Seriously guys, I love Flat Earthers
Flat Earthers have taught me so much. And I think they’re right that the world often treats them with entirely unjustified (and unhelpful) contempt. I’m not trolling you, or them, or you if you are one of them, when I say this:
I seriously love and respect Flat Earthers a ton.
I also, you know, think they’re probably wrong about the shape of the Earth.
If you don’t love and respect them yet, I’d invite you to watch the wonderful Netflix Documentary Behind the Curve. You’ll quickly realize that so many of the contemptuous accusations we naturally make against them are completely off-base.
I think our contempt for Flat Earthers is often rooted in a failure to understand what it really takes to get things even a little bit right. These misleading and contemptuous views also seem to spring naturally from normal human psychology, which is more easily concerned with policing in-group and out-group boundaries than it is with pursuing truth. It is easy to think Flat Earthers are those idiots over there. Much harder to figure out how they’ve gone so wrong.
This critique of normal human psychology isn’t intended to be fatalistic about the humans at all! It is in fact to give you hope: if we understand the problem of disrespecting (and also, ironically, becoming like Flat Earthers), I’m confident we can understand the kinds of replacement behaviors that can fix the contempt, and help us fix our own mistakes better.
So what’s wrong with Flat Earthers? How do they get to their false beliefs?
If you watch Behind the Curve, you’ll realize that almost everything you instinctively ‘know’ about Flat Earthers is false.
They are not dumb. They are actually really smart: able to clearly articulate detailed and brilliant models that have at least a degree of plausibility.
They are not gullible. Quite the opposite, in fact: they are extremely skeptical, and highly insistent on testing things and seeing for themselves.
They are not lazy. Many of them think and work a lot harder than plenty of round earthers, in fact. And they go to incredible lengths, passionately pouring their time and money into their research agenda.
They are not horrible people. Although many of them come to Flat Earth from a place of intense loneliness and isolation, they tend to be very warm, funny and creative. For the most part, they’re exactly the kind of people I really enjoy being around.
They are informed. They know far more information than I do about the science of the Earth’s shape (citing accurate facts and figures and details that I couldn’t hope to remember), AND they are also highly informed about their own body of theory and how it relates to the mainstream view.
They are not acting in bad faith. At least not in the sense that they just want to troll people by pretending to believe in Flat Earth. I don’t think you can explain the movement, and all of the energy and work and time that people invest in it, unless you understand how sincere and authentic they are in their views.
All of this should probably utterly horrify us.
If these informed, warm, hard thinking, hard working, critical thinking, evidence gathering, highly intelligent people who are acting in good faith can get something as basic as the shape of the Earth wrong, what hope is there for any of us?
Well, if our hope is only in being informed, warm, hard thinking, hard working, critical thinking, evidence gathering, sincere and smart then yeah. Time for some despair.
Is that what your hope was in? Did you think of yourself that way? Did you think you were better than Flat Earthers because they supposedly aren’t that way, but you are? Welcome to the club. I had some mixture of those feelings, for sure, and I imagine most people do. These inaccurate and ill-founded judgments against Flat Earthers are likely to be stirred up powerfully if you ever suggest that someone is acting like a Flat Earther.
(I’ve tested it, guys. It is a great way to drive people crazy. But I’m honestly not in this to upset people any more than necessary. I’m here to help us all get in touch with our inner Flat Earther. Hopefully, this article helps :D)
Okay, so what did the Flat Earthers teach me? What do I think they get wrong?
Just this: they haven’t been trained to practice reconciliation.
Huh? What do I even mean by reconciliation, and what does this have to do with anything? Isn’t reconciliation about accounting, or apologizing to a priest or something?
Maybe you have heard of The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. But have you considered how deeply connected truth and reconciliation might be? Understanding how truth, reconciliation, and science are deeply connected is going to take a little explaining. But with just a little effort, I think you’ll find it all fits together beautifully.
I’m convinced that reconciliation is a foundational practice engaged in by actual scientists, rather than pseudo-scientists, that is necessary to distinguish the enduring truth-seeking and truth-finding of scientists from the inward-curving mistakes of pseudo-scientists.
The absence of reconciliation disconnects pseudo-scientists like Flat Earthers from people who could help them understand their mistakes, and from the world they are trying to study.
How does that work?
Well, here’s what I mean by reconciliation, and being a reconciling community, such as the scientific community when it does its job: a reconciling community is one where people are sincerely committed to trying to correct their own mistakes, and avoid future ones. Healthy scientific communities work this way, and so do healthy families, churches and countries. A big part of why we go wrong, both in terms of science and in terms of morality, is our failure to develop reconciliation habits.
