“At the time when postcolonialist scholars were saying these silly things (starting in the latter half of the 20th Century), some philosophers of science were also developing some strange ideas.”
I have frequently argued (here and here) that—contrary to the prevailing narrative—conspiracy theories are, by no means, exclusive of the Right. The Left also has its share of responsibility to shoulder in this growing trend. People who believe that the Earth is flat, is a case in point.
At first glance, the views of flat-Earthers should resonate with the typical conspiracy themes of Alex Jones and other wingnuts of the Right. Flat-Earthers believe that over the centuries, there has been a massive conspiracy to hide the truth about the shape of the Earth. Those who believe this blame the usual suspects of right-wing conspiracy theories: Jews, Masons, the Deep State, Bill and Hillary Clinton. As has been extensively documented, if you believe one conspiracy theory, you are also likely to believe many others. So, flat-Earthers might also be anti-vaxxers; they may give credence to the idea that the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax (a scheme to pass anti-gun legislation), and so on.
Some on the Left might be quick to argue that the rise of flat-Earthers has to do with the decadence of capitalism. We cannot be entirely sure that all flat-Earthers believe what they claim. So, it might just be some publicity stunt or a marketing ploy. As Guy Debord famously argued in The Society of the Spectacle, we live in an age where everything is entertainment, and everyone is desperately hoping for their 15 minutes of fame. Some people get their 15 minutes by participating in trashy reality TV shows, while others might do it, for instance, by making outrageous Youtube videos explaining how the Earth is flat.
One interesting feature of Netflix’s Behind the Curve (a nice 2018 documentary about flat-Earthers) is the amount of merchandising related to the flat Earth theory. So, once again, capitalism might be to fault. Perhaps the Flat Earth craze is just another ploy to sell stuff; the Flat Earth movement might just be a new brand in this world saturated by franchises. Likewise, Behind the Curve shows people eager to bond and form communities with fellow flat-Earthers. Surely, capitalism is also a culprit here, as consumption, individualism, and industrialization, have massively contributed to alienation. Conspiracy theorists’ societies, such as the Flat Earth, are just attempts to give some sense of community in a very lonely world.
I have no objections to these arguments. But, let’s look at some of the culprits that the Left would prefer to ignore. Contrary to common belief, Columbus did not debunk the Flat Earth theory. By the late 15th Century, most people in Europe knew that the Earth is spherical; if anything, the debate was about how big the sphere is. However, it is a fact that, outside of Western civilization, the belief in a Flat Earth was more widespread, especially among tribal peoples.
After Columbus, as European powers expanded, Natives eventually renounced many of their beliefs (including the flatness of the Earth), as the persuasiveness of science was overpowering. Common sense would indicate that this was a good thing, as scientific thinking has been increasingly embraced worldwide, and now our entire species comes closer to discovering truth.
But postcolonialists on the Left would beg to differ. In their view, science has always been allied to colonialist expansion. Descartes, so the argument goes, is as much a colonialist as Hernán Cortés. Every time a Western scientist tells a Native that his beliefs are wrong, the scientist is going against “cognitive justice” (a term popularized by leftist guru Shiv Visvanathan). So, in order to free people of color from the evils of white oppression, their beliefs have to be respected—and even be accepted as true; otherwise, this would be an act of “epistemic violence” (another strange, yet popular phrase in postcolonialist circles).
At the time when postcolonialist scholars were saying these silly things (starting in the latter half of the 20th Century), some philosophers of science were also developing some strange ideas. For example, Thomas Kuhn would go on to argue that, in the history of science, one theory may replace another, but it will never truly refute it—because theories that belong to different paradigms are incommensurable. So, you can prove all you want that the Earth is a sphere, but that does not bring us closer to reality. This is because your theory is incommensurable with the flat-Earthers’ theory. Current scientists are correct within their worldview, but flat-Earthers are also right within theirs.
Another prominent philosopher, W.V. Quine, said something to similar effect: “Any statement can be held true come what may, if we make drastic enough adjustments elsewhere in the system.” So, if we take this argument a bit further, flat-Earthers are not necessarily wrong; if we make some adjustments in their system, their theory can hold water. Another philosopher of the same lineage, Paul Feyerabend, added the ‘cherry on top’: “for every statement, theory, point of view believed (to be true) with good reason there exist arguments showing a conflictive alternative to be at least as good, or even better.” So, Feyerabend’s implication is that the guy wearing the tinfoil hat on the Youtube video, ranting about the Illuminati concealing the truth about the shape of the Earth, has arguments “at least as good, or even better” than those of Neil deGrasse Tyson and other respected scientists who have gone to great lengths to debunk the Flat Earth theory.
These claims were just refinements of relativist themes that actually went back to the Sophists in Ancient Greece (and which Socrates masterfully refuted upon encountering these philosophers). Kuhn, Quine, Feyerabend, and other relativist philosophers of science had no explicit political agenda. But that did not prevent their work from being useful to postcolonialist authors who did have an agenda, i.e., humbling Western achievements and embracing everything non-Western as alternatives to oppression.
Back in the 19th Century, the Left was quite happy with science. Marx himself aspired to develop a “scientific socialism.” But, by the 1980’s, the Left had targeted science as one of the Big Bad Wolves. So-called “Science Studies” departments flourished throughout Academia and described how Francis Bacon demeaned women by using alleged rape analogies (“penetrating holes,” were Bacon’s actual words); Galileo and Newton were just dead white males, and “alternative epistemologies” must be sought. All this excitement was chanted to the tune of “Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Western Civ has got to go,” led by Jesse Jackson and other SJWs (Social Justice Warriors) on campuses.
Today, there is much talk about the Grievance Studies Hoax, but long before that, Alan Sokal (on the Left himself) had been fed up with all this irrationality and submitted an article to a far-left journal, Social Text. The article tried to argue that Quantum Gravity is just a social construction (something almost of the same nonsense caliber as saying that the Earth is flat), and, astonishingly, Social Text published the article. Apparently, the editors were impressed with Sokal’s postmodern jargon, as well as his stance against the oppression of patriarchal, colonialist science. By doing so, Sokal courageously exposed the dangerous turn Academia was taking.
Sadly, Sokal’s hoax has had limited effects. If anything, SJW craziness seems to be on the rise on campuses. Ultimately, SJWs also feed the conspiracy theories of the flat-Earthers. Granted, no SJW will publicly defend the type of flat-Earther that is profiled in Behind the Curve. But, SJWs will argue that science does not have the last word, and if pressed a little harder, they will probably say that some Native from an African tribe is not necessarily wrong in claiming that the Earth is flat—because, alas, truth is relative. In the name of relativism, SJWs have contributed to anti-intellectualism. This, along with the “Deep State”-mongering of the Right, has contributed to the rise of Flat Earth conspiracy theories.
Dr. Gabriel Andrade teaches ethics and behavioral science at Ajman University, United Arab Emirates. He has previously contributed to Areo Magazine and DePauw University’s The Prindle Post.