The turf war over science education recently took a new turn. Marilyn Teed told the Methacton School District, outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, that it was teaching what could be an outright lie: that Earth is a sphere. She then explained, in all seriousness, her case that Earth is actually flat.
I’m going to defend Teed, but only to a degree.
I won’t defend Teed about the shape of Earth. Earth is obviously spherical. I will spare all of us a review of the evidence. I will defend Teed, however, by pointing out that from the perspective of flat-earthers, her petition for less spherical Earth dogma in science education seems entirely reasonable. Her attempt to revise science education, after all, runs parallel to attempts made by other pseudoscientific communities.
In fact, I anticipated Teed’s flat-earth school board presentation months ago. The Denver Post published an article about a flat-earth–friendly group in Fort Collins, Colorado. In response, I cautioned that arguments in favor of making science education more accommodating to other forms of pseudoscience could be used to support flat-earth belief.
In particular, creationists have long argued that it is only fair to teach (false equivalence coming) both sides of a debate. In isolation, throwing creationists a bone might seem like a small kindness, one consistent with a long-standing national tradition of fair play and even dealing. But softening the principle of science-based science education in this way leads to what should be (I repeat: should be) obvious problems.
First, if science education is going to include non-science out of fairness, are all pseudoscientific claims going to be added? What’s next? The Sun’s rotation around Earth? The value of healing crystals in building resilience? The likely habitat of Bigfoot? Science textbooks could balloon from the pressure exerted by all the woo.
Second, assuming that science education cannot include every pseudoscientific claim, which claims merit inclusion? Don’t ask me; I don’t think that any pseudoscientific claims should be allowed to appear as scientifically credible. Nevertheless, I don’t see any principled basis for allowing the nose of the camel while excluding the rest of the beast.
Third, how is the accommodation of pseudoscience fair to the people who do not believe in it? Religious people have a right to their beliefs but not to making children with different faiths or non-faith learn them in public school. Likewise, teaching well-established scientific principles, such as humans’ contribution to climate change, might strike some as politically disrespectful, but undermining those principles might similarly strike others as disrespectful.
Ideally we would anticipate how altering science education to include nonscience creates these types of problems and we would let science education be dictated solely by science. Clearly that isn’t the case. Acquiescing to popular forms of pseudoscience can be seen in teacher reluctance to promote evolution and climate change. It can also be seen in the recent arguments in Arizona orbiting the wording in proposed state science standards.
The flat-earth presentation provides a practical case that should help demonstrate the folly of giving into popular pseudoscientific sentiment. Few people would agree that science education should decrease its emphasis on the spherical Earth, but this type of reaction is easy to generate because flat-earth beliefs are uncommon. This stands in contrast to the relatively greater number of creationists who believe that Earth is 10,000 years old or younger. If Teed had been promoting the young Earth, rather than the flat Earth, fewer people would think she had left planet Earth.
More to the point, I do not see a principled basis for accommodating creationism and climate change denial but not the flat Earth. If it is only fair to hear “both sides” of a science-pseudoscience “debate,” then children should learn arguments in favor of Earth being spherical and being flat. Flat-earthers could even argue that omitting their viewpoint is unfair to their right to religious freedom, given their common use of the Old Testament as support for their views (e.g., Daniel 4:11).
It might be tempting to argue that flat-earth belief is different because it is so obviously false. This argument doesn’t make any sense either. Scientifically speaking, creationism, climate change denial, and the flat Earth can all be described as untenable, even if one could distinguish one group as more pseudoscientific than another. Put differently, creationism, climate change denial, and the flat Earth all belong to the same family, even if they are different species. Besides, it seems odd to suggest that science education should accommodate pseudoscience, so long as the claim isn’t too pseudoscientific.
Why, then, is Teed’s flat-earth proposal roundly rebuked, whereas similar proposals on behalf of other forms of pseudoscience are taken more seriously? It’s only because those other forms of pseudoscience have, at present, a great deal more support—support that allows believers to exert influence on science education administrators or elect sympathizers to local school boards or state boards of education.
This double standard of principle is unfortunate and dangerous. It is unfortunate because it allows the United States to degrade a science education that we justifiably celebrate. It is dangerous because we rely on science to solve social problems, problems that in at least one case could extinguish the human race if we are neglectful or unlucky.
Besides, it is the principle of keeping science education based solely on science—regardless of its popularity—that keeps the flat Earth and similar flimflam on the outside looking in. Soften that principle and who knows? Some evidence suggests that the flat-earth movement is growing. Maybe future lesson plans will be less compelling in their description of the spherical Earth.
Considering the latitude afforded to other forms of pseudoscience, it would only be fair.