Why Does Shaq’s Flat-Earth Controversy Matter?

What is the primary difference between Aristotle and the “Big Aristotle?”

The fact that the Greek Aristotle was a legendary philosopher, while the “Big Aristotle,” also known as Shaquille O’Neal, was a legendary basketball player? The fact the two men have a large height discrepancy?

Try this: In 330 B.C., Aristotle proved the Earth round. In 2017 A.D., “The Big Aristotle” deemed the world flat.

The background: In February, NBA star Kyrie Irving claimed, on a teammate’s podcast, that the Earth is flat. While certainly odd, the comment stirred nothing more than benign confusion and light-hearted mockery. In the following weeks, however, his absurd viewpoint slowly gained traction in the NBA community, with fellow NBA stars Draymond Green and Wilson Chandler lending their support to the movement. Cavaliers teammate Richard Jefferson even went so far as to print and wear a ‘Flat World Champions’ t-shirt, an ode to Flat-Eartherism and the Cavaliers’ 2016 NBA Finals victory. Eventually, on March 17, O’Neal entered the fray, and the public took notice.

O’Neal’s comments, which supposedly debunked the Earth’s rotundity, included some real head-scratchers. One of the main reasons for his belief in a Flat Earth? “I drive from Florida to California all the time, and it’s flat to me…I do not go up and down at a 360-degree angle, and all the stuff about gravity.”

Sounds quite serious.

Nevertheless, numerous respected journalistic outlets, including ABC News, USA Today, and NPR News, reported soberly on his comments. USA Today even drew the conclusion that O’Neal, colloquially referred to as ‘Shaq,’ “seriously believes” in his claim, while NPR furiously lampooned his remarks, likening them to “fake news.” Popular Youtuber and political commentator Kyle Kulinski claimed he could not discern “if [the players] are trolling, or if they are not trolling.” He then deduced that there is a 60% to 65% chance the players are serious.

Then, on March 23, not even a week later, Shaq proclaimed, “I’m joking, you idiots.” His subsequent statement, that “this world we live in, people take things too seriously,” strikes at the heart of the whole mini-controversy.

Has reality become so distorted that truly intelligent people and publications cannot detect an obvious prank? Have we lost our ability to differentiate between solemn issues and jokes?

It is truly a testament to our times that basketball players commenting on Earth’s sphericity is newsworthy, and furthermore, taken seriously. If one actually listened to the podcast in which Shaq makes his remarks, the fact that he laughed continuously clearly indicated that, from the get-go, the whole affair was a farce.

If that was not enough proof, the fact that his reasoning for supporting Irving’s declaration was that “we are from Jersey. That’s how we think. We think outside the box,” surely suggested Shaq was being facetious.

However, because we live in tumultuous times, it is understandable (though still ridiculous) that media outlets still pursued the story. But once he literally came out and clarified the whole affair as a joke, surely the media abandoned further speculation on his seriousness, right?

Wrong.

On March 28, a full five days after Shaq renounced his preposterous viewpoint, an article, titled ‘Shaq Thinks Earth Is Flat Because It Doesn’t ‘Go Up And Down’ When He Drives,’ appeared on Forbes’ website. In the article, author Trevor Nace, pens this insightful statement: “Hopefully Shaq is joking and doesn’t honestly believe the Earth is flat.”

Well, no duh.

If someone at the fact-checking department at Forbes, a reputable media organization, had done a quick Google Search of ‘Shaq Flat Earth,’ it would have been evident that, five days prior, Shaq had, in fact, admitted he was joking. Nevertheless, because of negligence, or, worse, an intentional ‘oversight’ designed to bolster page views, Forbes published the article—on a trivial, not-newsworthy-in-the-first-place, outdated, and thoroughly settled matter, no less.

That the whole issue was taken seriously in the first place, and then extended well beyond its figurative expiration date, hints at three underlying problems in society: an increasing inability to discern between real and fake news, pervasive denial of science, and the tendency for media organizations to sensationalize and misrepresent stories to increase their site traffic and television ratings.

So what are the warning signs and implications of these problems, and how can we deal with them?

 

Real News Vs. ‘Fake News’ 

First and foremost, I would like to clarify what I mean by ‘fake news.’ I don’t mean the this-news-is-fake-because-it-portrays-me-in-a-bad-light ‘fake news’ that Donald Trump has popularized. While some articles from liberal-leaning publications (like the New York Times or Washington Post) do display an anti-Trump bias, in many of these cases, much of their output has been based on journalistic fact and seasoned reporting. While he may have some legitimate grievances about the liberal slant in some of their articles (though it should be noted that the NY Times broke the Clinton-email scandal, as well), it is fair to say that Trump, in labeling them the “opposition party,” has lashed out at these outlets to delegitimize them and to consolidate his power.

