I recently read this rather amusing/tragic story about the Flat Earth Society. Believe it or not, there is such a society, and they really do believe that the earth is flat. It’s preposterous of course, but the president of the society is adamant that he isn’t trying to be difficult. “To look around, the world does appear to be flat” he says, “so I think it is incumbent on others to prove decisively that it isn’t. And I don’t think that burden of proof has been met yet.”
If a thousand years of physical science, gravity, space travel, or even a big telescope isn’t enough to tip the burden of proof in favour of mainstream opinion, there’s nothing left to offer. A group of people maintaining such arcane opinions are probably best ignored. On the other hand, it’s pretty remarkable that there are enough flat earthers to maintain a society. The internet has a unique capacity for providing rallying points for obscure beliefs.
In the past, claiming you believed in a flat earth was likely to get you shunned by friends and family, but the internet gives you access to a world of opinion. No matter how obtuse your point of view, there is bound to be someone out there who will agree with you and reinforce your preconceived ideas. If you want to believe that earth was colonised by aliens, or that Princess Diana was assassinated by the Queen, you’ll find all the ‘evidence’ you need to prove yourself correct.
Obviously I can’t complain. I’ve found people in the simple living or the post-growth movements that I’d never have met otherwise, and some of them are now good friends. The internet has an incredible power to bring like minded people together, and that’s wonderful. It’s also very dangerous.
I’m thinking of course, of climate skeptics, regularly dubbed flat earthers by the media (which must annoy the actual flat earthers). Hardly anybody wants to believe climate change is happening. We’d all much prefer it wasn’t, and a quick google search reveals that, lo and behold, we can all relax. It’s a hoax and a scheme hatched by Al Gore to get our money. Phew.
Unfortunately the scientific process is its own worst enemy when it the internet comes into play. If the scientists are doing their job, each new theory or piece of research will be critiqued and examined. Then the work will be defended, improved, or perhaps abandoned if a serious flaw is uncovered. Science moves forward through the constant refining of peer review, and it’s only if you follow the conversation and work in the field that you get the whole picture. An internet search will jump you into that process at any point you choose, ignoring all the work on either side, according to the parameters you set. If you search for “hockey stick graph discredited” you’ll naturally find masses of counter-arguments challenging Michael Mann’s famous climate change graphic. Google won’t return the findings of the National Academy of Science examination of Mann’s work, which agreed with it, because Google knew you didn’t want those.
People have always been able to gather around whatever lies make them happy. “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest” as Paul Simon put it. The internet just makes it very easy and very quick. We find what we want to hear, repeat it, and it snowballs into a critical mass of misinformation.
I’ve written before that climate change is the first global crisis of the internet age. The internet is both the leading source of climate falsehoods, and the best way to mobilise action. How strange that the same tool that could lead us safety could just as easily lead us over the edge.