In my seemingly never-ending quest to find out why people believe in things like a flat earth, or chemtrails, or zombies, I keep hearing them say things like “but I saw it! I swear!” And I wonder, just what was it they saw? A recent You Tube video by a flat-earth proponent explained how he ran tests during a recent flight on an airliner that prove the planet is flat. He brought a level with him to show that the plane never dove down to follow the curvature of the Earth. The problem is that only in his view would that be a way of checking the principle. If he understood the science of gravity and geometry he’d realize his mistake, and that the plane kept level with respect to the local gravity, so of course the level he was watching would stay even as the aircraft followed the curve of the Earth. Another blogger complained that “if the world curves away, the horizon of the Earth as seen from onboard a plane would be lower than straight ahead, but it isn’t.” The problem with that statement, is that the horizon IS below the level point. But as humans we’ve become so used to seeing what we expect to see that we miss the obvious. If it ‘looks’ like the horizon hasn’t changed, then it hasn’t. An easy way to check that theory is to use water in a clear glass or bottle: Hold it up to the window the next time you are up at altitude in a plane and look through the container at exactly the point where the water level is. You’ll notice that this level point is well above the horizon. The Earth really does curve away from you as you climb higher. As pilots, we see this effect when looking at other airplanes ahead of us at the same altitude. Even after all these years it seems that they’re well above us because of how far they are above the horizon. Yet they really are at the same altitude we are. When you look at the horizon from a plane, it’s below that actual gravitational ‘level’ point by a few degrees. There are several websites that show the math, but in round numbers you can say it’s approximately 1 degree down for every 10,000 feet above the surface. That means that at our typical cruising altitude of 40,000 feet, the visible horizon is about 4 degrees below the actual level point (The math puts it at approximately 3.52 degrees). Looking for a 4-degree dip out of a 360 degree sphere when all you see is clouds & sky makes it difficult to produce an accurate measurement with your eyes only, and no other reference points. But if you do the measurement with the water level in a bottle, or better yet, a more accurate type of level, it is proven true (See the photo at the top, taken with a theodolite app on a mobile phone). The horizon is below the level point if you are above the ground in an airplane. I know this to be true, but even after all these years flying and knowing what the truth is, it’s hard to make it fit with what I see. Even my brain wants to make it so the horizon is the level point. That’s how easy it is to trick the human mind.
Tricking the human mind has been a staple of magicians, politicians, and more since ancient times. Science was developed as a method to counter that. It was obvious to many ancient Greeks and their ‘natural philosophy’ methods that man was easily fooled. As the scientific method was developed and sharpened during the middle ages, a stricter series of steps were created to help take the human tendency of skewing data out of the issue. Today, it is well understood how human bias can affect a scientific study, and measures are taken to remove as much of that as possible in experiments.
We know that the mind can be easily fooled, but we still fall for it every day. There is a popular meme circling Facebook and other social media sites that says the following: 7H15 M3554G3 53RV35 7O PR0V3 H0W 0UR M1ND5 C4N D0 4M4Z1NG 7H1NG5! 1MPR3551V3 7H1NG5! 1N 7H3 B3G1NN1NG 17 WA5 H4RD BU7 N0W, 0N 7H15 LIN3 Y0UR M1ND 1S R34D1NG 17 4U70M471C4LLY W17H 0U7 3V3N 7H1NK1NG 4B0U7 17, B3 PROUD! 0NLY C3R741N P30PL3 C4N R3AD 7H15. PL3453 F0RW4RD 1F U C4N R34D 7H15.
So what does this have to do with science? I think it’s a good example of how easily the mind can be led to the wrong conclusion, or at least to the conclusion that the writer of a meme or article wants them to get to. Going back to that meme, what is the first word in it? Is the word ‘This’? As in:
No, actually it is
Now, ‘7H15’ kind of looks like ‘THIS’, but that’s the point. It LOOKS like ‘THIS’, but it isn’t. Not even close. It’s three numbers and a letter, not four letters that form a common English word. You’ve been tricked by your brain to see ‘THIS’ because that’s how the brain works. It takes things that it isn’t sure about, and makes them into something familiar by associating the unfamiliar with something commonplace. That’s how constellations – random groupings of stars in the sky – suddenly become a hunter, or a lion, or a snake. That is how you see the shape of a face in a cloud, or an image of Jesus in a rust stain on an old refrigerator. The human brain is wired to find order in the world. It’s evolved to do this for safety and security, for seeing things that may be out of place like a tiger crouching in the grass on an African plain, or a crack in the ice along a familiar Eskimo hunting route. But as parts of our brain have evolved to develop science, technology and a modern society, other parts have remained at the primitive hunter-gatherer stage. Science was developed to separate the two, but in many cases, such as the flat-earth people, they don’t understand the difference and assume that whatever their brains tell them must be true. They honestly believe what their eyes tell them more than what science tells them. This distrust comes from many sources, but can be (and sometimes is) manipulated by people who want others to believe their point of view, even if it isn’t scientifically correct.
In my previous blog I talked about how our society is becoming a group of self-made experts, bound & determined to make their point of view known, even if it makes no scientific sense. There’s a growing trend of distrust toward science, or anyone with an expert opinion. Much of that distrust can be traced back to what I talked about in this blog – the disconnect between what the mind thinks it sees, and what is actually happening.
Which brings me to how I got on to this topic in the first place. On a recent flight from Auckland, New Zealand to Honolulu, we had the cockpit lights down low in order to watch the stars and moon in the sky. We’d left Auckland just after midnight so the first half of the trip was in darkness. After we leveled off I watched patiently as the stars wheeled above with their normal east-to-west motion. But also, as we flew almost directly north, there was another motion in play. Flying north meant that the stars that had been below the horizon in front of us moved upward in the sky as we curved across the globe, flying northward. Constellations to the northwest that would normally have been slowly rotating below the horizon if we had been staying still on the ground were instead climbing slowly as we moved further north. A few hours into the flight we started seeing the glow of sunrise to our right, and while the sky was still in deep twilight we crossed the equator. As we did, Polaris – the north star – came into view straight ahead for a few minutes before being washed away by the light of the rising sun. It was a wonderful, elegant display of the curvature of the Earth, as the north star can only be seen from locations north of the equator. If the flat-Earth believers had open minds it would be a brilliant way to demonstrate how the Earth really is a sphere. But we all know what would happen: They’d come up with some tortured reasoning as to why my observations were wrong, or misguided, or that I was just plain lying. In the end, there’s no reasoning with many people today, mainly because they simply do not understand what reasoning is. They see what they want to see, without understanding the limitations of our eyes and mind.