Jesus teaches us how to form reconciling communities through the metaphor of a person trying to remove a little tiny splinter from another person’s eye, while they have a giant plank stuck in their own eye. This is, pretty clearly, intended to be hilarious. (Maybe you had to be there.)
The idea is that the big problems can only really be removed by a person from their own eye. Similarly, a scientist generally has to be the primary person responsible for correcting her own work, because she’s generally the one who knows the work best. Being a member of the scientific community fundamentally involves that community trusting you to substantially check your work carefully, so you don’t waste people’s time too terribly much with shoddy work. They help you check it, too. But if your work is too shoddy and they have to check every single thing, there’s no gain to be had for the community from your work. It can even be detrimental. So first, you learn to check your work carefully. Then a community of people who reliably do that can trust and collaborate and truly build knowledge together.
But even beyond professional scientific communities, how amazing would it be to live in a community where everyone was always sincerely trying to correct their own mistakes, both practical and moral! (Even, like, online, on social media forums. Oh, strange utopia!)
Feel free to dream of a world where each of us really wants to own their failures to perceive the world truly, whenever something is blocking our sight and making us miss important things. That’s the world Jesus envisions.
Now Jesus does also suggest that there are little splinters in people’s eyes sometimes. Anyone who has had an eyelash in their eye can relate to the idea that you might need help with the little stuff. Note that ancient eye surgery was a risky and delicate endeavor that might lead to complications and blindness. And of course, you don’t do eye surgery on someone unless they’ve given you permission, and you’ve prepared carefully, and are calm.
So don’t come away from this telling me you don’t have any planks stuck in your eye, and that you’re licensed for involuntary eye surgery on other people. Nobody is licensed for involuntary eye surgery. Don’t attempt involuntary eye surgery. Especially in the middle of a wrestling match. That’s gonna get messy.
Okay, so with that foundation, notice how helpful it is to talk about truth by saying, “This is what I see,” or “This is what I learned.” Speaking in terms of what we perceive opens us naturally to correction: we’re all familiar with optical illusions, or the way we can fail to notice something because our attention is turned away. Even obvious stuff can be overlooked! I do it all the time with my keys. And glasses. And shoes. And I’m going to stop before this gets gratuitous, but oh, could I go on.
Perception is also worth thinking about, because we can reflect on optical illusions to help us understand some of the predictable, shared, comprehensible, but not overwhelming limits to our perception. While we can’t choose to un-see an optical illusion, we can understand it, and that it is an illusion. That’s awesome!
At the same time, we’re also familiar with the fact that we can’t really navigate the world without perception: saying ‘I see it this way’ simply communicates the complex way our minds dance with the world around us to make sense of things, often reliably enough to make it through the day. At least most days. Some days, not so much.
Also notice that ‘I see it this way’ doesn’t require that we be mealy-mouthed or uncertain. We can say: “It really looks like you’re about to drive off a cliff.” In fact, if it looks like we’re going to drive off a cliff, it is perfectly fine to say, “DON’T DRIVE OFF THE CLIFF.”
You might even be bold enough to say things like this: “At least to me, it seems that the evidence for the Round Earth is overwhelming.”
If you have a track record of demonstrating that you understand the limits of human perception, and it looks like you’re heading toward a cliff, you don’t actually have to always start every sentence with, “I understand that we might be in a giant simulation or something, and that all human perception involves complex interactions between our brains, perceiving organs, existing models, fast and slow processing, and the mystery of Creation beyond our minds, and that predictable irrationality and misperception are a sad but currently unavoidable aspect of the human condition, perhaps addressable to some degree by advanced technology but maybe also a necessary result of our finitude. And based on that understanding, and of course recognizing that I might always be wrong, it appears to me that we might possibly be about to ….” (AAAAAAHAHHHHH SPLAT.)
It’s okay to say stuff is true, meaning it looks true. And if you think you’re heading for a cliff, but it turns out you weren’t, you’ll probably laugh and apologize quickly. If you have built good reconciliation habits, you’ll probably say something like this: “Oops. I thought the hill was a cliff. That really startled me. Sorry, I was wrong to shout that it was a cliff. Did I freak you out? OMG, sorry, I didn’t mean to freak you out. How are you doing? Do you want me to take a turn driving … would that help? It would? Great, I will.” (I think I’m going to start doing Centering Prayer for 30 minutes a day again, to help me freak out less.)
In that simple little example, you have already learned the basics of reconciliation. I’m going to use it to draw this out a bit more. SO:
HERE’S SOME FREE RECONCILIATION TRAINING
STEP 1: APOLOGIZE
Like, actually apologize for YOUR SPECIFIC behavior, not for how someone else felt or some nonsense like that. THAT’S NOT AN APOLOGY.
