Why Flat Earthers, Moon Landing Truthers, and Other Conspiracy Theorists Believe Their Own Nonsense
In February 2017, just two days before the 2017 NBA All-Star Game, superstar Kyrie Irving made some interesting claims in a podcast that ended up receiving more attention than the game. He stated:
This is not even a conspiracy theory. The Earth is flat. The Earth is flat. The Earth is flat… What I’ve been taught is that the Earth is round. But if you really think about it from a landscape of the way we travel, the way we move and the fact that—can you really think of us rotating around the Sun and all planets aligned, rotating in specific dates, being perpendicular with what’s going on with these planets [finger quotation marks on planets]? Because everything that they send—or that they want to say they’re sending—doesn’t come back… There is no concrete information except for the information that they’re giving us. They’re particularly putting you in the direction of what to believe and what not to believe. The truth is right there, you just got to go searching for it.
Kyrie isn’t the only one. When online surveyor YouGov conducted a survey asking over 8,000 US adults, “Do you believe that the Earth is round or flat?,” only 84 percent of respondents felt certain that the Earth is round. A total of five percent expressed doubts, two percent affirmed a flat Earth, and seven percent weren’t sure. Even more, over 226,000 Facebook followers of the Flat Earth Society dispute the Earth’s curvature by promoting the false belief that the Earth is flat. However, when someone like Kyrie Irving, a world-famous basketball star with over four million Twitter followers, promotes these kinds of claims, they will gain a lot of attention.
But did Kyrie actually believe what he was saying, or was he merely bullshitting?
As a social scientist, I take Kyrie’s claims very seriously. I don’t take them seriously because I think Kyrie is correct—I know his claims make as much sense as arguing that the Moon is made of cheese. I take them seriously because, as a researcher who studies bullshit, Kyrie’s claims fit a pattern of behavior I see deployed over and over again. A belief in a flat Earth would make sense if there was genuine evidence of a worldwide conspiracy to fake decades of space exploration, a denial of many branches of science, or discoveries of new forces and laws of nature. But it doesn’t really take any of this—all it takes is a mindset that completely disregards truth and genuine evidence. In other words, all it takes is bullshit.
Kyrie encourages us to seek the truth by finding concrete information and “doing some research.” That is a classic bullshitter move—ignore the overwhelming and convincing evidence by implying the real answer is not based on commonly accepted evidence or is actually unknown. Although I won’t pretend to know what Kyrie meant by “research,” had he actually approached the question of the Earth’s shape scientifically, he would have determined that the answer is certainly not “flat.”
If Kyrie wanted to approach this question scientifically, he might have taken a glance at readily available scientific evidence on the issue. Scientists love using this method of analysis because critically evaluating a bunch of studies is much easier (less costly and time-consuming) than conducting their own experiments. There is well-documented evidence: of the Earth’s shadow on the Moon when the Earth passes between the Moon and Sun (i.e., lunar eclipse), the fact that sunrise and sunset do not happen at the same time all over the world, our perspective at sunset, the shapes of other planets, and the fact that worldwide space research programs have gathered massive collections of satellite images—all supporting the belief that the Earth is not flat. As a critical thinker employing evidence-based methods of reasoning, I feel confident that the Earth is spherical. Why? Because multiple, independent sources of inquiry converge—with evidence—on the same conclusion that the planet we live on is shaped much more like a basketball than a hockey puck.
If historical records don’t satisfy Earth-shape skeptics like Kyrie, there is always value in experimental replication (an essential piece of the scientific method). One very simple demonstration was conducted over 2,000 years ago by the Greek scholar Eratosthenes. Eratosthenes determined the shape of the Earth by putting a stick in the ground and doing a bit of math. He was aware that in Syene, the Sun was directly overhead on the first day of summer (June 21st), casting no shadows at noon. Eratosthenes was in Alexandria, nearly 500 miles north from Syene. He planted a stick directly in the ground in Alexandria and waited to see if a shadow would be cast at noon. Sure enough, the angle of the stick’s shadow measured about seven degrees. Now, if the Sun’s rays are coming in at the same angle at the same time of day, and a stick in Alexandria is casting a shadow while a stick in Syene is not, it must mean that the Earth’s surface is curved.
Of course, Earth-shape skeptics could also try out Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan and Spaniard Juan Sebastián Elcano’s route of circumnavigating the globe. Magellan and Elcano set sail from Seville on September 20, 1519, sailed across the Atlantic, passed the southern tip of South America, sailed into the Pacific and Indian Oceans, around the southern tip of Africa, and returned to Seville on September 6, 1522. If you don’t have three years to circumnavigate the Earth, you might take Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager’s route by air—they were the first to do so—which they completed in nine days. In short, there are many routes to get to the same conclusion.
