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Elon Musk vs the Flat Earth Society.

Recently on twitter, there was this rather witty exchange between the visionary space explorer Elon Musk and the The Flat Earth Society. Musk who has his eyes set on Mars twitted "Why is there no Flat Mars Society!?" To which the Flat Earth Society in response to the sub twitted “Hi Elon, thanks for the question. Unlike the Earth, Mars has observed to be round. We hope you have a fantastic day!


Both tweets were clever, with Musk arguing in essence that if Mars is round, then in all likelihood the Earth should be round as well and the Flat Earth Society arguing that there isn’t any inherent necessity that Planets must be round. I would give this round to the Flat Earth Society, for it is conceivable that a planet could be flat. Roundness is not an inherent or necessary property of planetary bodies. But then the response of the Flat Earth Society opens them up to a question that could pose a devastating objection to their belief. Such a question could be phrased as "who observed mars to be round?"



 To understand why this is a knockdown question you will first have to understand how the Flat Earth Society responds to evidence for a round earth. A major evidence of a round earth is aerial photographs taken by NASA showing that the earth is round. The Flat Earth Society responds to this  by alleging that NASA and the government by extension are in some sort of conspiracy to cover up the truth. But then this same NASA are the same guys that have aerial photographs of Mars showing that it is round! So the question then again is, "who observed mars to be round?" If the Flat Earth Society says NASA, then we would ask, "why then believe NASA about Mars and not about Earth?" If they say some other organization observed Mars is round, then we would ask follow up questions such as, “what has this organization observed about the shape of the earth? (most likely it would be round as well)” and “Why should we trust this other organization and not NASA that has successfully landed Rovers on Mars?” I doubt if the Flat Earth Society can provide convincing responses to these questions that won’t be more than special pleading.

Someone may ask, why is this even important? Flat Earth Society and Elon Musk had a spat on Twitter, so what? I think this is an opportunity to garner attention to an important issue underlying their exchange, which is that of authority. There seems to be some disdain for appeals to authority especially among young people, minorities, and conspiracy theorists. Such groups will label any appeal to authorities such as governments or other organizations associated with them as letting others think for you or brainwashing. For them, the government is always involved in some sort of cover-up and not wanting people to know the truth. To this, we respond as the philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer argued, that reliance on authorities other than oneself, does not require that they think for us but rather is a tacit acknowledgment that they are experts on the matter and that it is reasonable to defer to expert opinion. According to Gadamer,

"the authority of persons is ultimately based not on the subjection and abdication of reason but in an act of acknowledgment and knowledge---the knowledge, namely, that the other is superior to oneself in judgement and insight and that for this reason his judgement takes precedence—i.e., it has authority over one’s own….It rests in acknowledgment and hence on an act of reason itself which, aware of its own limitations, trusts to the better insight of others. Authority in this sense, properly understood, has nothing to do with blind obedience to commands. Indeed, authority has to do not with obedience but rather with knowledge."

Hence to distrust NASA on such a matter is to become an epistemic orphan. 

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