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    Jon
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    "Flat Earth" photo, and why it's so hard to debunk pseudoscience

    Flat Earth Theory
    Watch for this Photoshopped image to appear on the net as "proof" that the Earth is flat.



    Why do people believe this garbage? A decent answer is: poor critical thinking skills and the proliferation of pseudoscience.

    After that, it may be because of something called Escalation of commitment - when our position is challenged, we "ramp up" our belief about it, to the point that we are too committed to retract it. We've all done this!

    What if we were to put some flat Earth believers into a spaceship, and launch them into space, so that they could see for themselves that the Earth is not flat?

    This is something called Disconfirmed expectancy, where we observe something that contradicts our beliefs.

    Upon seeing the Earth from outer space, would the flat Earth believers then say: "I was wrong?"


    When Prophecy Fails
    Social psychologists Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter famously studied this phenomenon, and wrote about it in When Prophecy Fails. The psychologists pretended to be members of a doomsday cult headed by a housewife named Dorothy Martin. Martin claimed that her extraterrestrial communications had foretold that the world would end in a great flood on December 21st, 1954, and that her cult of true believers would be rescued from this disaster by a flying saucer sent from a planet called Clarion.

    Here's Martin in the center. Behind her is a doctor named Charles Laughead who endorsed her position, and I believe some of her other followers:



    So, on the night of December 21st, 1954, the doomsday cult, headed by Martin, and secretly infiltrated by social psychologists, went outside to wait for the flying saucer from the planet Clarion. This was a big deal at the time, and was covered in the press.



    Needless to say, the Earth was not destroyed in a flood, and the flying saucer never arrived.

    Did the cultists then abandon the cult, now that Martin had been proven wrong? No. Most of them stayed. In fact, their devotion to the cult increased. We call this Belief perseverance.

    Martin then claimed that she received another extraterrestrial message, notifying her that, because of her followers' faith, the Earth had been spared from destruction. Martin had saved her cultists from a fate worse than the Earth being destroyed - admitting that they were wrong.


    The Semmelweis Reflex
    Why, when presented with evidence contradicting our beliefs, do we reflexively reject it? This is called the Semmelweis reflex, after Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian obstetrician. Here's Semmelweis:




    Dr. Semmelweis made a very important medical discovery in 1847. This discovery significantly reduced the fatality rate of newly-born infants. Semmelweis tried to convince his colleagues of this discovery, but they would not believe him. They said his findings lacked scientific reasoning. They ridiculed him, and he lost his job. Semmelweis had a mental breakdown; he was confined to an insane asylum, where he eventually died.

    Dr. Semmelweis's rejected medical discovery was: washing your hands.

    Semmelweis discovered that when obstetricians washed their hands with a disinfectant, the mortality rate of babies in their care suddenly dropped. Semmelweis had carefully logged the data, which is still accepted to this day:



    Years after Semmelweis died, his theories were confirmed by Louis Pasteur and others, and mankind officially accepted that many diseases were caused by micro-organisms we call "germs", and that one of the most important things doctors could do was to wash their hands. Semmelweis is a medical hero in modern times. The oldest medical school in Hungary was renamed Semmelweis University. Hospitals are named after him. Multiple statues of Semmelweis were made. He even appears on a 2008 Austrian coin.

    But in his own time, he was ridiculed and driven to insanity. After all, this was in the Golden Age of Medicine; doctors were considered scientists and gentlemen. It was wrong to accuse such upstanding gentlemen of killing babies with tiny creatures that lived on their hands.


    Pseudoscience in Modern Times
    But what about sane, grown adults, living in modern times (not in 1847), who aren't members of a cult? Do they really believe crazy stuff like that the Earth is flat?

    Here we have Sherri Shepherd, a comedian and former co-host of a very popular talk show called The View, claiming that she doesn't know whether the Earth is flat or not. 2:33 clip, but I've queued it up to the critical part at 0:59:



    Ironically, in the clip above, another co-host, actress and comedian Whoopi Goldberg, positions herself as the rational and scientifically-minded person. Among technically-minded people, Goldberg is most recognizable as the wise and respected Guinan character on Star Trek: The Next Generation, whose legendary "intuition" is often called on to save the crew of explorers when their scientific knowledge fails them.

