Search out your ‘flat-earthers’ if you want to argue better

You will never win an argument against a flat-earther. That is not because they are right, but because regardless of your argument, they will always find a counter-explanation. For example, if you mention that it is impossible to see all the way to Antarctica with strong telescope, they respond with an explanation involving perspective and the parallax effect. The result is an argumentative arms race with someone who does not want to be convinced.

Flat earth

What they teach us about winning arguments

However, if you are willing to redefine ‘win’, then it is indeed possible to win the argument. Winning in such cases should not be about ‘victory over’, but rather ‘victory within’. If you leave the exchange with a better personal understanding, you win. The flat earther will probably leave with an understanding that is the same as before. Whoever leaves with the most improved understanding wins because, in the future, they will have a better chance of convincing those open to be convinced.

The better the flat-earther argues, the better for you because he will raise issues you never thought of. So, you go back and investigate. When one looks through a telescope, can perspective really make Antarctica invisible? Can there really be a distortion due to the parallax effect? After this you will not only have a better understanding of your telescope argument, but also of the factors that can distort vision.

In such a process your improved understanding will spill over into your other arguments too, and like an expert, you will start to qualify, concede and add conditions to your knowledge. When the flat-earther denies the roundness of the earth based on measurements over short distances, you will soon realise that the earth is not a perfect sphere, not even an imperfect sphere, but an imperfect oblate spheroid, or as Neil deGrasse Tyson said: roughly pear-shaped. After such exchanges your understanding will extend to even more areas.

If the flat-earther engages in the same learning process as you, he will over time add all sorts of ad hoc adjustments to his theory. It is only then that the chance for a conventional win might slip in. If these ad hoc adjustments are merely reactive, then inconsistencies will start to appear which you can then point out. For example, he might say that it is impossible to see if the earth is curved from an airplane unless you are 40,000 feet above the earth, but then use his own observations while standing on the earth to support his arguments.

What they teach us about the nature of arguments

The most common arguments of flat-earthers derive from a mistrust of authorities and reliance on one’s own senses. In this they are not entirely wrong, and conceding this can help us to be cautious in constructing our own arguments, and create better ones.

While claims need to be supported by data, it is impossible to gather every data point ourselves or confirm every warrant. As a result, much of our knowledge depends on authorities – it is often a matter of trust and belief, even faith. If you tell a flat-earther that you know the earth is round because you have seen photos, they will ask you: how do you know those are real photos? did you take them yourself? if not, how do you know you can trust those who published them?

The best response, of course, is not to tell the flat-earther he is crazy, but to rather to acknowledge that knowledge often has to be based on trust and belief, and then to ask for his sources in return, and compare the credibility of the sources. Are his sources mainly from flat-earth magazines and self-published books by flat-earthers? That is why it is so important to be critical of the sources you rely on, and to critically read their arguments – often credibility of sources is all you can rely on.

Because of their mistrust of authority, flat-earthers prefer to rely on what they believe to be the most credible source: oneself and one’s senses. Of course, here we can go into a discussion of the reliability of perceptions and the feasibility of knowing everything from personal experience, but that is not the point here. The point is that no matter how secure our knowledge appears, we should hold it loosely in our minds. Much of what we ‘know’ now, will be seen as wrong in the future – or as Max Planck reportedly said: “Science progresses funeral by funeral.” There is almost always good reason for a critical attitude.

So, even when you read arguments with which you agree because they seem beyond doubt, leave at least some room for the voices of doubt. Such arguments may be wrong, now or in the future, or most likely not entirely correct under all conditions. Very often opposing viewpoints help us to refine arguments because they hold useful information. The ability to recognise and use this information is, as explained in chapter 3 of my book (and this one), the key to finding original contributions and the creation of new knowledge.

Search out your ‘flat-earthers’

If an issue is important to you, so much so that you are willing to change your view in order to approach the truth, then search out the ‘flat-earthers’ in that area. Search out those that others think are crazy and argue with them. Argue not to win in the conventional sense. Argue to improve your understanding of the ideas and the sources you rely on, and to find the gems that lie hidden in the cracks between opposing views that will lead you to new knowledge.

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