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Just to be clear: no, I don't believe in the flat earth theory.

However, a few years ago, I thought that the flat earth society forum is a good place to practice my debating skills and to have fun. Therefore, I joined it and made an online id that's close to my real name to debate on the forum. It just made me feel accomplished when I see people having trouble disproving my obviously faulty "theory". I posted a lot there in the past year.

I plan to apply to a master program in physics and I worry that people will find out my membership, think that I believe in pseudoscience, and reject my applications. Is this an issue I should address on SOP?

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    I suspect almost every member of the flat earth society joined for a practical joke or for trolling. – vsz May 27 '16 at 9:51
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    @curiousdannii “It would be inappropriate for them to look” — what makes you think that? Where I’m working it’s standard practice to google applicants and I expect that this is usually even beneficial for the applicant. (And, to make this more poignant, if I found an applicant in my field who appeared to be a creationist online, then this would strongly impact their chances … negatively, of course.) – Konrad Rudolph May 27 '16 at 13:48
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    @KonradRudolph Well the consensus of the answers below is that such things shouldn't be considered, especially when it is easy to confuse identities. – curiousdannii May 27 '16 at 13:52
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    @curiousdannii I think you’re misunderstanding the answers (or I do, but then I’d disagree with them). It is appropriate to look. What’s inappropriate (also according to the answers) is to draw conclusions based on easily confused identities. – Konrad Rudolph May 27 '16 at 13:54
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    I'm trying to imagine how a physicist - someone who works in the field that gave us Richard Feynman and quarks with charm and color - could find a suspiciously named account in the Flat Earth Society and be seriously concerned. If that were to happen, you would be dealing with insane people: Run Away. – Spike0xff May 27 '16 at 17:30
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No, I do not think an admissions committee would check for this type of information. Nor would they assume the poster with the same name is the applicant.

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    To add another one: I did not know that society, and before reading the question with the implication that it is a society promoting belief in a flat earth, I would have thought it more likely that Flat Earth Society is a fancy name of a company (just like Alien Skin Software does not really use alien skins ...) or a reference to Terry Pratchett's Discworld etc. – O. R. Mapper May 27 '16 at 8:01
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    @O.R.Mapper apropos of your comment, there is a (delightful) Kipling short story about creating a fictional "Geoplanarian Society" to play an elaborate practical joke on someone. They had the same position you did, and are somewhat surprised when the genuine society turn up... ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/k/kipling/rudyard/diversity/… – Andrew May 27 '16 at 8:54
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    Just to clarify, what do you mean by “I do not think [they] would check”? Because a general online search for a candidate is entirely within scope (and, arguably, a responsibility) for a hiring committee. – Konrad Rudolph May 27 '16 at 13:55
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    "I would have thought it more likely that Flat Earth Society is a fancy name of a company" I just assumed it was a joke society. I mean, no one... can actually... believe this can they? (Of course they can, and I run into some of them on occasion.) – Andrew Whatever May 27 '16 at 17:05
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Very unlikely.

Plenty of people in the world have the same or similar names, so even when you would have used your real name in that forum you would still have plausible deniability. But as you said you didn't even do that, you just used an alias which was "close to your real name".

But in general you should be careful with what you post on the internet under your real name. Remember that the internet does not forget. Only use your real name when you are writing something you are sure you are willing to stand by. Not just today and on that forum you are posting, but also in 20 years and in front of anyone who searches for your name and finds that posting out of context.

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    Having searched in vain many times for things I saw online 20 years ago, I can tell you that the internet forgets many things. Not everything, of course, and it will likely remember the «wrong» things. – Martin Argerami May 28 '16 at 18:54
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It would a pretty sad situation for an academic to be concerned by this. To me it would indicate an inquisitive mind - someone interested not just in physics, but the social implications of its discoveries.

A plus, if anything, and therefore something that (if framed appropriately) could be mentioned up front.

No need for front page coverage though - it's not a biggy.

Good luck :)

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    +1 My personal view is that, unless full context is known, one should not judge a person. I (and probably quite a few of my open-minded colleagues) would assume that a person that has a sensible, or even possibly quirky, but still intellectually convincing CV may have joined such a society for curiosity, exploration, or, as in your case, in fact, for gaining novel skills. However, some wise men once said that it is not enough to avoid evil, but it is also necessary to avoid the semblance of evil. I think you have to make a decision which of the two strategies you espouse. Vacillation won't do. – Captain Emacs May 27 '16 at 16:33
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I don't see how it could hurt your chances. We are always looking for open, inquisitive minds, else there would be no field of "physics". If you took an adamant stand, and could not back up your claims with, at the least, logic, then that could not be good. If you failed to adequately explain why the moon does not fall to Earth, you would fail, even if you were a Graduate Astrophysicist. But both side of a good argument forwards our knowledge. Good on you.

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The problem is general and does not only apply to graduate school application.

It really depends how the interaction with "fringe" topics occur. If you are negatively inclined (skeptic blog) or sarcastic (CAUTION:Poes's Law), you will very likely experience no problems, the worst will be that some people scold you for wasting your time.

The most common, I would even say reliable, occurence that you will encounter in the open is a pet theory. Almost every scientist has one, these theories are stroked and caressed and their range is unpredictable. It could be inside or outside of a subject's area, from a curio to outright bizarre.

If you, on the other hand, are genuinely interested in a fringe topic generally and communicate so, you will very likely experience that your reputation goes down very quickly, especially in STEM fields. In contrast to their projected image to the public (openness to inquiry) scientists at large are acting within their community mostly intolerant to fringe topics. A person outside academia asking about a fringe topic may be tolerated, but for fellows the patience is very thin.

The worst thing you can do is engage in a public hot topic on the wrong side. Academic people may forgive your interest in an arcane topic like panspermia, but defending creationism or parapsychology (even if you only correct a false argument from a skeptic) paints a very big red cross hair on your chest. It is not a wise thing to do.

You may have noted that I said "acting". It is a curious phenomenon that actually many scientists have interest in fringe topics, have experienced something strange or, God forbid, do believe that something may be partly true.

The thing is that there are..."guardians". These are people from academia which have (surprise) no pet theory and which are glad to have finally found the pristine area of knowledge and truth in science. They also want that their peers share their enthusiasm of defending science against the common enemy. Their worldview about the non-occurence of fringe topic beliefs in academia is quite rosy because they do not realize that their enthusiasm prevent people from telling them what they really think.

People may believe that this cannot be true but there are strong indicators because it happens at very high levels: Newton was very interested in alchemy and theology, Wolfgang Pauli was interested in parapsychology, David Deutsch embraces the possibility of time travel.

If people get the impression that you don't rip off their heads or laugh at them, they are much more open in private. So I would recommend to abstain from dabbling with fringe topics in public and use private communication channels if you have interest in them (choose your counterpart wisely).

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    Small nitpick: Newton was hardly atypical among the "scientists" of his time for his interests in alchemy and theology, so I don't think he fits as an example of "scientists" pursuing "fringe" topics. These were not fringe topics at the time – Yemon Choi May 29 '16 at 2:25
  • @YemonChoi Correct. I included the example because some people seem to believe that indulging in fringe topics somehow saps inevitably critical thinking power and the ability to reason correctly. Some are going so far to believe that religious scientists are an oxymoron and teachers should prevent students from passing if they believe in fringe topics. Newton worked decades with (now refuted) topics without showing signs of mental decay and worse, he did not abandon the topic despite his proven ability to reason. – Thorsten S. May 29 '16 at 10:57

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