Wait, there are two flat Earth models?


You would think that one flat earth model was one too many. But last week there was a Flat Earth Conference in Denver that Kelli Weill attended. She says this conference gave wider publicity to the fact that the group behind the conference is at odds with the Flat Earth Society and that they have different models.

The Flat Earth Society, by its own admission in the statement, has nothing to do with the Flat Earth Conference though. In fact, they have rivaling views about the planet.

Conference organizers believe Earth is a flat disc covered by a dome, while the society describes Earth as a flat disc without a dome. (Both are wrong, of course.) Whereas conference-goers repeatedly claimed that “space is fake,” the society previously told The Daily Beast that space travel might be possible, but “cost-prohibitive.”

I used to wonder if the people who attended these events were just having a good time, like cosplayers at Comic-Con, and not serious. But it seems that I am wrong. In her earlier report on the attendees at the conference, Ward says that they appeared to be true believers and that the movement took off about three years ago and attracts people who have an affinity for all manner of fringe beliefs and conspiracy theories. The largest group on Facebook boasts 127,000 members.

On the first day of the conference, I ask Flat Earthers when they converted. When did they chuck out the globe, renounce outer space as fake, and decide we live on a flat plane covered by a dome?

The answer, for most, is three years ago. That’s when some of the movement’s biggest names launched YouTube channels with hours-long videos explaining not so much why the Earth is flat (it isn’t) but why elements of the “globe model” are suspicious, particularly when they clash with a literal reading of the Bible.

“August 2015,” Ginny, a California woman tells me. That’s when a friend forwarded her a video series on Flat Earth. “I spent like three nights wide awake and then I was hooked.”

Conference speaker Joshua Swift tells me a popular Flat Earth video “woke him up” to the movement. “It came on autoplay,” he says. “So I didn’t actively search for Flat Earth. Even months before, I was listening to Alex Jones.”

So it looks like we can blame YouTube for this particular nonsense.

I ask a number of Flat Earthers about their politics. Many are politically disengaged (“your vote doesn’t count,” three people tell me), but loosely conservative. Most are Christian. Some, if you inquire long enough, say they’ll have to completely rebuild society after everyone realizes the world is flat.

This crowd isn’t necessarily far right. But the openness to extremes and a tendency toward conservative Christianity means far-right language leaks into conversation throughout the conference.

Conference-goers are exceedingly kind. A family invites me to breakfast, where they tell me that druids are real and the Sandy Hook massacre was fake. This is just what she’d tell me if I were her kid, the mother explains.

The interesting question is whether believing this causes any actual harm to the people. Maybe the harm is not direct (other than being thought of as kooky by their family, friend, and acquaintances) but consists of opportunity costs, in that believing such things leaves no room for beliefs that might benefit them more.

Comments

  1. cartomancer says

    Druids are real though. I’ve met several. Admittedly modern druids are a conscious revival of reconstructed ideas about ancient druidic beliefs, but they’re quite real. Some of them even have websites.

  2. says

    So it looks like we can blame YouTube for this particular nonsense.

    Yeah, somewhat. I have heard others complain that YouTube’s algorithms lead people into an echo chamber. I know little about the algorithms, but I get the impression they lead one to other videos liked by the same people who liked the video(s) you watch. So if you’re one who watches Alex Jones, you’re going to be recommended other conspiracy theory videos. It sounds like you won’t necessarily get videos debunking the nonsense.

  3. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    Disc? I thought the Bible says that the world is a flat square! How else could the devil show JC all four corners?

  4. says

    Conference organizers believe Earth is a flat disc covered by a dome, while the society describes Earth as a flat disc without a dome. (Both are wrong, of course.) Whereas conference-goers repeatedly claimed that “space is fake,” the society previously told The Daily Beast that space travel might be possible, but “cost-prohibitive.”

    What jumps out at me is how incredibly sad and small this worldview is. I’ve no doubt it’s tied to these people wanting to feel more consequential in the universe but to be fine with living in a cosmic fish bowl? I am curious what they think is on the other side of the dome, but I’m not going to screw up my YouTube algorithms to find out (which is a whole thing -- I watch fewer YT videos than I otherwise would because I don’t want them peddling BS to to me).

    Conference-goers are exceedingly kind. A family invites me to breakfast, where they tell me that druids are real and the Sandy Hook massacre was fake.

