The Scientific Method and the Flat Earth II

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Earlier this year I wrote about the scientific method and the flat earth movement. I pointed out that flat-earthers cite a very simplified version of the scientific method, one that is framed for laboratory science, perhaps at the high school level. Flat-earthers conclude this is the one and only way of doing science. With its emphasis on experimentation, flat-earthers use their very restrictive definition of the scientific method to exclude from science an observational approach to testing ideas, which leads them to conclude that astronomy is not a science. This approach appears to be an intentional strategy to exclude any astronomical evidences when discussing the earth’s shape. I can understand flat-earthers’ motivation in this, because even a little knowledge of astronomy torpedoes any notion that the earth is flat. Therefore, if one can set out of bounds the best evidence for the earth being a globe, then one is well on his way to winning a debate about the earth’s shape. But truth isn’t determined by debate, especially when the debate is conducted in such a dishonest way.

Early in the COVID-19 lockdown of much of the country, I commented that some flat-earthers had turned to talking more about COVID-19 than about flat earth. I expressed my surprise that so few flat-earthers seemed to have diverted their attention to COVID-19. Since that earlier article, I’ve noticed more flat-earthers have turned their attention to COVID-19. However, I’ve noticed that one vile group of flat-earthers have remained primarily focused on the earth’s shape. Since the name of this panel and its YouTube channel is a double entendre that has an obscene meaning, I’ll simply call them BB (I told you they were vile). They seem to be leading the flat-earth movement with regards to what is and what is not science. I certainly hear flat-earthers parroting many of the arguments put forth by the BB. Therefore, it is appropriate that I discuss some of the claims of this panel as I further discuss how flat-earthers abuse the scientific method.

The Nasty Boys

Do you want examples of their terrible tactics? Nearly a year ago, Anthony, a sometime member of the BB panel, came into a flat-earth FaceBook discussion group that I’m a member of. This is the only flat-earth discussion group that I belong to. When first invited to join this group, I declined. There are many flat-earth discussion groups out there, and I wasn’t interested in engaging in the sort of things that go on there. It wasn’t until I learned that this group was started and is run by non-flat-earthers that I agreed to join. When Anthony joined this FaceBook group late last year, I didn’t know that he was part of the BB panel. Right away Anthony began pestering me to join him on his internet show to debate flat earth. He promised to be polite and fair in the debate, but I repeatedly declined. Once it became clear to him that “no” was my final answer, he turned vicious, with profanity and name-calling. A moderator of the group soon booted him out for these things (both were clear violations of the rules of the group).

As another example, shortly after my first article about the flat-earth movement came out more than four years ago, a person named John emailed Answers in Genesis disagreeing with my article. The email was forwarded to me. John was testy, but he seemed pleasant enough, and his email from June 12, 2016, contained some reassuring language, such as this:

I’m a Retired Military Officer with a HEAVY background in Biochemistry, Genetics, and Quantum Mechanics. I'm also a Young Earth Creationist and have been defending “The Way” for many years.

I supposed John’s use of “The Way” referred to the name that the very early church used for itself (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23, 24:14, 24:22). I also was intrigued by John’s claim of “a HEAVY background in Biochemistry, Genetics, and Quantum Mechanics.” A heavy background in any of these subjects generally requires a graduate degree in that field, but I thought at best John had an undergraduate degree, so I wondered what he meant by his “HEAVY background” in these diverse fields. It took me a few days to compose a response to John’s lengthy email, and on June 24, 2016, I received a reply. It began with these words:

Thank You for the response sir. It's a testimony to your intestinal fortitude . . . I didn't expect any less from a fellow brother in Christ.

These words are the sort of things that a Christian would write, so I assumed that John was a believer in Christ. As I said, John was a bit testy, but his attitude quickly took a decidedly negative tone, and our interaction soon ceased. Only recently did I realize that John is a member of the BB panel. I’ve since listened to much of what John has to say there. John frequently uses profanity. His manner is rude, arrogant, and condescending. He incessantly calls people names. I see nothing in John’s behavior that exhibits the fruit of the spirit (Galatians 5:22–23).

As bad as this one member of the BB panel is, Nathan, who is the leader of the group, is worse. He has a particularly nasty attitude toward anyone who calls in to “debate” the members of the panel. Nathan frequently shouts, “SHUT UP!” to these poor people. Recently, I heard Nathan shout this to a caller who had started to answer a question Nathan had just asked him. I guess Nathan must have thought he had asked a rhetorical question, though it didn’t sound like a rhetorical question to me. Nathan’s name-calling and profanity exceed that of John. I guess John must be emulating the leader of the group.

The Definition of Science

Most people agree that science is the study of the natural world. I’ll have more to say about that later. The scientific method is the procedure one uses to do science. The description of the scientific method that the BB panel likes to use is development of a hypothesis that is tested through experimentation. Right away, I object because experimentation is not the sole way that science can be done. In 1964, George Abell published his classic textbook, Exploration of the Universe, that remained the standard textbook for introductory astronomy classes on university campuses through the 1970s. Here is what that textbook says about the scientific method on p. 4:

First, one gathers clues by making observations or performing experiments. Second, with these clues at hand, one formulates tentative hypotheses to explain the phenomena or the experimental results. Third – the critical step – one tests these hypotheses by predicting from them new phenomena or the results of new experiments. If the tests fail, the hypotheses must be discarded in favor of better ones.
Experimentation is not the only way that scientific ideas can be tested.

Notice that the description includes either observations (phenomena) or experiments. That is, experimentation is not the only way that scientific ideas can be tested. With deletion of ordinal numbers, this description of the scientific method is repeated word for word on p. 6 of the second edition (1969) of Abell’s textbook:

One gathers clues by making observations or performing experiments. With these clues at hand, one formulates tentative hypotheses to explain the phenomena or the experimental results. Then – the critical step – one tests these hypotheses by predicting from them new phenomena or the results of new experiments. If the tests fail, the hypotheses must be discarded in favor of better ones.

The third edition (1974) of Exploration of the Universe worded it slightly differently on p. 2:

[A] phenomenon or an experimental result is observed. One or more hypotheses are advanced that enable us to understand the phenomenon or experimental result in self-consistent ways that do not violate other observations or experiments. Finally, a hypothesis must be susceptible to testing by further observations or experiments. This last point is crucial; if there is no possible way to testing a hypothesis, it may be interesting speculation in other areas of human thought, but [it] does not belong in the realm of science.

