Flat Earth, Truth, and Conspiracies
I’m going to come at this from a few different angles.
Where to begin? That’s a good question. I think I’m going to do it like this. First, I’ll go over the legitimate use of flat earth. Then, I’ll go over how I think this has come about. Finally, maybe I’ll talk a bit about conspiracy theories. If other things come up along the way and I address them, so be it.
The idea of a flat earth goes back a long way. A piece of land surrounded by water, with a dome over it, with water underneath, and water above is a view from the Mesopotamians. Ancient Egyptians, ancient Greeks, and other cultures held similar views of the world. Now, here’s an important point. This was the prevailing view because it worked and it was the world as they experienced it. It explained their world in a way that was useful to them. (It wasn’t a universal view. The ancient Mayans knew the earth was round, for example.)
It still works today. That is, it still works today in a lot of ways. When I drive to the store later today to buy pork steaks I don’t need to think about the shape of the world as being anything other than basically flat. Actually, if I try to think about the earth’s position in space, its trajectory, other objects relative to it, variations in land elevation, atmospheric fluctuations, etc. then it would probably be bad because I’m being distracted from driving to the store.
The basic idea here is that there are greater approximations to truth. You don’t need the most accurate view of something to be able to use it. The human mind is quite limited in a number of ways. The most important way that the human mind is limited is in working memory. You just can’t think about that many things at the same time. So, your mind has to decide what’s important and then ignore everything else. And, even that stuff that’s important has to be simplified. If your mind didn’t do this then you wouldn’t be able to function at all.
So, the flat earth idea works, but it stops working for some things. I think most people know that there were different theories put forth for planetary alignments such as the Ptolemy model where everything in universe circled the earth in this intricate perfect circles. Then Kepler and Galileo came along and changed everything. That led to Isaac Newton. That led to Einstein. This is another example of the growth of knowledge, of greater approximations of truth. When something doesn’t work then something new is tried. If it works better it’s kept.
This type of progress is the basic idea of science. The greatest philosopher of science is Karl Popper. He noted that we have to hold all of our knowledge with just a bit of skepticism because nothing can be absolutely verified. We make progress by falsifying what we previously thought was true. Essentially, scientists use the guess and check method. They usually use fancier words to describe it, like: hypothesis and testing, conjecture and refutation, theory and verification, etc. But, it’s the same process.
In the case of the shape of the earth we can do the same thing ourselves. We can think of the earth as flat. Or, we can think of the earth as round. This is more true, but not absolutely true. We can think of the earth as a ball or sphere. This is even more true. But, it’s still not completely true. We can think of the earth as a slightly squashed sphere with a debatable edge because of the landmass elevation changes and atmospheric fluctuations. That’s more true, but it still isn’t far enough. You can’t go far enough to be completely true. Pictures, paintings, and 3D rendered models can be good representations, but they still can’t hold all of the same data that the earth actually holds. The only completely true representation of the earth is the earth itself.
The issue with thinking of the earth as the only complete representation of the earth is that it isn’t very useful. Our brain and mind can’t hold all of that info. We can’t understand it all. All of humanity combined can’t do it. That’s why we have other forms of representation, because we need them and they’re useful.
Every single thing is more complex than any possible model or symbol that represents it. I call this idea Jeff’s Hammer because I think it needs a name and I think that name is cool. Alright, at this point I think we have a better understanding of truth and the pursuit of truth. (By the way, you have just read a decent amount about the theory of knowledge, which is called epistemology.)
Next, how do people come to this idea about the flat earth? Well, I’ve been pondering just that question for a few years. To some extent I think there is a mix. Some people are just doing it to get a rise out of people. Some people are doing it as a joke. I believe at some point there were a couple of mathematicians that did a mathematical proof on how the earth is flat as a joke. Then, there are others that actually believe it, or are thinking about believing it.
Now, humans have an incredible capacity for imagination. It’s what makes the human animal so special. This unique way that our minds work allows us to do math, make art, speak, invent things, do engineering, read and write, and everything else that you can think of as uniquely human. So, it’s a good thing. But, we also have the capacity to think of imaginary things as literal things. (I would say that imaginary things are real because they really exist as imaginary things. But, that’s different than literal physical existence.)
It’s great that the mind can think of dragons. And, the idea of “dragon” as a flying reptile animal with big teeth and claws is probably embedded in human DNA. Or, at least a natural predisposition to the idea is. That’s why every culture has the idea of a dragon, because it’s a human idea. A dragon is the combination of all of the natural predators of small to medium sized mammals. It is the ultimate image of the animals to be afraid of. (In the terminology of Carl Jung this is an archetype.)
