That’s Amazing!

This SMBC cartoon perfectly sums up why I decided to study biophysics:

Rapper B. o. B. ignited a twitter battle by ostensibly accepting the quixotic task of convincing the Internet that the Earth is flat.

Official Science Spokesman Neil deGrasse Tyson was quick to parry:

But, of course, the matter could only be properly settled via rap.

In many similar instances, the arguments in favor of a flat Earth are simply based on inaccurate facts. In addition to the direct evidence for a round Earth – like the hulls of ships disappearing from view when they sail over the horizon, or eclipses in which the Earth casts a shadow on the moon – the impossibility of maintaining a conspiracy for so long with so many people should be apparent. Using Poisson statistics and a Gompertzian survival function, David Robert Grimes estimates the expected time for a conspiracy to be revealed by a whistle-blower or unintentional slip-up:

“In this work, we establish a simple mathematical model for conspiracies involving multiple actors with time, which yields failure probability for any given conspiracy. Parameters for the model are estimated from literature examples of known scandals, and the factors influencing conspiracy success and failure are explored. The model is also used to estimate the likelihood of claims from some commonly-held conspiratorial beliefs; these are namely that the moon-landings were faked, climate-change is a hoax, vaccination is dangerous and that a cure for cancer is being suppressed by vested interests. Simulations of these claims predict that intrinsic failure would be imminent even with the most generous estimates for the secret-keeping ability of active participants—the results of this model suggest that large conspiracies (≥1000 agents) quickly become untenable and prone to failure.

Here is a sample figure from the paper:

Failure curves for (a) NASA moon-landing hoax (b) Climate change hoax
(c) Vaccination conspiracy (d) Failure with time for a suppressed cancer cure conspiracy. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0147905.g002

Thus, the likelihood that it is all a big conspiracy rapidly vanishes as the number of agents and elapsed time increases.

An article in the Atlantic attempted to partially excuse B. o. B. and other “crackpot” science outsiders, by saying that their efforts come from a good place – trying to discern the truth – as opposed to a polemic instinct to justify preexisting unscientific beliefs.

“Take a look especially at the tweet that started it all: “The cities in the background are approx. 16 miles apart … where is the curve? please explain this.” There’s something touchingly genuine about this to me, some deep seated desire to work through confusion and toward truth. This isn’t a man who never learned science, or who has some fundamentalist objection to examining empirical evidence about the world. This is a man who has looked at the world around him and decided that mainstream science isn’t doing a good job at explaining what he sees. So he’s collecting evidence, seeking out literature by well-versed “experts,” and working out a better theory on his own.”

The article continued: “Physics is supposed to be about understanding the world I live in, they think. But I don’t see any time dilation/entangled quarks/curvature of the Earth when I look around me. Why should I trust this math I can’t understand over what I see with my own eyes?”

I think the piece lionizes crackpots overmuch. While it is commendable to have the willingness (and self-regard) to try to tackle humanities most vexing problems single-handedly, most “cranks” are characterized by obstinacy in the face of disconfirming evidence. How can B. o. B. be a crusader for reason when he casually waves away satellite images like “marble Earth”:

Or what about the testimony of astronauts who are actually been to space? The unshakable conviction that everyone is either a dupe or outrageous liar is not the hallmark of open inquiry.

Many crackpots fancy themselves as a modern day Galileo, but “it is not enough to wear the mantle of Galileo: that you be persecuted by an unkind establishment. You must also be right.” – Robert Park