Culture,  Science and Nature,  scientifical,  Sham Inquiry

Flat-earthers as scientifical Americans: One message from ‘Behind the Curve’

Most people react to flat-earthers by labeling them as stupid or scientifically illiterate. A moderate effort to examine what they say will reveal that is not so. On the contrary, those who embrace conspiratorial beliefs seem to be bored with the conventional. Their active, creative brains spin more intriguing, complicated, and colorful trappings around mundane events and explanations. This was clearly in evidence in the documentary on flat-earthers, Behind the Curve.

The film has received good reviews and I recommend you watch it for yourself in an objective frame of mind. 

Decider does a brief overview of the important points but the reviewer thinks the execution of the project is inconsistent. I disagree. I think it’s marvelous. But I saw it by way of my own work on Scientifical Americans. So, unlike other commenters, I was not yelling at the screen. Instead, the film connected some dots for me, and a more coherent, but still complicated, insight into fringe beliefs evolved.

In my book, I point out that paranormal investigators are scientist-wannabes, enthusiasts that understand that science has cultural authority and so they attempt to use it to their advantage. Because they don’t have scientific training, they utterly fail at it. In the film, Cal State physicist Lamar Glover is shown giving a presentation in a science meetup talk where he points out exactly this idea. He considers flat-earthers those would-be scientists that “fell through the cracks”. I can add them to the list of examples of scientifical Americans along with paranormal investigators. 

The current flat-earthers are not deriving their ideas from religious texts, they are attempting to gather empirical evidence (that fits their conceived notions). Though they lack basic experimental controls and a background in math and physical sciences, they more than make up for it in enthusiasm and motivated reasoning for their preferred worldview. While “behind the curve” suggests they are not up to speed on modern thinking, flat-earthers have instead blown by modern thinking and have over-thought and imagineered a fictional alternative to suit their unique personal needs. No one can be ignorant of the idea of a spherical earth. Flat-eathers have deliberately rejected it. They package and deliver this view to others in a serious and romantic way – you are being lied to, open your eyes and see for yourself! A surprisingly large number of people are easily sold on the idea of embracing a counter-cultural view. It’s OK to go outside established boundaries these days – being a maverick has social value. It gets you noticed.

The film features several popular flat-earth spokespeople, primarily Mark Sargent and Patricia Steere. You can see the dynamic of “teams” and takedown attempts that always arise in new social communities (and movements) when they reach a critical mass. Their new celebrity status, thanks to the Internet, is intoxicating. Sargent talks about meeting fans who have a rock star reaction to him – he enjoys it. On a personal scale, believing in something fringe, such as a conspiracy theory, gives each person a sense of being “in the know” when everyone else is foolishly following the mainstream. Being a flat-earther means you are unique and special and certain people thrive on that while brushing off the negative attention. One of the most fascinating threads in the film is the animosity directed at Sargent and Steere from those who want to topple their celebrity status. It’s comically evil (in the form of “Math Powerland” – real name Matt Boylan). (Example: Patricia works for the CIA indicated by the last three letters of her name.) The paranoia and pathological skepticism exhibited by some flat-earthers is acknowledged by Steere and Sargent and yet they fail to see it in themselves, as such things often go.

The experts in space travel, general science, psychology, astronomy, and physics that appear in interviews were well picked and did an excellent job succinctly explaining what is happening here without arrogance. Mostly. A little seeps through, but their profession is being disparaged and logic and reason is on their side. I am so glad they did not use pop science spokespeople like Neil deGrasse Tyson (who is briefly shown in a clip of his late night talk show appearance mocking a flat earth believer) or Bill Nye. Instead, those chosen displayed frustration and surprise but also a deeper understanding that goes beyond the hip-shooting name-calling that typically occurs. Kudos to those featured: Dr. Hannalore Gerling-Dunsmore, astrophysicist, Dr. Joe Pierre, Professor of psychology, Dr. Spiros Michalakis, physicist, Dr. Per Espen Stoknes, psychologist, Cdr. Scott Kelly, astronaut, Tim Urban, science writer, and Stephen Hagberg, science teacher.

It’s a short hop from flat-earthers to anti-vaccine sentiment, global warming denialism, and UFO disclosure belief. In fact, it’s likely you would find such a person right next to you at a flat-earth event. And, you can see similar features in Creationists (and Intelligent Design proponents) and cryptozoologists (particular those keen on finding Bigfoot, chupacabras, and out-of-place large cats who also invoke cover-ups and conspiracies). Subscribers to these concepts share other behaviors in common. One is their love-hate relationship to science. They reject scientific consensus and call scientists liars, yet they desperately wish for a credentialed scientist to come over to their side. They roll out the hand-made flat surface and dome models, use sciencey language, propose expeditions, and run experiments with lasers. Playing pretend scientists is effective with a non-scientific public. As Dr. Pierre says in his comment in the film, from all the videos and serious discussion one can find online, it can appear that there is something to this. Sounding sciencey works.

