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.