For example, this is a real apology:
“Oops. I thought the hill was a cliff. That really startled me. Sorry, I was wrong to shout that it was a cliff!”
It is fine to get present to what was going on by saying things like “that startled me.” But it becomes an excuse if you don’t end up at an actual apology. The form is like this, “Sorry I DID X.” If instead you say, “Sorry you felt bad,” or “Sorry you’re so sensitive,” or “Sorry I let YOU drive,” THEN YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG. Take a deep breath and think about planks.
Notice here too that it is great to apologize about small stuff! Offering and asking for apologies are how healthy people structure everyday interactions, and apologies don’t need to be about things where you feel a heavy burden of guilt. Now, big and powerful apologies can and do address huge things like that, and true apologies are often harder to do the more powerful and important they are. But we can build up the skills involved in apologizing for bigger things by practicing little apologies well.
When we truly apologize, we understand that it commits us to the steps that follow.
STEP 2: LISTEN WITH GRATITUDE, IF GIVEN THE OPPORTUNITY
IF the person is generous enough to help you understand the impact you had on them, invite them to help you out, and receive whatever they tell you about your impact as a gift.
“How are you doing?”
Don’t demand that they tell you, and DON’T TREAT THEIR DESCRIPTION AS AN ATTACK. Make sure you’re in a place to receive it as a gift that will help you improve.
Scientists understand that critique by someone with experience is a precious gift; people really interested in doing science invest a lot of time and money so that they can have access to communities of people who know how to critique their work well. It is a precious gift to have someone invest their time and energy in teaching you what you’ve missed.
Everyone has experience with and insight into being themself, and so they can all teach you valuable things by helping you hear the impact you had on them. Everyone has a PhD, and more, in being themself. It is appropriate to deeply appreciate their expert advice as a precious gift, if they will explain to you the impact you had on them so that you can learn and grow from it.
STEP 3: MAKE AMENDS, IF GIVEN THE OPPORTUNITY
Do what you can to fix the problems, including the relational problems, you’ve created. DO NOT determine for yourself whatever amends are adequate, and then decide you’ve made amends on your own.
“Do you want me to take a turn driving … would that help? It would? Great, I will.” Or “No, you think I’m too jumpy right now to drive? Okay. I won’t. Maybe I can make it up to you some other way?”
Making amends involves a cooperative process between you and the person you’ve transgressed against.
When considering amends, it is worth understanding how it relates to forgiveness. Amends can help foster forgiveness, but forgiveness doesn’t depend on amends. People can forgive you even before you make amends, and you can make amends and not be forgiven.
Also, forgiveness does not mean that a forgiver must ignore the wrong. Instead, forgiveness involves the forgiver coming to earnestly desire and seek the good of the transgressor, by releasing their desire for vengeance or punishment. Whatever accountability a forgiving person desires is genuinely rooted in a desire to correct the wrong and repair the breach, which is also clearly good for the transgressor and the relationship. If something has been stolen, a forgiving person may request their property back, not in a demanding way but because it is good for everyone to fix the wrong.
(Important side note on forgiveness, from the standpoint of the forgiver, since I brought it up. Forgiveness can equip you to lovingly confront evil and wrong clearly and powerfully, and can make you less likely to transgress against a transgressor in turn. True forgiveness makes you a powerful agent of change, not a weakling or an enabler. It also frees you from the substantial psychological burdens and physiological costs that a desire for vengeance puts on you.)
When scientists make mistakes, the at-least-passable ones try to make amends by issuing retractions, apologies, and correcting their mistakes. This is also a standard in authentic journalism. In both science and real journalism, misinformation often travels faster and sticks longer than a retraction. So truly making amends for the damage done ideally involves doing a substantial amount of work, or writing a substantial number of articles, that portray the truth more accurately.
STEP 4: SEEK PERSONAL TRANSFORMATION
Do whatever you can to prevent future problems, and beyond that, to learn from the experience to help you excel in truth and love. DO NOT let any shortcomings or impossibilities in listening or making amends keep you from this, because it is fantastic.
“I’m going to get back to doing Centering Prayer for 30 minutes a day again, to help me freak out less.”
Individual transgressions reflect our ingrained habits of mind and body. While a bit old-fashioned, we might refer to the sum of a person’s ingrained habits, which play a large role in determining how they respond in any moment, as “character.”
Practices that improve our character can help us avoid future mistakes, and they can do even more. It is possible to become authentic agents of kindness, honesty, and grace who increase opportunities for reconciliation in our lives and in relationships around us.
Counseling and spiritual friendship, or spiritual direction, are some practices that I have found to really help me and others improve our basic habits. These involve extended generous listening, and they help equip people with support and practices that can help instill good habits. The great thing about habits is that once you establish them, they take little effort to maintain: they become a natural part of life.
