Flat Earth and Ancient Aliens: Why Conspiracy Theories Matter and What You Can Do

Most of us take for granted that Earth is a globe and humans weren’t created by super-advanced aliens. For all our education system’s flaws, these basic facts tend to get through to children as they learn about science and history. However, education seems to fail in some cases, such as the people who believe in such things as a flat Earth and ancient aliens who came to Earth specifically to collect gold to warm up their planet.

Of course the latter ignores the fact that gold would not make a very good greenhouse gas. Gold can evaporate, but it would have to be heated to 2,856 degrees Celsius (5,173 degrees Fahrenheit). The electronics manufacturing industry routinely does this to produce a very thin layer of gold for use in its products, but maintaining gold in a gaseous state would be very difficult and costly. Anyway, an alien race that is advanced enough to consider interplanetary travel routine will have discovered more effective greenhouse gases such as methane. So the idea that aliens would have traveled to Earth because they needed gold to make their planet warmer jut doesn’t fly.

The Flat Earth Society, AKA “Flat Earthers”, rejects imperial evidence that Earth is a globe. They claim that the concept of Earth being a globe that humans can actually orbit is the product of authoritarian regimes who do not want people to learn the truth. They even reject the idea that people have ever traveled into outer space and the concept that Earth is nothing special in the universe.

“They want you to think you’re insignificant, a speck on the earth, a cosmic mistake. … The flat earth says you are special, we are special, there is a creator, this isn’t some accident,” said prominent Flat Earther Mark Sargent, who has been instrumental in organizing Flat Earth supporters in the United States.

Of course, Flat Earthers are occasionally stumped by events like the upcoming solar eclipse on August 21, 2017. When asked how to explain eclipses within the context of the Flat Earth model, the organization led by Sargent simply said, “We’ll have to do more research and get back to you on that.”

Normally, organizations that promote scientifically questionable “theories” like Flat Earth and ancient aliens would be ignored as fringe groups looking for attention. Prominent scientists will not only refuse to be associated with their claims, but can also usually debunk these theories by pointing out where conspiracy theorists either cherrypicked evidence or flat-out made stuff up. However, the problem is that they do get attention and often become associated with mainstream efforts that want to shrink the size of government and increase personal liberty. Sargent has a Youtube channel with videos that have collectively garnered more than two million views. The Ancient Aliens theory became a popular History Channel series with 120 episodes. By way of comparison, the two Cosmos series – the one hosted by Carl Sagan and the one hosted by Neil DeGrasse Tyson – have a total of 26 episodes. This becomes a problem when conspiracy theorists attach themselves like leeches to those who recognize that world leadership as a whole does have flaws and genuinely care about improving human society.

What You Can Do About It

You might be wondering what you can do to combat supporters of “fringe” conspiracy theories that appear to be going mainstream. Perhaps the easiest way to combat this phenomenon is to increase the visibility of information on the Internet that is based on real science and a genuine capacity for critical thinking, rather than the stubbornly narrow and unscientific viewpoints that supporters of bogus theories like Flat Earth call skepticism.

That means sharing an interesting fact-based article or video on Facebook and Reddit, texting links to credible sources to friends who ask questions, and even answering someone’s science question on popular forums. If a Flat Earther sees your posts and wants to debate you on a public forum, keep in mind that your job is not to convince the Flat Earther. It’s to convince the audience that will inevitably see the debate and may be sitting on the fence about the issue. In the process, you may make points that will force the Flat Earther to rethink his position at some point in the future.

Of course you’re probably going to run across psychological barriers like the Dunning-Kruger Effect. This effect effectively says that incompetent people do not necessarily realize their own incompetence. If you think of all those godawful auditions on America’s Got Talent or Britain’s Got Talent, some of these people may have a mild form of Dunning-Kruger Effect in cases where they didn’t try to make their incompetence funny in some way. There will be times when you just have to walk away from the idiots with a more severe form of Dunning-Kruger Effect that makes them unable to recognize that they’re getting their facts wrong because, as Mark Twain once put it, “They will drag you down and beat you with experience.” So it becomes a matter of reaching those who may still be teachable.

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Most importantly, efforts to reform the public education system should include a push to encourage the development of critical thinking skills at school and at home. Most children automatically believe what people in direct authority over them, such as parents and teachers, teach them. Unfortunately, the public school system as it stand now teaches children to sit down, shut up, and accept what the teachers tell them without question. Many parents are equally guilty of squelching their children’s natural desire to explore the world around them or brainwashing their children to believe in the parents’ preferred worldview even if that worldview is demonstrably false. Thus, both public education and family members force children to accept what they are told rather than explore on their own and learn important critical thinking skills. This makes children vulnerable to groups like the Flat Earthers who claim to have already done the research and have all the answers.

For this reason, educational efforts should take advantage of children’s natural curiosity and willingness to learn more about what interests them. “Unschooling” works around the theory that children want to learn, but this desire is stifled in the traditional schoolroom setting. So “unschoolers” give children a chance to direct their own education around what interests them. Unschooling simply says that practicing trumpet for eight hours a day is as valid as learning how to create Android apps and, in fact, might lead to the trumpet player earning a slot in the trumpet section at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

In a case like this, complaints that “unschooling” is the realm of privileged families that can homeschool or send their children to private schools should not be used as an excuse to fail impoverished communities yet again by failing to support across-the-board improvements in education. The point here is not to set off another circlejerk in the endless rounds of class warfare. The point is to make it possible for children to think for themselves so that they aren’t vulnerable to every scam artist and conspiracy theory in existence and that should be true regardless of income level. Public schools in poor communities may actually have an easier time getting into unschooling because they’re dealing with kids who may already have lost interest in the traditional way of schooling and are on the verge of dropping out. If these kids find out that their interests matter, they may tune in again and be more willing to take charge of their education while learning about critical thinking in the process.

The real truth is that the supporters of bogus theories like Flat Earth and Ancient Aliens are organized, capable of getting the views on their Youtube channels and websites, and sometimes even have the backing of mainstream media outlets like the History Channel. This is what the rest of us who believe that they should just be regarded as the fringe element are up against. So it will take an organized effort of education and efforts to make credible material more visible to combat them.


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