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  • 11May

    Flat earth fallacies and communication flops

    Rapper B.o.B believes the world is flat, and he isn’t the only one.

    Earlier this year Bobby Ray Simmons Jr., better known by his stage name B.o.B, tweeted that ‘A lot of people are turned off by the phrase ‘flat earth’ … but there’s no way u can see all the evidence and not know’. This prompted a huge debate, with physicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson jumping in to represent the scientific community, refuting B.o.B.’s claims. In subsequent tweets, the rapper shared numerous sites and images supposedly proving the claims.

    Conspiracy theories are nothing new, but in recent years there has been a growing trend for mistrust of established thought in regards to scientific concepts. This manifests itself in a number of fringe beliefs which are gaining traction among the public such as distrust in the safeness of GMOS, vaccinations and, yes, belief that the Earth is in fact flat. This has led to protests, removal of certain safe chemicals from the manufacture of products and an overall growing sense of doubt towards the legitimacy of science. This is a problem that must be addressed not only by scientists and product developers, but also by science communicators. Badly explained science trickles down and gets misinterpreted, and these misinterpretations become regarded as truth. Science communication is used in fields from healthcare to environmental policy to explain to the public the concepts behind particular actions, breakthroughs, developments or legislation at an accessible and engaging level. Is it failing?

    One of the major current issues in science communication is combatting the belief that vaccinations cause autism. In actual fact, ‘over a dozen peer reviewed papers have found no correlation between autism and the MMR vaccine’[1]. Despite this, scepticism about vaccines is actually on the rise, especially in first world countries such as America. The response of many is to attempt to re-educate those who are misinformed by exposing them to accurate information. However, this method has proven to be ineffective. One study found that current public health communications about vaccines ‘may actually increase misperceptions or reduce vaccination intention.’[2] Further studies have found that many science communication tools that simply explain a concept, such as informative videos, cement incorrect beliefs rather than challenging and replacing them. In one particular study, students took a test about Newtonian physics and forces. They then watched a video about 10 minutes long which explained, in essence, all the answers to the test. The students then completed the exact same test. Before the video the students scored 6 out of 26 – after the video the average was 6.3. In essence, the students did not pay attention to the video because they felt they already knew the answers.

    The deficit model of science communication has been most popular in educational practice. It hypothesises that science communication brings scientific knowledge to those without it. The overall goal of this is to ‘increase public trust in science’.[3] This assumes that when ‘educated’ they will find change their minds to the ‘right’ way of thinking, ignoring cognitive biases. This, as we have seen, is untrue. For instance, when it comes to forces we have preconceived ideas of how they work. We think we know how they work because we experience them every day. We must seek better ways of overturning this incorrect knowledge.

    A number of solutions have been proposed. The first is simply to stop giving those spreading misinformation a platform to influence others. This should not be regarded as an affront to freedom of speech, as it is a fact that the Earth is spherical. The Earth continues to be spherical whether you believe it or not. Giving ‘flat Earthers’ equal attention to scientific theories legitimises their claims, making it seem to the public as if they are equally plausible.

    The second is to find ways of educating our children and re-educating the adult public, which is more effective than current methods. In the same study involving Newton’s forces as mentioned above, students were shown a second video. In this video, students were first presented with their own incorrect ideas in the guise of an actor pretending to be a student. The two participants then discussed why the student was incorrect, and how the actual science differed. When the students took the post-video test, the average score doubled to 11 out of 26. This tells us that hope is not lost for the future of science communication.

    Science communication must ensure that it challenges preconceptions, is factually accurate, relevant to the public and engaging for their daily lives. A greater emphasis is needed, especially in schools, not on individual debates like whether the earth is flat or whether vaccines cause autism but in the ability to be sceptical and analytical of all information presented, to be able to critically asses data, determine whether they are scientific enough to warrant justification of a theory, and base one’s beliefs upon that. Ironically enough, B.o.B tweeted at his followers ‘Don’t believe what I say, research what I say’. Thanks for that, Bobby, but given the tools for proper research, I still believe the Earth is round.

    [1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rzxr9FeZf1g

    [2] http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2014/02/25/peds.2013-2365

    [3] (August 4, 2013, by Brigitte Nerlich, Science communication: From filling deficits to appreciating assets, university of Nottingham online, http://blogs.nottingham.ac.uk/makingsciencepublic/2013/08/04/science-communication-from-filling-deficits-to-appreciating-assets/)


    Written by: Gwyneth Mabo

    Editor: Heather McLaren

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