The Atlantic Monthly fails Science 101, #FlatEarth ers rejoice

Let's poke science in the eye, too! [Image from the 1902 silent film, Le Voyage dans la Lune.]

Let’s poke science in the eye, too! [Image from the 1902 silent film, Le Voyage dans la Lune.]

GEORGE TOWN, PENANG, MALAYSIA — There is just so much wrong about a science writer equating “fringe science” with real science in a major magazine that I feel compelled to write a response.

I know, I should be writing about my wonderful vacation trip instead of grousing about an essay praising science cranks for their creativity and inquisitive spirit, but Lizzie Wade’s essay in The Atlantic Monthly, “In Defense of Flat Earthers,” just irritates the crap out of me.

It bothers me because Wade, whose background as a science writer seems pretty solid, gets all touchy-feely, New-Agey and says fringe scientists are just so adorable, trying to make sense of the world in their cockeyed ways. Why, they’re just like real scientists!

No, they are not. I will explain why momentarily.

Even more annoying is Wade’s response to criticism that she’s fundamentally missed the boat on what science is and does. She tweeted this rejoinder to one such complaint:

What in blue blazes do you think your job is, Lizzie Wade? A science writer shuld be writing about science, and explaining it to her readers in a way that makes the topic understandable to them. Your job is not to give credence to ideas that are just plain wrong, for the sake of offering a “balanced view.”

In case you missed it, the spark that started Wade on her path toward nutcase apologetics is a now-famous series of tweets by rapper B.o.B. insisting that the Earth is flat, and that the Man has been fooling all of us for years by teaching us in school that the world is round.

Yeah, well, B.o.B. is entitled to his opinion, but he’s just plain wrong. Laughably wrong. And Wade, thankfully, says so in her essay.

But, rather than explain why B.o.B. is wrong, she veers off into woo-woo land by praising people like B.o.B. who try to find creative (as in, wackadoodle) answers to life’s burning questions.

There’s something touchingly genuine about this to me, some deep seated desire to work through confusion and toward truth. This isn’t a man who never learned science, or who has some fundamentalist objection to examining empirical evidence about the world. This is a man who has looked at the world around him and decided that mainstream science isn’t doing a good job at explaining what he sees. So he’s collecting evidence, seeking out literature by well-versed “experts,” and working out a better theory on his own.

She might have just as well entitled her piece, “In Defense of Ignorance.”

I’ll grant B.o.B. the point that to most of us, the world does appear flat. And, perhaps to Joe Everyman throughout the ages, it was flat. But astronomers, geographers, and even common sailors have known the world is round for at least 4,000 years. Its roundness is only apparent if you’re paying very close attention, and most people throughout the ages had other things to do with their lives than worry about the shape of the world.

[True fact: Contrary to legend, most educated people in the time of Christopher Columbus knew the world was round like a ball. Their issue with old Chris was not the shape of the world, but the size of it. The commonly accepted circumference of the Earth then was 25,000 miles at the equator. Geographers knew enough about the size of Eurasia to conclude there would be a huge expanse of ocean between the west coast of Europe and the east coast of China — an ocean too large to cross with the ships Columbus wanted. Columbus on the other hand proposed a smaller circumference, and by happenstance found a landmass just where he expected it to be. It just wasn’t Asia.]

B.o.B. doesn’t believe the world is round, because it doesn’t look that way to him. So he tries to find a way to prove to himself and others he is right. He finds examples supposedly proving the Earth is flat.

But he is not “doing science,” despite what Wade argues. He’s arguing from the single viewpoint of one observer who has already decided the world is flat, and now tries to find evidence to support his claim. Appealing to authority — the experts she mentions — is not science, either. If anything, scientific breakthroughs have come by rejecting accepted wisdom. See which, Galileo.

Now, if Wade had limited herself to a grudging admiration of B.o.B.’s doomed attempts to prove the Earth is flat, her essay would be almost acceptable, but she takes her admiration for the rapper’s naivete several steps further.

Most of the current crop of outsider physicists are out to prove Einstein and/or quantum mechanics wrong; arguing that the Earth is flat is a fringe position in a fringe movement. But B.o.B’s Twitter crusade illuminates the best qualities of outsider physics: its skepticism, its curiosity, and its fierce desire to make sense of a confusing world in a rigorous way. These same values lie at the heart of mainstream science, too. They are what make science special. They are what make science science.

But theoretical physics isn’t just science. It’s also a creative pursuit, one that exists in parallel to and sometimes even ahead of experimental evidence. …

Aaaggh! There is a disturbance in the Force, as if generations of science educators are screaming in unison.

She’s partly right, and mostly wrong.

Skepticism — partly right. Scientists ideally should be skeptical. They should doubt themselves, their evidence, their conclusions, even other scientists’ work. Skepticism is built into mainstream science. It’s why there is a system of peer review of scientific articles. Fringe scientists are also skeptical, but not of themselves. They doubt everything everyone else says is valid. Taken to an extreme, that’s not skepticism, but delusion.