    Here she is dispensing her sage advice to a perplexed Captain Picard (is that a model of the Earth on her head? )



    And here's a 1:43 clip of Whoopi Goldberg herself, real name Caryn Johnson, publicly questioning whether we really ever landed on the moon.



    Both Goldberg and Shepherd have legitimate contributions to make to the non-technical components of society. It seems like they each encountered a chunk of pseudoscience, carefully crafted to their Confirmation biases, and they didn't have the technical skills necessary to decode it.


    Strategies for Countering Pseudoscience
    So what do we do to counter beliefs that we know are pseudoscientific? If we just tell people "You're wrong", it often has the opposite effect, and it strengthens their Belief perseverance. We've all seen this happen in internet discussions. Have you ever "won" an argument on the internet? In almost 20 years online, I don't think I ever have.

    Here are some tactics that will probably fail:

    -You're wrong.
    -You're stupid.
    -Here's a rebuttal quoting all of your wrong points...
    -Here's a long explanation of why you're wrong...
    -It's you vs. me, and here's why the winner is me...


    Although there are a few studies examining online debate techniques, we don't yet have much data. However, here's a strategy that works in consideration of Escalation of commitment, Disconfirmed expectancy, Semmelweis reflex, and Belief perseverance:

    -State something correct that the person said.
    -Carefully state convincing evidence, without attacking their position.
    -Create a positional "exit ramp" for them to gracefully change their mind. If they can't save face, they won't change their mind.
    -Don't counter their one-sided argument with your one-sided argument.
    -Hedge, instead of being forceful. Say things like "possibly", "potentially", "maybe".
    -Keep to the high road. Present yourself as someone whose side they would like to be on in the future. You're an ambassador for your position.
    -Don't punish them for admitting they were wrong; reward them. Avoid an "I was right all along" mentality. They need to be able to join your worldview as a respected and equal member.
    -Wait. Be patient. Let them come and go, gaining repeated exposure to your worldview.


    Will this work? Usually not. From everything I've read, it's extremely difficult to get people to change their minds. However, if you present your position well, a process called Normalization will occur, by which the person slowly alters their norm from the conspiracy theory to the truth. Because you never antagonized them, they feel safe in admitting their error. At that point, they can be recruited into a fellow debunker.


    More:
    Moon landing conspiracy in popular culture
    Modern flat Earth societies

    Previously: Astronaut Buzz Aldrin punching moon conspiracy theorist in face GIF

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    WOW! Who would believe that???

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    The "Flat Earth Society" claims that their group is the largest one on the globe!

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    I've encountered many otherwise seemingly rational and intelligent people who firmly believe that no man has ever been into space let alone land and walk on the moon. To them the entire space program is nothing more than some Hollywood backed publicity scheme conceived by the Scientologist
    Never try to tell me it can't be done
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    I think it all starts with indoctrinating children to believe in something called 'God' whose powers are so far fetched as to be absolutely unbelieveable but believe people do.
    Apparently there are different 'Gods' for different people and every one of them is the only 'True God'.
    Many years ago I deliberately went mad to stop myself going insane trying to argue with the various 'God bothers'. How does the human race survive?

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    Jon
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    Found one of the Semmelweis coins. This is a €50 gold coin minted in 2008.

    Look at the reverse side photo. They're washing their hands!





    Says aligemeines krankenhaus wien - Vienna General Hospital.

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    This was a fascinating, well-thought-out, and well-researched article. It was also chock full of hubris. I'm not saying I believe in these strange conspiracy theories, but just because you've been told that they are false by some self-righteous scientist on TV doesn't mean you should immediately discount it either. I've learned over my many years to be comfortable with the phrase "I don't know." Is the Earth flat? I doubt it, but I've never been in orbit to see for myself. Therefore, "I don't know." Was the moon landing faked? Probably not, but I haven't been to the moon, OR seen evidence of the landing through a telescope. Therefore, "I don't know."

