The first time I heard about a theory of the shape of earth, I was in elementary school. I saw this children’s history program, which said that, centuries ago, people (in China) believed the earth was flat and square-shaped like a chessboard, and the sky was an umbrella, which was connected to earth by a pillar at the center of the world. Later in this program, I was told that nowadays people believe that the earth is an approximate sphere. In retrospect, I bought into this narrative immediately, even though I found the chessboard/umbrella imagery way cooler than the sphere. I carried on for almost two decades, thinking that the earth is a rough sphere until I was met with alternate theories in college.
“The earth is flat.” says my friend Joe (pseudonym).
Me and my friends made so much fun of Joe after bursting out in laughter. Joe was enough of an adult to be a good sport. After everybody calmed down, I asked him for real why he felt that way. Why did he choose to go against the testimony of basically every person he’s ever known since he was born?
“I think there is an appropriate time to go against testimonies and current theories. It’s when you have a) strong doubt of the current theory or its evidence and b) an alternate theory with some evidence.” Joe patiently explained.
“I think this is a decent doctrine for belief formation. What are your doubts about the round-earth theory?” I got intrigued by him on another level. He’s intelligent. With the community of flat-earthers steadily growing, if I wish to converse with one, I probably shouldn’t just call them all stupid and try to “enlighten” them.
“Here are some of the predominant reasons to believe that the earth is round. Everybody says so; it’s common sense. But common sense is virtually the worst source of rational knowledge. Common sense suggests all sorts of nonsense for irrational reasons. It was common sense that lipid was the leading cause of obesity when carbohydrates were; it was common sense that weed is extremely addictive and kills; it was common sense that witches don’t float when thrown into water tied to cement while innocents do. I do not source common sense for serious rational matters. Consider a serious, rational source like NASA, you say. NASA is a federal institution, which means, knowingly or not, it looks out for federal interests, which may be epistemic and rational, but it’s safe to assume that it gets political frequently. So, I can’t know which claims are genuine. Some people tell me that they can see the curvature of the earth with their naked eyes on a ship at sea. This can’t be. The naked human eye can see up to about 5 km on a perfect day. If the earth is as big as everyone believes, no curvature should be detectable within 5 km by the naked human eye.”
“So, maintaining these doubts, I turn toward evidence for an alternate theory. You can refer to the experiment conducted by this guy Darryl with a spirit level on a plane. If the earth is round and thus planes must dip their heads constantly to remain on the same altitude, the air bubble in the spirit level should move backwards instead of staying in the center. The bubble stayed steadily in the center.”
I thought about all this for a few moments and I prepared a response. “I, too, discourage sourcing common sense when it comes to serious rational matters, and I appreciate your skepticism of scholar’s arational or irrational interests. To the best of my knowledge, it’s a fact that there is no first-hand experience on the surface of the earth without any equipment that shows the curvature of the earth. So, I recognize the doubts that you may have about the narrative of how the earth is round. However, I dismiss your evidence for your alternate theory. Even if the plane’s dipping of its head is significant enough to be reflected on the air bubble, the bubble wouldn’t go backwards, it would float upwards as a result of centrifugal force, which, as the plane dips its head, pulls the liquid down for being heavier than the air bubble. In fact, after watching a lot of Youtube videos which is where most flat earth ‘research’ is, I found that I can argue why every single one of those experiments cannot possibly show its hypothesis by middle school physics and geometry. My biggest problem with your flat earth outlook, however, is this: even taking into consideration the unintelligibly esoteric, sometimes suspicious, claims by the scientific community and its members’ various arational and irrational behavior, the scientific community is still a better source of facts and rational interpretations than an untrained individual’s experiments and reasoning. Your flat earth outlook is vitally based on the rejection of this claim. I have heard some of you guys call yourselves realists because you think scientists tend to act and talk with their heads in the clouds. In the spirit of that realism, perhaps you can see a degree of realism in my claim about a faulty scientific institution being more credible than an untrained individual?”
After being forced to reflect, I chose to maintain my belief that the earth is round. To the best of my knowledge, a round earth is compatible with everything I hold true, while a flat earth is compatible with a small subset of everything I hold true. Even if all scientists are wrong or lying to me, which is such a radical and unrealistic thing to believe, my best option to reach optimal epistemic status is still to assign high credence to scientists’ claims.
Shout out to my friend Joe.