Lessons from a Flat Earther
'Why do you believe the earth is flat?' George asked me. I had to come up with a good answer
George Papas is not joking. He believes the earth is flat. He believes that the entire human species has been hornswoggled and conned by NASA, a handful of scientists, fake astronauts and the Freemason's Society into believing that the earth is round. George is an IT Director in an international relocation agency. Logic, systemic thinking, and hard analysis are presumably his stock in trade. And he is convinced that we are all being duped.
I went for the first meeting of Bangkok's Flat Earth Society on Dec 29 not because I believed in its basic premise but because, in this post-truth world of fake news and outright lies, a part of me says we must listen to all points of view, even the absurd ones, and decide which one is probably true through research, enquiry, evidence and good thinking.
If George believed earth was a flat disk, I wanted to understand why. When a person believes something that seems obviously false, it is normal to want to shake the person and scream, "Can't you see how very wrong you are?" The flat earth is an extreme example of a preposterous belief, one that can reliably produce hoots of derision. But as I traveled to meet George, I reminded myself of others things we believe that are supported by no proof at all.
Many Hindus believe that Vedic Indians had invented aeroplanes, possessed nuclear bombs, developed plastic surgery and regularly travelled to outer space. Their 'scientific' evidence is in the mythical stories of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Most Indians have believed for millennia that cows are divine. Proof has not been necessary. A sizeable section of the world believes without any proof whatsoever that the universe was created in seven days and that we all descended from two people named Adam and Eve.
Millions of people believe that if you bribe god with prayers and donations at Tirupathi, somehow your wishes will come true. At least half of America's population now believes that brown or black people are evil, commit crimes, rape women and should be kept out of the country. Nearly every religion believes that those who don't worship their particular God are illiterate heathens or infidels. Some go so far as to say they should be killed if they can't be converted.
Why should it be specially preposterous that George Papas believes the earth is flat? Although seven had signed up, I was the only one who showed up at the park. George told me that the one man most responsible for writing and proselytising about earth's flatness, Eric Dubay, author of The Flat-Earth Conspiracy, now lived in Bangkok, and might attend. "It is specially painful to realise," he said, "that I had been lied to about the earth being round when I was an undiscerning child. I was stuffed with fake facts that contradicted the evidence of my eyes."
Eric Dubay, who never showed up, believes the heliocentric view of earth is an elaborate hoax conjured up by NASA and the Freemasons Society. He claims NASA never sent a man to the moon but fooled us all with doctored photographs and other 'proofs' of the moon landing. Here's the thing — we already live in a world where fooling all the people all the time is no feat. Anyone armed with YoutTube instructional videos can create photorealistic images on demand depicting whatever you like. In movies like Avatar and Jurassic World, stunningly lifelike fake creatures and planetary landscapes come to life. Even knowing that they are special effects doesn't shake our immersion in the fake reality.
"Why do you believe the earth is flat?" George asked me, and I knew I had to come up with a credible answer. It wasn't difficult. "As a journalist, I realize that two different people could look at the same data and come up with opposite conclusions. Also, everything I know is because someone told me. I saw a photo, heard a story, or Google told me so. I have not actually seen for myself that the earth is round. It's no more than a highly convincing hypothesis based — on hearsay and secondary evidence."
But here's a truth in this post-truth world— mankind has always been a dishonest, post-truth species. Remember when the truth was that the earth was flat and only a freak called Galileo thought it was round? The USA started the Vietnam war by lying that Vietnamese torpedo boats had fired on the USS Maddox. German people believed that Jews were the cause of the world's problems and allowed their horrific extermination. The world's most powerful men insist the earth is not getting warmer. Indians believe that a mere 14.2% of the population threaten the rest because they believe in Allah. Me — I'd rather believe the earth is flat.
Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org Send your feedback to email@example.com
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