Again, the role of either observation or experiment in testing hypotheses is emphasized.

And this description of the scientific method is not unique to Abell’s textbook. Since the late 1970s, there has been a plethora of astronomy textbooks. Here is what appears on p. 6 of Astronomy Today, a popular introductory astronomy textbook by Eric Chaisson and Steve McMillan, sixth edition (2008):

To be effective, a theory – the framework of ideas and assumptions used to explain some set of observations and make predictions about the real world – must be continually tested. Scientists accomplish this by using a theory to construct a theoretical model of a physical object (such as a planet or a star) or phenomenon (such as gravity or light) that accounts for its known properties. The model then makes further predictions about the object’s properties, or perhaps how it might behave or change under new circumstances. If experiments and observations favor those predictions, the theory can be further developed and refined. If they do not, the theory must be reformulated or rejected, no matter how appealing it originally seemed. This approach to investigation, combining thinking and doing – that is, theory and experiment – is known as the scientific method. [emphases in the original]

Again, notice the inclusion of both observation and experiment.

One might object that, of course, astronomers would describe the scientific method this way, to include observation to suit their purposes. Consider this is from pp. 6-7 of The Heavens and the Earth: Excursions in Earth and Space Science, by Marcus Ross, John Whitmore, Steven Golmer, and Danny Faulkner (2015):

[T]here are some basic characteristics and approaches that scientists follow:
  1. A scientist begins their inquiry because of past or current observations of the world around them. That is, something they’ve seen makes them curious.
  2. These observations usually prompt some questions for why something is the way that it is, or what might happen to it under certain conditions.
  3. The scientist thinks of a hypothesis (a possible explanation) that could answer the questions or predictions about what one should discover if a set of observations is true.
  4. There should be a way to test that hypothesis/prediction against the existing observations and/or future observations.
  5. The new observations will help to evaluate whether the hypothesis/prediction is successful. These observations can affirm or contradict the hypothesis/prediction and often help the scientist to make adjustments and try again.
The steps above are often referred to as the scientific method, but we should really think of it as scientific methods (plural). [emphasis in the original]

While this textbook includes some astronomy, its scope includes far more than just astronomy. Its description of the scientific method emphasizes the role of observation in testing hypotheses even more than the astronomy textbooks did. The astute critic might note that I’m one of the authors of this textbook. Fair enough, but I must tell you that I had nothing to do with this portion of the textbook. The other three authors are, in order, a paleontologist, a geologist, and an atmospheric physicist.

Speaking of physics, what might a physics textbook say about the scientific method? When I retired from the university, I disposed of most of the textbooks I had collected, keeping only the astronomy textbook (Astronomy Today) and the physics textbook that I used the last year that I taught. The physics textbook was Sears and Zemansky’s University Physics with Modern Physics, by Hugh D. Young and Roger A. Freedman, 13th edition (2012). The following is what that textbook says about the scientific method on p. 2:

Physics is an experimental science. Physicists observe the phenomena of nature and try to find patterns that relate these phenomena. These patterns are called physical theories or, when they are very well established and widely used, physical laws or principles.

To develop a physical theory, a physicist has to learn to ask appropriate questions, design experiments to try to answer the questions, and draw appropriate conclusion from the results . . . .

The development of physical theories . . . often takes an indirect path, with blind alleys, wrong guesses, and the discarding of unsuccessful theories in favor of more promising ones. Physics is not simply a collection of facts and principles; it is also the process by which we arrive at general principles that describe how the physical universe behaves. [emphasis in the original]

It is not surprising that a textbook about an experimental science would emphasize experiments in its description of the scientific method as opposed to an observational approach.

This brief description only mentions experiments, but it began with the statement that “Physics is an experimental science.” Therefore, it is not surprising that a textbook about an experimental science would emphasize experiments in its description of the scientific method as opposed to an observational approach.

The problem with flat-earthers is that they seek out descriptions of the scientific method that explicitly mention testing hypotheses with experimentation that have no mention of observational tests, and flat-earthers then incorrectly conclude that this is the only way that science can be done. To prove his point, John of the BB panel likes to mine quotes from various university science department websites that describe only experiments as tests of hypotheses. However, if John were to contact the authors of these quotes and try to convince them that astronomy is not a science, I am sure that the authors would attempt to set him straight, telling him that their descriptions of the scientific method were greatly simplified.

Independent and Dependent Variables

Members of the BB panel frequently insist that any scientific test must have an independent and dependent variable. Notice that none of the descriptions of the scientific method that I quoted above mention this concept. So, are all those sources that I referenced wrong? No. Are the sources that the BB panel reference wrong? No. They are just different. The differences are evidence that the scientific method is not so cut and dried or as simple as the BB panel and their flat-earth followers think it is. This oversimplification is indicative of the simplistic way flat-earthers approach things.

But their arrogance amidst their ignorance does not deter them from hammering away at people they disagree with. I’ve listened to many of their “debates” with people who come onto the BB show on YouTube. When talking about experimental evidence for things (such as gravity), the hapless guest is assailed to identify the dependent and independent variables of the experiment. If the person can’t meet the BB panelists’ expectations on this, a tirade of insults and name-calling follows.

Members of the BB panel recently grilled one person in this manner. They asked if one variable was causation or correlation. The question made no sense: how could there be correlation with only one variable? Nor does causation with one variable make sense. Eventually one of the other BB panelists corrected the question by clarifying that what was meant was one dependent variable, with the independent variable either being the cause or something that could be correlated with the independent variable. I thought that was funny, because whenever a guest on their show makes a slight slip like that, the panelists are unmerciful in their criticism, denouncing him as stupid and worse. I guess the panelists are immune to the criticism they dish out on a regular basis. Eventually, the panelists revealed the answer that they thought was correct: it is causation. They pontificated that correlation occurs when there are two or more dependent variables. I always thought that correlation is a relationship that exists between two (or more) variables. One of the variables could be the independent variable, and the other could be the dependent variable, so I was puzzled as to why they were insisting that correlation could only exist if there were at least three variables (one independent and two dependent). Therefore, I googled the definition of correlation, and I found this definition: “a mutual relationship or connection between two or more things.” Hence, the distinction that the BB panel made here was only in their minds. But I’m sure that the BB panel will find a definition of the word correlation somewhere to suit them.

To defend this position, John appealed to a website that discussed epidemiological studies. Epidemiology is the study of the distribution and causes of health concerns and diseases. The website pointed out that more than several variables are involved in such studies and cautioned that correlation between factors (variables) does not necessarily prove causation. The classic example is cigarette smoking and lung cancer. People who never smoked nor were significantly exposed to second-hand smoke sometimes develop the same kind of lung cancer that smokers often do. The incidence of this cancer among nonsmokers is less than among smokers, but nonsmokers do occasionally develop this lung cancer. Therefore, one cannot conclude with 100% certainty that an individual smoker’s lung cancer is due to smoking. All that can be shown is correlation of these factors (variables) among a large sample size. There are other known factors that are at play in lung cancer, which introduces other variables.

The BB panel has completely misunderstood what this means. Many tests of hypotheses are looking for correlations. The hope is that one can establish a good case for causation through such correlations. In a relatively simple test, a strong correlation between an independent variable and a dependent variable can be interpreted as evidence of causation. Even in statistical cancer studies, there appears to be a general causation (such as smoking) involved; the problem is that one cannot establish with certainty that smoking caused cancer in a specific case. But back to a relatively simple experimental (or observational) test. Is it possible that some other cause (independent variable) that the experimenter or observer is not considering is responsible for the correlation with the dependent variable? The obvious answer is yes. Hence, one must be very careful in not reaching the hasty conclusion that correlation implies causation. Nevertheless, the BB panel here has taken a standard that exists in epidemiology and other studies with many variables and has wrongly imposed it upon all science.

Hypotheses

Related to the above, the BB panel often harangues guests by asking them if they know what a hypothesis is. If the guest answers in the affirmative, then the panelists demand to hear the definition. Usually a hypothesis is defined as an educated guess, but that definition does not suffice for the BB panel. Rather, they insist that a hypothesis must have two parts, and the BB panelists often demand that guests on their show identify those two parts. If a guest cannot come up with those two specific parts, then they are immediately pounced upon for being stupid and ignorant. What are the two parts? The panelists insist that they are cause and effect. This cause and effect relation is more properly called a conditional proposition. A conditional proposition often is written as “if p then q” or “pq,” where p and q are propositions. The proposition p is called the antecedent or the hypothesis, while the proposition q is called the conclusion or consequent. John likes to use these terms when he lectures the guests on the BB program. However, notice that strictly speaking, the antecedent is the hypothesis, not the two parts of a conditional proposition. So, he is wrong about this.

Affirming the consequent is a formal fallacy of deductive reasoning, not inductive reasoning.

But he is wrong about so much more. For instance, this description of conditional proposition comes directly out of deductive reasoning. The problem is, when doing experimental or observational tests of hypotheses, one is using inductive reasoning, not deductive reasoning. The BB panel doesn’t seem to understand the difference, because, as I pointed out in my earlier discussion of flat-earthers and the scientific method, flat-earthers frequently accuse people of committing the fallacy of affirming the consequent. But affirming the consequent is a formal fallacy of deductive reasoning, not inductive reasoning. If one wishes to import this formal fallacy of deductive reasoning into inductive reasoning, then inductive reasoning is impossible, rendering the scientific method impossible. But perhaps that is the BB panel’s objective. I just wish they would be more honest about the anarchist approach.

Another topic that the BB panel frequently brings up is the difference between a null hypothesis and an alternate hypothesis. If a guest on their show isn’t up to speed on this enough to satisfy the BB panel, then that brings a barrage of insults. Frankly, I rarely hear scientists that I know talk about these. That is because the concept of null and alternate hypotheses is used in epidemiology and other studies dealing with humans or in other areas of science in which there can be many variables, but not usually in the fields of science that I’m familiar with.1 As an example of how this works, consider again the relationship between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. The null hypothesis would be that there is no relationship between the two. The alternative hypothesis is that there is a relationship between the two. The alternative hypothesis is the converse of the null hypothesis. Therefore, if the null hypothesis is disproved, then it follows that the alternative hypothesis must be true. This is backward from the way that the science I’m most familiar with is conducted. Either a hypothesis is confirmed by testing, or it is not confirmed. If the hypothesis is confirmed, then we have some confidence that the hypothesis is true; but if the hypothesis is not confirmed, then we start over with a new hypothesis. However, things aren’t so cut and dried with epidemiology studies, where there can be many variables. Why the difference? In epidemiology, there can be many exceptions to the hypothesis, which is why there can be many exceptions to the expectation of the hypothesis. Therefore, there usually are statistical arguments as to why the null hypothesis is not true, leading to the conclusion that the alternate hypothesis is true. But that is not how it works in much of the science that I do—either the hypothesis is true, or it isn’t. And that is the way it works with the question of what shape the earth is, so it is silly to go into detail of one method of science that has no relevance to the question. Again, the BB panel is importing a concept from epidemiology into other areas of science, insisting that this must be the standard in all science.

Why do members of the BB panel do this? It is part of their overall argumentative style. They frame the manner that they will allow the debate to go, and they shout down any dissenters. Part of the rhetorical trick is to pepper a guest with these irrelevant questions, trying to expose him as an ignoramus (and in case those listening don’t see that, the panelists will tell you that the guest is an ignoramus). Part of this is definitions that the BB panelists insist upon. On a recent show, John insisted that there was a large difference between quotations and citations. The poor guest at the time didn’t understand what John was talking about, so John pounded away with insults, such that if the guest had finished high school, he would have known the difference. The guest thought that what John had put up on the screen were quotations, but John insisted they were citations. I googled the definition of citation. This is the definition that I found: “a quotation from or reference to a book, paper, or author, especially in a scholarly work.” Hmm . . . a citation is a quotation. I don’t see the difference, but John seemed to think that there was one. On a more recent show, Nathan insisted there was a difference between a citation and a reference. So, I again looked up definitions of either word. I found the same definition of citation above: “a quotation from or reference to a book, paper, or author, especially in a scholarly work.” Here is the definition that I found for reference: “the use of a source of information in order to ascertain something.” But that was the definition of reference as a noun; as a verb it is defined as to “provide (a book or article) with citations of sources of information.” So, a reference and citation are about the same thing. This sort of nitpicking is abundant evidence that the BB panel just likes to argue.

