Hypersonic Atmospheric Reentry Deceleration Experiment (HARDE); Misinformation, bias, and ideology: How Flat Earthers cultivate their beliefs

Metro, Andrew, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Goyne, Chris, EN-Mech/Aero Engr Dept, University of Virginia
Elliott, Travis, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

How do humans explain physical phenomena? How humans justify their beliefs is a central question in epistemology. Of particular importance is how we form and justify beliefs about the physical world. Our minds are not as they seem – and this can have a profound impact not only scientific inquiry and the development of new technologies, but also on society as a whole.
How might a CubeSat in very low Earth orbit collect flight data in hypersonic
environments? Hypersonic flight data is of interest due to the arms race developing between China, Russia, and the United States, as well as recent interest in hypersonic commercial aircraft. Despite this demand, the U.S. scientific community lacks thorough understanding of hypersonic aerodynamics due to the difficult logistics and cost of flight tests, as well as the limited capabilities of ground test facilities. Because of their affordability, CubeSats could provide a low-cost solution to this field. The project’s ultimate goal is to expand our knowledge of hypersonics by collecting flight data and improving the affordability of data acquisition by using a CubeSat. Using the Space Mission Engineering process, a conceptual design for a CubeSat which collects data during a brief deceleration and reentry period was proposed, which will be developed over the next two years of the capstone class.
How do Flat Earthers develop and protect their belief systems? Flat Earthers have recently come into the spotlight as a textbook example of misinformation spread via the Internet. Adherents – who hold diverse beliefs, but all reject the “globe model” of Earth – are familiar examples of how bias, ideology, and denialism change one’s perception of truth. To many, the pseudoscience and erroneous reasoning Flat Earthers use to support their claims seem rightfully foolish. Yet belief in conspiracy theories and pseudoscience has been shown to depend not merely on general cognitive ability, but also on how one values epistemic rationality. This has great implications to the scientific community today: for example, studies show that despite demanding evidence of natural phenomena more than others, scientists have in practice shown willingness to disregard epistemic rationality, resulting in bias that can skew their research. Understanding how Flat Earthers cultivate their beliefs can not only help us understand how misinformation is spread, but it can also reveal how our biases affect our own scientific work and the scientific work we place our trust in.
This question was explored using the STS framework of ethnomethodology, alongside concepts such as cognitive biases and inoculation theory. A new hypothesis, termed “reverse inoculation theory,” is proposed.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
CubeSat, Hypersonics, Space Mission Design, Epistemology, Cognitive Dissonance, Ethnomethodology
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