Sunday, October 30, 2011

Flat Earth Darwinist

I am a lucky enough person to be able to run during my brief lunchtime at work. I enjoy more than simply the luck that comes from realizing the grace of a tolerant work environment. When I run I escape into a wilderness where the curvature of the earth can be seen over dry land. Buildings, and for that matter anything manmade, refuse to contaminate the horizon. I can see forever, and then the world simply ends. If I were inclined to be a flatlander the scenery through which I run could be used as stark proof for my beliefs.

I am not inclined to believe the earth is flat. It is true that before I escaped puberty the first grainy images of the earth from space were popularly displayed. It is true that many hundreds of years before I was born the idea of a flat earth had already been largely discredited. Maps and globes that proudly displayed a spherical (or pretty darn close to spherical) earth were the standard means of representing our planet for a very long time before I ever saw one. Yet, if we go back in time far enough, we will find people who honestly believe that the earth is flat. How can this be?

When I look out to the edge of the earth I know there is something beyond it. When I look out to the edge of the earth I also realize that it is just not all that far away. When I put the farthest thing I can see in reference with something, like a mountain or a big rock, I realize that the earth disappears at a distance I could walk to in a day. It would be a really long walk, but the distance is easily grasped. When I try to think of the distance between earth and Alpha Centauri I become dizzy from the use of unimaginable orders of magnitude. When I try to think of the horizon I am ticked with the idea that a good marathon runner could span that distance in a few hours, and that even I could run it in just a couple hours longer than that.

The Marathon derives its name from a historic battle fought in the summer of 490 BCE. Around that time there were supposedly large numbers of people who thought that the earth was flat. Not only did Pheidippides run farther than the edge of the world, but the battle of Marathon itself was against an enemy who had traveled in ships from a distance many times greater than the distance to the edge of the world. If the ancient folks really believed that the earth was flat then the whole “falling off the edge of the world” element was probably not so important. There must have been some set of explanations for why the horizon existed which were sufficiently untestable that they filled the need for explanation. The edge of the visible world could be explained away as an annoying phenomenon; deal with it and move on.

The reason we can be so easily convinced that someone like Pheidippides thought he was running on a flat earth is that we can easily see how a flat earth theory works. When we build, conceive of distances, or do most any mundane manipulation of geospacial coordinates we can treat the earth as flat with impunity. Most of our lives can be productively spent treating the worlds topography as an “I don’t care”. Though modern civilization has created many thousands of activities that require the realization of a spherical earth most people would be unaffected if they were forced to believe that the earth was flat. How could you force them to believe such nonsense? How about threatening them with something nasty…like eternal damnation? Just get someone to write a book, or pretend to discover some hidden plates which have the flat earth gospels on them.

You may think I am being mean spirited in suggestion of even imagining pulling off such a whimsical intellectual falsehood. What good would it do? Hmmm…let me think about that one.

Isolating a large group of productive individuals on the basis of self-limited understanding of the universe might produce a useful well-defined cadre of like minded individuals. Here you would have a cluster created by mutually supported gullibility. What else would they believe? What lengths would they be willing to go to in order to protect the underpinnings of their mutually held delusions? The flat earth gospel would be an effective screen for ideas that might disrupt the cluster. Belief that the earth was round would be a good indicator of the potential presence of other contaminating ideas. Converts? Converts are great! If you can really be convinced that the earth is flat you should be able to be convinced of anything!

I think that the potential use of flat earth ideology is too damaged by centuries of contaminating thought to be of much use. It would be better to find a gentler, softer, less invasive concept to use as a ideological filter. Racism and nationalism have been used to great effect, but by design they are limited in their scope. A scientific concept would be best. One that has only been around for a few hundred years at most would be ideal. The concept should have little impact on most of the population if it is abandoned, but should be sufficiently well known that people can actively discredit it.

I know just the one:

The theory of Natural Selection (i.e. Evolution)

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