Gross Hypocrisy

While I am at it, I must note more harsh treatment that anyone who comes onto the BB show gets. This includes name-calling but also insults to their intelligence. But the moment a guest suggests that the BB panelists may not be too bright, Nathan immediately calls the guest out for an ad hominem argument. This hypocrisy is so stark that it always elicits laughter from me when it occurs. Recently, I listened to a poor guest on the show put up with 15 minutes of profanity, name-calling, and insults. Finally, he responded in kind, for which he was immediately booted off the show. Nathan commented “That’s the point that Unorthodox [the pseudonym of the guest] clearly has lost all of his arguments.” That is a common enough response when someone has just used profanity or resorted to calling names—such behavior is tantamount to a tacit admission of defeat. However, this was proceeded by a barrage of such behavior from (primarily one member of) the BB panel for 15 minutes, but that wasn’t admission of losing the argument? Such blatant inconsistency is common on the BB show. It’s so brazen as to suggest the members of the panel know what they are doing and are just waiting for someone to point it out. Of course, that probably would just be met with more abuse to keep the schtick going. When someone does object to this ad hominem tactic of calling names, the panel justifies their rudeness by claiming that they call names, such as “idiot,” “moron,” and other names that I cannot repeat, only after they have demonstrated that the guest is an idiot or moron by supposedly tearing their arguments apart.

Shifting Definitions

The BB panel likes to abuse definitions in their claims. For instance, science usually is defined as the study of the natural world. Members of the BB panel take this to mean that anything that man does isn’t natural, so anything that man is involved in cannot be science. Think about the consequences of that view for a moment. It would seem to eliminate the use of any man-made equipment in scientific experiments. While I’ve not yet heard members of the BB panel opine this, I’ve heard other flat-earthers state that since the masses used in the Cavendish experiment are man-made, the Cavendish experiment is not a scientific experiment. Flat-earthers frequently demand any evidence of masses attracting one another, as described by Newton’s law of gravity. The Cavendish experiment directly provides evidence of masses attracting one another. Since gravity is something that flat-earthers deny, acceptance of the Cavendish experiment would seriously undermine their entire worldview, so it is understandable why flat-earthers are so desperate to find a way to dismiss it.

The BB panel seems to take a different tack on the question of gravity. Nathan frequently asks guests to provide any evidence for gravity. A recent guest suggested dropping a mass. Nathan immediately ruled that out because the person dropping the mass caused it to fall. Thus, the mass’ falling wasn’t natural. Nathan insisted that, left alone, objects don’t fall. Rather, they sit there motionless, in equilibrium. Even when one drops an object, the object soon stops falling (say, by hitting the ground). Thus, Nathan concluded, nature has exerted its will once again, resulting in equilibrium, not motion. Therefore, the natural state is rest. Things dropping is not natural, and so it isn’t science. This is very similar to Aristotelian thinking. I didn’t think anyone in the world today really thought this was how the world worked. I have no idea how Nathan arrived at his absurd position. However, he argues it strongly, shouting down anyone who dares disagree with him. Once he has finished, Nathan declares that he has vanquished his poor adversary, and he blithely proceeds to the next subject.

Whatever version of the meaning of the word natural in the definition of science that a flat-earther takes, it is wrong. The meaning of natural in the definition of science is opposed to the supernatural. Science can’t probe spiritual or metaphysical things. This is a basic misunderstanding of science on the part of the BB panel, demonstrating that they don’t understand science at all. The irony is that the BB panel regularly harangues guests for supposedly flunking grade school science. In reality, it is the BB panel that needs to go back to grade school for a refresher course on what science is.

In a recent show, a guest was asked if science proves anything. That is a very loaded question. The word proof has different meanings in different contexts. In deductive reasoning, one can prove things in an absolute sense. This requires that propositions used must be true and that the proper use of logic is followed. That is the point of studying logic: to be able to construct solid arguments for conclusions and to recognize faulty reasoning. However, in a court of law, the standard of proof is very different. In criminal cases, guilt must be proved beyond reasonable doubt. It is not beyond any doubt, just beyond reasonable doubt. In a civil case, the standard is lower: the preponderance of evidence decides the truth. In inductive reasoning, the standard is different yet again. Unlike in deductive reasoning, with inductive reasoning we can never be certain that a conclusion is true, even if all the facts considered are true. Hence, as people usually understand the meaning of proof (such as in deductive reasoning), science can’t prove anything.

We say that something is proved by science when what we mean could be better stated by saying that science has been used to confirm something. The more a hypothesis is confirmed, the better confidence we have that it is true, but we really can’t be certain that it is true. On the other hand, just one counterexample will disprove a hypothesis.

In my earlier blog, I gave the example of testing the hypothesis that all cows are brown. One tests this hypothesis by observing many cows to see if they are brown. If one examines many cows and finds that all of them are brown, one can have confidence that the hypothesis, all cows are brown, is true. Note that one cannot be certain that the hypothesis is true because it is unlikely that a person could examine all cows. This brings up the question of whether in science we can ever prove anything in the sense of how most of us understand the meaning of the word prove. We say that something is proved by science when what we mean could be better stated by saying that science has been used to confirm something. The more a hypothesis is confirmed, the better confidence we have that it is true, but we really can’t be certain that it is true. On the other hand, just one counterexample will disprove a hypothesis. In this case, observation of just one non-brown cow would disprove the hypothesis that all cows are brown. Since science can be used to disprove things, some philosophers of science argue that science is in the business of disproving things; if an idea cannot be disproved, then we have confidence that it is true. This begins to sound like the tension between a null hypothesis and an alternate hypothesis, which the BB panel appears to like. Therefore, I am puzzled as to why the BB panel resists the idea that science can’t prove things but can only disprove things.

Various Supposed Fallacies

John claims to have read a book on logical fallacies. In his mind and in the minds of the other members of the BB panel, that makes John an expert on logical fallacies. It is clear from John’s frequent lectures on the BB programs that John has a poor understanding of logical fallacies. For instance, as I pointed out before, he repeatedly insists that scientists commit the fallacy of affirming the consequent, when that is a formal fallacy of deductive reasoning, not inductive reasoning, upon which the scientific method is based. If John were the expert on logic that he obviously thinks that he is, he would already know this.