They attempt to investigate but are really doing sham inquiry. That is, they start with the conclusion in their mind that they wish to get to and construct the inquiry in a way that gets them to that conclusion. The prime example I use in my book is the Ghost Hunters TV show. In Behind the Curve, we see flat-earthers attempting to show that the given concept of a rotating spherical earth is false through thoughtful experiments. When these produce the standard results, instead of their anticipated revolutionary results, the lightbulb moment doesn’t happen. Instead, they re-examine how to obtain the desired results and march on. They failed to reject their flawed hypothesis gripping it ever more tightly. It’s not investigation. It’s a sham. But they don’t see it.

From the clips from the Flat Earth conference and from other outspoken advocates, you’ll notice great diversity in the crowd – age, gender, class, ethnicity – but they are together because of a shared, cast-out idea that all is not as it seems. They are conspiracists, for which rejection of authority is a main driver. In order to buy into flat-eartherism, you must reject science, the government, your teachers, society in general. You must rely on yourself and those who can (probably) be trusted (for now). Sargent likens it to The Truman Show movie – where the character’s personal environment is constructed and controlled. Is the flat-earther’s rejection of norms a reflection of their frustration with their place in society and society in general? I think so.

The Truman Show

I see flat-eartherism as arising from the anti-authoritarianism of modern times. The Internet and easy technology access has made it possible for marginal views to become popular. Sure, the failure of the education system is a factor. I’ve advocated for teaching science appreciation over general science classes for all. We need to know why science works and how it applies to us. We don’t need it taught as words from a textbook or as a recipe for a certain method. The disillusionment of the average person about his or her life – feeling valued in society, seeking meaning and personal fulfillment, the erosion of close, trusted, communities, being overwhelmed by information and opinions – has lead to a desperate need to find a place to fit in and to feel safe and special. In hindsight, rising tide against well-founded conclusions about the universe in 21st century America is unsurprising. All roads led us here. It’s going to take a major investment in social infrastructure to get us out.

Recommended: Behind the Curve (2018) on Netflix.

4 Comments

  • Jeffrey Koehn

    Hi Sharon!

    With respect, I’m not sure that your assertion that “The current flat-earthers are not deriving their ideas from religious texts,” is entirely true. I’ve heard many flat earthers proclaim that they are trying to “scientifically” verify the truth of the Bible, to rebut the “Satanic conspiracy ” which wants to lead people away from God.

    Still, for many, I agree with your hypothesis that most are looking for a way to romanticize their world view. An excellent article. Thanks!

    • Sharon Hill

      Right! A few still are. But it’s not the overwhelming reason for it. The Bible isn’t even a good source for it, but they use whatever will hold weight.

  • veeds

    Very nice analysis Sharon of the conspiratorial mindset. Believe or not, I’ve been following the Flat Earthers (more or less) for 40 years, from back in 1978, when they were based out of Lancaster CA as part of the Covenant Peoples Church (billed as “Successors of Universal Zetetic Society”). I say “followed” only in the sense that I produced a parody newsletter based on their actual letterhead. As the current movement picked up steam over the past few years, shedding, at least nominally, their religious underpinning, I’ve listened to podcasts and videos with wonder and amazement at how seemingly sensible their leading spokesman (Sargent) sounded. In fact, it seemed at times that if you mentally bleeped out the absurdities, Sargent sounded downright convincing…or at least authoritative. The key word is “sounded” though since he speaks in a measured, non-inflammatory, articulate voice.

    That said, I’m inclined these days to urge LESS attention to their movement because the more we debunk flat-earthing, the more we’re simply publicizing it. And as we know with urban legends, the very act of debunking something often leads to people forgetting which side they’re supposed to be on. And although the so-called “backfire effect” itself seems to have been debunked to some extent, my guess is that the more we publicize flat earth…or Bigfoot…or aliens building pyramids…or crop circles, the more we risk giving it a place at the table.

    • admin

      That sounds right. It’s always a struggle to ignore it, ridicule it, or debate with them. I see NO value in debating and I hope I pointed out clearly that ridiculing is not productive. But the media seems fascinated with their weirdness. Because of that, some others may find it enticing to adopt. I wish we could ignore all these UFO proponents as well but people DO look for the counterpoint view when they encounter them. I think there may be a decent balance to achieve in the discourse, but the media fails often by not doing their homework and banking on sensationalism instead. Big mistake. This was a nice exception where the film, IMO, was done well.

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