Behaviour

Behind the Curve

There’s an apocryphal account of Bertrand Russel, a British scientist, who was approached by an old lady at the end of his lecture on astronomy.

“Your theory about the earth being round is interesting, but it’s wrong. I’ve got a better theory,” said the little old lady.

“Enlighten me madam.” inquired the scientist politely.

“The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant turtle.” the lady said confidently.

The scientist decided to gently dissuade his opponent by making her see inconsistencies in her position.

“If your theory is correct, madam,” he asked, “what does this turtle stand on?”

“You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”

If this conversation happened a hundred years back, you’d not be surprised by the old lady’s argument. After all, the first man-made satellite didn’t go to space until 1957. A century ago, it wasn’t strange to come across smart and educated people who still believed that earth was flat.

The jury is still out on who first discovered that earth is round. Some give credit to the Greeks. But when Columbus set his sails towards America in the 15th century, the round earth theory was widely accepted.

So it came as a shock when I discovered that even today there’s a thriving community of people who refuse to believe that earth is a round sphere. I learned this when I recently watched a Netflix documentary called Behind the Curve. It came out in 2018. Watch it if you haven’t.

The Flat Earthers

I thought “Flat Earther” was just a term for those who are generally dogmatic about their obsolete world view. When someone told me that there’s still a bunch of real “Flat Earthers,” my reaction was, “What on earth are they feeding themselves?”

Interestingly, the intention of the documentary isn’t to mock the Flat Earth Society. Mark Sargent — the guy who is driving the Flat Earth movement — actively collaborated for the documentary. Sargent and his growing tribe firmly believe that the world is being fooled by a large conspiracy that suppresses the truth that the Earth is like a flat disc.

Why should you waste your time watching a documentary that features absurd arguments supporting a lunatic world view?

For one, these Flat Earthers seem to be rational when it comes to other areas of life. Many of them are quite successful in what they do. They are skillful and logical in their line of reasoning. So instead of brushing them aside as morons, it makes sense to investigate how does someone form such flat-out asinine believes and what makes them resistant to changing their minds.

Second, the documentary doesn’t have a tone of mockery. Daniel Clark (the director) has tried hard in the film to understand the thought pattern of these Flat Earthers and what motivates them to believe in something so easily disproven. Those who laugh at Flat Earthers miss an important point about human behaviour, i.e., belonging to a contrarian group has its perks. It fulfils the human need to have a distinct identity.

Third, the film makes a compelling case for empathy and dialogue. It’s not just about the absurdity of the Flat Earth movement. It’s about understanding the process by which a human mind creates its worldview.

As the film reveals, many of these Flat Earthers started out as curious investigators with an intention to debunk this conspiracy theory. But in the process of demolishing the theory, they ended up getting convinced themselves and joined the movement.

Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?

What if I told you that there’s a high chance that even you’d join the Flat Earth camp if you patiently listened to their arguments. Don’t you believe me? Here’s what I asked myself when I was thinking about this.

All my life I have believed that earth is round like a ball. How did I come to believe that?

Well, I read in my school textbooks. I saw everyone around me convinced about it. Did I run any personal experiments to prove it to myself that earth is a spherical ball? Never. And why would I? My belief about shape of the earth never caused any big inconvenience in my day to day life. I guess that would be true for most of the other Round Earthers, isn’t it?

How We Form Beliefs

The general framework most people use to construct their worldview is so fragile that anyone can come and plant an opposite view in their minds using the same framework.

Annie Duke in her excellent book, Thinking in Bets, argues that when it comes to making up our minds, we do it haphazardly, believing all sort of things based just on what we hear out in the world but haven’t researched for ourselves. She writes —

This is how we think we form abstract beliefs.

1. We hear something;
2. We think about it and vet it, determining whether it is true or false; only after that
3. We form our belief

It turns out, though, that we actually form abstract beliefs this way:

1. We hear something;
2. We believe it to be true;
3. Only sometimes, later, if we have the time or the inclination, we think about it and vet it, determining whether it is, in fact, true or false.