One of John’s favorite fallacies to accuse those he disagrees with is reification, and the other BB panelists have picked up his argument. The reification fallacy is to treat something that is abstract as if it were concrete. One of the BB panel’s favorite applications of this is to object when guests on their show say that science says something. Since science has no voice, science cannot say anything.2 That is a fair enough objection, particularly if the claim that science says something is the main component of a person’s argument, but I suspect they are just nitpicking to distract and otherwise occupy their guests. However, there is an application of reification that is not appropriate. The BB panel wants to divorce physical theories from their mathematical expressions. For instance, in criticizing general relativity, the BB panel frequently says that the math used in general relativity is reification. They reason that since mathematics is abstract, then any appeal to math commits the reification fallacy. The problem is that math is merely the way that the description of how the world works is quantified. Without the math, we are left with just qualitative assessments. Furthermore, is math only an abstraction and nothing more? While math seems to reside in our minds, math is utterly useless if it does not conform to what see in the physical world. That is one of the mysteries of math. Math appears to exist in our minds (making it abstract), yet it well describes the physical world (making it tangible). As I said, that is a mystery, making it a suitable topic for philosophy, but not in science.

Furthermore, the BB panel criticizes general relativity for treating space and time, allegedly abstract concepts, as real, tangible things, when space and time are abstractions. Who is to say that space and time aren’t physical realities? Consider time. Physical things appear to be governed by time. How can a nonphysical thing so affect physical things? Time may not be as tangible as matter is, but that does not necessarily mean that time does not have any physical reality and exists only in our minds. The BB panel loves the second law of thermodynamics, but the second law of thermodynamics treats time as a real thing (entropy increases over time). Therefore, the BB panel is inconsistent in its treatment of so-called abstractions. Or consider energy. Energy isn’t tangible, but that doesn’t mean that energy is not physical—far from it. Likewise, time and space are real, physical things, though they aren’t tangible.

But this isn’t the only inconsistency of the BB panel when it comes to reification. The BB panel appears to like electricity and magnetism. Electricity and magnetism are best described in terms of fields (electric and magnetic). What is a field? A field is an alteration of space, in this case due to the presence of electric charges either at rest or in motion. But how can one speak of altering an abstraction (space) so that it influences physical things (electric charges and magnets)? One can’t. Furthermore, are fields tangible? No? So, by the standard the BB panel insists on imposing on general relativity, electricity, and magnetism are not viable theories too. Nor could there be laws of electricity and magnetism. With their single focus in burning down parts of physics, the BB panel hardly has considered the import of their arson.

Another favorite fallacy of the BB panel is shifting the burden of proof. Whenever any guest to the BB show asks for explanations or evidence from the BB panel, the panel inevitably responds with the accusation that the guest has committed this error. Consequently, it is very difficult to get the BB panel to give any details of what they believe. Any attempt to ask questions of the panel is met with shouts of “I’m not making any claims! You are!” Thus, anyone who is not a flat-earther has the entire burden of proof in the BB panel’s estimation. If a guest can’t provide evidence for any and all claims made that will satisfy the panel, then the panel’s positions win by default. Of course, the panel is not inclined to consider any evidence anyone else brings forward, so this always is the result. It doesn’t matter that the BB panel is continually making claims because they don’t think they are obligated to support their claims to the satisfaction of anyone else. This is a slick debating tactic. In an honest debate with a neutral judge, the BB panel would not be able to get away with many of their cheap tricks.

The BB panel also loves to throw around the fallacy of begging the question. This also is called arguing in a circle, or circular reasoning. When committing this fallacy, a person assumes what he is trying to conclude. This usually is unintentional, with the person not being aware that his conclusion is hidden somewhere in his assumptions. While some guests to the BB show may truly commit this fallacy, often this is a trumped-up charge by the BB panel. On several occasions I have heard one of the BB panelists ask a guest how he can explain some phenomenon if the earth is a globe. The guest normally begins by saying something to the effect that “If the earth is a globe, then . . .” whereupon the guest is interrupted with “Begging the question!” by one of the BB panelists. If the guest attempts to plead his case, the objections get louder and more abusive. This derails the discussion before it can start.

But has the guest committed the fallacy of begging the question? No. Notice that the question asked of the guest is to provide an explanation of some phenomenon if the earth is a globe. The premise of the question is the proposition “if the earth is a globe.” How can it be circular reasoning to begin to answer the question by stating, “if the earth is a globe” when that is the premise of the question? The BB panelist who asked the question introduced the hypothetical of the earth being a globe. It is outrageous to ask a question when the person asking the question will not allow it to be answered, all the while accusing the guest of committing a fallacy that he didn’t commit. But this is par for the course. The BB panel engages in all sorts of fallacious reasoning whilst dishing out accusations of logical fallacies on others. When I hear these sorts of Abbot and Costello routines on the BB program, it makes me wonder if at least some of the BB panel knows what they are doing and are promoting flat earth as a prank.

John likes to show off his pretended knowledge by using technical terms of deductive reasoning. If a guest is unfamiliar with these terms, John makes it clear that he doesn’t think the guest is very bright or at least isn’t up to speed enough to be in his league. I haven’t formally studied deductive logic in decades, so I’m a bit rusty on some of these terms myself, though I certainly understand the application of these principles that bear these technical names. One of these technical terms is modus ponens. This refers to the conditional proposition p → q that I mentioned earlier. Modus ponens is the technical term for the inference that, given p → q and that p is true, then q must be true. To give an example, let the conditional proposition be: “If a man is from Chicago, then he is from Illinois.” If Mr. Smith is from Chicago, then we know that Mr. Smith is from Illinois. The conclusion is an example of modus ponens, and the conclusion is valid (true).

A related term that John uses to show off his pretended knowledge is modus tollens. Modus tollens sometimes is called denying the consequent. It is based upon the fact that if a statement is true, then so is its contrapositive. This takes the form of p → q and the fact that q is not true. Therefore, p must not be true either. In the example of the proposition above, “If a man is from Chicago, then he is from Illinois,” if we know that Mr. Smith is not from Illinois, then we know that he can’t be from Chicago. Again, this is a valid (true) conclusion.

