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Is the world flat?

Is Earth really round? Maybe we’re actually living on a pancake-shaped planet? Or perhaps it resembles a triangular prism?

These questions form the basis of a debate that has raged on for centuries. Many ancient civilizations subscribed to the belief that Earth is flat. Then science came along and seemingly squashed any notion of this idea — at least, it seemed it did.

I recently watched an eye-opening documentary about modern flat-Earth theorists, known as “flat-Earthers”. This growing community of people vehemently defends the concept that the Earth is flat (if that wasn’t obvious enough to you).

Does this seem too ridiculous to be true? Then you’ll love this post.

As someone who is obsessed with seeking the truth, I was in awe throughout the entire movie. I also couldn’t help but have a ton of questions:

Why did these beliefs form?

How do they propagate?

And what does this mean for the future of humankind?

I’ll aim to answer these lofty questions and highlight some of the insights I picked up from the movie in the rest of this post.

Do these people actually exist?

I honestly had no idea the flat-Earth movement was a thing until recently. It all started one day during lunch with the TruStory team.

While gathered around the table, we were discussing and laughing about some of the fun, quirky debates happening on the TruStory app. Out of the blue, one of our team members said,

“Let’s hope we never have a flat-Earther trying to debate that the Earth is flat.”

That certainly caught my attention — to the point that I almost spit out my food.

“Flat-Earthers? What… on Earth is that?” I asked.

He chuckled and replied,

“People who believe the Earth is flat! You never heard of ‘em?”

“Um… no?” I replied.

My eyes opened wide at this point. I wasn’t really sure what to make of this. Was this some new fad I was unaware of, like the floss dance or fidget spinners? Was I (gasp) getting old?!

My teammate’s eyebrows furrowed. He looked somewhat uncomfortable.

“Yeah, well, they exist,” he said in a serious tone.

I assumed this meant he didn’t want to get into this topic, so I didn’t press it too much more after this.

Instead, I quickly finished up my lunch, saw I had a few minutes to spare before my next meeting, and raced on over to my computer to do some quick Googling about flat-Earthers.

After a few curious search queries, I stood there in shock. “Is this real?” I asked myself incredulously. “These people have to be faking it!” From then on, my research completely consumed my thoughts and time.

Minutes turned to hours. Hours turned to days. Countless nights passed. The sun rose and set numerous times as the Earth spun around it. OR was the sun spinning around the Earth?! I didn’t know what was right or wrong anymore… the ground felt flat beneath my feet. But then why couldn’t I see past the horizon?!

Okay, okay, let’s rewind — I didn’t really spend days researching this. But my Googling did take me down a few rabbit holes. And they left me feeling less and less hopeful for the future of humanity. I had no choice but to figure this thing out.

Fortunately, one of these rabbit holes led me to a documentary about the flat-Earth movement called “Behind the Curve”. Of course, I stayed up later that night to watch it. And I’m glad I did.

How biases affect our beliefs

The movie does an incredible job of documenting the key people behind the movement and how they spread their message. For me, the most fascinating part was trying to comprehend how these people formed these beliefs in the first place.

But to understand why this group of people were able to form these beliefs, it’s important to first understand how humans form their beliefs in general.

A belief is “an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists.”

Fundamentally, there are two ways to form a belief.

One way is to take a set of inputs, study and understand the inputs, and produce an output (i.e., the belief). This is formally known as the “scientific method” — a process for experimentation that is used to explore observations and answer questions.

Inputs → Belief

The overarching goal of science is to discover cause-and-effect relationships. This is achieved by asking questions, carefully gathering and examining the evidence, and seeing if all the information available can be combined into a logical answer.

The other way to form a belief is to first establish the belief and then look for evidence in support of it afterward. In other words, construct a belief and then later try to rationalize it with explanations and supporting evidence.

Belief ← Inputs

As the writer Michael Sherman says in the scientific journal Nature:

As a ‘belief engine’, the brain is always seeking to find meaning in the information that pours into it. Once it has constructed a belief, it rationalizes it with explanations, almost always after the event. The brain thus becomes invested in the beliefs and reinforces them by looking for supporting evidence while blinding itself to anything contrary. Shermer describes this process as “belief-dependent realism” — what we believe determines our reality, not the other way around.

Problems arise when thinking like this is unconstrained. Passionate investment in beliefs can lead to intolerance and conflict, as history tragically attests. Shermer gives chilling examples of how dangerous belief can be when it is maintained against all evidence.

The flat-Earth theory is the perfect example of this type of belief-forming taken too far. Flat-Earth theorists look out on the horizon and see flat land. They experience flatness when they walk. This gives them the intuition that the world is flat. This belief then gets propagated as widespread truth.

But you might be wondering, “What if we just showed them scientific proof that the Earth is not flat?”

Well, cognitive bias makes this easier said than done.

