Terraplanism, a disinforming movement

Over the past few years, a new pseudoscientific thought line has emerged as a result of the growth of social media networks: flat-earth theory.
It is a movement in which its followers show a clear lack of understanding of physical and astronomical concepts and discredit, without basis, the knowledge that humanity has been building and verifying over 2 millennia.
The real and serious problem with all of this is not the flat-earth theory itself, but the philosophy behind it.

The 21st century is undoubtedly the era in which not only are the fastest changes taking place in various fields of human knowledge, but also, and particularly, in social behavior. Just to give an example, social networks have had a colossal impact on our lives. There are considerable paradoxes. While on our mobile devices we have the most accessible information in all of human history, misinformation pervades everyday life.

Today, taking into account that information is the most precious asset we have, there is one element that is scarce and plays a fundamental role in all of this: having the ability to filter it, analyze it, and give it value. We are faced with a substantial, and very dangerous, oxymoron.

In the 1950s and 1960s of the last century, there was a current of opinion in which an unfounded emptiness on our planet Earth was manifested. Its faithful followers claimed that we lived on a "hollow" Earth.

Another clear and famous example of unfounded opinion was the UFO issue. In a world where cell phones did not yet exist, tens of thousands of photographs appeared in magazines and newspapers every day with the alleged ships of beings from other worlds. What a paradox that today these "proofs" have disappeared, literally counting with billions of cameras at all times and places on the planet.

Lately, for a few years now, a new line of pseudo-scientific thinking has emerged along with the growth of social networks: flat Earthism. It should be said that it is one of the clearest and concrete examples of this nefast "post-truth era" in which we are immersed.

This is a movement in which its followers and faithful believers, without any foundation, ignore the knowledge that humanity has been building and cross-checking for 2 millennia. Furthermore; they not only ignore this (the checking of information among peers, institutions, nations, work groups), but paradoxically, they exercise their right to opinion from the most absolute ignorance of physics, mathematics, astronomy, to mention a few areas of human knowledge.

I want to be very clear on one concept. From no point of view am I trying to restrict freedom of expression. Who am I to do so? It would be a gross error on my part to take such a position. But it is no less true to emphasize the importance of giving opinions the necessary weight, not based on the people who express them, but particularly on the foundations on which they are based.

The Earth is round

The building of human knowledge is based on premises which must be respected in order to reach a good port. In the case of physical and natural sciences, it is clear that observation is one of them with the corresponding peer review. It only takes one test that contradicts a theory, for that theory to cease to be valid. And thus, our understanding, for example, of the planet we live on and its place in the cosmos, has increased over time.

It was not with Christopher Columbus that we learned of the sphericity of the Earth, but much earlier. For starters, it was the same navigator who, knowing the true shape of the Earth, imagined reaching the east by departing from the kingdom of Spain and sailing west. More than 2 millennia ago, Eratosthenes, an extraordinary astronomer and mathematician, became aware of something very curious. As the director of the Alexandria Library, he found in a papyrus that every June 21st at noon, the Sun's rays fell vertically on the city of Siena, causing any vertical stake not to produce a shadow.

Eratosthenes realized that at the same moment, in Alexandria, this situation did not occur, but any obelisk would produce a respective shadow. He not only concluded that the way this phenomenon could occur was through a curved surface, but also, with only knowing the distance between both cities, paper, pen and extraordinary ingenuity, he determined with a simple mathematical calculation the size of the Earth.

Two millennia after that singular event, another of the convincing proofs of the sphericity of the Earth was obtained from the first image of our planet captured from space as a result of the launch of the V2 rocket on October 24, 1946.

Adherents to flat-earth theory show a clear lack of understanding of basic physical and astronomical concepts. This is not a problem in itself, but the audacity with which they openly debate issues such as the reasons for solar and lunar eclipses, how we measure distances to other objects in the universe, or why ocean water is attached to the Earth's crust and does not "fall" (in that case, I wonder where it would go). A mere investigation into their understanding of Antarctica is enough to give us an idea of what we're dealing with.

We could offer hundreds of arguments to show how literally unbelievable it would be to live on a "Flat Earth." On a flat earth, the moon could not be observed at the same time by people in both hemispheres of the earth. Circumnavigation of the seas and air routes would not be possible as they are today, with the first example having been done for millennia. The daily observation of the sun and the moon would not correspond to what we observe on a daily basis.

Of course, flat-earthers have the courage to answer each of these phenomena, and if they cannot offer an answer, they give themselves the possibility of continuing their research to obtain the necessary answers. And here is one of the big disadvantages they face: obviously, without an appropriate physical-mathematical model, when trying to answer a phenomenon, they thereby invalidate another existing one. In other words, if a model allows me to answer why such an observation occurs, that model contradicts a second phenomenon.

If you think that these gross contradictions discredit the flat-earth position, let me tell you that it is the exact opposite. In the impoverished era of post-truth, "anything goes." Even some of their most fervent followers have found a significant source of income.