Related to these two valid arguments are two invalid arguments. One error is denying the antecedent. This error comes from the conditional proposition p → q and knowing that p is false, concluding that q must be false too. Again, I will use the above example “If a man is from Chicago, then he is from Illinois.” If Mr. Jones is not from Chicago, then concluding that Mr. Jones is not from Illinois is not a valid conclusion. Just because a man may not be from Chicago does not imply that he is not from Illinois. For instance, Mr. Jones could be from Rockford, which is in Illinois. The other invalid argument related to modus tollen and modus ponens is affirming the consequent, which I briefly discussed earlier. Using the same example, “If a man is from Chicago, then he is from Illinois” and knowing that Mr. Jones is from Illinois, it is invalid to conclude that Mr. Jones is from Chicago. As with my example of denying the antecedent, Mr. Jones could be from Rockford and still be from Illinois. In both errors, the conclusion may turn out to be correct, but the conclusions are not necessarily correct, as is the case in properly reasoned conclusions.

But, as I’ve pointed out before, these are formal fallacies of deductive reasoning, not inductive reasoning, upon which the scientific method is based. A man being from Illinois is consistent with the man being from Chicago, and hence could be evidence that the man is from Chicago, but it hardly proves the man is from Chicago, at least as far as deductive reasoning is concerned. In the scientific method, we are asking for evidence whether a hypothesis is true. We state a test of a hypothesis in the form of p → q. The hypothesis may be something like, “I think a lunar eclipse is caused by the earth’s shadow falling on the moon.” This hypothesis may be used to make predictions, such as when and where a lunar eclipse may be visible. The hypothesis is the p in the conditional p → q, while the prediction is the q. If q is learned to be true (the eclipse happens when and where predicted), then we have confidence that the hypothesis may be true. However, this does not conclusively prove that lunar eclipses are caused by the earth’s shadow falling on the moon. There may be other explanations for lunar eclipses that we have not considered that equally could explain the prediction that turned out to be true. Once considered, other hypotheses could be formulated that predicted the same eclipse but could be tested in other ways (such as predicting additional eclipses).

When can we be certain that a hypothesis is true? As with my earlier example of all cows being brown, we can never be certain that a hypothesis is true. The best that we can do is have high confidence that a hypothesis is true. However, just one counterexample easily can disprove a hypothesis. In the example of cows, just one nonbrown cow would disprove the hypothesis. In the case of the earth’s shadow causing lunar eclipses, an example of an eclipse occurring where and when it is not possible to be caused by the earth’s shadow would disprove the hypothesis. I’m sure that many flat-earthers reading this will immediately pounce upon this, declaring that selenelions3 disprove the hypothesis that the earth’s shadow causes lunar eclipses. But as I discussed on pp. 77–78 of my book, Falling Flat: A Refutation of Flat Earth Claims, where and when selenelions are visible are predicted by the hypothesis that the earth’s shadow causes eclipses, so this flat-earth claim is false.

From Hypothesis to Theory to Law

If a hypothesis had been successfully tested many times without any examples of disproof, then the hypothesis becomes a theory. This is particularly true if the hypothesis is well developed. A good example of this is the hypothesis that the earth’s shadow causes lunar eclipses. Many ancient cultures used this hypothesis to discover the saros cycle, an 18 year, 11 1/3-day period over which eclipses repeat. In turn, knowledge of the saros cycle enabled ancient cultures to predict both solar and lunar eclipses, but only in a very crude way. The saros cycle then became a type of theory. Despite what flat-earthers repeatedly claim, the ancients did not discover the saros cycle simply by observing when eclipses happened and then finding the periodicity in the observations. Rather, the ancients understood the underlying cause of eclipses and used that underlying cause (theory) to discover the saros cycle.4 Furthermore, despite frequent flat-earther claims to the contrary, the saros cycle does not accurately predict eclipses.

In the 2nd century AD, Ptolemy improved upon eclipse predictions within his model. Ptolemy’s method of predicting eclipses was the one used over the next millennium and a half. While Ptolemy’s method was an improvement over what was possible with the saros cycle, it still lacked the accuracy of the modern method of predicting eclipses based upon the heliocentric model. Edmund Halley developed the modern method of predicting eclipses in 1715. This method was further refined in the 19th century. This elegant theory now is used to precisely predict eclipses of all types, and it is not based upon the saros cycle. The fact that this theory so accurately predicts eclipses amounts to strong evidence that the theory is true. BTW, a theory and model are the same thing in science. The BB panelists sometimes disparage models. It’s not clear if they know that theories and models are the same thing.

If a theory becomes well tested enough, certain aspects of the theory may become known as natural laws. There are many such natural laws. For instance, there are the laws of conservation of mass/energy, momentum, and angular momentum. There are four recognized laws of thermodynamics. There are Newton’s three laws of motion, as well as his law of gravity. In electricity and magnetism there are Gauss’ law, Faraday’s law, and Ampere’s law. Who determines what is a law and what is not? There is no clear answer to that, nor is there a process or committee for deciding which principles of science are laws and which are not. It is generally a matter of common custom. Despite this indefinite and perhaps a bit inconsistent practice in bestowing that status of a law upon concepts, the BB panelists are sure what ideas are natural laws and which are not. They declare that laws are statements of how the world works. The BB panel also makes a distinction between natural laws and scientific theories. They claim that natural laws cannot be deduced using the scientific method. That opinion is sure to puzzle most, if not all, scientists. How do we know what natural laws are? Did someone come down from Mount Horeb with natural laws carved into stone tablets? Apparently so, because the BB panel dismisses any suggestion that natural laws can be found through the scientific method.

Obviously, since flat-earthers do not believe in gravity, they must dismiss Newton’s law of gravity out of hand. But wait—since natural laws are not scientifically deduced, why do they keep asking for scientific evidence that Newton’s law of gravity is true? Oh, I forgot, flat-earthers don’t believe in gravity, and so Newton’s law of gravity is not a law. The arrogance: flat-earthers know better than everyone else.

Gravity

Why do flat-earthers not believe in gravity? If they were to accept gravity, then much of their argument would collapse. Even the flat earth is massive, so massive that its gravity would pull it into a ball shape. Gravity is what keeps the moon orbiting the earth, so to prevent that from happening, gravity must not exist. Ditto for the sun. Gravity is what causes the earth to orbit the sun, but that cannot be if the earth is flat, so gravity must not exist. And gravity plays the key role in answering the oft-asked question of what keeps the earth’s atmosphere from being sucked away from the earth by the vacuum of space. The BB panel knows this well, which is why they regularly deride gravity.

But flat-earthers, including the BB panel, often are not clear on just what gravity they don’t believe in. Is it Newton’s law of gravity? Certainly. Or is it Einstein’s theory of general relativity? Neither of these theories is what most people mean by gravity. Most people understand gravity to be the inclination of objects to fall downward. This is based upon good, solid observations, something that the BB panel professes to like. Furthermore, this definition of gravity works whether the earth is flat or a globe. At least locally, we can agree which direction down is. So, why does the BB panel resist this concept of gravity? Again, it is because if they accept this, they are smart enough to realize that it will ultimately unravel what they have chosen to believe (or at least profess). What causes things to fall downward? They don’t talk about this much. I would guess that if a guest were to ask them, they would go off into all sorts of misdirections, such as shouting that, unlike the guest, they aren’t making any claims. To bolster their disbelief in gravity, the BB panel likes to cite counterexamples of things, such as gases going upward. Of course, it is obvious that gases have weight, with weight being the downward force that causes things to fall. However, it would be fruitless to try to walk the BB panel through this. One wouldn’t get very far before all sorts of objections would be leveled that would totally derail the conversation before it even got started.

But it is Newton’s law of gravity that particularly draws out the fire from the BB panel. They demand evidence, any evidence, of gravity. As I said, any attempt to walk the BB panel through this inevitably ends up with all sorts of objections before the conversation even gets going. However, the BB panel’s ace in the hole is the comments of some theoretical physicists that gravity is not a force and that Newton’s law of gravity was replaced by general relativity more than a century ago. It’s not that the BB panel likes general relativity better—they don’t. This is just a divide and conquer strategy that they employ. For instance, nearly a year ago Anthony attempted to blister me by accusing me of being ignorant of this and so being an incompetent physicist.

Did general relativity replace Newton’s law of gravity? Yes and no. It would be better to say that general relativity superseded Newton’s law of gravity.

First, did general relativity replace Newton’s law of gravity? Yes and no. It would be better to say that general relativity superseded Newton’s law of gravity. Physicists think that general relativity is a more inclusive understanding of gravity, leaving Newtonian gravity as a special case. However, this special case is applicable in most situations. One could use general relativity to solve problems involving gravity on earth. However, after much more work than required by using Newtonian gravity, the results would be identical to what Newtonian gravity would proscribe. Therefore, using general relativity except in very extreme conditions amounts to hunting a fly with an elephant rifle. This seems to be totally missed by the BB panel. So, despite what the BB panel thinks, Newtonian gravity is alive and well.

Second, is gravity a force? All general physics textbooks say it is. So, what do all those theoretical physicists mean by saying that gravity is not a force? They are being too clever. In physics, we often look at things more than one way. For instance, a general physics course begins by treating mechanics (the study of the motion of particles) using Newtonian physics based upon Newton’s three laws of motion. This involves the use of vectors. Later in general physics, conservation of energy is introduced in which many of the same problems can be solved using energy constraints. This has the advantage of solving problems with scalars rather than vectors. Later, physics students take courses in mechanics where they are introduced to a reformulation of Newtonian mechanics introduced by Joseph-Louis Lagrange in 1788. Lagrangian mechanics is a powerful method of solving some very complicated problems. In turn, in 1833 William Rowan Hamilton reformulated Lagrangian mechanics. In the early 20th century, Hamiltonian mechanics was adapted to quantum mechanics. One could use Lagrangian or Hamiltonian mechanics to solve a relatively easy problem, but that would be hunting a fly with an elephant rifle again.5

General relativity offers a way of looking at gravity that is different from Newton’s law of gravity. Newton’s law described gravity as a force that acted across space. This “spooky action at a distance” bothered people from the beginning, with Newton himself commenting on this mystery. All other forces seemed to work through contact or some other form of mediation, so how could gravity act through empty space? General relativity posits that a disturbance of space-time transmits the information necessary for gravity to operate. In this sense, one could say that gravity is not a force, because objects simply move along a geodesic in curved space-time that manifests itself to our senses as an acceleration requiring a force. But that is not the only way of looking at gravity. For instance, according to quantum mechanics, which along with general relativity comprise modern physics, the four fundamental forces of nature are mediated by exchange particles. With gravity, it is the exchange of gravitons between masses that mediates gravity, thus qualifying gravity as a force. The BB panel totally ignores this.

So, which is right, general relativity or quantum mechanics? Both. Or perhaps neither. Just as general relativity superseded Newtonian mechanics in very massive systems, quantum mechanics superseded Newtonian mechanics in very tiny systems, such as within atoms. But as successful as general relativity and quantum mechanics have been, they appear to be incomplete theories. It is hoped that there is some more overarching theory that one day will supersede general relativity and quantum mechanics just as they superseded classical (Newtonian) physics, and perhaps unify them. Therefore, the pronouncement that gravity is not a force is premature. I’m sure that if the theoretical physicists quoted by the BB panel as saying gravity is not a force were to teach a general physics class, they would instruct their students that gravity is a force.

Eratosthenes and Abu Rayhan al-Biruni

Many people get the famous work of Eratosthenes wrong. Flat-earthers and non-flat-earthers alike think that Eratosthenes did an experiment to prove that the earth is a globe. By the time of Eratosthenes (he died 195/194 BC), it was already widely believed in the West that the earth is a globe, so such a proof was superfluous. What Eratosthenes did was build on that knowledge and measure the earth’s circumference with an amazing degree of accuracy. More than two centuries later, Ptolemy included in his Almagest reasons why the earth must be a sphere and included a statement that it was generally believed in the ancient world that the earth is a sphere. While Ptolemy did not mention Eratosthenes or his work, in his Geography Ptolemy discussed Posidonius’ measurement of the earth’s circumference. A little more than a century after Eratosthenes, Posidonius measured the earth’s circumference to be a little less than what Eratosthenes had found. Posidonius’ measurement was the standard measurement of the earth’s size for 15 centuries. In the wake of the Muslim conquest in the middle ages, Muslims greatly treasured both Ptolemy’s Almagest and Geography. Muslim astronomy flourished, in which they made small corrections to Ptolemy’s work as necessary.

