Monday, November 28, 2016

Why I Don't Debate Flat-Earthers

I have many times been offered the opportunity to debate on the topic of whether or not the Earth is flat. And I have declined. I've been accused of being afraid to engage in such a debate, but really the reasons have nothing to do with how I might fare, and everything to do with the nature of the debate itself.

There Is No Debate

The shape of the Earth is not a matter of opinion, it's a matter of fact. The Earth's curvature can be directly measured, and has been by geodetic surveyors over the last 200 years or so. Photographs of the Earth have been taken from space, and however much the flat-Earthers cry "fake," they have never been able to prove the claim, and never will be able to, because the photos are genuine.

The flat-Earth model, such as it is, can easily be disproved by something as simple as a sunset, no matter how many torturous hoops flat-Earthers jump through, and no matter how much they have to make up out of whole cloth in trying to prove otherwise.

In short, it would be like having a debate on the topic of triangles: "A triangle has three sides. Pro or con; give reasons for your position." There's just nowhere to go.

Undeserved Respect

Agreeing to debate on a topic on which there is no valid controversy gives the topic an aura of respect that it does not deserve. It elevates the purveyors of those ideas to a status they have not earned, relieving them of the burden of intellectual rigor of any kind, and encouraging anyone with a silly hypothesis to pass themselves off as an original thinker, or worse, a "true scientist."

The notion that all ideas have equal validity is something pseudoscientists use to play to people's sense of fairness and to gain a tactical upper hand by proposing that their "evidence," not matter how spurious, be given the same weight as scientific fact. But accusations, assertions, and outright lies are not facts and should never be treated as such. Ridiculous ideas deserve to be ridiculed, not debated.

Flat-Earthers Don't Do Debates

A debate is a formal argument on a single topic. But go to YouTube, search for any flat-Earth "debate," and you'll find that there is nothing formal about it, nor are any of these (often excruciatingly lengthy) "debates" held to a single topic, not even one as broad as "is the Earth flat?" They are nothing but a free-for-all, with plenty of personal insult and off-topic rambling, and whenever a flat-Earther gets backed into a corner on one aspect of their "evidence," instead of defending the indefensible, the flat-Earther will change to a completely new tack, hoping that the shifting of gears will throw everyone off the scent.

And for these reasons, whenever someone asks me to debate Jeranism or Jeffrey Grupp or DITRH, I just say no, knowing that nothing will be gained, either by me or by the quest for the truth, from such an exercise.

And I suggest that anyone else avoid this useless path as well.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Outside the Box

In a recent exchange on Twitter, a flat-Earther claimed that I only "believe" that the Earth is round because I'm not "thinking outside the box." The term immediately got my hackles up, not because it has any merit, but because it brands its user as a hack who's trying to impress someone with their creative thinking skills. I'm not the only one who feels that way; a poll from about eight years ago in Britain branded "thinking outside the box" as the most despised bit of business jargon.

The term seems to have originated with the "nine dot problem," wherein three rows of three dots must all be intersected with four straight lines drawn without lifting the pencil or pen. In order to solve the puzzle, you have to make the lines outside of the imaginary "box" defined by the nine dots. Every corporate creative consultant knows about this. But it's not such a great example of lateral thinking, after all.

I won't go into details, since it's somewhat off-topic, but here's a great article by a reformed corporate creative consultant about the problems with pegging too much on "thinking outside the box."

But let me add a couple of thoughts that I think relate specifically to flat-Earthers and other pseudoscientific types:

You're Not Thinking Outside the Box; You're Just Thinking Inside Another Box

I have been interacting with and reading and watching the works of flat-Earthers for about a year and a half now, and original thinking is extremely rare. And when there is something original, it's not really lateral thinking, approaching a problem from a unique angle to find a solution. It's just making stuff up.

Other than that, there hasn't been much original thinking in the flat-Earth world since Samuel Birley Rowbotham who, for all his faults, seems to have been a pretty creative guy. But Eric Dubay's material is mostly stolen from Rowbotham, and the vast majority of flat-Earthers on the Internet, especially YouTube and Twitter, are merely parroting what others have said, repeating the same poorly-designed experiments, and accusing anyone who disagrees with them of lying, or of being indoctrinated sheep.

Just Because Your Thinking Is Unconventional Doesn't Make It Worthwhile

Having something out of the mainstream to say doesn't mean that you have something important to add to the conversation. There has to be substance there; it can't be the first thing that pops into your head because you don't understand the world around you. You may think you're being profound and original, but more often than not (by far), you're just being annoying and wasting someone's time and energy with nonsense.

Before you say, or tweet, or vlog some amazing supposed fact you just found on the Internet, on Dubay's site or Mark Sargent's channel, or reposted for the thousandth time by someone who's just spamming anyway, stop and think: does this actually make sense?

If, for example, someone posts a video of the moon and the sun in the sky at the same time and says "this can't possibly happen on a globe," which makes more sense to do: repost it immediately with a nod of the head, or take a quick look at some sites on astronomy, by real astronomers, to see how the standard model of the solar system actually explains that situation?

I know what most flat-Earthers will do: a jerk of the knee, and another tweet adding to the pseudoscientific noise. You think you're bringing something new to the world. But I have news for you: ignorance is nothing new.

You Always Have To Come Back To the Box

Even in the nine dot problem, you can't ignore the box; the lines still have to connect with every single dot. If you draw four lines outside the box that never connect the dots, you haven't solved the problem.

