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Carl Sagan and Bill Nye debunk flat Earth theory
Flat Earth theory has enjoyed staying power since at least the 19th century despite being patently untrue. Neil deGrasse Tyson, the late Carl Sagan, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and other big thinkers will show you how to disprove this bad idea, all without having to take a journey into space.
- Whether born from contrarian trolling or earnest skeptic beliefs, the "is the earth really round?" debate rages on.
- Science luminaries—including Bill Nye, the late Carl Sagan, and Neil deGrasse Tyson—can easily debunk this myth.
So, you've found yourself in debate with a flat EartherWILKES BARRE, PA - AUGUST 02: David Reinert holds a large 'Q' sign while waiting in line on to see President Donald J. Trump at his rally August 2, 2018 at the Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. 'Q' represents QAnon, a conspiracy theory group that has been seen at recent rallies. (Photo by Rick Loomis/Getty Images)
Maybe he's your conspiracy-loving uncle at Thanksgiving or that friend who will post anything on Facebook. Whatever the case, you imagine it'll be a quick conversation. You google some of the many, many, many awe-inspiring images that show a definitely spherical Earth from space. Easy breezy.
"Ah, not so fast," the flat earther responds. "Neither of us has ever been to space, so you can't prove those images are authentic. Maybe they've been doctored as part of some deep state plot. Fake news, I say."
You may be tempted to laugh off this portrayal as a strawman, but this is an actual argument made by the Flat Earth Society. According to its FAQs page, the society does not "lend much credibility to photographic evidence" as it "is too easily manipulated and altered." The same page also claims the most likely explanation for round-Earth propaganda is that space agencies are involved in a conspiracy, one that started during the Cold War's Space Race for political gain and continues today as a means of embezzlement.
Carl Sagan FTW
Carl Sagan, pictured, is definitely not making a hand gesture about what shape he thinks the planet is.
In an episode of Cosmos, Carl Sagan demonstrated how Greek mathematician Eratosthenes of Cyrene debunked flat-Earth theories more than two millennia ago. Have a look.
Eratosthenes's observations not only gave us proof of Earth's sphericity—furthering the insights of other Hellenistic thinkers such as Pythagoras and Aristotle—his calculations also gave us an incredibly accurate measurement of Earth's circumference. Today, we've improved upon that measurement, but only thanks to instruments slightly more advanced that a pillar and a well.
The best part is that Sagan's model can be reproduced for your debate. All it takes is poster board, two sticks, and a sunny day. With model in hand, you can show how a curved Earth is required for commonplace phenomenon to be as they are.
You could even replicate Eratosthenes' experiment. Sure, this one takes a little more effort—not to mention a pen pal from the Tropic of Cancer and some spare time during a Summer Solstice. But replication, a hallmark of quality science, is entirely possible. If you're feeling less inclined, you can simply double-check the math. (This video provides a more in-depth look at the equations.)
The case for a sinking ship
The flat Earth debate rages on with memes like this, creator anon.
But your flat Earther remains unconvinced by Sagan's "arts-and-crafts project." He needs more evidence before changing his mind. In that case, consider the sinking ship effect.
Here's how Michelle Thaller, assistant director for science communication at NASA, explained it to Big Think.
You'll notice that Thaller's description contains that hallmark of good science, replication. As she says, you can go to the ocean or a large lake and watch ships sail into the horizon. If the ships only get smaller yet contain the same proportions, you have a flat Earth. But if they "sink" over the horizon bit by bit, you're either dealing with a spherical Earth or some seriously suicidal sailors. ("To Aslan's Country, men!")
You can push this experiment further. Have a friend stand on the shore while you get to higher ground. If you and your friend watch the same ship, you'll notice that you can see the ship's mast for longer than your friend. The higher your elevation, the more of the ship you can see. That's because your extra height allows you to see farther over the Earth's curvature.
Are you currently landlocked? You can perform this height differential test on other objects sinking over the horizon. On a flat Earth, you would both see the object in full regardless of elevation, but higher observers always see more of the object thanks to their vantage point.
During one of Big Think's Tuesdays with Bill, Bill Nye added another layer to the sinking ship effect: "If you live on the East Coast, figure out why you can't see Spain from the East Coast or North America? […] What's the problem there? Then climb a tower or go to the top of a hill or a mountain, and you'll see a little farther, but you will not see to the other side of the Earth, places we know exist."
