I want to share something really interesting that happened to me recently. I got into a debate with some ‘flat earthers’ – guys who believe that the earth is flat. It was pretty intense, and you can listen to it all here on this page.
What you’re listening to (and reading) now isn’t an episode of Luke’s English Podcast, it’s some website-only content – a post on my website with two bits of audio: Audio 1 (my introduction and comments) and Audio 2 (an episode of someone else’s podcast). I’m going to explain everything here and the script of what I am saying is provided on this page, just below the two audio players that you can see.
Audio 1 – An introduction and My comments
Audio 2 – My appearance on The Flat Earth Podcast – my part begins at 19mins
Transcript for Audio 1 starts here:
Hello, you’re listening to some website-only content on teacherluke.co.uk
I want to share something really interesting that happened to me recently. I got into a debate with some ‘flat earthers’ – guys who believe that the earth is flat. It was pretty intense, and you can listen to it all here on this page.
What you’re listening to now isn’t an episode of Luke’s English Podcast, it’s some website-only content – a post on my website with two bits of audio – Audio 1 (what you’re listening to right now) and Audio 2 (an episode of someone else’s podcast). I’m going to explain everything in this recording and the script of what I am saying is provided on the page, just below the two audio players that you can see.
Do you remember when I recently talked about flat earth conspiracy theories on my podcast? It was in episode 476. I talked about how some people think the earth is flat and rambled on about it for a while, considering some of the suggestions and theories, like the idea that the world is a flat disc or plane, that we don’t orbit the sun, that the moon isn’t what we think it is, that satellites aren’t real, that the international space station is fake and even that our idea of gravity is either completely wrong or is a deception and that the governments of the world are all lying to us about the earth being a globe. I said that although I hadn’t looked into it fully, I thought it was impossible and ludicrous, ridiculous. I believe the earth is round.
After uploading that episode I was contacted a few days later by one of the hosts of The Flat Earth Podcast – a podcast produced by two guys in USA, Jay and Dave, who are convinced that the earth is flat, and not a globe. They told me that I was wrong about what I’d said in my episode, that the earth is not a globe and that they wanted to talk to me about the whole subject.
In fact, this is what Dave wrote in the comment section of episode 476.
Hi Luke. You said it yourself, you really haven’t looked into it that much. We would like to invite you on an episode of THE FLAT EARTH PODCAST to discuss your thoughts on the subject. We are not dogmatic flat earthers or the type that go into a Starbucks and disrupt people. We have answers to all the misconceptions that you have stated on your show. Please reach out to us…
I thought, “why not let them try to convince me that the earth is actually flat? I thought it could be interesting to have that conversation and perhaps have a friendly debate about the subject.”
I got back in touch with Dave and said, “OK, I’d be happy to talk to you, let’s do it.”
They were serious about it.
Then we fixed a date and a time that would work for all of us – Me, Dave and his co-host Jay, in different timezones. Them in different parts of the US and me at home in Paris.
I was curious and interested but also a bit nervous about it, because I thought that their audience might be angry with me because of the comments I’d made about flat earth on LEP. I had at one point said I thought it was “a load of bollocks”. Yes, I did use the word “bollocks” but I might have got away with that because “bollocks” is not a word they’re that familiar with in the USA, except that it’s on the front cover of an album by The Sex Pistols, which works in my favour if anything.
But, I was a bit nervous nonetheless, but also quite excited at the prospect of actually debating with people who thought or think that the earth is flat. (Think – because they still think it! I didn’t convince them of course! Spoiler alert!)
In any case, I really wanted to have a respectful and grown-up conversation about it with Jay and Dave. That’s why I agreed to talk to them.
Then, a few weeks ago we called each other on Skype and had a conversation about whether or not the earth is flat or round.
You can listen to what happened in that conversation by using the embedded player at the top of this page.
Let me continue talking about this story.
What were my expectations ahead of the interview?
As I said, I was concerned their audience would be angry with me or at least unfriendly and a bit aggressive.
Although they seemed very friendly in the emails I thought they might give me a ‘slapdown’ – which means an aggressive response designed to put me in my place.
