“The Scientific Method” and the Flat Earth III

by Dr. Danny R. Faulkner on October 8, 2021
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Many places that charge admission say that they give a discount for people under the age of 12 and over the age of 65. Since it is impossible to be simultaneously under the age of 12 and over the age of 65, then no one receives a discount, right? Well, no. While we usually think of the word and as inclusive, requiring both conditions combined by the conjunction to be met, the word and can have an exclusive meaning too. That is, both conditions need not necessarily be met by the exclusive use of and, such as in many statements of the policy for discounted admission. Such policies might be better expressed as giving a discount for people under the age of 12 and giving a discount for people over the age of 65, but that is a bit wordy. Or one could use the conjunction or rather than and, but most people have no difficulty understanding when the conjunction and is used exclusively rather than inclusively.

“The Scientific Method”

But flat-earthers are not most people. I have previously discussed how flat-earthers abuse “the scientific method.” I now return to this topic to discuss a more basic misunderstanding of the definition of science many flat-earthers have. Here is a definition of science that I recently heard a flat-earther named Tony use:

Science is the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.

I don’t think many people would disagree with this definition. However, it is flat-earthers’ misunderstanding of this definition that causes them to go awry. Like other flat-earthers, Tony quickly insisted that, per this definition, any scientific study must include both observation and experiment. I think the use of the conjunction “and” in this definition is meant to be taken exclusively. That is, this definition means that science can involve either observation or experimentation, or both.

But even if the and is taken only inclusively, Tony and other flat-earthers go on to insist a very restrictive meaning for the word observation. Flat-earthers like to quote various sources on “the scientific method.” Here is one example that flat-earthers might use:

  1. Make an observation or observations.
  2. Ask questions about the observations and gather information.
  3. Form a hypothesis—a tentative description of what's been observed, and make predictions based on that hypothesis.
  4. Test the hypothesis and predictions in an experiment that can be reproduced.
  5. Analyze the data and draw conclusions; accept or reject the hypothesis or modify the hypothesis if necessary.
  6. Reproduce the experiment until there are no discrepancies between observations and theory.

Notice that the use of observation is in the first three steps, but an experiment does not appear until step four. Nor is observation mentioned as having any role in testing the hypothesis.

Flow Chart Method

Flow Chart Method, image credit: Efbrazil, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Or consider this flow chart of “the scientific method.” Observations are a part of the first step, but an experiment is not introduced until the fourth step. Again, note that observation is not listed as part of the hypothesis testing step. From these sorts of sources, flat-earthers conclude that since observation is what happens first and that experiment comes later in the process, then the observation and experimentation that are both required in “the scientific method” involve separate steps. That is, observation plays no role in testing hypotheses. Flat-earthers further reason that since astronomy primarily relies upon observation and does not generally involve experimentation, then astronomy (among some other sciences) is not science and thus fulfills the definition of pseudoscience.

But many discussions of “the scientific method” do not include any mention of observation. For instance, consider this flow chart from another source. Flat-earthers tend to ignore these descriptions of “the scientific method” because if they did, it would undermine their predetermined conclusion about science.

Scientific Method Steps

Steps of the Scientific Method from Science Buddies

Consider this definition of “the scientific method” from a dictionary:

A method of procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.

Flat-earthers might say, “See, observation comes first, followed by experiment,” but that is to ignore the rest of the sentence, as well as the way the sentence is punctuated, along with the strategic use of the conjunction and (it appears three times). The first comma separates the independent clause that forms the first part of the sentence from the dependent clause that forms the second part of the sentence. The dependent clause begins with “consisting in,” followed by two lists. The first list is “systematic observation, measurement, and experiment,” and the second list is “the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.” Note that observation and experiment are grouped together with measurement, while testing hypotheses is grouped with formulation and modification of hypotheses. That is, the rules of grammar dictate that observation and experiment are considered together and are not necessarily included with the testing of hypotheses.

And what about measurement? In flat-earthers’ very simplistic approach to “the scientific method,” measurements are just part of conducting experiments to test hypotheses. But this overlooks the very important part of studying the natural world that measurement plays. For instance, one can measure the physical properties of various solids, such as hardness, density, specific heat, coefficient of expansion, electrical conductivity, and thermal conductivity. Most people consider such measurements as a part of science, even though measurements of physical properties may not involve the testing of hypotheses.