As Bill Nye suggests, if the Earth were flat one should be able to use a high-powered telescope to view Europe from the East Coast. Flat earthers could claim victory by setting up this experiment. But no flat Earther has ever done so, because Earth's sphericity hides Europe and North America from each other.
Is the debate worth the effort?
There are many, many more ways to determine the Earth is a sphere without a trip to space. There's the fact that Earth's shadow is always round during a lunar eclipse. There are the varying star constellations and the existence of time zones. Do we really need to bring up airplanes never discovering a global drop off?
Hellenistic thinkers discovered many of these reasons more than 2,000 years ago, yet flat Earthers have stubbornly soldiered on. Some have done so out of devotion to literal interpretations of religious texts, while others, like the aforementioned Flat Earth Society, simply believe that someone, somewhere is hiding something.
Live Science traces modern flat-Earth theories to Samuel Rowbotham and his alternative to the scientific method, the "Zetetic Method." In the mid-19th century, Rowbotham used Zetetic Astronomy to contend that the Earth was flat, the stars circled above us, and a wall of ice keeps the oceans from pouring over the edge. Flat Earthers continue to cite his work to this day.
Give this history, if your flat Earther is a true believer, it is unlikely that any of our explanations will change his mind. So maybe the question, how to win a debate with a flat Earther? isn't the one we should ask. Maybe we should be asking, should we debate them in the first place?
Astronaut Chris Hadfield doesn't think it is worth the effort. He worries that debating flat Earthers gives them an air of credibility they don't deserve.
"If somebody says the world is flat, it's patently untrue, so there's no point in engaging in conversation," Hadfield says. "[…]If someone has chosen to take the facts and be deliberately stupid about them then I think they've discounted themselves from rational conversation, so I don't bother."
Alfred Russel Wallace learned just how irrational such conversations can be. In 1870, he saw an announcement offering 500 pounds to anyone who could prove the Earth was round. He created a wonderfully simple experiment and did just that. John Hampden, the flat Earther offering up the prize, refused to pay and instead pursued an incessant campaign of harassment against Wallace that lasted 21 years.
On the other hand, if bad ideas infect the heads of influential people, they can spread with viral efficiency. As reported by NPR, many middle school teachers had to reteach the Earth's sphericity after NBA star Kyrie Irving espoused his belief in a flat Earth. Even then, many students continued to believe their teachers were a part of the round-Earther conspiracy.
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 20: Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson attends the IMAX exclusive experience for Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom at AMC Loews Lincoln Square IMAX on June 20, 2018 in New York City.
(Photo by Lars Niki/Getty Images for IMAX)
The only cure against bad ideas, one could argue, is to develop herd immunity through open debate and good facts. This seems to have been the impetuous for Neil DeGrasse Tyson to debate rapper B.o.B. over Twitter.
"For me, the fact that there is a rise of flat Earthers is evidence of two things," Tyson says. "One, we live in a country that protects free speech. And two, we live in a country with a failed educational system. Our system needs to train you not only what to know but how to think about information and knowledge and evidence. If you don't have that kind of training, you'll run around and believe anything."
Both arguments have their merits, and whether you choose to engage in debate or not is ultimately your choice. Should you choose to enter that fray, at least you'll have thinkers like Bill Nye, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Michelle Thaller, and, of course, Carl Sagan in your corner.
Emotional intelligence is a skill sought by many employers. Here's how to raise yours.
- Daniel Goleman's 1995 book Emotional Intelligence catapulted the term into widespread use in the business world.
- One study found that EQ (emotional intelligence) is the top predictor of performance and accounts for 58% of success across all job types.
- EQ has been found to increase annual pay by around $29,000 and be present in 90% of top performers.
Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
What's dead may never die, it seems<p>The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called Brain<em>Ex</em>. Brain<em>Ex </em>is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.</p><p>Brain<em>Ex</em> pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.</p><p>The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if Brain<em>Ex</em> can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.</p><p>As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.</p><p>The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.</p><p>"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told <em><a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2019/04/pig-brains-partially-revived-what-it-means-for-medicine-death-ethics/" target="_blank">National Geographic</a>.</em></p>
An ethical gray matter<p>Before anyone gets an <em>Island of Dr. Moreau</em> vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.</p><p>The Brain<em>Ex</em> solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness. </p><p>Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death. </p><p>Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?</p><p>"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/17/science/brain-dead-pigs.html" target="_blank">the <em>New York Times</em></a>. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."</p><p>One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.</p><p>The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-01216-4#ref-CR2" target="_blank">told <em>Nature</em></a> that if Brain<em>Ex</em> were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.</p><p>"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.</p><p>It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.</p><p>Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? <a href="https://bigthink.com/philip-perry/after-death-youre-aware-that-youve-died-scientists-claim" target="_blank">The distress of a partially alive brain</a>? </p><p>The dilemma is unprecedented.</p>
Setting new boundaries<p>Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, <em>Frankenstein</em>. As Farahany told <em>National Geographic</em>: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have <em>Frankenstein</em>, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."</p><p>She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.</p>
A study published Friday tested how well 14 commonly available face masks blocked the emission of respiratory droplets as people were speaking.
- The study tested the efficacy of popular types of face masks, including N95 respirators, bandanas, cotton-polypropylene masks, gaiters, and others.
- The results showed that N95 respirators were most effective, while wearing a neck fleece (aka gaiter) actually produced more respiratory droplets than wearing no mask at all.
- Certain types of homemade masks seem to be effective at blocking the spread of COVID-19.
Fischer et al.<p>A smartphone camera recorded video of the participants, and a computer algorithm counted the number of droplets they emitted. To establish a control trial, the participants spoke into the box both with and without a mask. And to make sure that the droplets weren't in fact dust from the masks, the team conducted more tests by "repeatedly puffing air from a bulb through the masks."</p>
Fischer et al.<p>The results, published Friday in <a href="https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/early/2020/08/07/sciadv.abd3083" target="_blank">Science Advances</a>, showed that some masks are pretty much useless. In particular, neck fleeces (also called gaiters) actually produced more respiratory droplets compared to the control trial — likely because the fabric breaks down big droplets into smaller ones.</p><p>The top three most effective masks were N95 respirators, surgical masks, and polypropylene-cotton masks. Bandanas performed the worst, but were slightly better than wearing no mask at all.</p>
Fischer et al.<p>Research on mask efficacy is still emerging. But the new results seem to generally align with <a href="https://newsroom.wakehealth.edu/News-Releases/2020/04/Testing-Shows-Type-of-Cloth-Used-in-Homemade-Masks-Makes-a-Difference" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">prior tests</a>. For example, a study from June published in <a href="https://aip.scitation.org/doi/10.1063/5.0016018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Physics of Fluid</a> found that bandanas (followed by folded handkerchiefs) were least effective at blocking respiratory droplets. That same study also found, as <a href="https://newsroom.wakehealth.edu/News-Releases/2020/04/Testing-Shows-Type-of-Cloth-Used-in-Homemade-Masks-Makes-a-Difference" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">others have</a>, that masks made from multiple layers of quilter's fabric were especially effective at blocking droplets.</p><p>The researchers hope other institutions will conduct similar experiments so the public can see how well different masks can block the spread of COVID-19.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"This is a very powerful visual tool to raise awareness that a very simple masks, like these homemade cotton masks, do really well to stop the majority of these respiratory droplets," Fischer told CNN. "Companies and manufacturers can set this up and test their mask designs before producing them, which would also be very useful."</p>
Sharing QAnon disinformation is harming the children devotees purport to help.
- The conspiracy theory, QAnon, is doing more harm than good in the battle to end child trafficking.
- Foster youth expert, Regan Williams, says there are 25-29k missing children every year, not 800k, as marketed by QAnon.
- Real ways to help abused children include donating to nonprofits, taking educational workshops, and becoming a foster parent.