The True Danger of Terraplanism

I believe it's time to clearly state what the true and serious problem is in all of this. It's not flat earthism, but the philosophy behind it. Here, the enemy is post-truth. It's not a coincidence that a high percentage of its followers fervently believe that the arrival of man on the moon is a fraud, that vaccines are not important, and even that drinking chlorine dioxide is healthy. Public opinion leaders have shown this with total disregard for medicine and public health.

Towards the end of 2019, an opinion from a well-known Argentine actor caught my attention. Without any foundation, I was concerned about his unfounded expression of his belief in a flat earth. It made me think that such a way of constructing an argument, an idea, could easily be extrapolated to the non-importance of vaccines, one of society's main instruments - along with sewage systems - for eradicating global pandemics.

That's why in December of that year (2019) I embarked on the idea of making a series of videos for YouTube to unmask these fervent believers, knowing full well that I could never achieve it against the prevailing philosophy of post-truth on the other side of the counter.

The paradox of this story is that in the first chapter of the series, the true danger of all of this was realized, mentioning as an example the anti-vaccine movements. Who could have known that 3 months after that publication we would be facing the greatest pandemic in modern history, showing once again how human knowledge was able to respond to millions of deaths in the world.

The strength of human knowledge lies in its construction step by step, from solid steps on which we can rely to continue advancing. Let us have the capacity of discernment. It's what will save us as a species. Because ultimately, it's the human mind that distinguishes us from the rest of the existence in this wonderful and unfathomable cosmos.

Diego BagĂș, astronomer from the Faculty of Astronomical and Geophysical Sciences of the National University of La Plata

Deism and atheism

There are those who believe that everything wonderful in the universe is the work of God, however, with all the powerful that they consider, they do not judge him author of the evils and human tragedies. That is why there are more and more people who consider that the divinity is a human creation, that the powerful created it to subdue the weak. Christopher Hitchens considers that God has all the attributes of goodness and love, provides the good, but misfortunes are not attributed to him.

He affirms that "From God come compassion, consolation, health, love, and when none of that comes, when life is a hell of suffering, responsibility is never attributed to God but to fate. God is almighty, but the evils that happen are the work of the devil or are there to test the faith of men and make them worthy of eternal life. "

He asks "if the human species is a dream of God or God is the oldest dream of the species", and quotes Luis Borges stating that "theology is a branch of fantastic literature, (that) Einstein made sarcasm famous that being an expert in God was equivalent to being an expert in fairies. "

Taking Eagleton Ferry that "there is a link between fundamentalisms and global capitalism, which generates hatred, anxiety, insecurity and feelings of humiliation." Concludes that if God does not exist, man is the only source of values ​​("God is not good", Debate, Buenos Aires, 2008).
Since 1996 Michael Behe ​​defends the theory of intelligent design, biblical creationism. This theory was adopted by the government of George W. Bush, and imposed in some states of the Union, although Darwin showed that species, including humans, "are the result of a chain of natural transformations."

Religion was always opposed to scientific evidence, as the universe is the result of an infinite chance. There will always be people who yearn to return to the conservative past.

The opinion of George Clooney or Emma Watson on the theory of evolution has more impact than that of biology teachers

Only in the first months of last year, four states in North America studied laws to authorize the teaching of creationist theories in science class. And is that, despite the scientific consensus around Darwinism, human evolution remains a controversial issue in much of the world.

Therefore, many scientists are dedicated to pursuing strategies to better convey evolutionary ideas and make them stop in a reluctant society. It is true that this problem is especially strong in the US where 42% of the population believes that man was created as it is today. But that is precisely what is helping us to learn things: like where a celebrity gets to take off a biology teacher.

Through the New Evolutionary Illustration, I came to a work by Steven Arnocky and his team realized that no research had explored whether the acceptance of evolution could be susceptible to the opinions of other influential people. To study it, they selected 158 subjects to different opinions to see which of them had a greater effect on the population.

On the celebrity side, they chose George Clooney and Emma Watson (who were selected because a previous investigation showed that they met the maximum criteria of social attractiveness). On the side of the academy, they created a prestigious biology professor named George Rooney.

The sample is small and homogeneous, but as exploratory research it seems correct. In addition, the conclusions go in the line of previous investigations. The data indicate that, indeed, the opinion of a celebrity on the evolution influences the social acceptance of the same (more than the one of the experts in the field). It is not a big surprise. We already knew that celebrities can influence the fundamental values ​​and beliefs of people, on important issues, such as political orientation or religious affiliation.

But, more important, what the study points out (and previous ones) is that once the celebrities make a statement, the impact is very difficult to eliminate. "Public statements made by celebrities that contain scientific misinformation continue to exert an influence on people's opinions, even after they have retracted," the authors explain.

That is, the results show that, for better or for worse, celebrities have a fundamental role in the scientific literacy of the general population. In evolution, but also in vaccines, climate change or transgenics, the influence of celebrities seems to be decisive. It is something to keep in mind.

