Tuesday, November 23, 2010
Arguing the Absurd - and Winning
At the moment, I am in the middle of reading a fascinating book entitled Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea. I purchased the book in order to read what it says about flat-earth belief in the ancient world. As it turns out, only the first chapter discusses that topic, albeit with much fascinating information about all the different ancient cultures which subscribed to such a belief. The next few chapters turn to a later period - a much, much later period.
Much to my surprise, I discovered that as late as the nineteenth century, when science had certainly dismissed the notion of a flat earth with ample evidence, and people had even sailed around the world, the belief in a flat earth was still being publicly presented and disputed. There were a number of interesting people who made it their life's work to argue for the truth of a flat earth - and were considerably successful at it. Reading the account of these events gave me an overwhelming sense of deja vu, due to the overwhelming parallels with the young-earth anti-evolutionists that I have run into on occasion (such as Dr. Isaac Betech).
Consider this: the strategy of the flat-earthers was to engage in public lectures and seek public debates with scientists. And they were very, very successful at it! While professional scientists knew that the flat-earth position was utterly fallacious, even educated people were impressed at the ingenious arguments and rhetoric of the flat-earthers, and thought that they had proved their case. There is no better illustration of how public debates in front of non-specialists is certainly not the way to determine scientific truth!
When an experiment was finally performed, with both sides present, the flat-earthers claimed that it vindicated them! The experiment was to see how much of a light-house fourteen miles away would be visible through a telescope. The scientists predicted that only the lantern would be visible, due to the curvature of the earth. But on the day of measurement, unusual weather conditions caused refractive effects which exaggerated the effects of the earth's curvature and made even less of the top of the lighthouse visible. Whereupon the flat-earthers declared that the result, which caught the scientists by surprise, demonstrated that the whole system of the scientists was incorrect! It is exactly like how young-earth anti-evolutionists point to various unresolved difficulties in science as "proof" that that the entire enterprise is mistaken.
Another strategy of the flat-earthers was to quote-mine scientists out of context, to claim scientific support for their conclusions - exactly as young-earth anti-evolutionists are fond of doing. This was one topic that I once debated them on, showing how they were distorting the views of those that they quoted, but eventually my opponent pulled out.
Especially interesting was how the flat-earthers would claim that "there is no scientific proof whatsoever" for a spherical earth, and would offer large sums of money as wagers on that fact. One scientist, Alfred Wallace, took up the flat-earther John Hampden on such a wager. It was only because there was a referee that the results of the experiment were decided in favor of Wallace; Hampden insisted that the results had proven the earth to be flat! It is exactly like how the young-earth anti-evolutionists insist that there is no scientific evidence whatsoever for evolution, and demand irrefutable proof--whereas, of course, anyone sufficiently determined to reject a proof can convince himself that he has refuted it.
Also of interest was that Wallace regretted his involvement in this debate. In general, scientists generally preferred not to engage the flat-earthers in debate, since they knew that in public debates it is oratory skills and ingenuity of technique that wins over spectators who are not themselves expert in science. Of course, the flat-earthers pointed to this as showing that the scientists knew themselves not to have any evidence that the world is spherical!
Unsurprisingly, the flat-earthers were not motivated by their scientific research; they never submitted any papers to scientific journals for publication. Rather, they were fundamentalist Christians, motivated by religious beliefs. But they successfully convinced themselves as well as other people that it was on scientific grounds, too, that the spherical-earth model was mistaken.
There's much to learn from history.
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