I wondered if I would be able to have a proper debate with them because it’s hard to talk to people about this kind of thing, especially when they’re convinced of their position. You need lots of specific data and scientific knowledge and also you have to be quite careful about the things they say. A lot of their ideas need to be fact-checked or at least considered very carefully to make sure the evidence they talk about is valid or reliable, to make sure the quotes they use are not taken out of context, and that the logic they’re using is clear and solid. So, I was wondering if I’d be able to keep up with their ideas or if I’d simply be unable to debate with them at all.
Having said that, I was also thinking about how I could find holes in the things they would say, because, you know I think they’re wrong about the earth being flat. So I did quite a lot of thinking about their arguments and the things they would say. I listened to a few episodes of their podcast, watched a video called the 21 Questions and really considered the points they were making, because I am open to the idea that the world is flat.
Imagine, for example, if all the things they said were genuinely true and that this small group of guys had really stumbled across a global conspiracy, and that their internet research and testing had uncovered evidence that was irrefutable. We shouldn’t be closed to the idea that they’re right about this. My position was – ok guys I’m not going to tell you that you’re crazy. I’ll believe it if you really convince me and I find your points utterly watertight. I’m open to it, let’s go.
Imagine if they are right though. Would they be under threat? If there’s a conspiracy to keep this thing under wraps, are they in danger? We know that when big secrets have to be kept that people get killed. People disappear, they get murdered to cover up big secrets, like government corruption or organised crime.
If these guys are right, they could be in mortal danger. If they’re right. But I suppose that they believe that there’s a plan in place to deal with this, that there is disinformation spread around that makes most people just think these guys are ridiculous, and that’s what prevents this idea from really posing a threat to whoever is keeping this secret.
I wonder if my open-minded approach to their ideas could somehow put them in danger. Imagine, if nobody thought their ideas were ridiculous and this whole concept started gathering genuine momentum, that the powers that be might want to take action and silence them.
I’m being hypothetical here, but when you take these ideas seriously, you end up considering all sorts of possibilities. Jay and Dave don’t seem to be paranoid guys to me. The impression I got was that they’re really inquisitive and enthusiastic about this subject. Hopefully they have no real reason to fear for their safety. I think they don’t, because I don’t believe that there is a cover-up going on. I think they don’t pose a threat really. That now sounds bad, saying that they’re harmless. I don’t mean that, but… I don’t know, it’s complicated.
You can see why this is quite fascinating when you think about it – it’s all about people’s belief systems and also about how to argue your point and how to prove something as true.
It’s essentially a philosophical debate, and I love philosophical debates – I mean, I got a D at A level in philosophy at college! Not a good grade, but I did study philosophy for two years between the age of 16 and 18! I like philosophical debate and I’m really happy that these guys are essentially engaging in quite a profound debate about the nature of existence, and questioning the world around them. I’m happy about that. I think it’s good to be curious and independently minded, but I do think that there are issues with their reasoning and with the evidence they propose, and the way they apply the mathematical theories that have been used to understand the way the earth works. I’m impressed by their rigorous approach and their devotion to the truth, but I am not convinced by the argument – yet! I say yet because we’ve got to keep an open mind, right?
I was thinking lots of these things, but mainly, I was concerned that I was being set up for a smackdown!
What was the conversation like?
It was actually really enjoyable. Dave and Jay were hospitable to me. They gave me quite a flattering introduction, joking that they would sound like stupid Americans compared to my British accent and that it would be difficult to debate with someone who sounded so intelligent and articulate. I assured them that it’s all just a trick – that I’m actually not very intelligent at all and I only sound clever because of my accent. We laughed.
They were very reasonable with me, in the way they treated me I mean. They told their audience that they’d probably hate me but to give me a chance, and that at one point all of them had been sceptical like me. They’d all at one point thought that the theory was ridiculous too.
They were nice, but of course they were! These guys aren’t crazy or anything and they’re not mean-spirited. They’re basically just normal guys who have good intentions. As far as they’re concerned they’re working for truth and justice – both quite respectable things, right? It’s not fair or helpful to brand them as weirdos or nutters or things like that. Saying that is both unhelpful and rude.
We should focus on the things they’re saying not the people they are. They really think we’re being lied to on a grand scale and they want to prove it. I don’t think they are proving it, in my opinion, but they genuinely believe it and I don’t think they’re motivated by hatred or malice or anything. So I was very happy that we all could take part in the conversation in a respectful manner and after all that is a basic foundation for this kind of thing. In an argument or a debate or disagreement – the moment that you lose your temper or start throwing around insulting comments or insinuations, you have lost the debate in my opinion.
