“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”
One thing I’ve learned in the past year is that it is next to impossible to change somebody’s beliefs with facts. Whatever we believe is locked into our minds and no mountain of facts to the contrary will change our mind. The reason is because of something known as Cognitive Bias. Our brains will only accept “facts” that confirm our belief. We dismiss as false, those that are counter to our way of thinking.
So, a discussion of our beliefs, will often only lead to an argument, which nobody wins. We do this all the time on social media. The key to a good discussion, I’m told, is to listen to the other person. First try to find common ground and work from there.
How do you find common ground? Practice.
I decided to begin small, with something I believe 100% that only a tiny percentage of others do not believe. According to the Scientific American Magazine, more than 1% of Americans believe that the Earth is flat. I, like more than 98% of Americans, believe that the Earth is round, not perfectly round like a ball, but certainly not flat.
Before I got involved in a live discussion of my own, I decided to watch one on YouTube and practice listening to someone with an opposite viewpoint on something. It was a half-hour program where three scientists discussed the shape of the Earth with three “Flat Earthers.” My own cognitive bias kicked in automatically, and I immediately assumed that the scientists would be smart and the Flat Earthers would be stupid, if not outright morons. So, I paused the program, trying to get that thought out of my head.
I couldn’t. That’s the power of cognitive bias. I was already prejudiced in favor of the side that held my beliefs. Finally, though, I convinced myself to try to withhold my opinions until I had, at least, heard everyone speak. That lasted only a few seconds, as the moderator began the show by asking them if they believed that God created the universe. As an Atheist, I was pleased than none of the scientist professed to believe in an Almighty Creator. I was kind of shocked, though, that only two of the Flat Earthers, Wendell and Shelley, did believe that God created the Universe. Ed didn’t, and I found myself unable to keep from thinking of him as the “smart” Flat Earther.
Then, each side was asked to present the reasons for their belief. Wendell went first. He was a Bible scholar and a Creationist, who believed that every word in the Bible was literally true. He presented several of the hundreds of Bible passages he found that implied that the Earth is flat. He knew his Old Testament and his “facts” very well, and I no longer thought of him as stupid, but rather just misguided. My cognitive bias had budged a tiny little bit, but not much, and I couldn’t find any common ground with him. What proof did he have, outside of Bible verses? Well, he had a landscape picture that he took in California, and the area looked very flat. I found that less convincing than his Bible verses.
Then Shelley presented her case. She had formerly believed, as she was taught in grammar school, that the Earth was round, but her study of many ancient religions showed her that they all believed in a flat earth, and she therefore changed her belief. Her entire argument consisted of “facts” from ancient religions, and I couldn’t help but think, she’s the stupid one. Then she mentioned that she had graduated from West Point. I don’t think that a college degree necessarily proves you are smart, but I do believe that it means you are not stupid, unless your family donated millions to the school just to get you in, or if you were a star athlete who the faculty was warned not to fail, if they ever wanted to get tenure. So, I changed my mind about her. She wasn’t stupid, and she had studied the subject extensively. She just hadn’t studied both sides of the issue. She didn’t study modern scientists, because she felt they were all paid to go along with whatever story the government was trying to sell. She got all her information from ancient peoples who didn’t know any better, people who had never looked through a telescope. We had no common ground that I could find.
Then Ed went. I had pre-determined that he was the smart one. So, I listened carefully. He was a skeptic. Good. I’m a skeptic, too. We had common ground. He knew the arguments on both sides but had decided to do his own research. Wasn’t that what I was doing, sort of? So, we had even more common ground. Then, our connection was broken. His research consisted entirely of studying conspiracy theories on the Internet. He hadn’t bothered checking with NASA or other scientific organizations because, as far as he was concerned, they were all involved in a government plot to keep people from knowing the truth about the faked moon landing. He was just using one conspiracy theory to try to prove another.
Damn, I had really been hoping for him to be the smart one, the guy who would present some fact that would at least make me stop and think. It was not meant to be. I failed. I was unable to find any common ground with any of the Flat Earthers.
The three scientists presented the usual facts that scientists present in such debates. When ships sail out to sea, we see less and less of them, until all we can see is the top of their masts, because of the curvature of the earth. When we witness the shadow of the Earth on the moon during an eclipse, it’s always round, which is only possible if the Earth itself is actually round, and if you went to the top of the Empire State building you would not be able to see the light from the city of Chicago a thousand miles away, because of the curvature of the earth.
The three Flat Earthers made the weak argument that if the air wasn’t so polluted you would be able to see the lights of L.A. from N.Y. They insisted that a ship sailing to sea would not appear to dip below the horizon. The entire ship, not just the mast, would just appear smaller. Then the debate was over. Nobody changed their mind, especially not me. I never expected to change my mind though. I just wanted to listen to somebody with a completely different opinion.
I did try to keep an open mind throughout the discussion, but in the end, of course, I believed the scientific evidence over the supposed evidence contained in the Bible, the “Word of God.” I couldn’t believe that any of the hundreds of references in the Bible to a flat Earth that Wendell had amassed would be deemed as actual facts by anyone. The flat shape of the Earth and its supposed position in the center of our universe with the sun revolving around it were just the ignorant thoughts of ancient people who had never peeked through a telescope. They certainly had never seen the edge of this supposedly flat Earth. My conclusion was that using the Bible as a source of scientific facts was even more useless than using Playboy as a textbook on human anatomy. Either the Bible was written by ancient people who knew absolutely nothing about science, or it was the divinely inspired Word of a God who was very stupid.
So, I failed to find any common ground with this particular group of conspiracy theorists, but I’ll keep looking. Maybe I’ll find it elsewhere. The world is small, and it goes around.
Peace & Love, and all of the above,