When I was a young boy in Sri Lanka, there was a Jesuit priest-in-training named Basil, a friend of the parents of a friend of mine, who liked to argue with us that the Earth was flat. We of course believed that it was round but as anyone who has argued with a flat-Earther knows, they have quite an array of arguments that they can drop on you to counter your objections and it is a good example of how almost any proposition can be defended if one is allowed to make ad hoc assumptions. We suspected that Basil did not really believe what he was saying but was using the formidable argumentative skills that Jesuits learn to mess with our young minds and show how hard it is to defend even what seem to be obvious truths.
There is quite an active Flat-Earth group around the globe and they hold conventions and the like and again one is moved to wonder if they are just indulging in harmless fun, like those who attend Star Trek conventions, or whether they are true believers. It seems like the latter is the case. Harry T. Dyer attended a convention in the UK and found that this group likes science but are mistrustful of scientists, which seems a little paradoxical, and this divergence is an example of a recurring issue with the internet, that it exposes people to a much wider array of information than they had before without a concomitant enhanced ability to differentiate between good and bad sources.
While flat earthers seem to trust and support scientific methods, what they don’t trust is scientists, and the established relationships between “power” and “knowledge”.
Multiple competing models were suggested throughout the weekend, including “classic” flat earth, domes, ice walls, diamonds, puddles with multiple worlds inside, and even the earth as the inside of a giant cosmic egg. The level of discussion however often did not revolve around the models on offer, but on broader issues of attitudes towards existing structures of knowledge, and the institutions that supported and presented these models.
This was something of a reoccurring theme throughout the weekend, and was especially apparent when four flat earthers debated three physics PhD students. A particular point of contention occurred when one of the physicists pleaded with the audience to avoid trusting YouTube and bloggers. The audience and the panel of flat earthers took exception to this, noting that “now we’ve got the internet and mass communication … we’re not reliant on what the mainstream are telling us in newspapers, we can decide for ourselves”. It was readily apparent that the flat earthers were keen to separate knowledge from scientific institutions.
Alan Burdick attended a recent similar convention in the US and reported on what he found. It should not surprise anyone that they have developed a comprehensive set of responses to the most common arguments given for a round Earth. (You can read more responses at the FAQ page of the Flat Earth Society.) They seem to also have a lot of overlap with the many conspiracy theories floating around, such as Pizzagate, Sandy Hook, the mass shootings in Las Vegas, Paris, and Orlando, and that “[o]ne attractive aspect of the flat-Earth theory, it seemed, was that it served nicely as an umbrella for all the other coverups. “It’s the mother of all conspiracies,” more than one person told me.”
I was a little surprised to learn that there is a religious element to their beliefs. Burdick spoke with Robbie Davidson, the organizer of the conference.
He described the modern flat-Earth community as a confluence of three strains of thought. “There’s the conspiratorial,” he said. “It’s like, ‘That’s kind of weird with the moon landing. Maybe I’ll look into it. What else could they be lying about?’ ” The second is “the scientific-minded,” people who “just want to go out and do the experiments.” The third, Davidson said, “is the spiritual—people that want to say, ‘Wait a minute, what would happen if I took the Bible literally?’ ” In style and substance, the flat-Earth movement is a close cousin of creationism. At the end of the conference, Davidson would be screening his new documentary, “Scientism Exposed 2,” which dismisses dinosaurs, evolution, gravitational waves, and a spherical Earth as part of a broad agenda “to hide the true creator of Creation,” according to the trailer.
To believe in a flat Earth is to belong not only to a human community but to sit, once again, at the center of the cosmos. The standard facts of astronomy are emotionally untenable—a planet spinning at a thousand miles per hour, a mote in a galaxy of unimaginable scale, itself a mote in the vast and expanding universe. “That, to me, is a huge problem,” Campanella said. “You are a created individual. This is a created place. It’s not an accident; it’s not an explosion in space; it’s not random molecules joining together.”
You, we, are special. “It’s like God is patting me on the shoulder, saying, ‘You deserve this!’ ” a man from New Orleans told me. He was a trucker, the son of a former newscaster, and an occasional musician. As we were talking, an older man in a wheelchair approached and, in a drawl, introduced himself and asked if we were Christians. He brought up the notion of infinite space and the lack of a creator. “How can people live with that?” he asked.
At the conference, several speakers made reference to “shills” within the community, people purporting to espouse the theory but who in fact belong to some deep-state counterintelligence program aimed at making the movement seem laughable. In 2016, Dubay, of the “200 Proofs” video, called out Sargent, Campanella, and other figures as “suspected controlled opposition shills,” and last year in a radio interview he called the November conference a “shill-fest.” Even the flat-Earth bureaucracy is suspect. At the end of the conference’s second day, a panelist mentioned a plan to set up a nonprofit to carry on the work. This brought a rebuke from a woman in the audience. “You had me up until I heard the gentleman say, ‘The reason we had to scramble to get the 501(c)(3),’ ” she said. “In my research, I found out that’s a Luciferian contract.”
It is tempting to link the flat-Earthers to the broader zeitgeist, where people are distrustful of existing structures and in reaction to it have veered into an extreme form of skepticism that starts with a belief structure that is appealing to them for whatever reason and then proceeds to reject any knowledge that contradicts it.
Some time ago Bertrand Russell said that while skepticism is a valuable trait, this kind of ‘heroic skepticism’ that rejects pretty much everything that experts in a field say is not productive. He suggested an alternative model of skepticism.
I am prepared to admit the ordinary beliefs of common sense, in practice if not in theory. I am prepared to admit any well-established result of science, not as certainly true, but as sufficiently probable to afford a basis for rational action. If it is announced that there is to be an eclipse of the moon on such-and-such a date, I think it worthwhile to look and see whether it is taking place.
There are matters about which those who have investigated them are agreed; the dates of eclipses may serve as an illustration. There are other matters about which experts are not agreed. Even when the experts all agree, they may well be mistaken. Einstein’s view as to the magnitude of the deflection of light by gravitation would have been rejected by all experts twenty years ago, yet it proved to be right. Nevertheless the opinion of experts, when it is unanimous, must be accepted by non-experts as more likely to be right than the opposite opinion. The scepticism that I advocate amounts only to this: (1) that when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain; (2) that when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and (3) that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgment. [My emphasis-MS]
These propositions may seem mild, yet, if accepted, they would absolutely revolutionise human life. (Sceptical Essays 1928, p. 2,3)
It seems like we are further away now from Russell’s prescription than in his time.