Flat Earthers and the Psychology Behind Conspiracy Theories

Paranoia and the rise of “alternative narrative content” in the social media age.

Image: Pixabay

Where did you first hear about the “Flat Earth” movement? Was it rapper B.o.B’s twitter crusade, in which he demanded to know why he is unable to see “the curve”? Or maybe you stumbled across news of the flat-Earther ‘Mad’ Mike Hughes, who wanted to launch himself and his $20,000 steam-powered rocket into the air to prove the Earth’s flatness. Perhaps you even heard on NPR that certain middle-schoolers got the idea of a flat planet from basketball star Kyrie Irving and couldn’t be convinced otherwise by neither teacher nor science. But why is interest in flat Earth increasing in popularity? Why now?

The readily apparent answer is that the surge in interest is aligned with online celebrity endorsement and bolstered by ensuing media coverage. Flat Earth, according to Google Trends, has had several obvious peaks in the last year, like in August when flat-Earthers were asked to explain the solar eclipse and in February when Irving insinuated that he believed the Earth was flat on the Road Trippin’ podcast. But why the interest in the first place? Would it be entirely wrong to suggest that the notion of a flat Earth is perfectly reflective of this nonsensical, fact-and-science-bashing time we’re living in? And that the theory’s visual “evidence”, though absurd, makes for irresistibly shareable memes?

I grew up in a world that abounded with globes. Perched on Dad’s desk was a plastic one we would often consult when discussing the atrocities of war, where Mom grew up (Yerevan, Armenia), and the many countries my father had visited in his youth. And in every classroom I had ever inhabited throughout my primary and secondary school education, there were globes of varying size and shades of green and blue. Had I heard there were people who believed the Earth was flat, I would have thought that there was something terribly wrong with them. Science was paramount, and so was understanding your place in the world, both geographically and cosmologically.

During the nineteenth century, when pseudoscientific disciplines from phrenology to creationism flourished, English inventor Samuel Rowbotham developed a new branch of “science” called zetetic (from Greek, meaning proceeding by inquiry) astronomy, in which the Earth was modeled as an enclosed plane with the North Pole at its center and an ice wall at its perimeter. People actually believed this, and could you blame them? Science, at that juncture, wasn’t advanced enough to always be able to distinguish between amateur and pundit. What many of these pseudoscientists had in common, though, was an anti-elitist streak and a deep curiosity about how the body and the cosmos functioned (and, in the most fanatical circumstances, a desire to wed science to scripture).

Convinced by Rowbotham that astronomy had actually been invalidated, devoted follower Lady Elizabeth Blount founded the Universal Zetetic Society in the late 19th century and spearheaded the creation of dozens of Zetetic Societies aimed at promoting scientific investigations designed to spread flat Earth gospel. Its first membership roster purportedly included an archbishop, major general, scholars, and a smattering of aristocrats. Fifty-odd years later in 1956, the International Flat Earth Society (a successor to the Universal Zetetic Society) was founded by signwriter Samuel Shenton. Satellite images of Earth were deemed fake, the U.S. government was crucified, and NASA was rendered null and void. Another half a century later, thanks to the internet and its increasing multitude of web-based discussion forums, the flat Earth doctrine accrued even more visibility. War against information was waged.

Though conspiracy theories certainly existed before the internet, they did not have the ability to spread swiftly like brushfire. You had to seek them out. Now, if you let them, they will find you. “Conspiracy theories permeate all parts of American society,” write political scientists Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent in their 2014 book American Conspiracy Theories. “They cut across gender, age, race, income, political affiliation, educational level, and occupational status.” We are all susceptible to its underpinnings. So how, then, does it happen? How does reality burst asunder?

For Mark Sargent, former proprietary software trainer and professional computer game player, reality had long been contained and so he wanted to push beyond the confines imposed first by family and then by self. Raised in a born-again Christian community on Washington’s South Whidbey island, he lived a sheltered existence. “You know how some high schools have most naive or most gullible awards?” he asked me with a degree of charm I found almost disarming. “It would have been me. I didn’t even think people lied until I went to college. I never questioned anything. Ignorance was bliss.”

Then he saw Oliver Stone’s JFK and everything was thrown into relief. When I asked what exactly the film proved to him, he spoke broadly of a global, organized cover-up and the pursuit of “truth.” Because the film so convincingly dissects the inaccuracies in the Warren Commission, Sargent found himself formulating more questions, not just about President Johnson being a part of a coup d’état to assassinate Kennedy, but about society at large. “We often take whatever our parents or the school system or the people in positions of authority say as gospel. JFK showed me that there’s more out there. That you shouldn’t just take everything that people higher than you tell you at face value.” Taken out of its conspiratorial context, this sentiment rings deafeningly true. But Sargent’s logic, or lack thereof, ultimately stems from a place of debilitating suspicion.

