well within an expected background rate of mental illness, attention-seeking, contrariness, and just a love of puzzles. I find far more interesting those people who seem to take this sort of dissent as a personal affront, to be remedied by mocking or brow beating the subscriber. That sort of confrontation will seldom address what the subscriber thinks is important (you have to know both the subject and fringe theory to know that). About the best result that could be expected is that the person be driven underground, and it seems to me much better that these things stay in the light.

  3. I don’t believe you’re Seabiscuit. You don’t even look like you could chew corn through a picket fence, let alone win a race.

      • Criminy. So his “refutation” that sniper’s don’t even take into account the coreolis effect because it “isn’t true” to me rang with the sounds of because most sniper shots are taken much too close for the coreolis affect to matter in accuracy. So I googled the actual coreolis affect on ballistics…and as I expected, at a 1000 yards, an average sniper bullet may be off target by 2-3 inches in a typical shooting situation due to the coreolis affect. Being off 2-3 inches is still a hit when aiming at a human body, so any shots below 1000 yards (and most sniper shots are much below that) are not that impacted.

        A sniper will bother with adjustments for coreolis either BEFORE he even goes out to the battlefield because the affect stays consistent to latitude regardless of other conditions OR he’ll bother with it if enough other accuracy reducers are in play and he’s got to make sure he’s worked out as many errors as possible.

        Added amusement…the post I found discussing the coreolis affect on ballistics is adorned with a comment from 4 days ago arguing against heliocentricity and for geocentricity.


  4. I wonder how much of this is actually truly and hopeless dumb people that think they are intelligent or just a truly neurotic level of rebellion against authority deriving from feeling betrayed enough times by authority.

  5. If 1 in 500 is a Flat Earther that’s better than the ratio of believers in lizard people, right?

    Anecdote time. After 12 years in software I went to the space industry. The weekend before I started my wife secretly played flat earth and moon conspiracy videos logged on to my youtube account. Recommendations were broken for months.

  6. I find this a fascinating mental exercise, actually. It’s a challenge to start from another person’s accepted “facts” and work backward to figure out what experiences led them to those conclusions, as well as work forward to figure out what observations we would expect from such “facts”. For instance, it’s fairly easy to see why a person would think the Earth is flat, because from the ground it appears to be a stationary rough plane with gravity normal to its average surface gradient, but we can work forwards to explore the implications.

    It looks like they have an answer for where the edge is and why we can’t go there. Their answer for how gravity works is probably “God”. Do they have an answer for time zones? If the Earth is flat, how can it be night in one place and day in another? What about latitudinal variations in the angle of sunlight, producing not only extreme temperature variations but actual shadows that you can look at? Heliocentrism or geocentrism, those questions still stand.

    Where did people come up with the idea that the Earth is round, if it wasn’t true, since that’s not the idea we started with? More importantly, why? How could anyone possibly benefit from fooling the world’s people into having an inaccurate picture of its shape?

    For reason 8, if the guy took a closer look at that globe, he would see that based on non-Euclidean geometry (just looking at the surface of the sphere), Alaska is actually closer than Los Angeles to the Philippines.

    Clearly this man has received Education of Evil ONEism, the Demonic Death Math. The Earth has FOUR Simultaneous Days same Earth Rotation as a Time Cube within Single Rotation.

  7. In defense of Flat Earthers … so should they be mocked and ridiculed, no.

    At least for short distances, flat earth theory is a very reasonable approximation of truth. A half acre home plat is based on a flat earth projection and works just fine for its purpose. Many structures are successfully designed based on a flat earth projection. Alas, at longer distances, flat earth theory fails as objects can be demonstrated to fall behind the curved horizon but the utility of flat earth theory for smaller scales is not diminished.

    A reasonable analogy is the theory of gravity which works perfectly well on an everyday macro scale. The mathematical relationship between objects is successfully shown in the planetary solar system in the heavens as well as projectile trajectories on earth. Gravity fails at the quantum level where the underlying physics is revealed in finer detail. Perhaps string theory uncovers the ultimate matter attraction mechanism. Nevertheless the utility of gravity theory at the appropriate scale is not diminished.

    So flat earth theory is a very useful approximation for some purposes and should not be mocked even as a theory. On the contrary, congratulate flat earthers on their keen perception within the boundaries of their own yard but remind them that their flat earth theory fails on a larger scale. Ad hominem attacks on the flat earthers themselves is unethical.

    • Likewise, a geocentric system would be a much simpler system to use than a heliocentric one would be if, hypothetically, we ever wanted to ACTUALLY send someone to the Moon.

    • Ad hominem attack is not what calling a flat-earther is. For God’s sake, learn the difference between the fallacy: “What you say is wrong because you are an idiot” and “That you would argue such an idiotic position means that you are an idiot, because only an idiot would argue such a thing.” One is an ad hominem attack, and the other is a fair diagnosis based on signature significance.

      If you check the Comment policies above, you will see this…

      13. DO NOT accuse me of an ad hominem attack if I judge your intellectual prowess or ethical proclivities based on the quality your post, and state that judgment. That’s not what an ad hominem attack is, and I’m sick of explaining it.

      And I really am sick of explaining it. I have done so in multiple posts and in comments like this one. Not that you are doing this right now (I will be using the generic “you”), but idiots who have written idiotic things and been correctly diagnosed as idiots here think that’s some kind of rebuttal: “You are unethically using ad hominem attacks!” NO, I’m NOT, and the fact that *you* think so validates my position.

      Learn what the term means, and do not use it incorrectly here again. THANK YOU.

      • Hmmm surprised. Jack the post seems a bit reactionary; you were not accused of an ad hominem attack against “flat earthers”, of all things. Yes, ad hominem is an argument against the man rather than an argument against the “subject discussion”; there was no violation against your very reasonable and rational rules but that is your call not mine. My statement “ad hominem attack against flat earthers would be unethical” reaffirms that logically all ad hominem attacks are unethical. Somehow I thought it would be amusing to defend flat earthers since flat earth theory works if the scale is small enough and flat earth projections are used to this very day. Sorry to cause unnecessary discomfort.

        • Reactionary in that I “reacted”? It’s impossible to make an ad hominem attack against someone who argues that the Earth is flat. Sorry that I didn’t get the joke. I still don’t, though.

          • The joke is that flat earth is reasonably correct over small areas of land and is used today in the State Plane Coordinate System. SPCS divides the United States into 124 geographic areas each using a Cartesian coordinate system within the area rather than polar coordinates of latitude and longitude. Flat earth works until the area is too large because of course the earth is a spheroid.

            • Sorry, still don’t get it. By definition, Flat Earth theory applies to the Earth as a whole. That’s like saying that the Climate Change is a Myth theory is reasonably correct in Schenectady, or that anti-white racism is reasonable as applied to Jeffrey Daumer. Why are any of these things worth saying?

              • Neither of your examples are true on their face. A better analogy, the laws of motion described by Newtonian physics work great until they fail at very small dimensions and quantum mechanics provide a better approximation of motion. Flat earth projections are reasonably accurate such that they are used by state and local governments. Flat earth projections fail on larger scales and cannot cover the entire planet because the earth is a spheroid of course.

                You state “Flat earth theory applies to the earth as a whole” and I state flat projections are accurate if applied to small areas which is not to say the earth is flat.

                    • This is a textbook example of how not to resolve a communication problem. iRock was making the point that if you don’t venture too far from your house, the idea of a flat Earth works just fine. Beyond that, the idea becomes useless. iRock was communicating rather poorly by not reading the paradigms of the person they were communicating with.

                      If iRock’s intent wasn’t to accuse Jack of making ad hominem attacks, then mentioning them in the first place was a non sequitur. That leads me to suspect that the intent was to accuse Jack of making ad hominem attacks, and that the assertion that no such accusation was being made was disingenuous. That might fall under the category of trolling, but considering it wasn’t brought up again, I would be inclined to let that go. I’m difficult to troll like that.

                    • Or… (alternate theory) the poster was a jackass who wanted to pick a fight, succeeded, and feels good ‘for telling off’ his opponents.

                      Wait, that IS a troll.