Studying anything carefully and well, especially with guidance from people who know a field of inquiry well, are also great character building exercises: not only do you acquire knowledge, you also learn what it means to learn, which involves building the habit of catching and correcting your own mistakes. At their best, these processes help us make a routine of repentance and reconciliation.
Personally I’ve learned so much about repentance and reconciliation, and the from the disciplined but humble postures of academics and scientists I’ve worked with. I remember my brief experience learning from Lonnie Thompson, the eminent climate scientist who I was fortunate to take a class with. What has always stuck with me is his posture of curious humility. He said, “I don’t know” and then tried to figure things out more than anyone I’ve known. I try to say, “I don’t know” almost as much as him. (He also wasn’t shy about confidently saying what he did, in fact, know. This is also worth emulating.)
And personally, prayerful Bible study has also been a profound character building experience for me. I never thought I would say this, because for most of my life I have been very put off by the Bible and the way people abuse it.
For me, a crucial insight that has helped open the Bible up to me has involved grasping that the Bible is a narrative whose central “twist” is all about repentance and reconciliation practices like the ones I’ve named here, along with transformational enemy love and solidarity with the poor. (You’ll find the heart of the twist in Luke 6, with plenty of little breadcrumbs along the way). I’ve also found the work of N.T. Wright and The Bible Project invaluable for helping me understand how to contextualize what I’m reading in the Bible appropriately, and enjoy its enormous riches.
The beauty of learning to read the Bible well is that you realize how easy it is to be mistaken about this remarkable book. It provides constant opportunities to try to correct the mistakes and oversights that inevitably come from trying to read beautiful and profound texts, full of wisdom and insight, from other cultures, other times, and other places.
For a great series on character and moral transformation, I’d also check out this series of lectures from Dallas Willard.
Ultimately, character formation and growth aren’t things we can do on our own. We need each other. We need communities that are patient, reconciling, truth-speaking and truth-seeking to help us learn it well. It isn’t something anyone ever perfects, which is great news: it means we’re all in this boat with opportunities to learn and grow together.
Back to the Flat Earth
So how does all of this relate to Flat Earthers?
THE END OF THE DOCUMENTARY, BEHIND THE CURVE, IS ABOUT TO BE REVEALED
IT MAY INVOLVE SHOCKING EVIDENCE OF A ROUND EARTH
YOU’VE BEEN WARNED
So at the end of Behind the Curve, a grand experiment is carried out with the hope of proving the flatness of the Earth once and for all. There’s a lot of time and effort and thought put into the experiment. And according to the researchers’ parameters … the experiment clearly fails to demonstrate that the Earth is flat.
The fascinating part is what happens next. The researchers and the group do not take a moment to consider that they might have been wrong about the shape of the Earth. In the place of reconciliation, something very different rears its head: a kind of shame at the failure of the experiment, an enduring pride in the Flat Earth identity of the group, and a firm resolution to carry on the fight. They have overcome so many obstacles on the way to proving Flat Earth, so many insults and attacks and outrages, that their character and identity have been deeply formed around it.
So of course reconciliation and repentance scarcely come into the picture. Instead the Flat Earthers skitter over the evidence, rushing back to all of the confirming information that reinforces their identity and their sense of community.
They never stop to properly weigh the possibility that they might actually be mistaken, and have something to correct in their own theory. They’re all splinters, no planks.
And so their findings also never get reconciled, even with their other ‘research.’ They just dash past it and go on with business as usual, as we so often do when we wrong or slight a person, or confront evidence of a factual mistake.
The beauty of the documentary is that it helps you understand how it feels to be them. And it feels … just like being ourselves, most of the time, when we confront challenging information.
Once you understand how reconciliation and repentance work, you’ll find that we all have a powerful tendency to conduct ourselves just like these Flat Earthers when we confront information that challenges us. It takes real effort to break out of it. The more important the question, the more rooted it is in identity, the more resistance there is to overcome.
When something is presented which should, by all rights, lead the humans to apologize, seek insight with gratitude, make changes to address the problem, and work on changing their character so that they do better in the future, they find it very hard. And they tend to find it harder the more important it is.
Watch for this kind of skittering from one argument to the next in yourself and others in response to a useful challenge or critique. This is the Flat Earther in all of us. When you see it, you have an opportunity to invite someone, or be invited yourself, into repentance and reconciliation instead.
Pride and shame create enormous, natural and widespread resistance to reconciliation and truth at personal, family, church and societal levels.
The solution is simple: practice and teach reconciliation, so that we can journey into truth together.
That doesn’t mean it is easy.
But it is definitely worth it.