A couple of years ago I was on a short plane flight when the passenger to my right asked whether I thought the earth was round or flat. I said round.
He said flat.
It was obvious to him: we were way up high but couldn’t see any planetary curvature. Plus he read a report by a fully-credentialed scientist who took a balloon higher than we were and reached a layer of water rather than outer space.
Kid you not.
I recalled that conversation when The Fabulous Wife suggested we watch a 95-minute documentary on Netflix called Behind the Curve, a disbelieving yet sympathetic look at the flat earth movement. Curious how this archaic conceit has resurrected, I agreed.
Turns out flat earthism is yet another conspiracy theory. A shadowy elite has co-opted the scientific and educational establishment in hopes of . . . well, what? One prominent flat earther thinks the motive is to undermine faith in Biblical truth. The rest don’t really say. Perhaps they think scientists and teachers say the earth is round for ideology and profit. If so, they misunderstand science’s mission, which is to follow empirical evidence wherever it leads rather than to prop up any orthodoxy, and they have no idea how little money there is for all but a few scientists and educators.
Conspiracism springs from the same place everyone’s behavior does: vulnerability. For those unable to fulfill their psychological needs by more usual means, conspiracism provides orientation, connection, purpose, and sometimes a measure of fame. Plus there’s the visceral pleasure of knocking normies off kilter with proclamations of faith (“The earth is flat!” shouts one true believer in a rocket hangar) and the sense of superiority that comes from possessing “knowledge” we sheep are too conformist to accept.
The filmmakers ask experts how to confront such anti-intellectualism. In one memorable scene, a physicist describes flat earthers as alienated would-be colleagues who should be brought in from the cold. It’s a loving sentiment, and to a degree I’m with him: in a culture saturated with hustle, hype, spin, disinformation, and the occasional genuine conspiracy, it’s understandable that some people would regard as just another lie a physical reality they think should be observable from an airplane window.
But I lean more toward the expert who recommends asking flat earthers what evidence would change their minds. The answer from most, as Behind the Curve makes clear, is none. One conspiracist with an engineering background designs a clever experiment to prove the earth is flat, but it demonstrates the opposite. So he tries another experiment. It too shows the earth is round. So he keeps going — and going. The question always needs further study, because when you bet your well-being on a delusion, it’s easier to double down than face the truth, which is not only that you’re a weak, bewildered speck of protoplasm alone in an indifferent society and universe, but that you’ve made a complete ass of yourself.
That’s why I don’t engage conspiracy theorists, cult members, MAGA fanatics, and the like. Nothing I say will change their minds, just as nothing they say will persuade those of us committed to fact, critical thinking, and the scientific method. So why not keep things pleasant?