Flat earth fallacies and scicomm flops

Rapper B.O.B believes the world is flat, and he isn’t the only one.

Earlier this year Bobby Ray Simmons Jr., better known by his stage name B.o.B, tweeted that ‘A lot of people are turned off by the phrase ‘flat earth’ … but there’s no way u can see all the evidence and not know’. This prompted a huge debate, with physicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson jumping in to represent the scientific community, refuting B.o.B.’s claims. In subsequent tweets, the rapper shared numerous sites and images supposedly proving the claims.

Conspiracy theories are nothing new, but in recent years there has been a growing trend for mistrust of established thought in regards to scientific concepts. This manifests itself in a number of fringe beliefs which are gaining traction among the public, such as distrust in the safeness of GMOS, vaccinations and yes, beliefs that the Earth is in fact flat. This has led to protests, removal of certain safe chemicals from the manufacture of products and an overall growing sense of doubt towards the legitimacy of science. This is a problem that must be addressed by scientists and product developers, but also by science communicators. Badly explained science trickles down and gets misinterpreted, and these misinterpretations become regarded as truth. Science communication is used in fields from healthcare to environmental policy to explain to the public the concepts behind particular actions, breakthroughs, developments or legislation at an accessible and engaging level. Is it failing?

One of science communications’ major current issues is to combat the belief that vaccinations cause autism. In actual fact, ‘over a dozen peer reviewed papers have found no correlation between autism and the MMR vaccine’[1] Despite this, belief of just the opposite is actually on the rise, especially in first world countries such as America. The response of many is for the re-education of those who are misinformed by exposure to accurate information. However, this method has been proven ineffective. One study found that current public health communications about vaccines ‘may actually increase misperceptions or reduce vaccination intention.’[2] Further studies have found that many science communication tools that simply explain a concept, such as informative videos, cement incorrect beliefs rather than challenging and replacing them. In one particular study, students took a test about Newtonian physics and forces. They then watched a video about 10 minutes long explaining, in essence, all the answers to the test. The students then completed the exact same test. Before the video the students scored 6 out of 26. And after an average of 6.3. In essence, students did not pay attention to the video because they felt they already knew the answers.

The deficit model of science communication, one that has been very popular in influencing practise, hypothesises that science communication brings scientific knowledge to those with a deficit of it i.e. the public, with the goal being to ‘increase public trust in science’.[3] This assumes that when ‘educated’, they will easily change their minds to the ‘right’ way of thinking, ignoring cognitive biases. This, as we have seen, is untrue. When it comes to forces for instance, we have preconceived ideas of how they work, and think we know how, because we experience them every day. We must seek better ways of overturning this incorrect knowledge.

A number of solutions have been proposed. The first is to simply stop giving those spreading misinformation a platform to influence others. That this should not be regarded as an affront to freedom of speech as the earth being spherical is a fact. Whether you believe it is, whether it is your opinion that it is or not, it continues to be so. Giving flat earthers equal attention as scientific theories legitimises their claims, making it seem to the public as if they are equally plausible.

The second is to find ways of educating our children, and re-educating the adult public, which is more effective than current methods. In the same study involving Newton’s forces as mentioned above, students were shown a second video. In this video, students were first presented by their own incorrect ideas in the guise of an actor pretending to be a student. The two participants then discussed why the student was incorrect, and how the actual science differed. On the post test, the average test score doubled to 11 out of 26. This tells us that hope is not lost for the future of science communication.

Science communication must ensure it challenges preconceptions, that it is factually accurate, relevant to the public and be engaging for their daily lives. A greater emphasis is needed, especially in schools, not in specific scientific theories like whether the earth is flat, or whether vaccines cause autism, but in the ability to be sceptical and analytical of all information presented, to be able to critically asses pieces of data, determine whether they are scientific enough to warrant justification of a theory, and base one’s beliefs upon that. Ironically enough, B.o.B tweeted at his followers ‘Don’t believe what I say, research what I say’. Thanks for that, Bobby, but given the tools for proper research, I still believe the Earth is round.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rzxr9FeZf1g

[2] http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2014/02/25/peds.2013-2365

[3] (August 4, 2013, by Brigitte Nerlich, Science communication: From filling deficits to appreciating assets, university of Nottingham online, http://blogs.nottingham.ac.uk/makingsciencepublic/2013/08/04/science-communication-from-filling-deficits-to-appreciating-assets/)

[4] https://www.express.co.uk/news/weird/953382/Flat-Earth-theory-Australia-not-real-conspiracy

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *