The New Flat Earthers
The reinvented Flat Earth fad is less about geophysics and more about conspiracy mongering.
Today we're going to follow up on an older Skeptoid episode from a few years ago, the Flat Earth Theory. In that episode we looked at the history of belief in a flat Earth, which was mainly driven by 19th and 20th century Christian fundamentalism driving clumsy efforts to prove the literal truth of the Bible. That era ended when the last of the well known proponents, an elderly couple who called themselves the Covenant People's Church, died after their house burned down in 1996, taking with it the archives of their International Flat Earth Research Society of America. And where their story ended, today's story begins, with a new, reinvented version of the Flat Earth theory.
The Biblical literalists have moved from the center of Flat Earth belief to its fringe, and their place has been taken by believers in conspiracy theories and alternate science. 21st century Flat Earthers are less likely to recite Bible verses and more likely to oppose vaccination, to charge that 9/11 was an inside job, and to claim the government is drugging the population with chemtrails sprayed from airliners. Flat Earthing is now entwined with perpetual motion machines, with a belief that Nikola Tesla held the secrets to free energy now suppressed by the global elite, cold fusion and zero point energy, and declare that it's all part of the grandest coverup of all: that the Earth is actually a flat disk and not a globe.
An excellent resource for tracking the popularity of ideas is Google Trends, which tells us that Internet searches for the term "Flat Earth" began a sharp increase at the beginning of 2015. The popularity of this search term is still rising, and is presently at its greatest over the course of Google's entire tracking history. This is with the exception of January 2016 which saw a tremendous spike. By then a pair of fringy C-list celebrities had been trumpeting the Flat Earth and declaring their rejection of the Earth as a sphere loudly and proudly, though it's never been clear whether they actually believed this or were just bucking for attention. One of these was a rapper named B.o.B, who had been among the most vocal; and to the delight of the Internet, astronomer and beloved science personality Neil deGrasse Tyson began correcting him over Twitter. Within a short time it developed into a rap battle, with Tyson's nephew providing the rhythm. The other was celebrated salacious person Tila Tequila, for whose Twitter feed the Flat Earth tweets constituted the most intelligent and weighty content.
If the new Flat Earthers were limited to these two "celebrities" and the handful of remaining Christian Flat Earth fundamentalists, that would be one thing. But they are not. Google Trends proves that B.o.B and Tila Tequila were only riding a wave that had been building for the better part of a year. Where was it building? YouTube provides another indicator. Search YouTube for "Flat Earth" and you'll find countless videos, mainly amateurish explainers full of gross misunderstandings and misinformation, yet many with tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of views. Most of these were posted throughout 2015 and 2016. What triggered the sudden renewal of interest?
One Flat Earther claims to have the answer to this question. Eric Dubay is a conspiracy theorist who, in November 2014, self-published a book on Lulu.com titled The Flat Earth Conspiracy, and also made a YouTube video of the same name. Dubay's works seem to be Case Zero, sort of the Typhoid Mary of modern Flat Earthism. Very soon, all the other YouTube videos started appearing, and the trending search term became a part of pop culture. It grew for a year, seeping throughout the YouTube conspiracy theory community, until it finally consumed B.o.B and Tila Tequila.
Dubay is a young yoga teacher living in Thailand, where he says he works full-time to expose the New World Order; evidently, a yoga studio is the best place to acquire a deep geopolitical education. The new Flat Earthers fit nicely into a pattern we've grown very familiar with here on Skeptoid: claims of superior insight and knowledge coming from people with no plausible standing from which to have acquired such insight, into fields as diverse as geopolitics, economics, and virtually all physical sciences. Many are attracted by the promise of superior knowledge, the idea of secret and forbidden wisdom. Many are highly receptive to the idea that powerful entities like governments and banks are inherently evil and are now actively exerting massively repressive powers to control us. And were such a situation ever to be a reality, who would not want to envision themselves as part of the tiny circle of courageous rebels who alone have the vision to overcome and triumph? The whole idea of conspiracy theories is deeply attractive at an organic level, and the prospect of powerful Illuminati who are now successfully pulling off such an unspeakable hoax against all of mankind ticks all the boxes. Dubay did not create this phenomenon; he simply happened to be the one who dropped a splinter of conspiracy mongering that struck the right note at the right time with a large community tired of beating the dead horses of JFK and 9/11.
