Behind the Curve: Why you shouldn't laugh at Flat Earthers
Flat Earth theory is alive and well.
This may be a shock if you still thought the idea that the Earth is not a globe was five centuries old. Proponents of this contemporary conspiracy maintain that the Earth is not a planet at all, and that the notion that we live on a round object in space is a government sponsored lie.
If this is news to you, then the 2018 Netflix documentary “Behind the Curve” will be an informative introduction. And if you have come across Flat Earth, then this makes for a fascinating summary of where the movement is up to. Come to think of it, this film makes a great watch for everyone apart from Flat Earthers, who I imagine will not enjoy the gentle chiding of the documentary makers.
While it is inviting to mock Flat Earthers for their fundamental disbelief in the globe, this documentary takes a much more sympathetic approach to the individuals and communities that have rallied around the cause. As with many niche interests in the Internet age, Flat Earth has spawned several YouTube channels, various podcasts, conventions, splinter groups and divergent factions. “Behind the Curve” introduces us to a notable Flat Earth celebrities, including Patricia Steere and Mark Sargant.
Sargant has a huge following in Flat Earth, and he knows it. He sports a range of “I am Mark Sargant” T-shirts, which he wears throughout the documentary as he fondly recalls being recognised in airports and at supermarkets by adoring fans. He seems to enjoy the fame that Flat Earth has brought him as much as he cares for the struggle to uncover the greatest lie on the planet – or on the Earth.
In spite of the producers’ kindness toward their subjects, it is clear that they don’t buy the whole Flat Earth thing. Interviews and explanations are cut together in almost comical ways to undermine the logic of Flat Earth. In one instance, a Flat Earther explains how incredible it is that we are supposed to believe that the Earth is travelling through space faster than a bullet, and yet we feel nothing of the movement. In a separate interview interwoven with the Flat Earth explanation, a high school physics teacher says, “If I throw a ball up in the air in a car, it doesn’t smash through the rear wind shield.” The documentary makers definitely fall outside the Flat Earth camp, but they clearly enjoy letting the rationale of Flat Earth speak for itself.
In this, “Behind the Curve” presents arguments from astrophysicists, physicists, and perhaps most interestingly, from psychologists, psychiatrists, and science writers. Though expert opinions are brought to bear on the subject of Flat Earth, it is really the psychology of Flat Earth that provides the basis for the film, and indeed for interest in Flat Earth theories and in all conspiratorial thinking.
As with much conspiratorial thinking, at the heart of Flat Earth is the desire to have a sense of control, to make the world more easily knowable. That we live in one planet around a single star on the edge of a sprawling galaxy which is just one light in a constellation of many thousands of galaxies howling through empty space: this is an understandably overwhelming. Flat Earth means less chaos, less unknown, more certainty in what we see immediately. The King of Flat Earth, Mark Sargant, says toward the end of the film that since the Earth is flat, we are at the centre of the universe.
I suppose there is some comfort in that. It is a recognised cognitive bias that events of great concern must also have proportionately significant causes. For example, the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001 was a devastating blow to the US and the Western world, so the cause could not be as simple as an act of terrorism. A government engineered plot is more appealing because it is more sinister and therefore better matches the severity of the events.
Our experience of the modern world is chaotic, unpredictable, and overwhelming, so I sympathise with the Flat Earthers’ search for simplicity, and for a truth closer to home. Flat Earth offers something more intuitive, maybe. And for those involved in the Flat Earth movement, it provides an over-arching story for life that many of us lack. It gives meaning to life. It explains why governments do what they do, it makes known the shadowy corners of the world. It takes Truth and Knowledge away from institutions and experts and places it in the hands of the people. After all, Flat Earth is distinctly grass-roots in nature (a fact which indicates to Flat Earthers that all scientists and astronauts have been paid off by governments, naturally). It is a reaction to the institutions and structures of Truth, as much as to a specific truth itself.
