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    The end of the world (of facts)

    IN MY VIEW, facts are divine gifts, fixed points in an ever-turbulent world. But these days facts are slipping through our fingers, as anyone who keeps up with the news can tell you. It’s happening in politics and religion, yes, but also in science, and in increasingly blatant ways.

    A few months ago I posed a question on Facebook:

    Has there been a recent spike in the number of flat-earthers?

    The ensuing discussion indicated a general, if vague, sense that, yes, flat-earthism seems to be on the uptick. Folks had seen the occasional headline, had heard a passing comment on TV. But nothing conclusive came of it and we all moved on to less clown-ass things.

    My question was inspired by the flat-earth claims of B.o.B and other (mostly minor) celebrites. I eventually wrote them all off as mere notice-me’s. Saying the planet is as flat as a table, and saying it without losing eye contact, is one sure way to stand out from the noise.

    But, anymore, perhaps less so. Now there is more competition, as evidenced by this story from last week’s Denver Post about a group of regular-Joe flat-earthers that meets weekly in a Fort Collins coffee bar. The group “touts itself as the first community of flat earthers in the United States.” Moreover, “Sister groups have since spawned in Boston, New York, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix and Chicago.”

    One regular Joe—they are almost all white guys, apparently—calls it “a new awakening.”

    “Oh ha ha ha!” I laugh: that is my first response.

    My second response—honestly—is to blame Trump, but he’s as much a symptom as a cause.

    Third, a history lecture gears up in my head: “Did you know, Joe, that human beings have been aware of the planet’s spherical shape since at least the fourth century BC, when Aristotle came to that conclusion in the face of clear evidence? And that we achieved round-earth consensus centuries before Columbus and Copernicus… ,” etc.

    None of this would change Joe’s mind, of course.

    There is creationism. There is the antivax movement. There is climate denial. These antiscientific movements drive me batty, each in its own special way. But, though it gives me a headache, I can force myself to see why people might believe these things: creationists’ claims are a bulwark designed to protect their idea of God; many antivaxxers are seeking explanations for their children’s medical conditions; climate deniers often have economic interests at stake. These folks have very human and unremarkable motivations for their science denial.

    But why would Denverite Bob Knodel, a guy who worked as an engineer for 35 years, say something like,

    There’s so much evidence once you set aside your preprogrammed learning and begin to look at things objectively with a critical eye. You learn soon that what we’re taught is mainly propaganda.

    The round earth? That’s propaganda? Whose? Who benefits by it? And, given the number of pilots and air traffic controllers and astronauts and aerospace engineers in the world, does he have any idea how hard it would be to keep that lie going, even for a few weeks?

    My final question, and the one I most want answered, is: What is Knodel’s motivation? What does this do for him? What is he getting out of this?

    No matter how hard I try, I just can’t imagine any world in which this makes sense. I’m unable to construct any context at all for it.

    But I can speculate. Maybe these folks are feeling left behind, or dismissed, or something. Maybe flat-earthism is just pushback against the powers that be, a middle finger to the Establishment from teed-off and disillusioned middle-aged white dudes. Perhaps these flat earthers simply have a need to see themselves as guardians of the secrets of the world, to be privy to the new shit, to be noticed, to be respected.

    Yes, respected. Maybe. I don’t know. I’m just guessing here.

    It’s easy to laugh this off. Maybe we should. The jokes write themselves, don’t they? I mean, it’s one group in one coffee bar; what’s the harm in making fun?

    But it’s a piece of our national syndrome, I tell you, and we’re all in this together. So I’ll keep teaching science to college students and congregations and ministers and anyone else I can find who will listen. You keep doing your thing. And while you do, please, please don’t let yourself or anyone you love leave the world of facts.

    Comment Pages

    There are 2 Comments to "The end of the world (of facts)"

    • Curtis says:

      “…facts are divine gifts, fixed points in an ever-turbulent world. ” I would love to hear you develop that insight.


    • don salmon says:

      There are long texts written in the 1920s and 1930s describing how essential it is to sow doubt and confusion among the people in order for fascism to take over.

      There is no doubt that similar forces are at play today. Sowing doubt about “elite” facts gives your engineer friend (who no doubt hasn’t a clue the extent to which he is a member of the top.01 elite if you take the world population into account) to feel he is one of the “oppressed” (it’s funny how “Leftist” that sounds for someone who is probably a knee jerk radical rightist)



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