Letter to a former flat-earther

Dear SeekTruth SpeakTruth:

I just want to say something, because you think that you used to be one of those flat-earth guys. I know you honestly think you were one of them, but when looked at your old YouTube videos, I could tell immediately that you weren’t. Let me explain.

For a long time I spoke with people calling themselves skeptics/sceptics of climate change. Eventually I went on to write an article series called “Climate Science Denial Explained”.

Now, I’m not a psychologist, I’m just a guy who learned some things that I would like to share. So, why do I say you were never like the other flat-earthers?

Exhibit A: May 22, 2019. You said “I don’t know if I’m right. I could be completely fuckin’ wrong

But as I said in “Denial Explained”:

  • They lack self-awareness. You’ll never hear them say “Okay, I know this might sound crazy, but those thousands of climate scientists are all wrong. I can’t blame you for agreeing with a supermajority, but if you’ll just hear me out, I will explain how I, a non-scientist, can be certain the contrarians are right. Just let me know if I’ve made some mistake in my reasoning here…”
  • They virtually never admit that they got anything wrong, not even little things.

You had self-awareness and you could admit when you got something wrong — even little things! The main characteristics of a “pseudo-skeptic” is that they have complete certainty and can’t respond to evidence. That’s not you, and it never was. All you had was an ordinary-human level of overconfidence. Even I have that, despite reading LessWrong for years! But the usual antidote applies: strong opinions, weakly held. Don’t be embarrased! There’s no shame in having been wrong. Reject shame! But also, embrace the possibility that you are wrong!

There are a lot of debates like this:

  • Can humans cause global warming?
  • Is earth round?
  • Was 9/11 an inside job?
  • Were humans produced by natural selection or a deity?
  • Do vaccines cause autism?
  • Does homeopathy work?
  • Are GMOs inherently dangerous or bad?
  • Did Hitler’s men kill millions of Jews?
  • Are nuclear reactors a greater threat to health and the environment than fossil fuels? (in the 1960/1970s, decades before solar/wind were commercially viable, recall that much of the environmental movement opposed nuclear power much more than fossil fusls; many still push the same agenda 50 years later)
  • Is tectonic plate theory correct? (this debate mostly died when the last tectonic-plate-denying professors died, but now there’s a guy on YouTube saying Earth spontaneously gains mass)

I think there’s a clear pattern in all of these issues. on one side of the debate there will be many popular preachers who speak with 100% certainty and cannot be moved by any amount of evidence. On the other side of the debate, virtually all preachers are like that.

Any honest truth-seekers in that second group will eventually uncover enough evidence they were wrong and move to the first group. This is called “evaporative cooling of group beliefs”.

The Antidote

So whatever it is you believe, look around at others in your peer group and ask yourself: if an outsider comes in and challenges the group’s belief with actual evidence (e.g. scientific studies), how would the group respond? Would they look at the evidence honestly and potentially change their mind, or would they be unfairly dismissive? I mean, could your peers concede even one inch of ground?

If you realize your group would be unfairly dismissive, or if their opinions could not shift by one inch, you are in an echo chamber. GET OUT. It doesn’t mean that your belief is necessarily wrong. Echo chambers exist on both sides of these debates. It just means your current group will lead you astray and you need to GET OUT.

The case of the Flat Earth is a bit extreme, in the sense that almost everyone who isn’t a flat-earther dismisses flat-earthers. This behavior by other people may, at first, make it appear to a flat-earther that he is a member of the only group who is acting reasonably. But as you discovered, there is a group that discusses the evidence for round-vs-flat earth in a reasonable way (rather than just belittling you and being dismissive). And this is true for all of these debates. There’s always a group of people out there who is actually trying to be fair and reasonable, but there are generally more groups who claim to be reasonable but lack the humility and fairness to pull it off. Also, it could be that some people have a mental health issue that makes it impossible for them to change their mind about certain topics, and such afflictions will exist on both sides.

(Of course, I could be wrong…)

I was born into the Mormon church and left when I was 35. Why? Simple. After decades wondering why God didn’t answer my prayers and worrying about that, I read the CES letter — clear evidence that my church was false. I was in an echo chamber. I got out. I was there only because (1) I wanted to believe it, (2) I have consciousness (which evolution doesn’t explain) and (3) I didn’t know anyone who could do a good job teaching me the truth.

But, now I get it. Yay!

Fighting for a better world and against dark epistemology.

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