Flat Earthers: What Drives People To Believe In Conspiracies?

If you are reading this, you should know that everything you’ve been taught is a lie. It is a sunny, cloudless day and you and your friends decides to go chill at Lomma beach. You know that the earth feels flat walking across the pavement towards the sand. You will observe that the water in the ocean is an unbroken straight line. And looking past this vast, beautiful Swedish water, you’ll be able to see buildings of Denmark’s capital city Copenhagen at the horizon. These are all impossible if the Earth is round.

Wait a second, you might say. Where does the sun go at night? I would say the sun is a small, bright ball that simply rotates out of human sight onward to America. You say, but what about the Moon landing? What if I tell you that NASA is a government hoax to hoard taxpayer money and images of Earth from space are all photoshopped to keep you from understanding the Truth? Remember, everything you’ve been taught is a lie, and science is a big conspiracy to keep you – keep us – away from the Truth.

Welcome to the world of Flat Earthers.

The world according to Flat Earthers: the Antarctic is a giant Game of Thrones style ice wall that is keeping humans from falling over the edge. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Flat Earthers are a group of individuals who believe that the Earth is flat based on pseudoscience. The ideology is that, walking around the surface of the ground, it looks and feels flat, therefore the Earth must be flat. They further argue that people only believe that the Earth is round and rotates around the sun because people are taught about it as children, and that this is part of the norm and conspiracy that the government and NASA want to perpetuate.

Believing that the Earth is flat isn’t a new phenomenon. Due to limited technology and scientific knowledge, the flat Earth model of conceptualizing the world was commonly used world-wide up until as recent as the 17th Century. Many modern Flat Earthers also believe in ideas similarly used by creationists: rejecting evolution, evidence of dinosaurs and the Moon landing, claiming that these are confirmation of a broad agenda to “hide the Truth”. Thanks to social media such as Twitter, Facebook, and especially Youtube, spreading conspiracy theories has never been easier. On Youtube, contents that are controversial or conspiracy-related tend to do very well. Assisted by Youtube’s algorithm, it gets easy to go down the rabbit hole.

However, to brush them away as stupid is an unfair assessment, as Flat Earthers can be very resourceful. In March 2018, a Flat Earther successfully launched himself into the sky in a homemade rocket in an attempt to “see the curvature”. He later claimed that he didn’t reach high enough altitude to “see it for himself”. Another Flat Earther managed to procure a laser gyroscope to measure if the Earth indeed rotates at 15 degree per hour (Spoiler alert, it does, since it’s a globe). When the results came back that the gyroscope did measure a 15 degree per hour rotation, they simply disregarded the results.

In science, you would work from a set of hypotheses, testing and gathering knowledge surrounding the hypothesis, and reach a conclusion. But often conspiracy theorists work from the conclusion. When proven otherwise with the conclusion, a sort of brain gymnastics would be performed to disprove such evidence. Given this situation, if the Flat Earther is unwilling to or unable to come to a logical conclusion no matter what the evidence or argument say, there cease to be reasons to argue with them.

Conspiracy theories like the Flat Earth conspiracy encourages people to distrust science completely and attacks expertise based on feelings. In this kind of world, facts are true if they are agreeable with my belief, otherwise it’s fake. While one could argue that conspiracy theories such as Flat Earth are funny and harmless, the implication is that these kinds of dangers cannot be overlooked. Many other conspiracies put other people in direct danger. Believers of the Pizzagate, which started as a joke online, stormed a pizza restaurant with a rifle; Anti-vax movements are causing more and more unvaccinated children; fake hoaxes like the momo challenge spreading mass panic among parents and raising alert for copycat suicides, all have harmful results for the majority of the population. To the extreme, conspiracy theories could radicalize, create, and encourage more to join their ranks. Even the Dunning-Kruger effect could allow climate change deniers in politics or incompetent leaders who seemingly doesn’t understand how politics work, to be in positions where they think they know everything. Overall, this hurts everyone.

A gif showing how the sun rotates around flat earth. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

While most of these conspiracy theories seem laughable, and internet communities have been quick to engage in ridicule, what lays behind the rationale of believing conspiracy theories such as flat Earth is also a sad call for help. In the documentary Beyond The Curve, many members of the Flat Earth Society expressed heartfelt acknowledgement that they don’t feel like they fit into society. The price of believing is isolation. Hurtful ridicule from strangers or estrangement from friends and family, these are enough to push most people to loneliness, according to Beyond the Curve, many Flat Earthers find it hard to date non-Flat Earthers. To be in a community of other Flat Earthers means that they are finally not alone. And in the grand scheme of the universe, it means that humanity is again at the center of the cosmos.

Science and education communities thus far have really failed to engage with these people in a reasonable way. And why should scientists do that? There are more important problems in the world to solve and there are constantly so many conspiracy theories developing and forming on the global web that there is simply not enough time or energy to address them.

So how can we talk to Flat Earthers? The best action may be to listen. If a conversation needs to happen, you need to meet them where they’re at. A conspiracy theorist is probably distrustful of science, so don’t try to convince them with science and facts. Instead, deepen your own knowledge and try to understand why you know what you know. Maybe when (and if) you meet a Flat Earther, try to explain why you think the Earth is round based on your own knowledge and experience. If you get lucky and never meet a Flat Earther, it doesn’t hurt to appreciate our world a little more with knowledge either.

Emily Hsiang

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