“A good conspiracy theory is a good story. It’s very appealing sometimes,” said Patrick Leman, Professor of Psychology at London’s King College, when I asked him about Sargent’s interest in JFK. He was not in the least bit surprised that that was the film that served as his gateway drug to conspiratorial thinking. But the best story is not always the right one. Flat Earth, for instance, smacks of science fiction and for that reason is compelling. As someone who grew up watching “The Twilight Zone” and “Quantum Leap,” I find the portrayal of a dinner plate-shaped world lined by a giant ice wall to appeal to me greatly as both writer and human. Science fiction extends to the final frontiers of human imagination and momentarily plucks us out of the dailiness of existence. It finds pattern and meaning in this senseless racket of life. Magic, even. But I cannot, in good conscience, subscribe to it. Sargent, however, felt differently. In the middle of the night on the 10th of February in 2015 (wouldn’t you remember the exact time and date of your enlightenment?), it dawned on him that the Earth had to be flat.

Though he once scoffed at the notion of a pancake-shaped Earth, Sargent is now responsible for the creation of the Flat Earth Clues video series, which has garnered millions of views on YouTube. In it, he presents “12 compelling reasons why you should rethink the globe model that you have been taught,” one being that the motion picture industry and NASA are in cahoots with one another, making the stuff of “fiction” and “fantasy” (like man on the moon) seem feasible. It is now his mission to leave no stone unturned.

“If you’re a curious mind, truth adds depth and clarity to your life. And that’s what flat Earth did for me. It answered so many questions I had that I could not resolve on my own.” He agonized over questions like “Where is the curve?” (answer: everywhere) and “If the Van Allen radiation belt is so deadly, how did the Apollo program get through it without shielding?” (answer: with enough speed that the spacecraft proved adequate protection) until concluding that the Earth had to be flat, and the powers that be were manipulating the public to believe that it was round. At a time when fake news and alternative facts abound, when political ignorance is as pervasive as purportedly democratic zeal, we confuse pursuit of passion for pursuit of truth. So when flat-Earthers claim that they are trying to unveil the truth, this may be the case, but their passionate intensity is impairing their ability to regard the world objectively. They are seeing what they want to see.

“Conspiracy theories build on uncertainty and mistrust,” said Leman when I asked him what fuels conspiracy and keeps theories afloat. I was finding it difficult to understand how anyone could possibly believe the Earth is flat, especially when confronted with incontrovertible evidence that it is not. That is because it has less to do with its shape and far more to do with a deep-seated suspicion of anyone in a position of authority such as mainstream scientists. And conspiracy theorists, flat-Earthers included, seek to authenticate these suspicions at the expense of reason and logic.

“So much of conspiracy theories have to do with confirmation bias. The theories themselves will mutate in light of evidence presented,” Leman continued. “If you’re a devout conspiracy theorist, you will deny the veracity of that evidence, or you’ll begin to question people’s motivation for providing that evidence in the first place.” That’s just it. People become so attached to their identity and their beliefs that they are unprepared to consider an alternative explanation, even if demonstrated to them by science. This is why it is so difficult to argue with someone who believes that vaccines cause autism and that the Earth is flat. Scientific consensus has no bearing on their frame of mind because it is the very institution of mainstream science that they harbor misgivings about in the first place.

One trait that is most prominent amongst conspiracy theorists is a strong distrust of authority. Once they have decided that officialdom has deceived them in one way, other distressing world events lead them to a similar conclusion.“If someone believes in one conspiracy theory,” says Leman, “they’re more likely to believe in others.” Just like Mark Sargent and his ideological leap from JFK to flat Earth. What binds these theories is an anti-globalist agenda. They adhere to the same overarching conviction that  multinational corporations with unregulated political power should not be trusted.

Kate Starbird, Assistant Professor of Human Centered Design & Engineering at UW, tackles this notion of anti-globalism and its pervasiveness online in a piece she wrote earlier this year titled “Information Wars: A Window into the Alternative Media Ecosystem.” Her research, which deals with how rumors are spread online during crisis events, indicates that alternative narratives and conspiracy theories (including flat Earth) have a strong “botnet” presence and are linked to a large number of distinct online domains such as infowars.com, newsbusters.org, and veteranstoday.com. This botnet is responsible for coordinating hundreds of accounts tweeting “alternative narrative content.” And information shared within this seemingly fringe information ecosystem is entering the public sphere at large via social media.