A flaw in the thinking that unites creationists and conspiranoids

Says Steven Pinker in Los Angeles that leads within humanity took a great leap forward when he decided to accept that much of the misfortunes is not behind the will of a God angry with our behavior or the spell of a witch. The English phrase "shit happens" is one of the foundations of civilization. Scientific thought in particular, the idea that "everything happens for a reason" or that something "had to happen". However, they are phrases that are often heard with some frequency.

In a recent article published in the journal Current Biology, a group of researchers led by Sebastian Dieguez, from the University of Freiburg (Switzerland), has tried to understand what is behind this type of thinking flaws and has found a relationship between two Evidence seemingly separate: creationism and theories of conspiracy.

"Both belief systems share a very powerful cognitive bias that we know as teleological thinking," says Dieguez. "It is a way to deal with complex issues but they are easy to understand if we have a distant and last cause that made everything as it is now," he continues. "In the case of creationism, that ultimate cause is God, who created everything as we know it," he adds.

That way of thinking made the appearance of the theory of evolution difficult, because it was a less intuitive way of understanding the world. "The way of thinking that says that trees have leaves to give us shade or that the sun rises to warm us up, seems to be something very intuitive and is the way the brain works spontaneously, seeing that things are good for something", indicates Dieguez. "Small children, for the most part, think like that, whether they are children of a religious family or not. And neither is it a completely stupid way of thinking, because to say that white bears are white to hide in the snow makes sense. That way seems the easiest to assume for the human being, but scientific progress and especially Darwin's theory of evolution has given us another way of seeing reality, "he says.

In previous works that try to understand these ways of thinking, Dieguez had shown that conspiracy is not explained because it is believed that nothing happens by accident. The conspiracy see that the world is complex and that there are random factors in its operation, but still believe that what happens in the world has one or several active minds behind that make it happen with an intention. The researcher from the University of Freiburg saw similarities between this way of thinking and creationism and tried to see if both were related to teleological thought and were related to each other. "Conspiracy is a way of thinking that does not involve a creator god but a group of people identified, but very nebulous, very strange, hidden, that clarifies everything," Dieguez recalls. "Everything you see is an attack or a natural disaster, it seems very complicated, but it is easy to understand if a distant and ultimate cause is the explanation of everything that made it as it is," he concludes.

After studying several groups of people in Switzerland and France from questionnaires, they observed that there was an association between believing in creationism and conspiracy theories. By pointing out this relationship, the authors want to highlight the flaws in this type of theories so that people can detect them. "Conspiracy is a kind of creationism that refers to the social world and knowing it can help to deal with some of the most widespread problems within our post-truth era."

"Creationism is a kind of conspiracy theory because to believe it, you must also believe that scientists or biologists are not only wrong but have a plan to discredit religion and sacred texts. It is a conspiracy against God, "says Dieguez. "On the other hand, conspiracy theories are a form of sociological creationism. As soon as you see something that is spectacular like a terrorist attack or a natural disaster, you are looking for a very clear explanation and a function. That has been seen with the bridge in Genoa. On Twitter and Facebook there are people saying that it is very strange that it happens now when there are certain problems in politics in Italy or France and that it is used to distract people's attention from other problems. Someone managed to make it happen completely perfectly and hidden for something, although it is not clear who did it or for what, "he concludes.

Darwin's theory of evolution confirmed: the moth changes color to adapt to the environment

Scientists from the University of Exeter (United Kingdom) have shown that the spotted moth, also known as 'Darwin's moth' for having been identified as an evolutionary example, uses its color to better camouflage itself from the birds that feed on them, which caused them to darken when industrial pollution blackened British forests in the nineteenth century.

"It is one of the most emblematic examples of evolution, but fiercely attacked by creationists who seek to discredit the theory of evolution," says Martin Stevens, of the Center for Ecology and Conservation of the Penryn Campus of the University of Exeter. The study has been published in the journal Communications Biology.

The mottled moth or butterfly of the birches (Biston betularia) owes its name to this tree, whose trunk it uses to camouflage itself before the predators. In the 19th century, with the Industrial Revolution and the atmospheric pollution produced by the coal dust, the bark of the trees darkened, which also caused the moths to darken.

This phenomenon, called industrial melanism, in which the darker varieties prevail in contaminated areas, served to demonstrate Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, being a subject of debate between evolutionary and creationist biologists. Afterwards, the disappearance of the coal dust pollution returned to harmonize the amount of lighter moths, which were majority before the Industrial Revolution.

The study by the University of Exeter has shown that moths manage to camouflage themselves in the trunks of trees effectively to the vision of predatory birds. "Using digital image analysis to simulate bird vision and field experiments in British forests, we compare the ease with which birds can see dark and pale butterflies, and determine their risk of predation," explains Professor Stevens.

"Our findings confirm the conventional history presented by the first evolutionary biologists: that the changes in the frequency of dark and pale butterflies were due to changes in pollution and camouflage," adds the Exeter researcher.