One medieval Muslim astronomer of note was the Persian astronomer Abu Rayhan al-Biruni (973–1050). Al-Biruni appears to have been the first to distinguish astronomy from astrology, even criticizing the latter while praising the former. However, the full divorce of astronomy from astrology had to await the adoption of the heliocentric model in the early 17th century. Al-Biruni embarked upon a method of measuring the earth’s circumference that differed from that of Eratosthenes. Al-Biruni measured the dip in the horizon from the top of a high hill. Al-Biruni expressed his results in cubits. We don’t know what cubit he used, but whatever cubit he used, al-Biruni’s measurement is close to that of Eratosthenes. I’m a bit suspicious of how accurately al-Biruni could have measured the dip of the horizon. I suspect that since he knew the answer beforehand, it made it relatively easy to confirm what he already knew.

What is the relevance of this? Nathan seems convinced that Eratosthenes’ result was fabricated, so he insists the first measurement of the earth’s circumference was that of al-Biruni more than a thousand years later. One of the effects on the methodology of al-Biruni is atmospheric refraction, which he didn’t know about and so did not factor into his results. To Nathan, this totally undermines the whole thing. And, of course, Nathan is convinced that no one has ever measured the earth’s circumference, because the earth is flat (talk about begging the question).

The BB Liturgy

BB programs usually begin with hour-long, live discussions, or chats, among the panel. During this time, Nathan goes through a series of questions that he calls “housekeeping.” These questions are:

  • Any evidence of the distance to the sun?
  • Any signs of axial rotation of the earth-based variety?
  • Any evidence of a molten iron core at the center of a presupposed ball earth?
  • Any scientific evidence of gravity?
  • And gas pressure without a container?
  • Any signs of earth curvature?
  • Any single viable hypothesis from the fields of astronomy, cosmology, or astrophysics?

The other panel members usually answer “No” to each question, but they often will embellish their answers with thoughts that have occurred to them recently. This formality of asking questions followed by answers is similar to catechism. The formal way in which this catechism is rehearsed so often and the reaction from the panel so predictable that it comes across to me like liturgy. I mean this in the sense of a series of statements made during a worship service expressing core doctrines or beliefs. Flat-earth belief has so much in common with cults that this ritualistic practice by the BB panel seems to fit the definition of liturgy very well.

Conclusion

I am occasionally asked why I don’t debate flat-earthers. I have several reasons, a few of which I will share here. One reason is that I’ve never been asked in a formal way to debate a flat-earther. So, technically I’ve never declined an invitation to debate a flat-earther. So much for the accusation that I’m afraid to debate flat earth (yes, I’ve heard a few people accuse me of this). I’ve had a few flat-earthers try to drag me into debates, such as on my private Facebook page. My response always has been that I choose when, where, and how to discuss (debate) flat earth, and my personal FB page is not it. My personal FB is about what I’m interested in, and I refuse to allow my FB to be taken over by persistent flat-earthers who disregard my wishes. As I mentioned earlier, Anthony tried to sucker me to get into a slugfest with him. At the time, I knew nothing about him, but I was suspicious of what he was about. I’m so glad that I listened to my instincts and refused to get into a “debate” with him. Why do I put “debate” in quotes in this blog? These aren’t debates at all but rather are no-holds-barred brawls, staged mostly for amusement and an opportunity for editing sound bites that flat-earthers can misuse. I simply have no interest in entertaining anyone this way or providing material for flat-earthers to abuse.

Nor am I committing to debate a flat-earther who can actually engage in proper debate. I’m not convinced that debates accomplish anything. Few people are convinced by debates. Rather, people on either side of any debate tend to think their man won and find vindication in their side winning. I have better ways to waste my time.

As I made clear in my book about flat earth, I didn’t write it to convince flat-earthers that they are wrong. I wrote it for people who are looking for answers, not people who think they’ve already found the answers

I will continue to monitor the flat-earth movement to learn more about its appeal and the nature of its arguments. And I will continue to write about what I learn and offer rebuttals to flat-earther claims. However, I rarely attempt to change flat-earthers’ minds. As I made clear in my book about flat earth, I didn’t write it to convince flat-earthers that they are wrong. I wrote it for people who are looking for answers, not people who think they’ve already found the answers.

Footnotes

  1. I have occasionally heard the terms null hypothesis and alternate hypothesis used in astronomy. It is used in studies that rely upon statistical arguments and use this approach as a backdoor way to reach a conclusion. This methodology is not common in astronomy.
  2. As I mentioned earlier, the BB panelists sometimes ask guests if science can prove anything. Isn’t that reification? After all, science doesn’t have a mind. Science doesn’t argue propositions. How can science prove anything? Oh, I forgot—none of the criticisms the BB panel dishes out on others applies to them.
  3. A selenelion occurs when both the eclipsed moon and the sun are in the sky at the same time. This happens when a lunar eclipse begins at sunset or ends at sunrise. Since either the sun or eclipsed moon sets within a matter of minutes, a selenelion lasts only a few minutes. A selenelion happens in a narrow region on either side of the earth every lunar eclipse and requires a good exposure both east and west and very clear skies to see. Consequently, I’ve never seen one.
  4. There are two requirements for an eclipse. First, the moon must be at the proper phase (full moon for a lunar eclipse and new moon for a solar eclipse). Second, the moon must be near a node. Lunar phases repeat with the synodic month, and the moon passes a node every draconic month. Therefore, if an eclipse occurs, then both conditions are met simultaneously. The first condition for an eclipse will be met each successive synodic month, and the second requirement will be fulfilled each successive draconic month. Since the synodic month is more than two days longer than the draconic month, the conditions for an eclipse rapidly get out of synch after an eclipse occurs. However, 223 synodic months are almost exactly equal to 242 draconic months, so a very similar (but not identical) eclipse will repeat with this (saros) cycle.
  5. A very good friend of mine once had some points deducted on a problem on a mechanics test for doing this. The professor told him, “Roger, you were hunting a fly with an elephant rifle.” That was the first time I heard this expression.

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