I had no plans to do that, and I was really pleased that they didn’t either. I think they might have been annoyed at my position and the things I’d said but they didn’t make a big deal about it, and in fact were totally cool all the time and I had a good time on their podcast. Also, I should say that the podcast is well made. Good sound quality, well-edited, well presented. On that level we had a lot in common and just as podcasters I think we shared some mutual respect. I also think they’re probably around my age, and it’s always cool to make contact with people of your age who live in a completely different country to you.
So they treated me well and that was nice, but again – I was a bit nervous about how the conversation would go. I was worried that I would not be able to argue with them effectively, or deal with certain details in their arguments.
They did bring in another guy called Jerun who, as they put it themselves, is deep inside the rabbit hole. He’s gone really deep into flat earth theories and has been making loads of videos about the subject, and as they put it – he has answers to everything. So, I felt a bit like “Uh oh, they’re bringing in this guy Jerun too so it’s 3 against 1!” I felt a bit outnumbered.
What were the objectives of the conversation for you and them?
I decided that I’d just let them try to convince me. My thinking was this.
I believe the earth is round – but I’m not blindly married to the idea. Obviously, I grew up within this paradigm but I am definitely capable of questioning it. The reason I believe it is because I think the evidence for it is better than the evidence for flat earth – and I don’t hide from the arguments of flat earthers. In fact I’ve been actively seeking them out, looking for ones that I think are really solid and watertight.
I am ready to be convinced that it’s flat. However, I’m not just going to accept arguments without giving them full scrutiny. We need to be careful of confirmation bias – on both sides. This means interpreting evidence in a way that confirms what you want to believe and may involve jumping to conclusions. If they’re arguments are more watertight than the arguments for round earth, I’ll be convinced.
That’s what I was thinking, and I think it was their objective to try to convert me to flat earth because they wanted to get me on their team.
What was the outcome? How did it go?
- You’ll have to listen to it and decide for yourself! You’ll see the episode embedded at the top of the page where you found the audio that you’re listening to now.
Have I had any reactions from people?
When the podcast episode came out I was a bit worried that I’d get some hatred from the flat earth community. I prepared myself for some possibly hateful responses in my inbox or in the comment section of the website. But I’m glad to say that I’ve had none, and I really am glad to say that – just because I can’t stand seeing that sort of thing. There’s plenty of blind hatred on the internet these days, particularly in the comment section of YouTube videos and so on. So, it’s quite refreshing not to have had any of that sort of thing. Touch wood. (What is this mysterious power that wood can have?)
But I did get a couple of nice responses.
From what I assume is a flat earther who just appreciated the fact that I was polite.
I just listened to your interview on the Flat Earth Podcast and wanted to say “thank you” for being so open-minded and you were so polite. My first impression of you is that you are a very ‘reasonable’ person. I hope you continue to look into what the guys were saying and make up your own mind.
And from someone who apparently listens both to my podcast and to the flat earth podcast (as a sceptic) as well, which I found to be quite a coincidence – but maybe not considering how this is the sort of thing I’m interested in.
I sometimes listen to your podcasts, and I recently also came across to the flat-earth podcast, with your contribution.
I’d like to congratulate you for your calm and polite chat with the flat-earthers.
I am an amateur astronomist, and of course a “glober” as they say. In the past few weeks I started listening to the flat-earth podcast, with a high interest in how a false idea can spread among people, in spite of evidence. Flat earth stuff is the more obvious example, but I realized that a lot of other false ideas happen to be more and more widely accepted.
Anyway it was a pleasure to listen to you politely standing in front of them. Sometimes you lacked the precise answers, and I tried to whisper some to you, but you did a really fair job !
Did they convince you that the earth is flat?
Nope, I’m still not convinced but I admit that I didn’t conclusively “win” the debate by any means. There were plenty of things I couldn’t really answer. For example, there were certain quotes I couldn’t check, certain mathematical equations I couldn’t really follow and certain claims that I couldn’t be sure of. I didn’t have all the answers to the questions they asked me. But I think I can say that I really considered the things they had to say and I continue to be curious about the subject in general. I’m not just ignoring it all or name-calling or labelling these guys as crazy. Like before, I am still ready to believe it and only a truly stubborn and closed-minded person would refuse to even consider the other arguments.
