Editorial: The Earth is sometimes flat
December 5, 2019
I watched an illuminating documentary this weekend that tracked a movement of conspiracy theorists known as “Flat Earthers” who believe that the Earth is flat, stationary and contained within a dome. They believe the scientific community and government have long been engaged in a cover-up of this inconvertible truth.
Most notable is that the documentary “Behind the Curve” shows Flat Earthers attempting to experimentally prove their beliefs and failing. Not only do their experiments fail to prove their claim, the results support the fact that the Earth is round and rotates. Rather than changing their beliefs based on the evidence, they ignore it. “’Wow, that’s kind of a problem,’” one experimenter tells the interviewer after he found evidence that contradicted his belief. “We obviously were not willing to accept that, and so we started looking for ways to disprove it. ...”
Instead of mocking Flat Earthers, however, the documentary seeks to show that each of us likely holds a “Flat Earth” idea or two. It promotes empathy as opposed to mockery. Psychologists interviewed in the film present the idea of “confirmation bias,” the tendency to seek out and latch on to information that confirms our beliefs, and disbelieve or avoid evidence to the contrary.
We can see this play out in our community in myriad ways. Regardless of its validity, opponents of mining in the valley commissioned a recent study presenting evidence that the mining industry correlates with increased crime in nearby communities. Those skeptical of the study are, in part, justified in their critique that the study left Alaska and Haines out of the picture.
At the same time, why do those critics fail to level the same or any amount of scrutiny at a recent mining forum speaker’s suggestion that the Red Dog Mine reduces cancer rates in the region? I didn’t see the same critics question another forum speaker, who presented evidence in the form of a couple dozen unattributed quotes.
In his book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion,” Jonathan Haidt writes that when it comes to our moral beliefs about right and wrong, our mind is more like a public relations secretary than a scientist. More often than not, we don’t search for the truth by objectively analyzing the data, but rather create arguments that justify our already long-held beliefs. Those who are more educated or politically savvy don’t reason better necessarily, they’re just better at creating more arguments on the fly.
Political psychologist Lilianna Mason, who studies identity and political polarization, presents research that shows that political partisans would rather be wrong than defy their group. She shows that political beliefs and ideologies have become so entwined with our identities that if a person’s opinion or idea is critiqued, it feels to that person that they, and their group, are under attack.
For a study of such dynamics in Haines, just review any of our long-winded Facebook group comment threads. It doesn’t take a research psychologist to show partisans coming out in full force to defend their entrenched beliefs. Confirmation bias and motivated reasoning are our default mode and social media provides our biases a frictionless path to the “Comment” button. If we want to present evidence to support our belief, a half-second Google search will suffice.
None of us have it 100 percent right. We all have one or two — or 10 — Flat Earth ideas spinning around our domes. The mining industry is environmentally responsible. Mining will destroy the habitat. Greenies want to shut everything down. Haines has a terrible economy. Haines’ economy is doing fine. If any of these statements spark an emotional reaction, positive or negative, observe your mind in those moments and see if you’re really considering an opposing argument, or just waiting for your turn to talk. See if your worldview has a curve, beyond which lies terrain unknown.
In last week’s letters to the editor section, I failed to edit a letter that addressed an individual directly, which is against long-standing CVN policy. To be clear, letters are written to me, the editor, not to other people. Writers are free to address and write about others’ letters. For example, instead of writing “Dear Mrs. Smith,” it’s appropriate to write “In reference to Mrs. Smith’s Dec. 5 letter.” I hope this clarifies our policy.