By Charles Norwood▸
The flat earth community gets a lot of flak these days. If you want to get described as "stupid" or "crazy" or "backwater," all you have to do is publicly announce that you believe the earth is flat and invective is sure to follow.
They're not right. There's lots of evidence that the earth is round. And, barring a massive conspiracy, we can rest assured that it is. But could there yet be something laudable in the Flat-Earther worldview?
The core strength of the scientific method is its ability to minimize faith and assumption. Science is able to paint an accurate picture of reality precisely because it restricts belief to that which can be empirically validated.
But aren’t the same values driving the flat earth movement? Aren’t Flat-Earthers applying the exact same empiricist methodology, only more stringently?
Whereas most people just accept the conclusions of scientists, Flat-Earthers are ready and willing to take science into their own hands. They don't have faith in other people's observations. They want to reconstruct the epistemic edifice from the ground up, based exactingly on what they see.
And yet these empirical purists are met with nothing but scorn, often being written off as cretinous hicks by the comparatively less empirical scientific brass.
What’s more, there are respectable philosophical dimensions to the Flat-Earther worldview. In the early 20th century, Edmund Husserl founded phenomenology, a philosophical school that sought to bracket data and belief, attempting instead to understand the world by focusing exclusively on what can be perceived directly through the senses.
Nobody would ever dream of calling Husserl a "dunce" or a "paranoid wingnut" (terms frequently applied to Flat-Earthers), and yet when some paranoid wingnut declares that the earth is flat because it looks flat, he gets shit on.
But what if he's just a misunderstood phenomenologist?
In the latter half of the 20th century, the postmodern philosophers launched a comprehensive criticism of rationality and mainstream science. The famous postmodernist Jacques Derrida proffered his deconstructionist critique of "logocentrism," seeking to depose reason from its vaunted position as the arbiter of truth.
But, despite Derrida’s skepticism of the scientific paradigm, nobody, not even his detractors, calls him “stupid.” Nobody insinuates that he was the product of insularity or incest (again, accusations often hurled liberally [by people like me] at Flat-Earthers).
So let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Next time we read about some unhinged dingbat on a rage-fueled quest to prove the earth is flat, let's pause for a moment before letting those smug smirks creep across our faces.
Let's ask the important questions:
Are we completely up to date on the history and methodological underpinnings of mathematics, science, and philosophy? Is it at least possible that this inbred hyper-contrarian we're reading about has actually spiraled more fully into empiricism than any credible (and functional) scientist ever could?
Charles Norwood is the author of Epistemology Bloody Epistemology: An Academic Satire and co-founder of the literary collective Goathanger.com. He lives in Toronto, where he is involved in a variety of criminal activities; writing, after all, does not pay.