I was also happy to spend time with Jay, Dave and Jerun and I think I actually got on with them pretty well. I was relieved about that. By the end of the conversation I would have enjoyed going for a beer with them if we’d had a chance.
But having said that, at the moment I still think that they’re wrong about the earth being flat. Guys if you’re listening to this or reading it – you still haven’t got me yet – but I guess there’s still time! I think Dave told me it took 6 months for him to turn from being a round earther to a flat earther. So who knows where I will be in 6 months time. I guess you’ll have to watch this space.
They did say that if I became a flat earther that I would lose a large portion of my audience. So, does this mean that if I continue to be a round earther it’s only because I want to keep my audience? Could it not also be true that I will just think the earth is round? I mean, if I wanted to get a bigger audience I could say all sorts of things to appeal to people’s desires. I could be making all sorts of big promises about English or about how you can make money by following my steps, or I could be attracting the attention of certain religious groups by talking about religious ideas. I don’t do those things, even though doing them would increase the size of my audience. So, increasing my audience is not the only thing that motivates me. So, if I don’t come out as a flat earther, it might just be that I am still not convinced by the arguments. But, as I said, who knows where I will be in 6 months.
By the way, I’m aware that by talking about this and presenting this on my website to my audience that some of you might get converted to flat earthism. That’s up to you. Just remember – if you consider yourself to be open-minded, you’ll be open-minded about both sides. Being open-minded is not just the preserve of one side of this argument.
I’m going to ramble on about this a bit more because it made me think about things, like how difficult it is to argue using logic and to be sure about the nature of reality itself, just that kind of thing…
Debating flat earth with the guys from the podcast made me think about philosophical arguments, logic and how we talk about and argue about the truth itself. It’s a really complex business and it’s actually very difficult to do properly without falling into certain “thinking holes” or fallacies of logic.
There are various “thinking holes” or logical fallacies that are very easy to fall into when talking about this subject, or any philosophical subject for that matter. These are problems with logic or just problems with thinking. Anyone can fall into these traps – not just flat earthers, anyone.
But here are some of those issues that I have noticed when looking at not just flat earth theories, but also “bad science” or pseudoscience, and I admit that some of these points could also be applied to my position, which just shows how tricky it is, from an armchair position, to prove beyond doubt that something is really true.
- Confirmation bias – Interpreting evidence in a way that confirms your world view. Interpreting evidence in a way that confirms the conclusions you expect or want. For example, looking at a mass shooting incident – a mass shooting can confirm several points of view. People who don’t like guns might say – mass shootings prove that we need to control guns or ban guns. But someone who loves guns might look at a mass shooting and conclude that we need more guns because good people need to be able to defend themselves against dangerous people. The same event can confirm several wildly different points of view. The people who love guns take it as confirmation that we need more, the people who hate guns take it as confirmation that we need fewer. By the way, I’m not getting into the gun control debate here, that’s not what this is about. That’s just an example. Confirmation bias is really common and I think affects many parts of our lives, and is something we must watch out for as much as possible, e.g. by constantly challenging our own ideas. We often interpret events in the way that suits our worldview. E.g. you can look at footage of the moon landing and be completely convinced that it’s proof that it actually happened, or proof that it didn’t happen, depending on how you feel about the thing in the first place. Everyone is vulnerable to confirmation bias, but especially groups like the flat earth community. One of the reasons I like Jay and Dave is that I think they’re aware of this and to an extent that’s why they brought me onto the podcast, so they’re not just in an echo chamber where everyone is constantly confirming each other’s views without challenging them. Maybe they invited me on because it’s healthy to have some debate. Respect to that. But I’d also like to suggest that they invite properly qualified scientists on their podcast for debates too – not just an English teacher comedian like me who has dabbled in scepticism. Maybe they need to speak to someone who works for a satellite company or a lecturer in astrophysics because that could lead to a genuinely open conversation. Even though they invited me on for a chat and I’m a glober as they put it I think that mostly they’re interested in challenging the round earth theory, and tend to have a very ‘open minded’ attitude to flat earth. ‘I am open minded’ can mean – ‘I am willing to believe this’. Obviously you need to be open to the idea that it’s true, but we have to be careful that ‘open minded’ doesn’t become a state of active confirmation of what we want to be true, for whatever reason. Being ‘open minded’ can be like opening the door to confirmation bias. Flat earthers might say that they’re challenging the round earth model, so they are being good scientists, but what they also do is jump to the conclusion that because the round earth model doesn’t stand up in their eyes, the flat earth model must be true by extension, but this is a whole other idea. Lack of proof for one thing is not proof of something else. E.g. If I’m trying to work out what my mum is going to cook for dinner and I can’t prove that my Mum is going to make chicken, it doesn’t logically mean it’ll definitely be fish. We just can’t be sure it’s chicken.