The dangers of not recognizing your biases

There’s an interesting concept known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. In case you don’t know what it means, here’s a quick definition:

“A cognitive bias in which people mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is. It is related to the cognitive bias of illusory superiority and comes from the inability of people to recognize their lack of ability. Without the self-awareness of metacognition, people cannot objectively evaluate their competence or incompetence.

People with substantial, measurable deficits in their knowledge or expertise lack the ability to recognize those deficits and therefore, despite potentially making error after error, tend to think they are performing competently when they are not: ‘In short, those who are incompetent, for lack of a better term, should have little insight into their incompetence—an assertion that has come to be known as the Dunning–Kruger effect.‘”

We all have biases. What we think and experience everyday are based on the stories we tell ourselves to explain what’s happening or what has already happened. Stories are how we make sense of the world.

For example, last weekend, I was chatting with my boyfriend, and he was recounting our experience at Bikram Yoga that morning.

“Man, it was 200-degrees in there. That’s probably why I feel so tired today.”

Meanwhile, I was thinking to myself,

“Yeah, actually it was like 90 degrees in there. You’re probably tired because you got no sleep last night and drank alcohol, which probably made you dehydrated.”

He was telling himself a story to explain how he was feeling. Some of it may have been true, but the rest is mostly rationalization to make sense of his reality.

Now, this type of story-telling is completely natural. It’s actually human nature.

However, stories are inherently subjective. They are full of biases. When these biases cannot be recognized for what they are — that’s when they become dangerous.

In the case of flat-Earthers, they think they know everything there is to know about how the Earth is shaped. Consequently, they disregard any science that disproves this belief. Their lack of ability to recognize this gap in their logic leads them to continue to believe it.

Cognitive biases, if not recognized for what they are, eventually turn into propaganda.

At this point, you may be wondering, “How does someone ever end up thinking that they know everything there is to know?” After all, some of us here are suffering from the opposite problem: Imposter Syndrome.

Well, it usually starts with a lack of trust in conventional wisdom. Some people are educated in such a way that they distrust authority on a regular basis. This spirals inwards on itself and causes a snowball effect to the point that they don’t believe anything.

When you don’t trust anyone or anything, you start to form conspiracies to explain different phenomena you’re observing but can’t explain. You latch on to some noise, turn it into data, then call it a fact.

I see this sometimes in the Crypto space, unfortunately. People are educated and told not to trust the government. In fact, they’re educated to not trust anything. “Don’t Trust. Verify” is the mantra everyone preaches. As a result, everything is then seen through the lens of “Don’t Trust. Verify.”

But even this gets dangerous if taken too far. The point of crypto is NOT to distrust anything a government or centralized entity does. We can’t deny that the government provides useful functions which otherwise could not be purely done by sovereign individuals. If we stopped trusting the government and every centralized entity altogether, we’d likely end up with much bigger problems, such as the tragedy of commons.

Taking the “Don’t Trust. Verify” mantra too far could take us off the deep end and lead us to some dark outcomes. It’s okay to be skeptical of the government and centralized entities and seek more efficient ways. It’s not okay to be in complete denial of their usefulness in some regards.

There’s a big difference between being skeptical and being in denial. It’s subtle but important:

Being skeptical is okay because it usually means you’re willing to find evidence and understand the truth. Being in denial means you’re not willing to accept anything that is contrary to your beliefs.

If the beliefs don’t align with reality, those in denial will change reality and not beliefs. This type of close-mindedness is dangerous.

It is delusion in its most volatile state.

It’s what leads to extreme beliefs like thinking Earth is flat.

The key to solving bias?

A community of critical thinkers.

Do you know what frightens me the most about all of this? It’s not just about flat-Earthers; it’s about the world at large. We’ve got a growing population of people who simply aren’t encouraged to think critically and evaluate expert resources.

When human thinking is left to itself, it often gravitates toward prejudice, over-generalization, common fallacies, self-deception, rigidity, and narrowness. [1]

We live in a world where we have advanced our understanding of science to a point where we can send humans to the moon. So when you have a group of people who all of a sudden defy all science and go against it, it’s hard not to get frustrated.

But getting frustrated or annoyed at people isn’t going to fix the problem. And neither is shaming them. We must develop empathy and see things from their perspective.

It’s imperative that we understand where they are stuck and get them unstuck. This means teaching them how to think critically.

We must teach people how to acknowledge their own biases so that they can fairly judge both the merits and faults of an idea.

But modern social networks don’t incentivize people to think. They incentivize people to consume and react. I believe this is where TruStory is fundamentally different.

TruStory is a social network to debate ideas. The community is incentivized to write arguments that convey the merits of their ideas. Others are then encouraged to jump in and find faults in those ideas. This back-and-forth process of debate allows us to flush out our viewpoints and get closer to discovering truths.

It’s been amazing to see this community of critical thinkers come together to form a movement. The last thing we want is a world full of people who are easy to manipulate and end up making bad decisions based on flawed logic and thinking.

TruStory is our contribution to helping this cause. What about you?