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:
-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.
Moon landing conspiracy in popular culture
Modern flat Earth societies
Previously: Astronaut Buzz Aldrin punching moon conspiracy theorist in face GIF