Someone aptly said, “Man isn’t a rational being. He’s a rationalizing being.” We jump to conclusions and then get busy cherry picking evidence that bolsters our initial hypothesis.

This made me realize that even I could turn into a Flat Earther, given —

1. I read some books written by Flat Earthers;
2. I allow myself to hang out with Flat Earthers and,
3. There’s no serious inconvenience (except the risk of being ridiculed by Round Earthers) by this new belief.

I shuddered at the thought. How was I any different from the lady who claimed that it’s turtles all the way down?

Confirmation bias feeds on itself. The more I associate with Flat Earthers, listen to their talks, see the conviction in their eyes, the force of social proof would be unbearable and before I know it, I’d be one of them.

Flat Earthers have their podcasts, their yearly conferences, and even their own dating services. They have a strong community and they share a common myth. Sharing a common myth is how all religions survive. All religions are thus cults. For that matter, any political ideology is a cult too.

Yuval Harari, in his masterpiece Sapiens, argues that homo sapiens’ blitzkrieg to top of the food chain was primarily because of the ability to collaborate in large numbers. And this collaboration was made possible by constructing and believing in imagined realities like God, nation-state, and money.

Annie Duke explains it this way —

…how we form beliefs was shaped by the evolutionary push toward efficiency rather than accuracy. Abstract belief formation (that is, beliefs outside our direct experience, conveyed through language) is likely among the few things that are uniquely human, making it relatively new in the scope of evolutionary time. Before language, our ancestors could form new beliefs only through what they directly experienced of the physical world around them. For perceptual beliefs from direct sensory experience, it’s reasonable to presume our senses aren’t lying. Seeing is, after all, believing. In fact, questioning what you see or hear can get you eaten. For survival-essential skills, type I errors (false positives) were less costly than type II errors (false positives). In other words, better to be safe than sorry, especially when considering whether to believe that the rustling in the grass is a lion. We didn’t develop a high degree of skepticism when our beliefs were about things we directly experienced, especially when our lives were at stake.

In that sense, we’re all Flat Earthers. Because it’s not what we believe but how we come to believe what we believe. And our social history has equipped us with a flawed belief-forming-framework.

How often do we stop and question our long-held beliefs? When was the last time you changed your mind on a strongly held idea?

Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s longtime partner, says —

Any year that passes in which you don’t destroy one of your best-loved ideas is a wasted year.

Here are few things which you might believe but never took time to investigate —

1. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
2. If my mammography test comes out positive, the probability that I have cancer is 90%. (I gave a talk on this)
3. Most experts (your doctor, your financial advisor, the gym instructor, and your college professor) know what they’re doing.

“How does it matter to me if I refuse to believe that the earth is round? Will gravity stop working on me? Will I be put behind bars?” A Flat Earther may argue.

Does thriving in the present environment require a 100 percent accurate knowledge about how the world works? Not necessarily. Several of our false believes may be inconsequential. However, it matters what price we pay when we’re wrong. When it comes to important decisions about career, money, relationships, etc., the consequences of having absurd beliefs can be severe and sometimes irreversible.

Parting Thoughts

I hope you’re convinced that this documentary is worth your time. And while you’re watching don’t laugh at Mark Sargent for talking rubbish. In his mind, he sees you (and me and the whole world) as gullible citizens who have taken an elaborate lie as a truth. Put yourself in Mark’s shoes. Empathize with him. That may unearth the real incentive behind his stubbornness.

Finally, when you meet a Flat Earther (or someone who has similar absurd models in his head), remind yourself that throwing facts and scientific evidence at him may not always help. Belittling them or calling them crazy will just add fuel to the fire. Everyone’s long held beliefs are often deeply entangled with their self-worth. Letting go off such beliefs is devilishly hard for it’s akin to shedding one’s identity.

But if you still want to open a Flat Earther’s mind towards change, remember Benjamin Franklin’s advice — “If you want to persuade, appeal to interest not to reason.”

That’s a great advice. Especially for the Flat Earther sitting inside our own heads.