That is a classic bullshitter move—ignore the overwhelming and convincing evidence by implying the real answer is not based on commonly accepted evidence or is actually unknown.
Kyrie isn’t alone in believing something that isn’t true. Many people still believe you can see the Great Wall of China from the Moon, despite the fact that Apollo astronauts confirmed that you cannot. Many people believe that one human year is equivalent to seven dog years, although dog age actually depends on the size and breed of the dog (after seven years, a Saint Bernard is 54, but a Maltese is only 44). It’s often said that you lose your body heat fastest through your head, despite the fact experts have shown humans to be just as cold if they went without wearing pants as if they went without wearing a hat. People continue to insist that giving children sugar makes them hyperactive, despite the fact that virtually all tests show that sugar does not cause hyperactivity. And many people still believe that vitamin C is an effective treatment for a cold, despite the fact that experts have demonstrated little to no evidence that this is true.
Yet, sharing these facts often don’t persuade people who never believed in science in the first place. If someone believes that it is more likely that thousands of scientists, worldwide, are colluding in a conspiracy to hide the true shape of the Earth, then explaining otherwise won’t get you very far. Despite the public criticism Kyrie received for his flat-Earth theory, he stood firm and remained unconvinced, saying in 2018, “I don’t know. I really don’t,” and added that people should “do [their] own research for what [they] want to believe in” because “our educational system is flawed.” It is one thing to suggest people do their research and another thing to make claims about things one clearly knows nothing about—but something tells me Kyrie hasn’t really cared to look at genuine research evidence.
I’m not interested in insulting Kyrie. But as a scientist who happens to study the insidious consequences of bullshit, I am invested in the value of genuine evidence and the blind spots in our reasoning. We should believe the Earth is spherical because that is where compelling evidence, from multiple independent sources, leads us. Flat Earthers, like Kyrie, assume the Earth is flat and chase evidence in support of their claim. But no one has a vested interest in the Earth being round or flat, only in the shape offered by evidence-based methods of reasoning. This is why, as a scientist, I would have absolutely no problem accepting that the Earth is flat if this conclusion were supported by genuine and convincing evidence.
Like many people, Kyrie uses scientific terms without properly employing the scientific method. If he had been more sensitive to the method than the terms, he may have arrived at a very different conclusion. That is because the scientific method isn’t employed to support what one desires to believe. The scientific method is a systematic way of collecting and recording objective observations in the hopes of making objective conclusions about our world. Scientists use the method because they desire to know the truth.
How does the scientific method work? First, scientists observe things and develop theories and testable explanations for what they see. These are called hypotheses. Scientists are concerned with genuine evidence relevant to their hypotheses. Genuine evidence is information that reasonably indicates whether a claim, belief, or proposition is valid. A commonly employed alternative, not to be confused with evidence, is that of mere argument, which is a justification for a claim. The difference is important because evidence can sometimes provide overwhelming reasons to believe that a theory is true (or at least approximately true) or false. For instance, suppose that after eating several plates of spaghetti, we developed a preference for an extra pinch of salt in the sauce. If we approach the question scientifically, we will state that salt is our proposed mechanism for better-tasting spaghetti sauce. This is our hypothesis that must be tested by further investigation—and at this point, the hypothesis is neither right nor wrong.
To keep from fooling themselves into assuming their theories are correct, scientists don’t stop at what they think and hope to be true. Rather, they make predictions based on their hypotheses and test them with fair experiments that are designed to put their hypotheses to the most stringent tests possible. Scientists don’t just seek evidence to confirm their hypotheses; rather, they bend over backward to seek evidence that might refute their hypotheses. When a hypothesis has survived very stringent tests of this type—carried out by the proposer and by other, independent scientists—then, and only then, can we draw the tentative conclusion that the hypothesis is probably approximately true. Likewise, we wouldn’t stop at simply stating or predicting that spaghetti sauce tastes better with an extra pinch of salt—for a prediction with such important implications, we better determine if there is any evidence at all for or against it.
To test our spaghetti sauce example, we could run a controlled study. We would first make two large, identical batches of sauce. Then we would add a pinch of salt into one batch and not the other. Then we would randomly assign thousands of people to taste one of the spaghetti sauces and rate their experience using the same scale. We would be careful to put the spaghetti sauces in the same types of pots so that neither we, nor the taste testers, could detect any differences between the sauces before they were tasted. Importantly, both the taste testers and we (as the experimenters) would remain blind to which sauce contained extra salt, with that revealed only after the taste ratings are obtained.
