Friday, September 12, 2014

Do we live on a flat earth? A mental exercise ...

Yesterday I was exchanging some travel information with fellow Kiwi tester Kim Engel (btw, she does contract testing, and she's currently free) ahead of Let's Test Oz.

During the course of the day we were talking about opinion vs fact, and she came out on Twitter with this,

This really interested me, and we ended up continuing our conversation on email afterwards.  I've spoken before about asking "how do you know if something is true?".

I remember in a book I read at school about someone scoffing at some tribe they met "because they probably think the Earth is flat".  We though can usually feel smug and secure we know better, "because someone told us it's round".

But typically that's all it is, someone telling us something, and we take it as gospel.  In truth one of the huge problems is we're bombarded with so much misinformation, we often have to relearn some of the garbage we learn.  When I was five, we were watching John Craven's Newsround and I tried to understand what the big deal about the Voyager probe launches were - I mean we were sending manned spacecraft to other stars and planets, what's the big deal.  My parents asked me what I meant, and I said we saw it all the time on Star Trek (they were avid fans).  Somehow I'd thought we really had ships like the starship Enterprise.

And through school I learned so much misinformation through friends.  Somehow in my mind I had it that the Earth spun to create gravity.  I took as gospel that there was a witches house in the trees on the school grounds (this was infant school folks, not senior school) and that kinds that went into the woods there never came out.  Heck even Santa was a difficult thing for me to shake, I'd seen him at department stores, and my parents had even faked a phone call from him once to get me to go to bed (and muddled my concept of reality in the process).  I will not even begin to tell you all the misinformation I had about sex from my peers at high school!

Okay - so believing everything you hear can, and in my case did, get you into difficulties.  But what of the other polar opposite?  And this is where my conversation with Kim went.

Is the Earth flat?

Looking at the Earth and is it spherical or flat from first principles.

Using my own eyes and experience.  Certainly I've looked at the Earth every day in my life, and from my perspective it certainly does look more like it's flat than spherical.

But haven't you seen picture of the Earth from space, it's a sphere!

That's true, I've seen pictures of the Earth where it does look spherical.  But (a) I've never seen the Earth beneath me like that with my own eyes and (b) I've also seen similar pictures of Tatooine in Star Wars, so I know the technology to fake that view is there.

What about the fact that you can fly from the UK to NZ via America OR via Asia.  Getting to the same point via two opposite directions.  It's a sphere!

I've only ever travelled here via America.  And even then for starters I didn't really know where we were at any given point, and half the time it was in darkness.  My wife once travelled there and back via Asia, but having used her to read maps when we're driving you'll forgive me for not putting much faith her word.

If you've ever seen a partial lunar eclipse, you can see the Earth's shadow, and it's round!

You see, this is where a lot of people get confused.  Of course the Earth is round.  It's round, but flat.  Just like a plate.

But the Earth is a sphere.  Different cities are in different timezones.  When London is in daylight, Auckland is in darkness.  You wouldn't get that with a flat earth.

I only know if it's daylight or darkness where I am.  I can't be in two places at the same time.  I might Skype someone in London, but how do I know what I'm seeing isn't just a studio set somewhere?


And on and on it goes.  This is actually a peek into what my grandfather is like.  He's one of the smartest men I know, has studied all his life, and someone I admire a lot.  But he's of the opinion the Apollo Program was faked, and try as we might ...

Kim had noted she'd seen this phenomenon herself especially when people try and engage about religion or climate change.  "Correlation vs. causation comes up a lot with the remaining sceptics out there.  The difference between opinion and fact is empirical evidence. But empirical evidence has a way of changing, and the facts change with it."

As with my flat-earther or my Moon conspiracy grandfather, people have an odd way of filtering out evidence that doesn't fit their model.  With such people, will you ever be able to provide sufficient information to their satisfaction of how their model is wrong?  No, because invariably they'll alway find some area of doubt in something you've provided to undermine it.  Their model is right, not because they can prove it, but because there is a 1% area of inaccuracy or doubt in yours.

Carl Jung noted this has, and always will be a problem.  There are a lot of people like us who are used to dealing with things from a pure logical point of view.  And therefore when you're presented with a disagreement will get as much information and logic to sway the other person.  But not all people are wired that way, with some people having a much more emotional over logical response to things, and it being their core way of understanding and responding to the world.  And it's hard (if not damn near impossible) for a person using logic to sway someone who is used to making decisions in this manner.

And even people who think they're super-logical can have their off days!  I mean the kind where you pass by an electronics shop and go "oh, they've released a new phone ... it's only slightly bigger than the one I have, and not much faster, and it's so expensive, it makes sense to keep to my current phone".  And as you take the bus home surfing on the new phone you bought regardless, asking "how did this happen again?".

But the bottom line is you can't sway or convince anyone of anything if they're not coming to the conversation with an open mind.  If their mind is already made up, good luck!

The Razor

How do you keep an open mind though, without being duped by everyone who had a tale?  This is probably where we need to reach for the razor blades, namely Occam's Razor.

Occam's Razor accepts that basically you can't witness and observe everything (like our flat earther wants to).  But neither should you take everything on faith either.  When empirical evidence is provided to you, it's either going to be true or false, but which is more likely?  Typically the one with the least number of assumptions.  The universe after all tends toward simplicity over elaborate and needless complexity.

So if the spherical Earth is being propagated as "a big lie", then ...
  • Someone has been paying off every space launch since 1955 to fake evidence of it being flat.
  • This conspiracy would include both the USA and the USSR, bitter enemies at the height of the Cold War, but united to suppress the truth about the flat Earth
  • When someone flies from London to Auckland via America, it's okay, because that route exists.  But if they go via Asia, then the pilot flies around Africa for a bit until the passengers get disorientated and it gets dark.  He then heads via America, to New Zealand, stopping off at a secret replica of Singapore they've build deep in the Andes.
  • When it's morning in New Zealand and I ring my mother in London, and she says it's evening, she's lying.  As is my brother when I ring him.
  • You're all lying to me, because you're in on it!

However if the spherical Earth was true, then maybe it's just that some people are convinced that Governments will lie to us about just about everything (although really ... that's a good point as well).

Is this a testing skill?

Being able to navigate bias is a key skill for a tester.  In many ways testing is about like Kim mentioned, finding empirical evidence to support or challenge someone's opinion.  Typically for us testers that "opinion" is that "we've done coding this software, and it's ready for release".  That can be an opinion as emotional and occasionally irrational as our flat-earther (let's face it, no-one likes to think they've done a bad job on something), especially if timescales are getting tight.  Great we have a new user registration page, and I can create A user - but does that mean I can create ANY user?  And what do I mean by ANY?

Right now there are all forms of different approaches to testing out there, but which are the ones worth trying and putting your neck and reputation on the line for?  Maybe you want to just stick with the method you've always done, because it's always worked (doesn't that feel a bit like you're being a flat-earther there?).  Then again, maybe something really does sound too good to be true, and you feel right to be sceptical without more information?

No-one can make these decisions for you, and ideally no-one should make those decisions for you.  However to really attain our potential as smart testers we need to understand our own thought processes, and challenge ourselves over the filters we use regarding new ideas and information.


  1. The earth is flat... good article , cheers

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