Francis Bacon

You may wonder why I keep putting “the scientific method” in quotation marks. That is because there is no such thing as “the scientific method.” The thing we call “the scientific method” today began to be discussed among some scientists in the 19th century but was not brought to more popular treatments of science until well into the 20th century. This way of doing science often is called the “Baconian method,” named for Francis Bacon, who supposedly laid it out in his 1620 book, Novum Organum. Written in Latin, Bacon selected the title of Novum Organum (Latin for New instrument) because he intended this work to be a response to Organon (Greek for instrument), the collection of Aristotle’s six works on logic. Organon focused on deductive reasoning. Rather than a deductive reasoning approach to the study of the natural world that Aristotelians of Bacon’s time advocated, Bacon argued for studying the world primarily using inductive reasoning in Novum Organum. Or so many of us have been taught.

I recently read (an English translation) of Novum Organum for the first time. Since both inductive reasoning and “the scientific method” are often credited to Bacon, I expected to read much about inductive reasoning, forming hypotheses, testing hypotheses with experiments, and even perhaps something about independent and dependent variables that flat-earthers are so keen on. Surprisingly, I read nothing in Novum Organum like that. Rather, much of what I read was examples of drawing inferences from what one observes in nature. This empirical approach to studying the natural world was not new. Some ancient Greeks advocated empiricism. However, largely through the influence of Plato (whose work was promoted by the church father Augustine), this attitude faded in the West during the early Middle Ages. Since Aristotle had advocated an empirical approach in some of his writings, it was no accident that empiricism began to experience a revival in the West as Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon, and others reintroduced Aristotelian thought into the West by the 13th century. Unfortunately, Aristotle’s teaching on an empirical approach was overshadowed by Aristotle’s other works on deductive reasoning (Organon). Francis Bacon came along at the beginning of the modern scientific revolution in the early 17th century, so the timing of his Novum Organum was impeccable. Therefore, Bacon’s work was influential in the development of science as we know, even if it didn’t really offer anything new.

What Makes Astronomy a Science

Remember, “the scientific method” that is so popular today has a relatively recent origin, postdating the development of many sciences, such as astronomy and physics. If “the scientific method” did not yet exist, how did these sciences get started? As Bacon argued, inference plays a key role in science. Such inferences are important in astronomy. For instance, how do we know the cause of lunar phases? There is no experiment with manipulation of an independent variable that one can conduct to explore this question. Therefore, using the experiment-only approach to science advocated by flat-earthers, there is no way that one can determine any cause of lunar phases. Consequently, flat-earthers have no idea what causes lunar eclipses. Furthermore, I have found that flat-earthers have no curiosity about how the moon’s phases occur. However, if one takes the much broader, more proper approach to science of drawing inferences as Bacon promoted, lunar phases are not an unsearchable mystery. Let’s take a look.

If one watches the moon on a regular basis, it is obvious that the moon takes about a month to orbit around the earth (the word “month” derives from our English word moon). Even flat-earthers would agree that over a month the moon follows a circuit through the stars. During its monthly orbit, the moon goes through a complete set of lunar phases. This synodic month is on average a little over 29 ½ days. Repeated observations reveal that full moon occurs only when the moon is opposite the sun in the sky, rising when the sun sets and setting when the sun rises. Halfway between successive full moons, the moon is in the same direction as the sun, rising when the sun rises and setting when the sun sets. We call this phase new moon. Around new moon, the moon is not visible for two to three days. New moon is considered the start of the synodic month. About a week after new moon, the moon has moved to a position 90 degrees from the sun. Since 90 degrees is one-quarter of the way around a 360-degree movement, we call this phase first quarter. When at first quarter, the moon appears half lit.

