Flat Earth Week, Day 5: Ridicule Is The New Evidence


I’m pretty sure I’ve already mentioned this, but I would like to direct your attention to John Baez’s Crackpot Index, which is, in Baez’s own words, “a simple method for rating potentially revolutionary contributions to physics.”  I have no idea whether Baez had Flat Earthers in mind when he first devised the index in 1992, but we must agree that the flatness of Earth – if it were true – would certainly be revolutionary (but then again, perhaps revolutionary is the exact wrong word to describe Flat Earthers’ model of our planet.)

Anyway, Baez’s Crackpot Index assigns all claims a -5 starting value, then adds points for each attribute of the claim that smacks of crankiness.  The point values range from 1 point (for statements that are widely agreed to be false) to 50 points (for claiming that you have a revolutionary theory but providing no testable predictions).  If a “theory” ends up with a positive score after the points are tallied, then it might be called a crackpot theory.  The more positive the score, the more cracked the pot.

I will leave it as an exercise for the reader to calculate the Crackpot Index for Flat Earthism, but there are three scoring plays on the Index that resonate particularly strongly with this meme.  To wit:

20 points for defending yourself by bringing up (real or imagined) ridicule accorded to your past theories

Any idea, good or bad, that contradicts conventional wisdom will be attacked.  That is one of science’s safeguards.  It is the proponent’s duty – and no one else’s – to defend the idea.  If he comes armed with evidence and sound logic, then eventually his idea will worm its way into the mainstream and become widely accepted.  On the other hand, if he whines about how nobody will take him seriously because he’s challenging the orthodoxy, then his complaint will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Some Flat Earthers make the mistake of thinking that because all new ideas are attacked, and because some new ideas later become accepted truth, then any idea which is attacked must therefore be true (and especially their idea).  That’s like saying that because all babies have trouble shooting 3-pointers, and because some babies grow up to be NBA stars, then all babies will one day grow up to be NBA stars.  When you put it that way, it sounds ridiculous (and it is!) but that’s how crackpots imagine science working.

You cannot whine your way to scientific acceptance, just as you cannot whine your way into the NBA.  You’ve got to put in the work.

40 points for comparing those who argue against your ideas to Nazis, stormtroopers, or brownshirts.

I don’t know which regime the armed men in this meme belong to, but they seem quite upset with the fellow in the middle, the ersatz Flat Earther.  This seems to be a favorite paranoid fantasy of Flat Earthers and crackpots in general:  Not only does the scientific establishment ridicule their ideas and refuse to take them seriously, but the orthodox scientists are actively gunning for them.  Of course, the scientific community does no such thing.  They would be quite happy to ignore Flat Earthers, except that some Flat Earthers have an insatiable need for attention.

40 points for claiming that the “scientific establishment” is engaged in a “conspiracy” to prevent your work from gaining its well-deserved fame, or suchlike.

That’s a big check for Flat Earthers.

Now let’s be clear about one thing: Baez was probably only halfway serious when he created the Crackpot Index, but the Index is rooted in reality.  Baez included these plays in the Index because this is how real crackpots behave.  They present an idea that is thoroughly outlandish, without evidential support, then wallow in paranoid self-pity when the scientific establishment predictably refuses to take them seriously.  That’s exactly the opposite of how a real scientist behaves.  A real scientist would know that all of her claims require evidence.  She would understand that the more controversial her claims are, the more evidence they require.  She would not dream of asking the scientific community to accept her ideas sans evidence.  She would work tirelessly to procure that evidence, then evaluate and re-evaluate the evidence before presenting it for judgement.  And if the community found that her logic was flawed or her evidence was lacking, she would either change her hypothesis accordingly, or redouble her efforts to gather additional evidence.  At no point would she claim that members of the scientific community are hidebound reactionaries (+20 points) who serve only to defend the orthodoxy (+20 points).

Flat Earthers might want to be treated with the same respect as career scientists, but they refuse to play by the same rules as career scientists.  Like it or not, the rules exist to protect a process that is still the best method ever devised for learning about the natural world.  When Flat Earthers are ready to come to the table with real evidence for their claims, the scientists will be ready to listen to them.  However, as long as they are armed only with cynicism and a general distrust of scientific authority, they would do well to knock it off with the persecution complex.


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