- Unreliable evidence, false premises, unreliable sources or being unable to account for where evidence has come from. Some of the evidence which flat earthers propose is (I think) quite shaky and forms the basis of lots of other assumptions. If the foundation of your idea is shaky at the start, the logical steps from that point are likely to go in the wrong direction, ending up in a false conclusion. E.g. constructing a house on uneven ground. It might look straight at the beginning, but by the time the whole house is built, it could end up really wonky and even unsafe to live in. The roof might fall off or something. The foundation has to be absolutely solid.
- The grey area between evidence and speculation First of all, talking about evidence – some of it shaky in the first place, and then moving seamlessly into speculation about things and those speculations becoming ‘theories’ which are considered to be as valid as other ‘theories’ such as gravity. E.g. Deciding that the earth must be flat because you don’t see how the round earth model can work, and then assuming that Antarctica is the limit of our world, and then speculating about what is beyond Antarctica. E.g. “It must be…”
- Relying on first hand evidence – eg. human experience or what you see with your own eyes), or considering first-hand evidence to be the best, when actually it’s perhaps the worst kind of evidence. First hand experience as evidence is often the least reliable – e.g. the earth doesn’t look round to me. Why are the bottoms of clouds flat? The earth must be flat too. Why can’t we see the curvature on the horizon? Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there. Often we just don’t know what we’re looking at.
- Jumping to conclusions – e.g. Some NASA photos of the earth are fake, therefore they’re all fake. Some scientists are motivated mainly by money or status, therefore they all are. Governments lie to their people and there is corruption, therefore they are lying about this.)
- Cherry picking of evidence – Making the evidence fit the theory. e.g. picking out certain statements by scientists that seem to support the theory (e.g. moments when NASA astronauts say something that seems like a moment of truth – e.g. that they faked some pictures of the earth) So when the accounts seem to suit the flat earth theory NASA are leaking the truth, but when it doesn’t suit the theory NASA can’t be trusted.
For example, one of the arguments is – the NASA pictures of earth are fake. The reasoning is, that one NASA photographer admitted to using Photoshop to create a composite image of the earth from space, therefore this is proof that all NASA’s photos are fake. It’s true that some NASA pictures are made up – I mean, they are compositions made from a number of pictures, arranged together in Photoshop – because it’s hard to get a good-looking picture of the earth – it’s very big and you need to be quite far away from it to get a decent picture, so it’s necessary to take a bunch of photos, stitch them together and add layers of colour etc. So some NASA pics might be photoshopped, but this doesn’t mean that the earth is not round. It just means that some photos have been ‘edited’. This is cherry picking the evidence, or jumping to conclusions. E.g. some photos are fake therefore they’re all fake therefore the earth can’t be round.
- Bad-faith representations of evidence. I don’t want to say ‘dishonest presentation of evidence’ because it might not be intentional to misrepresent something, it might just be confirmation bias that leads people to do this. E.g. presenting something as evidence of flat earth that isn’t really. E.g. mis-quoting someone, or quoting someone out of context and then using that as proof that they said the earth was flat, or presenting an old map that was created to help calculate time differences around the world and which appears to present a flat earth model, but it wasn’t designed originally as a flat earth map, it’s just a 2D representation, and presenting that as evidence of flat earth is to distort the original purpose of that map.
- “If it’s old it’s true” – e.g. suggesting that ancient civilisations, medieval engravings, old buddhist texts or old maps seemed to show the earth was flat. Just because it’s old, doesn’t make it true. Quite the opposite probably.
