Ever since I discovered TV Tropes, I have come to love the idea of media criticism and finding patterns in fiction. After all, even the best works reuse many tropes and ideas from their genre of choice, with classics like The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, James Bond and the Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time all treading well known ground in their quest to tell a good story or present a fun game. Tropes aren’t bad, and when done well, many can make their stories all the better for their inclusion.
That said though, while tropes are often neutral, there are a few that bother me none the less. Like Hollywood Tactics, which shows trained soldiers racing into battle like headless chickens. Or the various ‘Aesop’ tropes, which can very easily become a political bludgeon for a bad writer.
But the one that annoys me the most isn’t any of those. No, as the title suggests, it’s the ‘Flat Earth Atheist’, and it is perhaps the most damaging way of portraying science in fiction that I’ve ever seen.
So what does it mean? What is a Flat Earth Atheist?
Well in TV Tropes terms, it’s when an individual in a work of fiction is unjustifiably sceptical about a strange phenomena that doesn’t exist in real life. In other words, it’s like a scientist in the Ghostbusters universe claiming ghosts can’t exist, or a Star Trek doctor thinking extraterrestrial life is a ridiculous notion.
And it’s usually used to compare science to religion, or fight against perceived ‘scientism’ on behalf of the author. It’s a way for authors to say ‘science is sceptical of a lot of things, so how do we know they’re not true?’. To claim science works like a religion, and relies on blind faith against the idea of the ‘supernatural’.
But this isn’t the case. In fact, the idea of a ‘flat Earth atheist’ shows a gross misunderstanding of science and the scientific method in every possible way.
Which is fine if the character isn’t remotely reasonable/scientific. There are insane conspiracy theorists after all.
Yet when it’s a scientist or academic, it gets very questionable indeed.
Because at the end of the day, scientists don’t ‘disbelieve’ in supernatural elements because they want them to be untrue. There’s no cabal of scientists who hates the idea of gods and mythical beings and gleefully hopes real life is a purely naturalistic setup based on our current laws of physics.
No, they disbelieve because the evidence for ghosts (or whatever) is very poor. And well, you know how Occam’s razor works here. If there’s no evidence for something (especially a big complicated idea like an almighty creator god), then it’s logical to assume one does’t exist. It’s like losing a sock, and concluding it’s more likely to have gotten lost in the dryer than stolen by invisible elves.
But if a ‘supernatural’ phenomena is documented to be real, then guess what?
It becomes a scientific one. For instance, if we found proof that ghosts existed, then ghosts would become a scientific concept studied in lab experiments and documented in research studies.
And that’s true of all things currently not included in science, whether it be ‘alternative’ medicines, cryptids or ghosts; once the evidence comes in, they just become science, medicine or whatever else.
That’s why the idea of a Flat Earth Atheist is an absolutely ridiculous one. Why? Because in a world where the supernatural or super science or whatever else exists, there would be no scientific reason not to believe in it.
In fact, anyone who did wouldn’t be a scientist or sceptic. They’d be a conspiracy theorist, likely on par with those who believe the Earth is flat, that the moon landing was faked or that the Holocaust didn’t happen.
Fortunately, many works of fiction (even the less serious ones) do realise this is the case. For instance, in all of Nintendo’s main video game series, the setup of the world and those who live in it is never in doubt; science and society has adapted to the settings quirks.
Such as in the Legend of Zelda series. In that universe, dragons, gods, fairies, undead monsters and laser shooting robots from a long extinct civilisation are all things that are known and proven to exist.
So the scientists there accept it. The labs in Hateno Village and Akkala study the Sheikah Slate runes and Guardians/ancient weaponry respectively, another near Fort Hateno investigates a mysterious glowing statue that appears at night, and others investigate things like underwater treasure, the falling moon or the undead respectively.
Same goes with the Mario series, where virtually all of E Gadd’s research is about ghosts and ghostly phenomena:
Or the Pokemon series, where virtually every academic in the series studies Pokemon or some mysterious mechanic associated with them (like Mega Evolution, Z Moves or Dynamaxing in X/Y, Sun/Moon and Sword/Shield respectively).
And they accept it because to them, it’s as normal as electricity or evolution or continental drift is to us. These aren’t weird unbelievable occurrences in their universe, they’re normal everyday things.
Which would be true of almost every work of fiction with different rules to reality. Star Wars scientists would study the force and know about the Jedi and Sith. Middle Earth scientists would know the various races exist, and that somehow, Sauron controls/influences anyone who tries to use the One Ring. Time Lord scientists in Doctor Who would (and in universe, do) study time travel and alternate universes.
Because at the end of the day, science adapts to the rules of universe. Not what someone wants said rules to be.
So if you’re a writer, quit it with the flat earth atheism. It’s not scientific, shows a complete lack of understanding about the scientific method, and makes your ‘scientists’ look more like a bunch of creationists or anti vaxxers.
Thank you for reading