    To be absolutely and supremely confident about something you haven't actually witnessed with your own eyes is simply the OTHER extreme from the wild-eyed conspiracy nuts. It makes a person into a wild-eyed conspiracy hater, and no better than the people they ridicule.

    ...Just a thought to consider.

    Cybersam

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    mklotz mklotz's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by cybersam View Post
    To be absolutely and supremely confident about something you haven't actually witnessed with your own eyes is simply the OTHER extreme from the wild-eyed conspiracy nuts. It makes a person into a wild-eyed conspiracy hater, and no better than the people they ridicule.
    Intelligent skepticism is always healthy but at some point one has to begin relying on the credible research and experimentation that has gone before. It's simply not possible to confirm everything personally and, if you try, you'll never get anything useful accomplished.

    Are you seriously suggesting that everyone has to go into space to convince themselves that the earth is not flat?
    ---
    Regards, Marv


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    Jon
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    It's an interesting point. Obviously, we don't believe that the Earth is flat. But how are we not succumbing to Semmelweis reflex ourselves?

    Each example above plays out differently.

    Flat Earth Theory - This one is the easiest. We can reasonably verify that the Earth is round without examining it from a far distance.

    Moon Landing Conspiracy Theory - the conspiracists use observation in light of physical laws to make their position, just like scientists, but their analysis is very shallow. Here's a common example:

    Science tells us that there's no wind on the moon. But, look at the photo below: we can clearly see that the US flag on the moon is "waving" in the breeze. Therefore, according to science, it must be fake!



    It's true, there's essentially no wind on the moon (except that created by the Lunar Module). So how is the flag waving? Is it a conspiracy? When we analyze the flag photo more closely, we can see that there's a top support bar holding it in place. The flag is crinkled because it was folded up to conserve precious space in transit, not because it's waving in the breeze.



    In fact, we know that properly flying the flag on the moon was VERY important, but difficult, so NASA engineers came up with a purpose-specific Lunar Flag Assembly Kit:



    In fact, for the second moon landing, Apollo 12, the astronauts couldn't get the horizontal pole to latch correctly, and the flag just dangled like this:



    Dorothy Martin UFO Cult - Interestingly, analyzing this one is a little tougher. After all, don't we intervene in and "save" other less-intelligent animal species when their habitat is being destroyed? The universe is vast; it's reasonable to guess that it contains other intelligent life, and that such life would both be able to predict a world-ending catastrophe on Earth, and would want to intervene to preserve our civilization. In this case, our best bet is to apply the concept of "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Martin's claim was extraordinary, but her evidence was very skimpy.

    Similarly, "We landed on the moon" is an extraordinary claim. But, the third party evidence for Apollo Moon landings is also extraordinary, so it's reasonable to believe the claim.

    This is the difference between pseudoscience (fake use of science), and simply saying "We don't know."

    So, cybersam, in that regard, yes, I agree. The best answer is always "We don't know." In fact, some scientists believe that the true secrets of technology are indeed concealed from us. Not because corporations are "hiding free energy" or the government is concealing a pill that turns water into gasoline or similar such nonsense. The belief is simply that when revolutionary scientific discoveries occur, they're immediately and wrongfully dismissed, because of Semmelweis reflex.

    More broadly, we can look at Brain in a vat theory, which is an example of Simulation hypothesis. This concept is commonly explored in popular culture, most notably with the movie The Matrix. Brain in a vat theory proposes that our reality is simulated, and that everything that we think is real is just being fed to a brain sitting in a vat in a lab. We can't prove or disprove this theory, and we may never be able to do so.

  12. #10
    mklotz mklotz's Avatar
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    "...The universe is vast; it's reasonable to guess that it contains other intelligent life..."

    Waddaya mean "other"? I've got my doubts about its existence here.

    Are we alone in the universe? Yes or no, the answer is equally scary.

    Religion says "yes" but religion's track record on getting scientific questions right is pretty poor; just ask Galileo.
    ---
    Regards, Marv


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