The flat earth theory has been discredited for so long that when Cosmas Indicopleustes advocated it in the sixth century as a Christian fundamentalist reading of the Bible, he was already laughed at in his own time, not least by John Philoponus, the theologian.
However, in the Atlantic Lizzie Wade writes that B.o.B. isn’t simply a kook ranting against science but rather seems to be someone who is genuinely trying to understand why his observations of reality fail to align with scientific theories. Wade argues that B.o.B. is part of a growing number of people who were cut out of the scientific revolution that began with relativity and quantum mechanics, one that divorced our understanding of reality from everyday observations. In short, B.o.B. can’t be faulted for mistrusting a scientific establishment that does a poor job of explaining how abstract ideas apply in real world settings. “It’s just a bunch of amateur theorists trying their best to feel at home in the universe. … So let a million theories flourish, including #FlatEarth. When they come from a place of such genuine curiosity and creativity, who cares if they’re wrong?”
Proposing bad ideas to make oneself “feel” better has consequences because bad ideas lead to bad conclusions, and bad conclusions can spiral into dangerous problems. Sure, we can laugh at the Flat Earth claims, but I’m not sure I can agree with Wade that they are “fundamentally different from climate change denial, creationism, or the anti-vaxx movement” because they aren’t motivated by ideology. At the grossest level, the ancient astronaut theory is not inherently ideological, though it is today often associated with right wing conspiracy theories. Many of its believers approach ancient astronaut claims from “genuine curiosity,” and yet, when these bad ideas are taken to their logical conclusion, they have devastating consequences not just for our understanding of the past but also for our respect for native peoples. Eugenics, similarly, was not originally an ideology but a supposed science, embraced by liberals and conservatives alike. Its consequences are obvious. Phrenology emerged from “genuine curiosity” about the mind and ended up as a tool used to prove white supremacy.
To take a fairly clear example: Colonial Americans were genuinely curious about the people who built the ancient mounds of the United States. They proposed a range of theories out of “genuine curiosity,” and of those “million theories,” the U.S. government selected those that conformed to specific ideologies, and we ended up with Native American removal, the Trail of Tears, and cultural genocide, all justified by bad ideas about who “really” built the mounds. The bad ideas weren’t always intentionally ideological (at least their advocates wouldn’t have known they were being ideological in the context of their time), but they ended up serving that purpose anyway.
Wade also seems to dismiss B.o.B.’s accusations that “liars” have “indoctrinated” the public, which is perhaps the more dangerous claim than his arguments about the shape of the earth.
We laugh at the Flat Earth because it is the one claim that doesn’t seem to have a directly negative application, and one that too few people support to raise it to the level of a danger. However, as Cosmas Indicopleutes notes, the Flat Earth is a fundamentalist reading of the Bible and has served that purpose off and on in history. I will concede the B.o.B. is not advocating it for fundamentalist reasons. But if we as a society say that bad ideas are harmless as long as the people who propose them have good intentions, we abdicate the responsibility to educate on the methods of science and advocate for the best understanding of the world available to us. It would mean that we afford more deference to intention than results, and judge ideas based on their advocates’ alleged moral virtue than on their correctness.
The fact is that we can’t predict whether a given proposal will ultimately have positive or negative social consequences. There may be times when learning facts about reality will have an overall negative impact. But we certainly know that wrong ideas will eventually come into conflict with reality and create larger problems.