Curiosity. Right. A scientist is innately curious about the world. He or she wants to know how and why the Universe does what it does. Fringe scientists share the same motivation, though the process and results are different.

Rigor. Nope. Wrong. Rigor in science means the methods and results of “doing science” need to be consistent with reality and with all the science already in place. It means carefully designed experiments, and observations free from bias. It means trusting the math, even when the math contradicts one’s common-sense view of the Universe.

What B.o.B is doing is NOT rigorous. He’s trusting only his own senses and reasoning. He’s not checking his ideas against independent sources, but only against his own perception of reality. Modern science abandoned this kind of Aristotelian science when Galileo decided to test Aristotle’s ideas against reality 400 years ago. Wade surely knows this.

Creativity. Partly right again. Science is a creative endeavor, though it may be hard to see it by reading the typical science textbook. Scentists have to design experiments, sometimes from the ground up. They have to look at the world from a new perspective. They may have to find new explanations for what they and others have seen.

But there is a critical difference between the creativity in Science with a capital S and the creativity Wade praises among fringe scientists. The creativity in Science is constrained. There are built-in limits to the creativity of mainstream scientists that do not exist for fringe scientists.

Since Wade has studied comparative literature (as have I, by coincidence), let me offer an analogy to show you what I mean.

Creativity in mainstream science is liking writing a sonnet. The poet is contrained by the form of the sonnet: the number of lines, the meter and the feet. Japanese haiku, or even limericks offer similar constraints. Despite these constraints, poets manage to be quite creative within these forms.

Someone could write a poem, and call it a sonnet, but if it doesn’t fit the form everyone else ascribes to a sonnet, then it’s not a sonnet. It may be still be a poem, but it’s not a sonnet.

Creativity in fringe science is more like free verse, abandoning common syntax and grammar. There are no constraints. The poem is limited only by the inventiveness of the poet. It may be poetry, but it’s not a sonnet.

What are the constraints on Science? Quite a few. First, any experiments have to be carefully designed to eliminate uncontrolled variables. That means, if you are trying to see if A affects B, you have to be sure factors C, D and E are not around to screw up the results. Second, your results have to support your conclusions. Third, the results have to be repeatable and verifiable — someone else doing the same experiment should get the same results. Fourth, the conclusions need to fit within the existing framework of Science as currently understood. If they don’t, then the researcher involved needs to be damned sure of their methodology and reasoning, lest they come off looking like an idiot during peer review.

Looking more broadly than just experimentation and observation, scientific theories have to both explain and predict. And they need to be both self-consistent logically, and consistent with other theories. Unlike fringe notions about how the universe works, a scientific theory depends solely on the evidence underpinning it. No evidence? The theory sucks. Try a new one.

In short, scientists can’t just propose whatever crazy ideas just pop in their heads. There are rules, and even geniuses like Einstein have to follow them. Fringe scientists, meanwhile, scoff at these rules, sure of their own genius and distrustful of the “system” that imposes the rules.

So, fringe scientists are not “just like” real scientists. Not. At. All.

Wade concludes her paean to untrammeled creativity with this paragraph, which sums up her New Agey admiration for these great thinkers.

That, to me, is what makes #FlatEarth fundamentally different from climate change denial, creationism, or the anti-vaxx movement. It’s not really about exposing a supposed scientific “fraud,” it doesn’t have a political or religious agenda, and it’s not out to stop professional scientists from doing their important work and applying what they learn to improve the world. It’s just a bunch of amateur theorists trying their best to feel at home in the universe, in a way many scientists might well recognize if they let themselves. Theoretical physics isn’t brain surgery; unless you are in charge of Soyuz reentry paths or something, no one is going to die if you do it wrong. At worst, you’ll irritate some mainstream scientists or become briefly infamous on social media. At best, you’ll blaze your own trail through the universe’s mysteries and end up somewhere wondrous—even if you’re the only one who knows it. So let a million theories flourish, including #FlatEarth. When they come from a place of such genuine curiosity and creativity, who cares if they’re wrong?

Everyone has to have a hobby, in other words. So let these kooky people propose their kooky ideas. It’s all cool. They’re just like scientists, except for the part about being right.

Kooky ideas are not science. They are not anything like science. They are notions, or fantasies, that have no basis in reality. Encouraging people to accept such ideas — because they are just soooo creative! — or to accept them as equivalent to mainstream science seems to undermine the very role of a science journalist, who should be telling us what is correct and what is not.

Fringe science is by and large just plain wrong, as wrong as believing in a flat earth or the Sun revolving around the Earth. As I see it, journalism is all about separating truth from non-truth, exposing facts and disproving lies. For a science writer to say, “Kooky is just great, it’s just like real science, even if it’s wrong,” is not responsible science journalism. It’s not even science journalism. It’s sloppy thinking.

B.o.B. is not a scientist. He is not doing anything remotely like science. The same is true for all the fringe theorists trying to disprove Einstein and quantum physics. A responsible writer would be separating right from wrong, and explaining why they are different.

That’s your job, Ms Wade. Educate. Inform. Represent Science. Be a reporter, not a PR flack for the woo-woo crowd.

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