It’s no surprise that Flat Earth is psychologically subject to many of the other traits of conspiracy theories. Everything comes to fit into the paradigmatic belief that the globe is a lie, and anyone disputing Flat Earth has been somehow embroiled in the conspiracy. Equally unsurprisingly, Flat Earthers are likely to believe in other pseudoscientific or conspiratorial theories, such as the MMR vaccine hoax and 9/11, that gold standard of insidious plots. Conspiracies are a but like buses in the way that you wait for one and then the government hijacks the metaphor.
As individuals such as Steere and Sargant rise in the ranks and draw more public attention, they themselves become the subjects of conspiracies. Steere in particular recounts how she has been accused of luring men into Flat Earth, that she is working for the CIA (because of the last three letters of her Christian name), that her identity and family history has been faked by the government, that she is a shape-shifter, and so on.
In a moment dripping in delicious irony, Steere says how she has produced birth certificates and documents and family photos, but that there is simply no way to convince these people of the truth, in spite of her evidence. “Anybody can believe whatever they want to about me, but I wonder if in their hearts the people who do that know that they’re lying,” she says while driving. “Or are they so conspiratorial that they actually believe it. Then it makes me worry maybe about things I believe in. Am I like another version of them? But I know I’m not.”
Even if you don’t believe in Flat Earth, it is still an extremely instructive exercise to entertain. As science writer Tim Urban explains, science is the search for truth, whatever that truth may be. It is the method of getting from A to B, where A is the starting point and B is some conclusion that you didn’t have before. Flat Earth begins with B and searches for the arrow that leads there. The conclusion is certain, and the evidence is subject to change and selection, which is not the scientific method. Another distinction is that between science and pseudoscience which involves falsifiability, as Karl Popper established in the 20th Century. According to Popper, the scientific method involve the possibility that a hypothesis may not be true, whereas in pseudoscience the hypothesis (“the Earth is flat”) can never be refuted. This difference makes for another amusing cut-and-paste of interviews between scientists and Flat Earthers in the film.
The growth of Flat Earth seems also to mirror a wider crisis of trust in Western societies. This is the age of fake news and lying mainstream media, the world of post-truth and political outsiders. Have we ever been able to trust the powers that be? A conspiracy such as Flat Earth rests on a total distrust of anything but one’s own ability to perceive. Steere even says of the Boston Bombing that she would only believe the news reports if she herself had her leg blown off in the event, which goes to show how far some individuals will go in their distrust of news media and anything that isn’t directly perceived.
A certain level of scepticism and scrutiny is of course important in consuming any news source, but we would do well to remember that our own powers of sensation and perception are highly malleable and often provide an inaccurate readout of reality. Perhaps we ought not to trust the official narrative, the media story, this or that group of scientists. We also ought not to assume that we know better simply by virtue of being ourselves. But then, why believe me?
Truth comes to be measured in terms of following, as if the number of supporters in a movement says something about the validity of its claims, in the way that Sargant in the film becomes enthused with the growth in numbers of Flat Earthers. This seems no different to an obsession with followers, with swelling the ranks of the congregation, or with Donald Trump’s focus on television ratings. Flat Earth is not the only case. We experience every day a media landscape in which truth and quality come second to followers and attention.
A conspiracy is really nothing more than an unsanctioned, unofficial story to explain the world back to us. It gives people a sense of purpose and meaning. It provides a way to view ourselves and our relation to others, and gives us a narrative. Some people find that in spirituality and religion, or in ideologies like Marxist theory or free-market capitalism, or in supporting football teams and listening to heavy metal, or writing poems and blogs and essays. The conspiracy theorist is no different from these people, in that we all look search for a meaningful story.
Those of us who find it easy to laugh at Flat Earthers for their irrational beliefs should remember that we all hold irrational, unquestioned beliefs. We live according to our own dogmas; they just happen not to be codified or established in the tradition of Flat Earth. Like Patricia Steere, we must wonder about the certainty we hold in our own truths and ask ourselves, “am I just another version of them?”