Knowledge discrimination

Knowing is everything, or is it?


Suresh Menon | April 22, 2011

Discrimination can take many forms. An opinion piece in the New York Times some time ago spoke of the gender discrimination at the Oscars since there are separate categories for men actors and women actors. Why not bring them together, suggested the writer, because after all, no one would take kindly to another kind of discrimination which pit Morgan Freeman, for example in a group comprising Will Smith and Samuel L Jackson while leaving the Jeff Bridges and the Colin Firths to fight it out in a separate group. You get the idea.

My grouse is against knowledge discrimination. Just because some of us think that the earth is round and that it revolves around the sun in the Milky Way we make fun of those who believe that the earth is flat and that if we are not careful we might drop off the edge.

The Flat Earth Society elected a new president last year (members are expected to walk carefully on the edge of the planet, one presumes) and he, as far as one can tell, is otherwise only as eccentric as the rest of us who believe in politicians and tooth fairies. Daniel Shenton – for that’s his name – does not propagate the belief that mankind descended from robots or that every night an elf turns out the sunlight only to switch it on again the following morning. He even relies on the GPS to go from Point A to Point B on a curved surface, namely the part of the earth where he lives, but insists that the moon-landing was a fake and that there is no such thing as gravity. I am not sure if he thinks Albert Einstein was a mythical one-horned beast, but I would not be surprised if he did.

Membership of the Flat Earth Society might automatically make you an associate member of the Sun-Is-A-Block-of-Ice Society or an affiliate member of the Moon-Is-a-Cheese Society, and that’s an impressive set of membership cards to have in your wallet. And what of the Elvis-Presley-is-Alive-but-Paul-McCartney-is-Dead Society or the Netaji-Subhash-Chandra-Bose-is-Doing-Well-Thank-You Society?

It is easy to discriminate against flat-earther Shenton simply because he is wrong. Or because he and his friends believe that the dome of heaven is some seven thousand kilometres away and that the stars are about the same distance from the earth as that. But then what about those among us who believe in ghosts, or in the purity of the national awards or in the financial acumen of American bankers? Your beliefs don’t have to be rational. After all, so many of us believe that corruption can be legislated out of our political system.

Our knowledge system is biased against those who do not share our beliefs. There are otherwise staid and boring folk who believe that the moon landing was a Hollywood production and credit to their special effects team (which used a script written by the science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke). It worked because of mankind’s eternal desire to believe in the impossible. In fact, say the flat-earthers, the whole exercise was aimed at perpetrating the myth of the round earth and denying the obvious for political and religious reasons.

The flat-earthers are also capable of great levity. Their nickname for the Danish philosopher Copernicus who showed the earth is not the centre of the universe and that the planets are round and go around the sun is ‘Co-Pernicious.’

“Wherever you find people with a great reservoir of common sense,” according to a flat-earther, “they don’t believe idiotic things such as the earth spinning around the sun. Reasonable, intelligent people have always recognised that the earth is flat.” Perhaps he uses a different dictionary from the rest of us; a dictionary where words like ‘reasonable’ and ‘intelligent’ mean something else entirely from what we misguided round-earthers think they do.

The Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland recommended belief in six impossible things before breakfast, and in a world whose secrets are being fast revealed, there aren’t so many impossible things to believe in. The flat earth provides a safety valve, allowing us to root for something without having to take out processions, write to the UN or kill those who don’t agree with the idea. It is a prudent stupid notion, and for that we ought to be grateful.



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