In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” the protagonist, Jose Arcadio Buendia, becomes obsessed with astronomical knowledge and devotes countless days and nights observing the sky. In one of the most memorable scenes in the book, he emerges from his seclusion and announces to the public that the world is round, like an orange.
The people react with ridicule, thinking that he had lost all reason. It was only after the wise gypsy Melquiades returned that Buendia was vindicated, praised as a man who independently discovered something already known outside their village.
Today we consider it a given that the world is round, but very few of us can actually offer impromptu proof of it. Of course, there are pictures, but suppose you were to be transported to ancient Egypt. Can you convince the pharaohs that the world is round, without reviewing college physics?
This is one of modernity’s paradoxes: We know a lot, but much of it is second-hand knowledge. We know that we’re made up of cells, molecules and atoms, but few of us have actually looked through an electron microscope. The DNA in our imagination is but an illustration—a representation that bears little resemblance to the real DNA.
I have no problem with this epistemology (that is, how we know what we know), because that’s the foundation of our modern, specialized society. I don’t need to know how microchips work, but I can use a laptop. I’ve never seen them myself, but I believe in the existence of Uranus and Neptune.
But while the specialization of knowledge has benefited us greatly, our detachment from the original means of knowing what we know — i.e., through direct observation—means that knowledge itself has become a matter of trust, and that we can easily be misled into believing, or disbelieving, anything.
One example is the idea that the earth is flat. Though the ancients have long postulated that the earth is a sphere, this did not enter mainstream thinking until the Middle Ages, and by the time Magellan’s fleet circumnavigated the planet there was little doubt about its shape and size. The definitive moment, of course, was when human beings finally saw Earth away from it — that is, when satellites and astronauts reached space.
Today, however, some people — including Shaquille O’Neil and Kyrie Irving — still believe that the earth is flat. When a PhD student in Tunisia submitted a dissertation defending this “worldview,” It caused an outcry in the Arab world. “How does one explain such stunning ignorance of basic astronomy, coupled with such brashness and insolence — rejecting Copernicus,
Kepler, Newton, Einstein, Hubble, and everything in science?” one writer wondered.
An important requisite of these beliefs is their rootedness in people’s mistrust of the “establishment”: Just like moon-landing conspiracists, flat-earth adherents claim that world governments and hegemons, aided by academics and the “biased media,” are hiding the planet’s nature to perpetuate their domination.
A second requisite for the formation of unscientific beliefs is a community that believes them. When you have other people believing the same things that you do, you feel affirmed, making you firmer in your convictions. The PhD student was mocked by academics (her submission was rejected), but she may find community among those who interpret the Quran in a certain way. In turn, she provides them with a scientific vocabulary by which to legitimate their beliefs. This brings us to a third requisite: “expert” legitimacy.
All of these came to the fore during the solar eclipse of Aug. 21, 2017, which believers took as evidence — not a refutation — of a flat earth. Again, we saw narratives of conspiracy (the moon and sun are “Nasa holograms”), the use of expert-sounding or arcane language (i.e., “Zetetic astronomy”), as well as an entire community affirming such beliefs.
I’m sure Earth wouldn’t mind if some humans think it is flat, and to a certain extent, neither should we. But what of the far more dangerous things people are believing?
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