The ‘fake news’ I am referring to is the Hillary-has-Parkinson’s ‘fake news,’ the ISIS-leader-endorses-Hillary-Clinton ‘fake news,’ and the Pope-endorsed-Trump ‘fake news’—reports that are actually rooted in no fact whatsoever and are seemingly concocted out of thin air.

It is important to make the distinction between biased reporting and fabricated narratives, because actual ‘fake news’ and Donald Trump’s “truthful hyperbole” have contributed to the supposed ‘post-fact’ society that we now live in—one in which the debate over the rotundity of the Earth sows legitimate confusion.

According to a Time article citing a survey from the non-profit Common Sense Media, “fewer than 45% of American kids, ranging in age from 10 to 18, said they could accurately spot fake news and almost a third of them admitted that some of the stories they had shared were fake after they had passed them along.”

Forbes News reports that, according to an Ipsos Poll conducted with Buzzfeed News, “75% of Americans who recognized a fake news story from the election still viewed the story as accurate,” and “one made up story (‘Donald Trump Sent His Own Plane to Transport 200 Stranded Marines’) was viewed as accurate by 84% of respondents.” (Note: I thoroughly sourced this Forbes article in case of any possible errors)

Let’s take a step back and look at the implication of these reports: that the majority of children and adults alike are susceptible to the devious deception of fake news. Many people in our nation (sometimes myself included) actually cannot, on a regular basis, distinguish between fact and fiction.

That is why, in a recent feature piece, Time Magazine wondered if truth is actually dead. And that is why, while the flat-earth controversy itself is largely trivial in the scheme of national events, the underlying principle, the inability to detect fake news, indicates cracks in one of the fundamental tenets of American Democracy—a reliance and belief in the truth.

 

Science Denial

At the height of public interest in Shaq’s flat earth comments, LiveScience published an indignant article proclaiming “Shaquille O’Neal’s Flat-Earth Ideas are Out of Bounds,” providing five lengthy science-supported explanations to refute his ridiculous claims. While a completely earnest, well-sourced, scientifically-supported rebuttal of a basketball player questioning the sphericity of the Earth may appear to be an overreaction, the fact that LiveScience felt compelled to write such a piece indicates the prominence of societal science denial.

Despite scientific consensus that human-caused climate change is real and accepted evidence that it threatens the sanctity of our planet and way of life, the current U.S. president, Donald J. Trump, has proclaimed climate change a “hoax” perpetrated by the Chinese. His declaration, while debunked, is widely supported among U.S. adults—in fact, fewer than 50% believe climate change is due to human activity, according to Pew Research.

Yes, it is admittedly hard to concede a phenomenon exists when it is not tangible nor particularly fast-acting (though flooded parking lots in Miami would prove otherwise). Yes, a belief in global warming is an especially hard to pill to swallow when regulations implemented to curb climate change have also hindered job growth in certain fossil fuel based industries.

However, when both BP and Shell Oil, both major fossil companies who have a vested interest in success in their industry, admit that human-caused activities are to blame for climate change, widespread denial of the science behind the matter is bizarre, and, to many scientists, is a cause for alarm.

Hence, understandably, when a celebrity like Shaq espouses a belief, no matter how humorous, that contradicts science, authorities in the field are quick to refute the claim. After all, besides global warming, oft-questioned political lightning bolts like evolution and vaccination science still have their share of naysayers. Heck, Rebekah Mercer, the daughter of Trump’s largest financial backers, pushed hard for Arthur Robinson, a notorious climate change skeptic and evolution denier, to be awarded the position of National Science Advisor. In some circles, anti-intellectualism is currently celebrated and worn as a badge of honor.

It is no surprise, then, that Shaq’s seemingly harmless assertion, upon further examination, struck a chord in the science community. Because they are seemingly under attack from all angles, the urge to strongly correct Shaq’s comments is forgivable. However, the fact such a correction was needed in the first place illustrates the breadth of societal science denial—illuminating a truly scary aspect of American discourse, considering we rely on science to maintain public safety.

 

The Click-Bait Phenomenon

It should be noted that, while Shaq left LSU for the NBA after two collegiate seasons, he did take summer classes to eventually receive his bachelor’s degree. More recently, he received his master’s degree from the University of Phoenix and a doctorate in education from Barry University.

So, goofy as his persona is, Shaq is no dummy.