“In some of the more conspiracy-focused sites,” she writes, “the term (globalism) was used to suggest connections to a global conspiracy by rich, powerful people who manipulated the world for their benefit. Globalism was also tied to corporatism — in other words, the ways in which large, multi-national companies exert power over the world. And the term was also connected, implicitly and explicitly, to mainstream media.” Curiosity, it seems, can easily mutate into paranoia.

In 2016, Lizzie Wade wrote a piece in The Atlantic titled “In Defense of Flat-Earthers,” which took a compassionate leap toward the fringe information ecosystem. “Arguing that the Earth is flat is a fringe position in a fringe movement,” Wade wrote. “But B.o.B’s Twitter crusade illuminates the best qualities of outsider physics: its skepticism, its curiosity, and its fierce desire to make sense of a confusing world in a rigorous way. These same values lie at the heart of mainstream science, too.”

One recalls the pseudoscientists of the nineteenth century, like zetetic astronomist Samuel Rowbotham, and how much knowledge has evolved and opinions have shifted since then. How they too illuminated the best qualities of outsider physics. Phrenology, the study of the skull as a diviner of character, once had respectable followers such as Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, and Walt Whitman. Is it not entirely possible then that some our discoveries of today will be the pseudoscience of tomorrow? In many instances, it’s not about the creed at all, but how it’s invoked. In its attempt to dismantle science, and teach children to do the same, flat Earth along with other conspiracy theories are capable of eroding public engagement as well as interest in issues of political significance. “So let a million theories flourish, including #FlatEarth,” Wade concludes. “When they come from a place of such genuine curiosity and creativity, who cares if they’re wrong?” I mean, I do.  

Celebrities like B.o.B. and Kyrie Irving are helping to make such theories more pervasive by propagating them on social media. While B.o.B created a GoFundMe in the hopes of subsidizing his research, Irving recently divulged in an interview with morning radio show Toucher and Rich that his propagation of flat Earth was an “exploitation tactic” and an attempt to have an “open conversation.” In other words, Kyrie believes the Earth is, in fact, round. “It created a division,” he said. “Does that knock my intellectual capacity or the fact that I can think different things than you can?” Do us a favor, Kyrie—next time perhaps choose a subject that isn’t an objective scientific truth. Encourage open discourse by all means, but don’t drag our unsuspecting youth into your elaborate trollery.

Not everyone’s propagation of flat Earth is an exploitation tactic though. Many conspiracy theorists feel let down, not listened to, and pushed further to the periphery, where they develop suspicions that spawn outlandish theories intended to explain the unexplainable. When they take to the internet to confirm these suspicions, they find themselves embedded in, what Starbird describes as “the structure of the alternative media ecosystem,” in which “content that is hosted and spread there suggest the use of intentional disinformation tactics — meant to create “muddled thinking” and a general mistrust in information.” If this is the case, then withholding of logic and reason is, at its worst, implicit consent of conspiracy. At a more basic level, it’s implicit consent of meritless anarchy, the sabotaging of science, and the systematic erasure of the social contract.

“They want you to believe that you are just this tiny rock flying through this vast, empty vacuum of space and you’re not special at all,” said Sargent when I asked him what his qualms were with mainstream science. “And everything in your life and everything in the universe is absolutely happenstance and there’s no method to it at all. There’s no purpose and you should just feel alone and afraid. The more the globe is reinforced, the more our insignificance is.” It’s hard to not feel a pang of sympathy, or humanity. But if Lehman is right when he says that “anomie characterizes, on a sociological level, what lies behind conspiracy theories,” I cannot, like Wade suggested, let the theory flourish.

Daniel Shenton, former president of the Flat Earth Society, is one of the people responsible for helping to let flat Earth theory flourish and his conversion is, in some ways, a familiar story. Shenton, like Sargent, used to accept that the Earth was round. Shenton, like Sargent, (almost) appears to be a level-headed and charismatic human being seized by the dogged desire to unveil “truth.” But after hearing English musician Thomas Dolby’s 1984 album The Flat Earth, in which Dolby proposes that the Earth can be “dark and cold or bright and warm, long or thin or small,” Shenton began to question the whole schema of scientific reasoning that had been fed to him. And like Sargent, he too came to the conclusion that the Earth had to be flat. When I asked Dolby, he said, “The Earth can be any shape you want it to be!” It is, after all, an imperfect sphere, and we are imperfect humans.