    No matter how nice they were to me, I would never call a Sandy Hook truther “kind”.

    The interesting question is whether believing this causes any actual harm to the people.

    Yes, because Sandy Hook truthers are demonstratively harmful. Maybe not to themselves, but to others. Flat Earthers may not be, but once they fall into that conspiracy theory rabbit hole, this start getting actually dangerous.

  5. Mano Singham says

    Tabby @#9,

    My question was whether believing in flat Earth models was harmful, not about Sandy Hook truthers.

  6. says

    Mano, I know, but because one conspiracy theory leads to so many other possible one, my assertion in the second sentence is that even if that one isn’t harmful itself, it’s harmful in that it can lead to those that are. Sandy Hook truthers, anti-vaxxers, Pizzagaters, and so on.

  7. says

    Yes, I say it absolutely is harmful. I once had a very conservative, young earth creationist student (he was retired, and I assume taking classes out of interest/fun). Before class started one day, he asked how paleontologists know how old fossils are. I assumed it was a setup for a joke. He replied “They ask a geologist how old the surrounding rocks are. And do you know how the geologists know how old the rocks are? They ask another paleontologist how old their fossils are!” I was stunned at the idiocy of this statement, but before I could start my rebuttal one of the other students said, with a look of concern, “Really?” I turned to him and said “No, that’s completely false” and gave a very quick explanation of radio isotope dating. If I wasn’t there, it’s quite possible this second student (and others) could have believed the first student simply because he was older and assumed to be wiser.

    Poisoning the well never has a good outcome.

    The only positive I can see is that it can be used by someone knowledgeable in the scientific method to show others how to debunk a claim.

  8. says

    “So I didn’t actively search for Flat Earth. Even months before, I was listening to Alex Jones.”

    So, he was looking for weird bullshit for months. No wonder he ended up where he did.

    Conference-goers are exceedingly kind. A family invites me to breakfast, where they tell me that druids are real and the Sandy Hook massacre was fake.

    No matter how nice they were to me, I would never call a Sandy Hook truther “kind”.

    There’s being kind to someone who’s standing in front of you; smiling and shaking your hand, and then there’s being kind to someone a thousand miles away, whom you’ll never see.

    A lot of people seem to think that that the former excuses the lack of the latter. I say the former is a sign, while the later is proof.

  9. jrkrideau says

    Personally I go with the circle with no dome flat earth. The noted astrophysicist, Terry Pratchett, has published several papers on this. I wonder if anyone at the conference addressed the turtle issue?

    Europeans, at least, have known the world is round since Eratosthenes of Cyrene measured its circumference somewhere around 200 BC and now we get this!

    The flat earther who was watching Alex Jones. It appears that once you believe one set of crazy beliefs it is much easier to believe the next. It may even be possible to believe diametrically opposed things. Some people seem able to compartmentalize their mind to the point that they never see the inconsistencies between the two (or more ) ideas. (Crank magnetism https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Crank_magnetism)

    It is like the conspiracy theorists who appear able to hold the idea that Lady Diana was assassinated by the British Secret Service and that she is alive and living “somewhere”.

    The interesting question is whether believing this causes any actual harm to the people.

    Almost certainly though it may depend on the person and situation. As @ 12 jimf says, it poisons the well, plus anyone this detached from reality is likely to make very bad decisions on this and other matters. See crank magnetism above.

  10. file thirteen says

    The interesting question is whether believing this causes any actual harm to the people.

    I think skepticism is an important mental trait. Like all mental traits, it needs to be exercised and can be damaged, leaving the owner vulnerable to dangerous ideas if it becomes disconnected with reason. Compare to morality.

  11. says

    @ Tabby, No. 9

    I’m not going to screw up my YouTube algorithms to find out (which is a whole thing – I watch fewer YT videos than I otherwise would because I don’t want them peddling BS to to me).

    You might try the strategy that I employ.

    I have multiple gmail accounts for various anti-spam purposes.

    Anytime I want to cruise the Dark Side I log in as one of these alternative accounts and keep my main account bs/spam free.

    Cheers,

    Jeff

  12. Pierce R. Butler says

    Wouldn’t there have to be two flat-Earth models -- one for each side?

    The only way around that would be a Mobius-strip-Earth model.

    Hmmm. Send $17.95 ($16.95 in BitCoin) for more details!