Between new moon and first quarter, the lit portion of the moon appears as a crescent on one side of the moon. Each successive evening after new moon, the crescent grows in thickness. Hence, we call these phases waxing crescent. During the week between first quarter and full moon, the lit portion of the moon continues to grow, leaving a dark crescent on the side of the moon opposite to where the waxing crescent was visible. We call this phase waxing gibbous. About a week after first quarter, the moon is full. After full moon, the phases reverse, going through waning gibbous, third quarter, waning crescent, and finally the moon disappears for two to three days as it passes through its new phase to start the cycle once again. The lit portion of the moon during the waning phases is on the opposite side of the moon as it was during the waxing phases. All the waxing phases are visible in the early evening, while all the waning phases are visible shortly before dawn.

Following Bacon’s approach, reflection upon these observations reveals the cause of lunar phases. The inescapable inference is that the moon is a globe illuminated by the sun. Since the sun’s light comes from one direction, only half the moon is lit. As the moon orbits the earth each month, the amount of the lit half of the moon that is visible on earth changes, producing the phases that we see. This conclusion is obvious to any rational, honest person. Many ancient societies, even those that believed the earth was flat, managed to figure this out. So, why do modern flat-earthers resist this clear inference? Ancient flat-earth cosmologies had the sun and moon rising above the earth’s disk and setting below the earth’s disk. That is, the sun and moon passed under the earth between their setting and rising. This resulted in sunrise occurring simultaneously for all locations on earth. The same was true for sunset, and for noon. Therefore, there were no time zones with these flat-earth cosmologies.

Once ancient societies came to realize that sunrise, noon, and sunset occurred at different times on the earth, belief that the earth is flat was no longer tenable, and so late in antiquity, Western civilizations abandoned flat-earth cosmology in favor of a globe earth. The modern flat-earth movement became possible only when Samuel Rowbotham created the zetetic model, with the sun and moon moving in circles above the earth’s disk. Since it is impossible for the sun and moon to rise or set in the zetetic model, Rowbotham had to invent some flimflam about how the sun and moon only appear to rise and set.

Another problem for the zetetic model is that the clear inference about the cause of lunar phases is not possible within the zetetic model. Since times zones are an undeniable fact of the modern world, to maintain belief that the earth is flat, modern flat-earthers must cling to the zetetic model. Consequently, flat-earthers reject the clear inference about lunar phases. What do flat-earthers think causes lunar phases? They don’t think about this at all. Remember, I said that I’ve found flat-earthers have no curiosity about such matters.

Or consider eclipses. It is an observational fact that lunar eclipses happen only when the moon is full, and solar eclipses happen only when the moon is new. That is, lunar eclipses always occur when the moon is opposite the sun in the sky, and solar eclipses always occur when the moon and sun are in the same part of the sky. This leads to the inference that the earth’s shadow falling on the moon probably is the cause of lunar eclipses, and the moon’s shadow falling on the earth probably is the cause of solar eclipses. But a lunar eclipse doesn’t happen every full moon, nor does a solar eclipse occur every new moon. How can we explain this? Most ancient civilizations tracked the moon’s motion through the stars sufficiently to understand that the moon’s path is inclined a little more than five degrees to the ecliptic, the apparent path of the sun through the stars each year (or, alternately, the plane of the earth’s orbit around the sun). This realization explained why eclipses don’t happen each month—most months the respective shadows passed above or below their targets. Only during two eclipse seasons each year, when the moon’s orbit crossed the ecliptic at new and full moon, were eclipses possible. This understanding also made it possible for many ancient civilizations to discover the saros cycle. The saros cycle can be used to crudely predict eclipses.

Flat-earthers reject and reinterpret this understanding of eclipses because if they were to accept it, it would inevitably lead to rejecting the notion the earth is flat. Why? First, in the zetetic model, the sun and moon are perpetually above the flat earth. Therefore, the earth could never be between the sun and moon, allowing its shadow to fall on the moon. Second, as Aristotle pointed out 24 centuries ago, the circular shadow of the earth on the moon leads to the conclusion the earth is a globe. Flat-earthers must reject this evidence for the earth being a globe. Third, since this inference about the cause of eclipses cannot be experimentally verified according to flat-earthers’ standard of manipulating an independent variable, they insist this isn’t science.