This natural human image is then used as a symbol for other things, usually things to be afraid of. This is great, this is the human genius. A great example of this is the book “There’s No Such Thing as a Dragon” by Jack Kent. The dragon represents a problem. A problem that is ignored and grows. Then, when the problem is addressed it is reduced again. It’s a beautiful and deep book.
One of the issues with this great imagination is that we have a hard time telling if what we are thinking is true. We even have a hard time telling if what we are perceiving is true sometimes. Humans aren’t made to see the world objectively. Humans are made to be able to operate in the world. This is what has determined what we can and what we can’t perceive. We perceive tools and obstacles, useful things and things that are in the way. (For more about that idea check out affordances and James Gibson.)
So, how do we determine what is objectively true? Well, this is interesting. There are a number of things that add up to something being true. One is consistency. Gravity is nice and consistent so it’s easy to believe in that one. It also helps that everyone can directly perceive it. But, there are things that are less obvious, and less consistent.
Even when things are perceived we still do a weird thing to determine if they’re true, we look to other people. If I point at a car and say, “That car is blue.” But, my girlfriend gives me a weird look and say, “That’s not blue.” Now, I have to question what is true and what isn’t true. This opens up a can of worms that can lead you down a rabbit hole. (I know I just mixed two idioms there, it was fun.)
Here’s the thing. I now know something is wrong, but I don’t know what. Is her perception wrong? Is my perception wrong? Is both of our perception wrong? Is it the lighting? Is the car changing color? Is my idea of blue wrong? Did pop culture change the definition of blue recently? This can keep going. (For more about this whole anomaly process check out “Self-Deception Explained” by Jordan Peterson.)
Let’s ignore the possibility of perceptual errors from the environment, and the fact that color is a range that can be divided in different spots, and that different cultures do divide the color range in different spots and therefore have different colors, and that the individual perception of color varies. How are we going to resolve this? We are going to come to an agreement. Hopefully, because there’s a limited number of disagreements that a relationship can withstand. (Oddly enough we tend to deceive those closest to us the most. This obviously keeps things steady in the short term but builds up something of a disagreement debt that will implode at some point. For more on that check out “Deceptive Behavior in Social Relationships: A Consequence of Violated Expectations” by Millar and Tesser.)
Maybe she says, “It almost looks blue, but it’s more of a purple.” And I say, “Oh, yeah, I can see that.” What the heck just happened here? What happened is that we had two separate subjective truths, we compared them, then we went through a social verification process to arrive at a shared reality, and finally we finished with an objective truth. My point is that we think things are true because they have been verified. This can be done by measuring tools, but even then we need other people to agree with us to feel that the truth is the truth. Without social verification and a shared reality our idea of truth would fall apart. (For more check out “Shared Reality? How Social Verification Makes the Subjective Objective” by Hardin and Higgins.)
This is a weird concept because it seems to me like truth should not rely on social verification, but that’s just how humans work. It’s not ideal I don’t think, but reality isn’t usually ideal, or we wouldn’t need the word ideal. I think this applies here in a big way.
When I first started thinking about the flat earth phenomenon a few years ago my first thought was that it was a joke. Then, a while later, when I realized it wasn’t a joke I thought that it was probably some form of disenchantment with the establishment. I think it is, and I think this is how it works.
Over time you realize that you’ve been lied to a lot. You have even been lied to in a logical and systemic fashion. Maybe you realize that the school system in the United States is based on a Prussian model that was specifically designed to produce obedient people that would be willing to be soldiers and factory workers and sacrifice for the greater good. Maybe you realize that a lot of things about history were left out in school, and other things that aren’t true were put in.
This is especially easy to see when you study other countries. You see all of the lies that those people over there are being fed and you can’t believe they believe it all. Then you think, “Wait a minute. If they’re being lied to and don’t know it, is it possible that I’m being lied to and don’t know.” Next, you get on the internet and pretty soon you’re so far down the rabbit hole that you’re not sure which way is up. At least, that’s what I did in my early teens. But, I think the process could be a little different for flat earthers.
Let’s say you’re completely disenfranchised with someone. You think they’re completely stupid. And let’s say you have good reasons. They’ve told you a bunch of lies that you’ve found out were lies. They’re obviously keeping other secrets. So, you decide to just go against everything that they say. That may even work better than believing everything they say.
In this case we have the same social verification process, it’s just working in reverse. Instead of the fact that they believe something increasing the odds that you will believe it to it’s doing the opposite. If they believe it then you don’t. It’s the opposite of a shared reality. You refuse to share any reality with them. They must have access to no truth, only falsehoods.
If this person happened to be the person that told you the earth is round, or a sphere, or whatever approximation of truth that you want to think about, then you would have no logical choice other than to say and think that the earth is something other than round. Maybe the old models of the earth being flat is true. Maybe it’s shaped like a piece of Cheerios cereal. Whatever, you just know that it’s not what that lying person told you, it must be something else.
