by Miles Unterreiner
“The Earth is flat; any fool can see that.”
–Motto of the Flat Earth Society
Sometime in the summer of 1838, English inventor Samuel Rowbotham waded into the Old Bedford River, trained his telescope on a departing boat as it sailed away, and waited. If the Earth’s surface were curved, Rowbotham would later insist, the boat’s mast would have disappeared below the horizon as the vessel wended its merry way down the Old Bedford. Rowbotham, however, excitedly crowed that he could still see the ship’s mast all the way to Welney Bridge – a full six miles away! Therefore, he concluded, the Earth was – indisputably, conclusively, indubitably – flat.
While Rowbotham died in 1884, his influence lived on in the 21st-century reincarnation of his ideology: the Flat Earth Society, most famous for denying the existence of Neil Armstrong’s moon landing in 1969. Confronted with photographs sent from the moon confirming the Earth’s sphericality, Flat Earth Society President Samuel Shenton famously remarked, “It’s easy to see how a photograph like that could fool the untrained eye.”
While the Flat Earthers still live on today, they have long been eclipsed in importance by a new cadre of truth deniers: global warming skeptics, who continue to proclaim that anthropogenic (human-driven) global warming does not, in fact, exist. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report was released to international attention last Friday, confirming that anthropogenic global warming poses serious threats to the planet and our descendants’ future. But skeptics are already out in force, deploying remarkably Flat-Earthian tactics to mislead and misinform the public. Let’s take a quick look at three of their most common strategies.
1) Manufacture the illusion of debate.
One of Rowbotham’s favorite tactics was to convince legitimate geographers and scientists to participate in public debates, and then use his considerable argumentative skills to get the crowds in attendance to doubt the truth. Lacking Rowbotham’s oratorical prowess, flummoxed scientists found themselves at a disadvantage when attempting to communicate with the public. “One thing he did demonstrate,” remarked England’s Leeds Times about Rowbotham in 1867, “was that scientific dabblers unused to platform advocacy are unable to cope with a man … thoroughly alive to the weakness of his opponents.”
Global warming skeptics have discovered that they possess precisely the same intrinsic argumentative advantage – one that is magnified by a news media driven to cover “both sides” of every story, even when there is only one legitimate position. Like the Flat Earthers, the skeptics of our day have scored a victory by manufacturing the very idea that there is a debate about global warming.
2) Exploit negligible errors. Robert J. Schadewald, former president of the National Center for Science Education and one of the world’s foremost experts on pseudoscientific movements, wrote in 1993 about a time-tested denialist tactic first pioneered by Rowbotham in 1868. Schadewald tells the story of how Rowbotham, anxious to confirm the Earth’s flatness once and for all, cherry-picked geopositional data from the mariner’s reference work Lighthouses of the World purporting to show that a few lighthouses were visible from much further away than ought to be possible given a spherical planet.
Schadewald termed Rowbotham’s tactic – seizing upon miniscule data points or errors and attempting to leverage them to displace the entire accumulated weight of established science on a subject – “looking for lighthouses.” It’s also a favorite tactic of the global warming skeptics who raised a ruckus over an erroneous paragraph in the IPCC’s massive Fourth Assessment Report and used out-of-context phrases from the stolen “Climategate” e-mails to allege a sinister conspiracy among climate scientists. One lighthouse does not a flat Earth make.
3) Look to a higher power. While Rowbotham and his 19th-century Zetetic Society turned to a literal reading of the Bible to justify their belief in a pancake planet, today’s global warming deniers look for support to a different force: the oil and gas industry. Companies and associations like Koch Industries, ExxonMobil, and the American Petroleum Institute have poured millions into “research” that muddles climate science, sows doubt among the public, and hampers necessary efforts to limit global warming pollution. The result: a well-oiled truth denial machine with financial interests in the continued pollution of the planet.
The IPCC’s report, as expected, confirms that a) the planet is warming, b) humans are causing it, and c) it’s going to be a big problem for all of us. But as public discussion of the report, and global warming more generally, continues, don’t expect the global warming deniers to change their tune. There is, after all, a long history of people singing the same old song.
PS: Oceanographer Stefan Rahmsdorf has an excellent post up concerning the denialist attack on ocean warming here.