To keep from fooling themselves into assuming their theories are correct, scientists don’t stop at what they think and hope to be true.
If and only if the salty spaghetti sauce is rated significantly better than the nonsalty spaghetti sauce does the evidence support the conclusion that extra salt makes a positive difference. Any other pattern of data would show that our hypothesis was wrong and that spaghetti sauce preference may be more complex than we first thought.
We would also need to replicate our results through additional experiments (sometimes hundreds and thousands) before our claims about extra salt in spaghetti sauce would be accepted by the greater scientific community. In this way, scientific conclusions can be dynamic—new ideas and methods are invented and old ones are abandoned. It is perfectly normal for scientists to change their conclusions and opinions after learning new information. This is not a sign of weakness; it is, in fact, an essential feature of the scientific method.
When scientists later publicize their experiment-based conclusions, you can be sure that they will be scrutinized. Dozens, if not hundreds, of qualified experts will ask: Are the premises true? Are the conclusions supported by all of the data? Are the arguments and conclusions logically strong? Were all relevant factors considered? It is this often-forgotten stage of critical scrutiny that fortifies the strength of the scientific process. If we were to publish a paper that claims spaghetti sauce tastes better with an extra pinch of salt, you can be sure the scientific community would have its way with the claim—and if the claim was found to be wrong, the community would be the very first to revel in letting us know. This is what makes scientific judgment unique.
Making one’s claims subject to the scientific method is like putting one’s claims on trial, and in that trial, all parties get to ask tough questions. The jury makes the final call. But the jurors are not common citizens; the jurors are qualified experts with the specialized training required to evaluate technical claims. This is why scientists do not own facts. As in cooking, no one owns the fact that a pinch of salt helps to intensify the flavor of food. It’s been tested and unanimously agreed that it improves the flavor of food. It’s why salt is so ubiquitous in the world’s cuisine. And the same can be said of the Earth’s shape.
Of course, scientists are human beings and the process of science is a social enterprise not immune to error—there are times when it’s wrong. After all, it took thousands of years for people to begin to accept that the Earth was spherical. Despite all the clever demonstrations since the time of Eratosthenes—and there were many—it wasn’t until after confirmed reports that Magellan and Elcano completed a circumnavigation of the globe from 1519 to 1522 that the true shape of the Earth was commonly accepted. Only after convincing evidence, provided by explorers who physically tested the idea, did the consensus shift.
This is not a sign of weakness; it is, in fact, an essential feature of the scientific method.
Yet we now live in a world that pays increasingly more attention to fake news, social media opinion pieces, and intriguing but unsupported theories, and less attention to science, skepticism, and good old-fashioned critical thinking. Take, for instance, the Pizzagate conspiracy. In March of 2016, the personal email account of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign chairman, was hacked. By November, just before the presidential election, WikiLeaks published some of Podesta’s emails. Conspiracy theorists were quick to spread the news online that the emails of high-ranking Democratic Party officials, including Clinton, contained coded messages connecting them with a human trafficking and child sex–ring through pizzerias in Washington, DC.
Conspiracies like Pizzagate sound like they may be bullshit, but how can we really know for sure? There must be better ways of evaluating information. Just ask Edgar Welch. If only Welch had better bullshit detection skills he wouldn’t have responded to Pizzagate by shooting up the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, DC, with a lightweight semiautomatic rifle. And he wouldn’t have been sentenced to four years in prison for doing it. Welch was passionate—he wanted to save the kids—but genuine evidence would have led him to see that, in fact, no kids were being harmed at that pizzeria. A public without basic bullshit detection and disposal skills cannot defend itself against the many unwanted effects of bullshit. Better information doesn’t always result in better decision-making, but better decision-making almost always requires better information.
Scientific reasoning and critical thinking are the very best tools we have for finding truth and gaining wisdom and fundamental understanding. After all, science has harnessed electrical energy, eradicated smallpox, engineered genome editing, developed X-rays, built telescopes capable of seeing galaxies trillions of miles away, discovered electromagnetic induction, and created a supercomputer that can do 200 quadrillion calculations per second. Science can free us from dogma, superstition, and bullshit, which are goals I think we should all aspire to.
Excerpted from The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullshit by John V. Petrocelli. Copyright © 2021 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.