                    • I made the point that flat earth theory works quite well within limited geographic areas backed up by the fact that flat earth projections, as state plane coordinates, are used throughout the country but each projection within limited areas. Jack lacks domain knowledge to understand the technical validity and prefers to throw troll around. There was no claim as to ad hominems attacks intended. Have a nice evening.

                    • I get that, but it is rather pedantic and/or facetious to point that out, when the real issue is that flat Earth “theorists” believe that the flat Earth projection applies to the entire Earth, don’t you think? Not that I object to either pedantry or facetiousness, so long as the person is self-aware and acknowledges it.

                      (I’m not quick to call people trolls, both because of Poe’s Law and because for me it’s a win-win situation. With the same behavior, I can deal with non-trolls respectfully and out-troll trolls while practicing my reasoning skills. After all, “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.” –Oscar Wilde)

                      I’m not really sure why you mentioned ad hominem attacks the way you did, but through apparently no ill will of your own, you struck a nerve. I think that matter is already resolved between the two of you, though, if I am reading the situation correctly, so that worked out all right.

                    • Sure it’s resolved: iRock pulled a self-exile. Fine with me. But the fact that you think that’s a peaceful resolution is another reason why your North Korea strategy is unpersuasive.

                    • You do wrong me, sir. What I was referring to as “resolved” was the umbrage over the presumed allegation of ad hominem attacks. iRock apologized for the saying something which was taken as an offense, and you seemed to accept it, as the discussion continued from there. I thought that was alright.

                      The way the discussion continued was very foolish, culminating in iRock self-exiling instead of recognizing that “this idea is right, if you completely rewrite the scope of its assertion to be more reasonable” is a rather clumsy thing to say, and pointless to argue about. I don’t consider that peaceful; I consider it tragic and terrible.

                      (I can understand people better than you think I can. It’s because I look past the labels, the “common sense”, and the idea of me being the hero that I can do so. The skill disappears once I start taking anything for granted.)

                    • Damn! And I was looking so forward to your helpful exposition of how creationism makes perfect sense a long as you don’t apply it beyond your personal house pets!

                    • iRock did make a point that the Earth can be considered flat when dealing with local distances.

                      The shortest vector to a point due east is not due east anywhere off the equator, Instead, it lies on an arc of a great circle.

                      Now, this would imply that the shortest distance between a point on the 45th north parallel and another point one mile due east is not one mile, but less than that on a great circle arc. By calculating the central spherical angle between these two points, we would calculate great circle distance between two such points is less than the due east distance by- less than an inch. When dealing with distances within a town or city, the Earth may as well be flat.

                      Now what about a point two hundred eighty miles due east on the forty-fifth parallel (a distance traveled on weekend road trips)? The great circle distance is only less than the due east distance by about three hundred feet – a distanced that can be traversed by a car on an empty road in a little over five seconds, or on foot by a person of average fitness in less than ten minutes.

                      what about a point a thousand miles due east on that same parallel? (a thousand miles is roughly the distance between the American East Coast and the Mississippi River, and is about the length of a two hour passenger jet flight). The great circle distance would be 997 miles- just three miles less.

                      The curvature of the Earth becomes significant with longer distances of course. For a point four thousand miles due east on the 45th, (the Earth’s radius is a little less than four thousand miles), the great circle distance is 3,814 miles- a savings of almost two hundred miles, which is significant when traveling by ship or plane.

  8. I like his flat map showing the path from the Bali to LAX. His example is actually proof of a round globe. Note he says “Philippines” but if you pause the video, and read the article it says it was a Bali to LA flight with a stopover in Taiwan. If you run the great circle mapper, indeed, the flight is quite close to Alaska.×360&PM=*

    Map it as a straight line and it goes nowhere near Alaska.

    I’ve flown SFO-HKG and I could see Denali looking out the window of the Airplane.

  9. creationism makes perfect sense a long as you don’t apply it beyond your personal house pets

    Pulled my keyboard out of the way just in time.

    On the serious side,
    I believe in evidence. I believe in observation, measurement, and reasoning, confirmed by independent observers. I’ll believe anything, no matter how wild and ridiculous, if there is evidence for it. The wilder and more ridiculous something is, however, the firmer and more solid the evidence will have to be. ~Isaac Asimov

    So much for Planet of the Apes, Part XVI

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