Additionally, Draymond Green received his degree in communications from Michigan State University, and while Chandler, Irving, and Jefferson have not completed the required course-load for degrees at their respective colleges, they are widely regarded as well-spoken and cerebral members of the NBA community.

Yet most articles glossed over the educational background of the players, instead pigeonholing them into the familiar ‘dumb jock’ stereotype reserved for successful male (and often black) athletes. Why? Perhaps too much nuance could have turned potential readers away. After all, it is much easier to grab one’s attention with the headline, ‘Shaq Believes the Earth is Flat and his Explanation is Bonkers,’ than a title that acknowledges his intellect and admits he may have been intentionally farcical.

The fact that many news organizations oversimplified the issue and ignored telling signs of Shaq’s true intent alludes to the larger debate on the role of media in the past year: how “news organizations” functioned as entertainment channels rather than true objective outlets.

In an election season when Hillary Clinton’s “policy stands accounted for a mere 4 percent” of her coverage during the Democratic National Convention, when Donald Trump received roughly $5 billion in free coverage from major news outlets, when CNN posted rough gross profits of $1 billion, and when NBC and Fox News saw their highest ratings ever, it is abundantly clear that media organizations prioritized the almighty dollar over fact-based reporting, eschewing their sacred duty as the conduit of unbiased journalism.

Interestingly, the click-bait and ‘fake news’ issues go hand-in-hand. Why? Because the headlines for ‘fake news’ articles are usually more sensational than mainstream news articles, they tend to garner more clicks, likes, and comments. This difference is inherent in the diverging purposes of regular news reporting and ‘fake news’: the reporting of regular news usually serves to inform the public, while the publishing of ‘fake news’ usually serves to influence the sentiments of the public in a particular direction.

Ominously, in the last year, as major news outlets attempted to capitalize on the tidal wave of interest in the presidential campaign, the line between the representation of objective reporting and ‘fake news’ became increasingly blurred. As Student News Daily points out, headlines such as “No-one wants to play Donald Trump’s inauguration,” (courtesy of The Independent) when, in fact, there were musicians who were slated to perform and actually did, or “Breaking: US Treasury Dept. easing Obama admin sanctions to allow companies to do transactions with Russia’s FSB, successor org to KGB” (courtesy of an NBC News tweet), when, in fact, the sanctions were altered under an Obama-era directive to avoid unintended consequences of cyber-sanctions, suggests reputable news organizations are not immune from utilizing sensationalized headlines to drum up clicks and site visits.

Because of the media’s click-bait onslaught, never before has trust in traditional news sources been so low. According to an Emerson College poll, only 39% of eligible voters deem the media ‘truthful,’ while Gallup pins public confidence in the media at 32%. This means that, mainstream outlets, once reliable anchors of objective coverage, are now distrusted by roughly two out of every three Americans. Instead, 62% of Americans now consume their news on social media platforms, where people can tailor their feeds to their own beliefs.

Thus, in effect, the media’s click-bait obsession—borne out of a yearning for more page views and advertiser dollars—creates a paradox. As news outlets post more sensationalized or simplified headlines, more people become disillusioned with the perceived lack of honesty in the media. As more people sense dishonesty in the media (no matter if such dishonesty truly exists or not), more people will abandon the major news outlets. As more people abandon the major news outlets, more alternative (and factually unreliable) sources become utilized by the public. And as that phenomenon occurs, a partisan echo chamber is created—one in which polarization thrives, and democracy suffers.

 

So, while Shaq’s flat-earth commentary and the subsequent public reaction, when viewed in a vacuum, may appear insignificant, it only represents the tip of the metaphorical iceberg. The situation exposes society’s current inability to properly grapple with fake news, science denial, and media dramatization—problems that, if left to fester, consume public discourse, rotting that core tenet of our democracy.

That is why, when regarding the veracity and intent of both firsthand sources and news outlets in a ‘post-fact’ society, it is up to normal everyday citizens of Americans to be on their toes.

If we do that, we can notice if a wacky basketball player truly means what he says.

If we do that, we can discern between real and fake news.

If we do that, we can combat science denial.

If we do that, we can be on the lookout for click-bait.

If we do that, maybe our round earth will just keep on spinning.

 

Adam Ginsburg
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Adam Ginsburg

Adam Ginsburg is currently a junior in high school. He has previously written for New York Sports Hub and RotoBaller and is co-founder of a politics podcast, 3rd World Airports. He loves watching sports (especially his hapless Knicks) and is an avid fantasy sports player.

Check out his podcast: http://shoutengine.com/3rdWorldAirports/
Adam Ginsburg
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