Even if you do apply lateral thinking to a problem, you have to come back and make sure your creative thinking actually matches reality. Without excuses. You can't just say, for example, "sunsets are the result of perspective as the sun moves away from you at a fixed height above the Earth," unless you have some evidence that such a notion can possibly produce observations that nearly everyone on the planet makes every day as part of being alive on Earth.

Similarly, merely accusing all of mainstream science of lying and conspiracy is not creative thinking. It's out of the mainstream, to be sure, it's "outside the box," but you can't expect anyone to take you seriously if you can't produce real evidence (not just videos of things you don't understand, or reposts of heavily quote-mined documentaries) that someone is lying. And make no mistake: you are making an accusation, and a serious one at that; the burden of proof rests solely with you.

Just Stop

Stop using terms like "outside the box." And while you're at it, stop saying that your belief in a flat Earth is based on "first-hand observation," because you're lying. And since we're on the subject, stop using words like "indoctrinated" and "sheep" and "shill" as well, because they just make you look paranoid and foolish.

Which is not what you want, I think. Even if it's true.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

More Ignorance Per Meme

And now we have four ignorant claims stuffed conveniently into a single meme:

Like all memes, these offer no explanation, just a bald claim that these four things are, somehow, evidence against the Earth being a globe. Not even evidence of a flat Earth, mind you, but just evidence that the Earth is not a globe.

How? You may well ask. Fortunately, or unfortunately as the case may be, I have been around this scene long enough to know what the maker of this meme is going on about. And to know that whoever it is is not only wrong, but actually leading us to evidence that the Earth is, indeed, a globe. Let's take these one at a time:

The conceit here is that periscopes would be useless on a curved Earth because the submariner using the scope would be limited by the horizon. And, in fact, that is the case. Which is why periscope masts are generally far taller than the one in the picture, to extend the horizon, something that is only necessary on a curved Earth.

Further, the fact that the Earth is curved by a, for all practical purposes, fixed amount was used by periscope operators, in the days before sonar, to target ships for attack. The distance to the horizon was calculated using the height of the mast above the water, something that can only be true on a curved Earth. Strike one.

All kinds of wild claims are made for lighthouses by flat-Earthers. Eric Dubay, in his 200 Proofs the Earth Is Not a Spinning Ball, states that the Cape L’Agulhas lighthouse in South Africa can be seen from 50 miles away. Other flat-Earthers claim that lighthouses can be seen from hundreds of miles away. No sources are cited for these claims, and articles by real sailors state that the maximum distance any lighthouse can be seen, under the best of conditions, is a little over 20 miles.

But the telling question is: why are lighthouses so tall? In a flat world, lighthouses could be only tall enough to rise above the waves, which would save a lot of money on their construction. But lighthouses are made tall to be seen from greater distances. which is only necessary on a curved Earth. Strike two.

The notion that gyroscopes don't "work" on a globe Earth is, on its face, ludicrous. Whether the Earth is flat, round, or octahedral, a gyroscope will do what a gyroscope does. What does a gyroscope do? It maintains a fixed position in space, independent of gravity, absent any intervening force.

So what's the big deal? Gyroscopes are used in navigation, in artificial horizons. The flat-Earthers claim that the artificial horizon would roll back as the plane flies, because the plane would have to curve around the Earth while the gyroscope maintains its fixed position. And they are right about that. Which is why artificial horizons have a device to compensate for gravity built into them; they are not merely gyroscopes. If you're curious, look up "pendulous vanes."

Flat-Earthers have made YouTube videos about gyroscopes, filming them in time-lapse and noting that they do not move. All of these are flawed by several factors, not the least of which is the use of a toy gyroscope that is subject to a great deal of friction. They prove nothing except the experimenter's inability to design a controlled experiment. Strike three. Flat-Earthers are already out, but they still feel the need to come back to bat for a good chance at getting beaned with the ball, which leads us to:

I think it was nice of the maker of this meme to save the most ridiculous claim for last. Sundials work on a globe. In fact, it is because the Earth is a sphere that different sundial designs are used at different latitudes. Furthermore, here is a video on how a crude sundial can be used to determine the shape of the Earth:

Strike four. Getting four strikes at a single at-bat means you should just give up the game altogether.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Geometric Follies

Consider, if you have the fortitude, the following meme:

There are so many things wrong in this meme that it makes my head hurt. First let's start with that expression, "directly above my head." The only way for the sun to be directly over your head, or at least apparently so, is at local noon on the correct date at a location somewhere between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. This is not true at the "bottom" of South Africa, and it's very definitely not true in the UK, where the southernmost point, in Cornwall, is nearly 50 degrees north of the equator.

So the crude little drawing of the sun shining down on the UK and another sun shining down on South Africa is just a lie. And then there is the scale of this ridiculous drawing. It does make a difference that the sun is 93 million miles away.

It is, on the other hand, quite possible to see the sun in the sky in both London and Cape Town at the same time. And there is nothing in the globe model that prevents this. They are only, after all, two time zones and 83 degrees latitude apart, so there is nothing in the way of the sun from either location. Why is this such a difficult thing to understand?

You can't, and I have said this many times, debunk a model by misrepresenting it. This is just one extremely blatant example of this kind of tactic.

And then there is the second half of the meme. Which backfires. Why? Because the angles at which a pair of observers would see the sun from London and Cape Town in the flat-Earth model is something someone can easily calculate, given the date and time and a little trig. And it wouldn't match the actual observations for those locations.

Because, and it's getting wearying to even say this, the Earth is not flat.