Real ways you can help stop child trafficking<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="21fc2dc85391501eec28c4bf46d7db15"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/AXL0q9jNZGU?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Williams is the founder and CEO of <a href="http://www.seenandheard.org/" target="_blank">Seen and Heard</a>, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that helps foster youth develop character through the performing arts. She's been involved with foster youth for years; I <a href="https://bigthink.com/politics-current-affairs/child-sex-trafficking" target="_self">wrote about her work</a> in child trafficking just over a year ago. Tragically, since that time, the situation for these children has only gotten worse, in large part because of QAnon.</p><p>Williams says child trafficking is an easy cause to rally people together. Fear is also a powerful unifying force, one that QAnon believers are already primed for via the news they consume. Almost every parent cares about their children, making them the ideal target to solidify groups. </p><p>The real problem, she says, is that the youth she works with are falling for these conspiracy theories. Trauma is a particularly powerful tool for indoctrination. If you're a teenager that's been abducted or abused, your trust level is already extremely low. Then you read about a global cabal of powerful men (and a few women) secretly abusing children, and the narrative seems ready-made for your personal history.</p><p>When Williams tried to "lovingly and kindly correct" the youth she was working with after learning about the Wayfair conspiracy, the girls' response was, "well, who owns the media?" </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"She goes from this small little thing to a QAnon talking point. I've been thinking about why she would believe such a preposterous idea—and there are others; it's not just one student, and they're in in deep. I think that when something horrific happens to you as a child, it's a lot easier to distance yourself from the immediate reality that it was an uncle or a parent or a sibling that hurt you. By detaching from that immediate person, they project it onto Bill Gates or Chrissy Teigen. Then it's not so personal, it's global." </p>
A man wear a shirt with the words Q Anon as he attends a rally for President Donald Trump at the Make America Great Again Rally being held in the Florida State Fair Grounds Expo Hall on July 31, 2018 in Tampa, Florida.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images<p>As Williams mentions, there are over 30,000 kids in foster care in the Los Angeles area alone. It's easy to fall through the cracks. The systems in place aren't perfect; they're certainly underfunded. When you're in a system trying to support you yet isn't capable of doing so, viewing the world as imperfect, and even harmful, becomes the lens through which you see reality. Again, this makes for a perfect indoctrination tool.</p><p>One popular QAnon talking point is that 800,000 children are missing. As Williams says, child trafficking experts "don't buy this for a minute." The number makes for a good meme but a poor representation of the problem. </p><p>To source better data, Williams turns to the <a href="https://www.missingkids.org/" target="_blank">National Center for Missing and Exploited Children</a> (NCMEC) and the <a href="https://www.fbi.gov/services/cjis/ncic" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">National Crime Information Center</a> (NCIC). An important factor when reading data: if a teacher <em>and</em> a caregiver report a missing child to NCIC, that counts as two children, not one, which accounts for some of the fluctuations in numbers. In total, between 25,000 and 29,000 kids go missing every year. Importantly, 94 percent of those children are recovered within four to six weeks. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"They're not documenting the recovery rate. It's not like these numbers are perpetually hanging out there. So this 800,000 number is just ludicrous." </p><p>Williams compares what's going on to Black Lives Matter. Blacking out your Instagram profile picture is performative. It signals that you actually care, which is great, but if you're not supporting Black-owned businesses, for example, there are no teeth to your activism. </p><p>Of course, blacking out your profile doesn't cause the real-world harm the QAnon virus does. Sharing misinformation is ultimately harmful to the children in need of help. Williams offers the resources below—ranging from donations to nonprofits to educational trainings to becoming a foster parent—for people that actually want to do something to help victims of sexual and physical abuse. They might not make a great Twitter meme, but in the actual world, this support makes all the difference. </p><p><strong>To report abuse/neglect, call the child abuse hotline: 800.540.4000 (LA county) / 800.422.4453 (National)</strong></p><ul><li>Support anti-trafficking organizations by donating to <a rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow" href="http://savinginnocence.org/" target="_blank">Saving Innocence</a>, which runs the continuum of care from rescue to recovery, <a href="http://gozoe.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Zoe</a>, a reputable faith-based organization, and <a rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow" href="https://withtwowings.org/" target="_blank">Two Wings</a>, which helps to rehabilitate female survivors</li><li><a rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow" href="http://www.nolabrantleyspeaks.org/" target="_blank">Nola Brantley</a> offers in-person and online trainings to help combat the commercial sexual exploitation of children</li><li><a rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow" href="http://instagram.com/imrebeccabender" target="_blank">Rebecca Bender</a> is a trafficking survivor that runs "Myth Busters," which combats conspiracy theory disinformation</li><li>The <a href="https://www.instagram.com/missingkids/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">National Center</a> of Missing and Exploited Children</li><li>Operation <a href="https://www.instagram.com/ourrescue/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Underground Railroad </a></li><li><a href="https://www.instagram.com/defendinnocence/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Defend Innocence</a> offers tips for parents and caregivers to keep kids safe</li></ul><p><span></span>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>