The Curious Case of Modern Flat-Earthers
How anti-intellectualism and attention-seeking culture, powered by social media, brought about unlikely renaissance of the most absurd conspiracy theory
NASA InSight has just landed on Mars. Even in the private sector, Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin are vying to go to Mars. The Red Planet seems much closer than ever. While it’s the age of space travel and scientific feats, our own planet is also going through the post-truth era, in which the most basic facts are denied sometimes by various forms of conspiracy theories. What a great irony …
Among those countless absurd hypotheses, what recentlty caught my attention is flat Earth conspiracy theory. It was quite a shocking discovery for me to realize that folks that believe such a thing still exist in the 21st century. It’s even harder not to believe that the Earth is round, isn’t it? What the hell is their mentality like?
Just out of pure curiosity, I conducted a brief Internet research. The result was astonishing. There are several websites of societies that represent the “theory” with .org domain. Some celebs declared their belief in the flat Earth and publicy challenged Neil deGrasse Tyson, a high-profile astrophysicist. I even searched “flat Earth” on Twitter and found many faithful disciples. (Can’t believe it? Go see yourself. You will be able to find only several hour-old tweets that are serious about flat-Earthism.) The most common claim is that they simply couldn’t see any curvature of the Earth in their whole lives, even when riding a plane. Come on, folks. The Earth is much bigger than you think.
A recent survey revealed one third of Millennials in the US are not sure that the Earth is round. The high point of the research is even more shocking; the younger the participants, the more likely they were doubtful about the spherical nature of the Earth.
If the Earth were flat as they insist, why isn’t it a mainstream theory? While the answer is that it’s simply because the Earth is round, of course, I was curious why they are trying so hard to defend their belief. According to the FAQ page of a Flat Earth Society website, they believe that space travels were all fabricated accomplishments resulted from the fierce competition between then the Soviet Union and the US in the cold war era and the general public were brainwashed by the governments. Any explanation about all the photos of the round Earth out there? They are just photoshopped images, they insist. The cold war era was over long ago but space agencies keep “faking it” in order to raise funding for their own good, the flat-Earthers say.
To doubt everything, even what your teachers and famous scholars say, is part of an intellectual process. To be a positive skeptic, however, you should be also open to the possibility that you might be wrong and willing to change your thoughts on the basis of what you newly learned.
Conspiracy theories often sound very attractive. People are prone to believe any stories of an evil super power manipulating the general public by fabricating information in order to maintain its control over people. While there are no flat-Earthers among my first-account acquaintances (Thank god!), I have known many people around me that believe in a popular conspiracy theory or another. They are all educated folks. None of us are hundred-percent free from the temptation of conspiracy theories.
But the case of modern-day flat-Earthers is even more weird. What made them so determined to be against the scientific fact that has more-than-enough proofs? I found a couple of factors behind the phenomenon.
It always looks cool to go against whatever is established?
Flat-Earth theories of centuries ago were usually based on religious (particularly Christian) belief, which is caused by biblical literalism. Modern flat-Earthers are somewhat different even though biblical literalism is still alive and causing many problems other than the flat Earth stuff. (Don’t want to go there in this post for the sake of my sanity.)
I’m not so sure whether the celebs including B.o.B. (rapper) and Tila Tequila (social media personality), who openly support this theory, are really serious about it. It’s very likely that they chose to be a flat-Earther as a way of seeking more attention. Is it worth doing that by taking a risk of looking like an idiot? Those celeb flat-Earthers are not famous for their smartness from the beginning. Instead, people follow them to watch them take bold actions. The more controversial, the better for them. B.o.B. even confronted Neil deGrasse Tyson via Twitter trolls and a rap song that disses him. If you were a PhD candidate in astronomy, you would be aghast to see a rapper challenging one of the world’s most famous astrophysicists. But for the general public, it is just a spectacular celebrity battle and the one who challenges the mainstream idea may look cool. B.o.B. had little to lose. (Eventually, it also did more good than harm to Tyson. His celebrity status as the host of Cosmos 2014 edition and successor of Carl Sagan has been enhanced since.)
The problem is that some people are easily influenced by these celebs particularly when they lack of basic scientific knowledge. The destructive power of media makes even the most stupid thing seemingly worthy of your attention.
All the flat-Earthers are not desperate attention seekers and their followers. There are the ones who are really serious about it, of course. In this case, their motivation is deeply rooted in mistrust of intellectuals and the academic elite.
This type of flat-Earthers firmly believe that the intellectual elite brainwash people into false knowledge of the round Earth for their own good. They deny what we learn at school and only accept what they can prove via their own experiments. These flat-Earthers include engineers and IT professionals even. (That’s why each subject of STEM is equally important: science, technology, engineering and mathematics)
To doubt everything, even what your teachers and famous scholars say, is part of an intellectual process. To be a positive skeptic, however, you should be also open to the possibility that you might be wrong and willing to change your thoughts on the basis of what you newly learned. Empirical approaches, which are through your own experience, experiments and observations, are nothing wrong, either. But if you confine your thoughts within the extent you can physically see, it’s no longer a scientific way. To believe only whatever strengthens your own confirmation bias is even worse.
Pseudoscience is more dangerous than complete ignorance. In that regard, this type of flat-Earthers might cause more harm as they are often famous YouTubers and social media influencers with the loyal following.
My major in college was literature. I can’t say that I was always good at math and science as a student. However, I truly understand that the Earth is a sphere not because I was told so at school but because I learned the supporiting facts which logically convinced me. The moment of empirical realization came much later. Decades ago, I was traveling with a group of friends from Bloomington, Indiana to Chicago by car. I cannot forget the amazing, beautiful moment when the city of Chicago was slowly emerging from the horizon after serveral-hour car ride in the endless corn field. Why don’t flat-Earthers even accept such a proof that they can easily get themselves?
As space travel for civilians, not only astronauts, is imminent, more people will have opportunities to see the beautiful, round shape of the Earth in their own eyes. Flat-Earthers will eventually disappear soon enough. The problem is not this particular case but all kinds of conspiracy theories that endlessly spawn lots and lots of variants. If you think that all those are merely jokes of no significant social impact and only a few idiots are influenced by them, think again. We all know that some country elected the president who insists that climate change is a hoax.