A question we're tempted to ask the Flat Earthers is why? Why would governments, the Illuminati, whomever, want to fool the sheeple into thinking the Earth is a different shape? What's to be gained from such a daunting and impossible-sounding task? I found no satisfying answer, but I did find many different answers. Some argued it was to protect airline profits somehow, yet oddly including the claim that the scam has been going on for 500 years. Some said it was to keep money flowing to the satellite and communications contractors who don't actually have any satellites. Others argued that it was simply about control. Control the population with mega-misinformation, and then, well, something. For a conspiracy community to thrive, it's unnecessary for there to be a consistent version of the alternative belief; all that matters is for all to agree that the mainstream narrative is a lie. We see it in the many different versions of what's claimed to have struck the twin towers: it might have been holograms or missiles or remote-controlled airliners; we see it in the hundreds of different JFK theories; and we see it in the diversity of Flat Earth versions. We don't agree that any one alternate version is true, we only agree that whatever the "Powers That Be" say is a lie.
Another thing many of these new Flat Earthers have in common with more mainstream conspiracy theorists is deep-seated anti-Semitism. One of the main forum sections on Dubay's website is called NASA, UN, Freemasonry, Vatican, Jews, Jesuits, NWO with discussions like The Jewish Run Slave Trade, The Zionist Jew World Order, and Jewish Ritual Sacrifice. Why is anti-Semitism wrapped up in New Flat Earthism? It's just one more piece of evidence showing that this is not about the science or the geography, it's about the ideology of control by evil masters. They're not actually interested in whether the flat earth rotates like a record or whether it's stable and the sun flies above it in a circle; those details don't matter. The only thing that's important is their belief that they're being controlled and deceived by the evil elite. That they default to Jews as the enemy is not new; Jews have been the scapegoats of conspiratorial claims ever since the story of the crucifixion (and maybe that's a topic that deserves its own episode one day).
Any discussion of Flat Earthers raises the question of "Hey, those people aren't actually serious, they're just practicing the art of rhetoric and philosophy." Sort of an epistemological exercise in supporting an unsupportable idea. It's true, those people are out there, but they don't make up any significant fraction of the flat Earth forums I visited. My impression is that the existence of Flat Earthers who only pretend to believe for the intellectual challenge — at least in any significant numbers — is an urban legend. The discussions are overwhelming dominated by conspiracy theorists.
It's a bit of a shame, because I found some interesting questions amid the least insane 1% of flat Earth discussion. One of the interesting claims made by the new Flat Earthers is that gyroscopic attitude indicators on aircraft (also called artificial horizons) seem to stay flat no matter how long of a flight you take. This sounds like reasonable evidence. If you flew a plane all the way around the Earth, a perfectly functioning gyroscopic instrument would take a full 360° tumble over the course of the flight. Yet, as the Flat Earthers note, it doesn't. Why not? Because they didn't take five minutes to look up how these instruments work. These devices are mounted horizontally in an aircraft, and show attitude changes on the two horizontal axes: pitch and roll. They are also designed in such a way that they are constantly precessing back to the neutral position, slowly, anywhere from two to eight degrees per minute. This way they never have to be calibrated, and they continue to give a neutral reading independent of the aircraft's trim. Thus, on a round-the-world flight, attitude indicators will stay neutral relative to their mounting position in the dash. No Flat Earth is needed to explain their basic function.
Another claim that's superficially intriguing is that while a lot of airline routes go over the north pole, almost none go over the south pole. New Flat Earthers argue that this is because there is no south pole, just a wall of ice surrounding the circular flat Earth. But again, there are fine reasons for this that don't require us to discard science. First, there are very few international hubs in the southern hemisphere, thus few routes for which a southern polar crossing would make sense. The hub-to-hub route that comes closest to the south pole is Melbourne to Buenos Aires, and even that never gets much closer than about 74° South. Second, there simply aren't any diversion options over the southern seas. Antarctica has no airports where an airliner can make an emergency landing. In short, there's no reason an airliner would want to fly over the south pole.
There's also no good reason to look much deeper into any of the evidence claims raised by the Flat Earthers. It's mainly a lot of repetitive claims that you can't see the curvature of the Earth from anywhere, and assertions that such photos are due to distortion from wide angle lenses. Tired, tired arguments. Focusing on minutiae like lenses and gyroscopic attitude indicators, and ignoring the much larger and more obvious evidence, is a hallmark of conspiratorial thinking. The lesson to be learned from the New Flat Earthers has nothing to do with the shape of the Earth, and everything to do with the shape of our thought processes. The problem is not a lack of science literacy, it's a lack of reasoning to filter overactive conspiratorial tendencies.
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