Friday, 25 August 2023

Is the Earth flat if the majority say so?


For most of us, the idea that the Earth could be flat (to the extent that the idea enters the consciousness at all) is something of a joke, a subject for mockery. Yet, apparently, support for the idea is growing (particularly – of course – though not exclusively, in the US). It seems to be partly about religious fundamentalism – making literal interpretations of key bible passages – and partly about a distrust for ‘authority’ and a preference for conspiracy theories. Whilst physicists struggle with ways of countering the growth in support, it seems to me that there is a simple way we could either dismiss the idea or else embrace it enthusiastically: hold a referendum. No, I haven’t gone completely bonkers (or at least, I don’t think so); bear with me a moment.

Holding a referendum wouldn’t change the facts, of course. It would merely enable the government to behave as though the earth were indeed flat and pursue policies appropriate to that belief. It might not work out entirely brilliantly, but hey, the will of the people and all that. Conceptually, it doesn’t seem to me to be hugely different from holding a referendum to decide that erecting trade barriers with our neighbours is a better economic proposition than trading freely with them. But there’s another, more recent, parallel as well. Some Tory MPs have been calling for a referendum on net-zero policy. Sunak has ruled it out very firmly (which probably means that it will be in his manifesto for the next election). Taking a democratic decision not to work towards net zero wouldn’t change the fact that climate change is happening, but it would absolve the government from having to do anything about it, and enable it to pretend that it isn’t really happening. The will of the people is a powerful force, indeed.

Holding a referendum to decide whether something is or is not a fact is a silly idea, of course. But we’ve done it once already, so we can’t rule out it happening again. And the idea that one opinion is as valid as any other, and that opinions and facts have equal validity, is growing in strength – it increasingly underpins political debate, particularly on what many call ‘the right’. Of all the different ways in which one can imagine the human race destroying itself, blurring the boundary between opinion and fact and allowing the former to determine the latter may turn out to be the most insidious of all. Best start planning that trip to the wall of ice at the edge of the disk we mistakenly call Earth before it's too late.

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