Then, you get into action and work on verifying whatever theory that you think makes the most sense other than that the earth is round. You find a few other people that are also disenfranchised and hate this person and now you’ve got social verification working on your side to create a new shared reality that you can think of as objective truth.
This perfectly explains the flat earth phenomenon, just with all of the establishment instead of a person as the lying object of scorn. From this perspective, I can understand it. It’s overly reactionary and not useful as far as I can tell, but I understand it. And, you’ll notice that the flat earthers are the dispossessed and disenfranchised members of society. As the movement grows then more of the dispossessed flock to it like moths to a flame in an unconscious protest of sorts against the lies they feel they’ve been fed by corrupt organizations. Hey, the motivation isn’t unreasonable.
This leads us to conspiracies in general. Conspiracies are just shared secrets. If two kids sneak into the liquor cabinet and drink some one night. Then they fill the bottle back up with water and add some food coloring so that it won’t be noticed. Then they keep it a secret. It’s a conspiracy.
All people have secrets. Many people have shared secrets. These are all conspiracies. Rich people have secrets, poor people have secrets, powerful people have secrets, and the non-powerful people have secrets. This shouldn’t be a surprise. I don’t think there is anything controversial about saying the government has secrets. Who killed J.F.K.? It’s a secret.
Some of these secrets can be quite big too. The atomic bomb project had a lot of people working on it. I believe that something like over 100,000 people knew about it. But, they still kept it a pretty good secret. Obviously there were a lot of major secrets kept by all sides in WW2. There are still many secrets kept from that time. Some of them aren’t that secret. (For instance, the medical doctors from Germany were mostly tried and found guilty as war criminals. The medical doctors from Japanese Unit 731, on the other hand, made a deal with the U.S. government. If they gave the U.S. military their research then they were off the hook. That research was a bunch of horrible, horrible stuff. Almost no one knows this, but it isn’t really a secret.)
There are two major problems with conspiracy theories. The first is that they offer answers to secrets. It’s true that the secrets exist. But, it doesn’t mean that whatever theory someone happens to offer up to explain this secret is true. It probably isn’t true. You will probably never know the truth. You can take a guess like everyone else. (I think J.F.K. was probably killed by a collusion between the Soviets, Cuba, and the mob. Jack’s father was involved with the mob. The Soviet/U.S. tension is obvious. Jack tried to have Castro assassinated a bunch of times through the C.I.A. The mob had a lot of connections in Cuba. Lee Harvey Oswald spent time in Russia. The guy that killed him was connected with the mob. Cuba and the Soviet Union were linked. It all just goes together. It’s my guess (or theory, or hypothesis, or conjecture).)
The second major issue is that people that believe these conspiracy theories often think that there is a strict, tight, and static dominance hierarchy in the world. It usually has something to do with bankers. But, they don’t seem to realize that a lot of people are vying for power and influence. This is true in all hierarchies. As the social organization becomes larger and more complex the idea that a single individual or small group can make all of the decisions is ridiculous. (At least they don’t believe in the whole patriarchy thing with the idea of the elimination of the false idea of hierarchy. I blew a woman’s mind a couple of months ago by telling her that dominance hierarchies are older than trees. She had never thought about it before.)
Even ants aren’t that organized. Dominance hierarchies are complex, non-linear, and in constant flux. What we’re really talking about is what level of complexity we’re going to look at the world from. It’s the same thing as the greater approximations of truth. We can look at the world as flat, or round, or spherical, etc. We can also look at social hierarchies at a variety of different levels. This idea that there is an evil supervillain making all of the decisions and everyone else is irrelevant and helpless is the wrong level of analysis. (For more about the complexity of ant social hierarchies check out “Dominance hierarchy of worker ants as directed networks” by Shimoji, Abe, Tsuji, and Masuda.)
Alright, now, onto my related comments concerning a billionaire, a famous author, and Joe Rogan. In reverse order.
Even Joe Rogan stopped saying that the moon landing was faked. He realized that just because there are fake pictures of people on the moon doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. There was a big advertising campaign for the program. How would they have pictures for the posters before they had been to the moon? They faked them. No need for a crazy conspiracy theory to explain that.
The “Discworld” books by Terry Pratchett are great. “Going Postal” is absolutely brilliant. (And, it’s all true. Don’t tell anyone, it’ll be our little secret.)
The billionaire Ray Dalio uses this idea of social verification is an interesting way in his business. He runs everything in a very transparent way, and everyone rates everyone else on almost everything. How they make decisions is based on the believability rating of people for certain situations. It’s an explicit form of social verification that has worked very well for him.
That’s all I’ve got to say about that, for today.
You can find more of what I’m doing at http://www.JeffreyAlexanderMartin.com