- Lack of evidence for one thing works as proof for something else. E.g. We can’t prove the earth is round, therefore it’s flat. E.g. I can’t prove that there is no afterlife, but it doesn’t mean that there is an afterlife, it just means that I can’t prove it. Lack of proof for one thing doesn’t give proof to something else.
Other fallacies of that nature: e.g. Einstein said that it was impossible to prove in a mechanical way that the earth is round, and that only theoretical or mathematical models could do it (which I think should be verified anyway). Therefore, the earth isn’t round. Or because only mathematical theories can be used to explain earth’s shape, all abstract theories become valid too, including the speculations that we’re making up.
- Treating speculations as theories, or mixing up the words hypothesis and theory. A hypothesis is either a suggested explanation for an observable phenomenon, or a reasoned prediction of a possible causal correlation among multiple phenomena. But, a theory is a tested, well-substantiated, unifying explanation for a set of verified, proven factors. So, speculations about the shape of the earth are not theories until they have been really stringently tested again and again.
- Not understanding the maths. – It’s quite possible that flat earthers don’t have the expert level of mathematical knowledge to understand the subject, and neither do I by the way – so I’m subject to this too. Now, either the mathematical theories are just wrong and the earth can’t be round, or these guys just don’t really understand the maths. Which one is more likely?
- Trust and the belief in deception. A lot of this comes down to whether you trust ideas which you haven’t seen yourself, and when you believe there is a deception or a conspiracy going on. When you decide that there’s deception going on, it’s easy to just discount certain evidence as fake or part of the deception. E.g. “I think the earth is flat. Come on, prove that it isn’t. How about pictures of the earth? They’re fake. Satellites? Fake. International space station? Fake. But my brother went into space and saw it for himself. He’s been brainwashed, or he’s part of the conspiracy.” Perhaps these things are fake, or maybe it’s just a way to block out the evidence that disproves your theory. In the end, the conspiracy or the idea of a deception becomes a sort of tool (or maybe a trap) that erases the evidence that disproves your theory. The conspiracy is almost impossible to disprove because it relies on the assumption that information is being kept from us. We can only speculate on who is part of this conspiracy, and these speculations are presented as evidence, but where the hell is the information coming from?
As I said, some of those points could be applied to my position too, or any position including scientific ones. These are issues that anyone faces when attempting to argue a complex position. Conventional scientists are subject to things like confirmation bias and other issues too, but that doesn’t mean that all conventional or mainstream science has to be rejected completely.
A Question of Trust
I think it comes down to a question of trust. Do you trust what you’re told? And who do you trust? NASA scientists or Dave and Jay? Your own senses? Or the complex things that we’re told by various scientists and teachers.
If you listen to this episode of the flat earth podcast, let me know what you think. It’s quite long – we talked and talked for ages and we could have gone on much longer, but there’s no end to this debate when we’re essentially discussing the nature of truth and reality. But let me know what you think if you listen to it, and I’ll let you make up your own mind about the shape of the earth.
One thing I’d like to ask from you though – if you consider making a comment on Dave and Jay’s episode, please be respectful and friendly. Dave and Jay were both very polite to me and I think it’s only fair that we return the same courtesy to them, even if you really don’t agree with their position. As I said, one of the things I liked about this experience was that we were friendly and civil with each other and I want to keep it that way.
Also, Dave, Jay and Jeran – if any of you are listening to this, I’m sorry that I haven’t been converted to the flat earth position yet – but who knows I might change my mind if I feel like it’s really what’s going on, and I hope you feel I’ve been fair because I’ve made an effort to be.
At the end of the day (or at any time of the day) whatever the shape of the earth, we still have to go to work every day, still have to pay the bills, we still fall in love, we make friends, we laugh about stupid things and we look after our loved ones, and I think we all have these things in common.
Thanks for listening to this and reading it too, and if you’re a flat earther – Do you fancy a pint? Let’s go to the pub and have a friendly chat about it all. I’ll buy you a drink, how about that? In fact, if you’re not a flat earther you’re welcome too. Let’s all go to the pub and have a drink and some peanuts, and if the night goes well we could end up in karaoke. I’ll sing “Around the World” by Daft Punk (it’s easy) and you can sing Man on the Moon by REM.