What do flat-earthers make of the saros cycle? Flat-earthers insist that ancient civilizations learned about the saros cycle from merely recording many eclipses and seeing the periodicity in them. However, such records collected over several generations would have many gaps, probably requiring Fourier analysis (invented in the 18th century) to tweak the saros cycle out of the data. If flat-earthers truly delved into the history of the saros cycle, they would know that knowledge of the saros cycle arose from understanding what caused eclipses. Flat-earthers also falsely claim that modern eclipse predictions use the saros cycle. I’ve challenged flat-earthers to explain how this is done. Not one flat-earther has answered my challenge. I’ve also asked many flat-earthers what causes eclipses. Flat-earthers don’t have an answer for this either. As with the cause of lunar phases, flat-earthers seem to have no curiosity about what causes eclipses.

Flat-Earthers’ Limitations on Science

With their insistence that science is done only by experiment, flat-earthers have a very restrictive view of what is and what is not science. Flat-earthers have picked up definitions of science that say that science is about establishing cause and effect relationships via testing hypotheses, so they reason that unless a hypothesis is being tested for a cause-and-effect relationship, it isn’t science. This is news to scientists, as well as most other people. I’ve already mentioned the measurement of physical properties of substances and that to flat-earthers, this is not science. How about classification, such as the basic types of rocks or taxonomy? To flat-earthers, classification is not science either. Flat-earthers seem to have latched onto a few nuggets from their elementary school education of “the scientific method” but they must have been absent all those days that classification was discussed in science class.

But it gets worse. Flat-earthers have taken to distinguishing between “laws of nature” and science. They insist that laws of nature are merely descriptions of what is, while science is about testing hypotheses involving cause and effect relationships. But flat-earthers don’t accept many established laws of nature. The only law that I’ve heard flat-earthers mention is the second law of thermodynamics (even though they regularly abuse it, suggesting they don’t really know what the second law of thermodynamics is). Once on the internet I asked a group of flat-earthers what other laws of nature they would recognize. All I got was silence. They apparently had not given that question any thought, even though they had talked about natural laws to some extent.

Flat-earthers reject Newton’s law of gravity. It’s not clear if they reject Newton’s three laws of motion too. But what about the other three laws of thermodynamics, Snell’s law, Lenz’s law, Faraday’s law, Ampere’s law, or Gauss’ law? I doubt that many flat-earthers have spent any time thinking about those. I came up with those laws of nature off the top of my head; I could come up with more. Flat-earthers apparently haven’t given any thought to how laws of nature (such as the second law of thermodynamics) came to be understood. Do they think that someone came down from Mount Horeb with them inscribed in stone? If flat-earthers knew just a little about these laws of nature, they would realize that scientists came up with them, but many of those scientists didn’t come up with many of those laws the way that flat-earthers think that science must be done. Indeed, I’ve heard some influential flat-earthers say as much. Hence, it is a mystery where flat-earthers must think knowledge of these laws of nature came from.

Perhaps the most influential flat-earther in this deconstruction of science is John Stunja, who goes by the moniker Quantum Eraser, or QE for short, on the internet (though John’s friend, Anthony Riley [aka Sleeping Warrior] may have originally assisted John in this). John loves to pick definitions and quotes from what most people would consider authoritative sources to make his points. Of course, he’s very selective in which quotes he uses. For instance, John would never use this quote about how science works from the University of California:

The Scientific Method is traditionally presented in the first chapter of science textbooks as a simple recipe for performing scientific investigations. Though many useful points are embodied in this method, it can easily be misinterpreted as linear and “cookbook”: pull a problem off the shelf, throw in an observation, mix in a few questions, sprinkle on a hypothesis, put the whole mixture into a 350° experiment — and voila, 50 minutes later you'll be pulling a conclusion out of the oven! That might work if science were like Hamburger Helper®, but science is complex and cannot be reduced to a single, prepackaged recipe.

The linear, stepwise representation of the process of science is simplified, but it does get at least one thing right. It captures the core logic of science: testing ideas with evidence. However, this version of the scientific method is so simplified and rigid that it fails to accurately portray how real science works. It more accurately describes how science is summarized after the fact — in textbooks and journal articles — than how science is actually done.

