CNN: The Flat Earth Conspiracy, a Darker Core? Part 1

(CNN) The flat-Earth conspiracy is spreading around the globe. Does it hide a darker core?

Yes, it does. There is no conspiracy to hide a “flat earth”, but the spread of this nonsense illuminates a weakness of common reason, suggesting that democracies can never be as pure as they aspire. It has implications for politics.

“Flat Earth” shouldn’t be shocking, since most people spend their lives believing doubtful things because it gives them comfort, or reduces the need for thought — or booze. Every society gives license to believe certain doubtful things, while proscribing others. But  this is technical, when we thought that science had triumphantly chased primitive beliefs into the shadows.

I was riding a New Jersey Transit train to the Apple, when I heard a rider  who sounded professional ask a companion (paraphrasing), “Does anybody really understand how the world works? Like how this train works?”  I compared her view of the situation to my own. I understood in considerable detail how and why our Arrow Multi-Unit car was moving down the tracks.

I understand the   car-body alloys, the wheel trucks, the IGBT transistors in the electric inverters,  the VVVF drive traction motors, the microprocessors that control things, the distant power plants that convert kinetic energy into electricity. And then my understanding  hits a roadblock, until I switch modes, to the abstract.

Magnetism, key to generating electricity, is so fundamental, it isn’t made of stuff. A theory of physics, QED for short, predicts magnetism and how it behaves.  If magnetism behaved in any other way, our universe would not exist in the form that it does.  So when I think about magnetism, I’m required to shed my naive view of the material world and place my trust in a symbol system, with has very complicated equations that predict things that are beyond the ken of all but specialists — or anybody.

When I was a small child,  I asked my pop why magnets work. He got a little frustrated with his inability. I did not understand that my question was impossible to answer. If he could have explained, I would not have understood.  Child psychologist Jean Piaget  described four stages of mental development. The last two (Wikipedia) are (ellipsis mine):

3. Concrete operational stage: from ages seven to eleven. Children can now conserve and think logically (they understand reversibility)…

4. Formal operational stage: from age eleven to sixteen and onwards (development of abstract reasoning). … Abstract thought is newly present during this stage of development. Children are now able to think abstractly…display more skills oriented towards problem solving, often in multiple steps.

Puzzlement is unpleasant. Some of the passenger’s angst could be alleviated by concrete comparisons with things she knows. Other answers are completely formal. Physics blogs are inundated by (Ask the Van, U. of Illinois, Urbana) demands to know what magnetic fields are made of. The answer is, it’s the wrong question. It requires a level of mastery of formal operations that most people never attain.

The puzzled passenger might get a satisfied feeling if I compared the alloys in the train to stainless steel tableware, with which she has tactile familiarity.  With magnetism, the best I could do would be to call it an essence, and hope she finds essences satisfying.

In comparison, Round Earth is high school simplicity. Flat earthers have not developed significant skill at formal operations, particularly in the subjects of  high school trigonometry and physics. They lack intuition, which can sometimes substitute. They distrust those who have these skills. Most damning, they don’t know what they don’t know.

The Age of Reason was supposed to herald the end of baloney.  Why Flat Earth, Now? What are the consequences for politics?

To be  continued, when “news conditions” permit.