If John were to use this quotation or others like it, it would totally undermine his argument. This is dishonest. It’s John’s selective use of sources about the definition and nature of science that has led to the very restrictive confinement of science that flat-earthers insist upon. Consequently, flat-earther standards dictate that unless a study resembles a seventh-grade science project, it isn’t science.

It never occurs to John or other flat-earthers that the definitions of science and descriptions of “the scientific method” that they use are intended for very basic science classes. Many of these are proscribed for elementary or middle school science classes. As such, the definitions and descriptions of science that flat-earthers quote are often very specific to a particular type of class. And many of these definitions and descriptions are meant for a specific course with an emphasis on experimentation to the exclusion of other ways of doing science. If one were to seek out the authors of many of the quotes John uses and asked them if they agree with many of the conclusions that John has reached using their quotes, such as astronomy not being a science, the authors of the quotes would strenuously disagree. The authors would object that John and his flat-earther followers have totally misunderstood what their quotes mean. Recently in a program I heard John say that he called the office of one of the authors whose quote he had abused. John said that he left a message with the person in the author’s department who took the call for the author to call John back, but the author never did. John surmised that the author was dodging John’s impeccable logic. It is more likely that the author thought John was deluded and didn’t want to speak to him.

Furthermore, it doesn’t occur to John or other flat-earthers that a very elementary treatment of any subject leaves out many complicating details. This simplification ends up rendering many basic discussions as wrong. For instance, we all know that air temperature generally decreases with increasing altitude. Most of us learned in grade school that this is because air becomes less dense with increasing elevation and hence becomes less able to hold heat. While it is true that less dense air holds less heat than more dense air, all that means is that it takes less addition of heat to warm air. That is, if this is all that is going on, then during the day air at higher elevation ought to be warmer, not cooler, than air at lower elevation. To properly understand why air temperature generally decreases with increasing elevation requires considerable knowledge of thermodynamics, not the sort of things appropriate for grade school. Yet, John and his followers blunder on, thinking that their grade school education suffices to make them experts on science. If that were true, why do scientists go to college, followed by years of graduate study? For that matter, why did John go to college when all he really needed to know he learned in grade school? Jethro Bodine and his family were proud of his sixth-grade education, thinking it had adequately prepared him for all sorts of complicated things, but Jethro Bodine was an imbecile.

In a program John recently conducted on YouTube, I heard John demonstrate his erroneous thinking about this. At one point, he scoffed at spherical trigonometry. In plane geometry, the interior angles of triangles always sum to 180 degrees, but in spherical geometry, the interior angles of a triangle can sum to more than 180 degrees. John literally shouted in this program that he learned in third grade that the sum of the interior angles of triangles always summed to 180 degrees and thus derided anyone who thought otherwise. It never occurred to him that his third-grade teacher was referring to plane (Euclidian) geometry. Nor did it occur to John that perhaps in third grade the material was greatly simplified and that there might be some exceptions to what he thought was a universal rule.

Or consider what flat-earthers have to say about the Coriolis effect, something that I’ve previously discussed in the context of flat-earthers. In that blog, I placed blame on flat-earthers for bungling the Coriolis effect on a panel of flat-earthers. John, a member of this panel, was the source of these major blunders. I frequently hear flat-earthers talk about an airplane taking off and consequently leaving one reference frame and entering another reference frame. That demonstrates a failure of flat-earthers to understand reference frames and the Coriolis effect. Objects don’t enter and leave reference frames. Rather, the motion of an object can be simultaneously described in any number of reference frames. That is what reference frames are used for. Consequently, it is impossible for objects to enter and leave reference frames. With such a fundamental misunderstanding, it is no wonder why flat-earthers haven’t a clue about what the Coriolis effect is.

John managed to find a basic discussion of the Coriolis effect that came from a survey course on oceanography, not physics. Another source John uses is an online resource for K-12 education. The latter source attributed the Coriolis effect to the earth rotating beneath an object. Many elementary discussions of the Coriolis effect say this sort of thing, but as with why air temperature generally decreases with increasing elevation, it is very oversimplified, which can lead in this case to a misunderstanding of what is going on. Proper treatment of the Coriolis effect is not simple. It requires extensive knowledge of an area of physics called mechanics. An undergraduate physics major might encounter a detailed treatment of the Coriolis effect in an advanced mechanics class, but it is more likely that a physics student would see this in a graduate-level mechanics class. It was in a graduate-level mechanics class that I first encountered it. It’s no wonder that grade school or even high school classes do not adequately discuss the Coriolis, yet John and his flat-earther buddies seem to think otherwise.

Conclusion

In a recent program, prominent flat-earther Nathan Thompson, who I have written about before, used a source as a reference to make his point about what science is and how science is done. This is what his source says:

The natural sciences are the sciences that seek to explain the rules that govern the natural world through scientific methods, the cornerstone of which is measured by quantitative data (Ledoux, 2002, p. 34). They also attempt to provide mathematical (either deterministic or stochastic) models of natural processes. There are five branches of natural sciences (Barr, 2006, p. 1; Simhony, 2006, p. 49), including:

  1. Astronomy
  2. Biology
  3. Chemistry
  4. Earth sciences
  5. Physics

Notice that this source does not use the term “the scientific method.” Rather, it refers to “scientific methods.” That is, there is more than one way to do science. Also notice that this source says nothing about experimentation or manipulating an independent variable. Furthermore, Nathan doesn’t think astronomy is a science, but his source states that astronomy is a science. In short, this reference that Nathan appealed to as an authoritative source doesn’t agree with any of Nathan’s incorrect views of science. It is amazing that Nathan didn’t know what his source said. This attitude is not unique to Nathan among flat-earthers. As I’ve pointed out here, flat-earthers employ such selective choices for references.

I have noticed another new trend among flat-earthers. Following John Stunja’s lead, flat-earthers have long argued that science is about establishing cause-and-effect relationships by conducting experiments in which one manipulates an independent variable. Flat-earthers generally consider any deviation from this formula to be nonscience or even pseudoscience. But I’ve heard many flat-earthers decry any involvement of people in the process. For instance, flat-earthers deny gravity’s existence, and so they often issue a challenge to give any evidence for gravity. Most people will respond with some sort of experiment, sometimes something as simple as dropping an object. However, flat-earthers eagerly pounce upon this, claiming that since one must first lift the object and release it, then the cause in the cause-and-effect relationship is the person lifting the object and then releasing it. Using this rhetorical sleight of hand, flat-earthers have defined away any possibility of testing for gravity, thus removing it from consideration using “the scientific method.” But doesn’t that mean man cannot manipulate even the independent variable because that would make man the cause? I recently pointed this problem out in an online discussion with a flat-earther. His only response was to change the subject by calling me names and making baseless accusations against me.

Some flat-earthers are beginning to take this a step further. They argue that one cannot use manmade objects in conducting such tests. After all, science is about the study of nature, and, by definition, what man does in not natural. This is an example of equivocation, though the flat-earthers who make this argument don’t seem to be aware of this. Think through the implication of this line of reasoning. If man is involved in any part of the experiment, then man is the cause, not some natural cause. Nor can one use any manmade devices, such as rulers, scales, and thermometers, because they are not natural either. In short, this amounts to the entire dismantling of science. But maybe that is the objective of flat-earthers. The use of real science leads to the conclusion that the earth is a globe. Since this contradicts the flat-earth religion, flat-earthers must discredit science.

Both Jupiter and Saturn are currently well placed in the evening sky. Recently I’ve had the pleasure of showing these gems to people through a 126-mm (5-inch) Televue refractor. This telescope gives fine views of planets. I always enjoy witnessing the excitement that people express when seeing Saturn through such a telescope for the first time. It fills people with wonder, prompting them to ask questions such as how far away Saturn is, how large Saturn and its rings are, and what they are made of. My recent experience prompted me to wonder how many flat-earthers have ever looked at Saturn through a telescope. If flat-earthers did, would they be moved the way most other people are? I doubt it. You see, when asked what stars and planets are, flat-earthers universally respond, “They are just lights in the sky.” That seems to be where their understanding begins and ends. Flat-earthers don’t express any interest in such matters. Consequently, flat-earthers have no wonder that most other people have about the things above us. That is a pity.

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