In his The Time Machine Weena tries to throw herself in the fire because she has never seen flames before. She doesn’t know that it will burn her and that she should exercise care. She is a figure of profound ignorance in the novel, but she is the one I turn to when I try to understand the mind of the person who believes in the conspiracy theory that people around the world—from Eratosthenes onward—are lying about it being a sphere.
In order to focus our examination we will have to set aside those who did not so much make up their mind but had it make up for them by their religion. The antecedents of their particular disorder are easy to trace and they would have to upset the entire applecart of their world view if they are to go against their belief system. Their defensiveness makes a kind of sense, in a rather depressing psychological fashion.
The Flat Earthers I am concerned about are more those who have decided—based presumably on the certainty of their limited senses and the paranoid concern that the world is filled with those who lie easily and well—that the world is not a globe but rather a flat dish with a sun shining on it from above like a spotlight. This is the mentality that I want to get inside. Or perhaps I should say, peer beneath.
The original flat earth societies were more about proving the bible true and scientific verities false, but there was one lone voice which approached the question differently. The Flat Earth Society of Canada which was established on November 8, 1970 by philosopher Leo Ferrari, writer Raymond Fraser, and poet Alden Nowlan was an intellectual exercise. They were more interested in encouraging people to rely on the evidence of their senses instead of the received wisdom of education, and in that way they ran directly counter to the modern flat earth societies who have returned to the older and semi-successful project of undermining reasoning.
Non-religious belief in a flat earth is difficult to follow, although we can understand it emotionally. Their educational background is presumably limited, so they find many of the proofs of the spherical earth hopelessly obscure. They might think about the position of the stars depending on where you are on the surface of the globe, especially Polaris, as a form of evidence that the earth is a sphere, although that would engage their possibly atrophied spatial thinking. Foucault’s Pendulum demands the knowledge of how a pendulum might work on a rotating earth, and thus would strain their already well exercised incredulity. The disappearance of a ship going below the horizon is a much more straightforward test, although it is dependent on understanding it is the effect of the earth’s curvature, instead of merely believing that every ship sinks once it leaves port.
They might try Eratosthenes’ experiment which took two vertical lines in different cities, drawn using a plumb, upright by the force of gravity, and looked to the shadow they cast. If the earth were flat the sun at noon would be directly overhead for both, and because it is not, that is proof positive that the earth is a sphere. They might view the curve of the horizon out an airplane window, wonder as to why the other planets are round, the existence and meaning of time zones, why our gravity is consistent from one place on the globe to another. In short, they have a dozen different ways they might be able to supplement their educational deficit.
I am less concerned with their reluctance to engage in rather simple tests of their beliefs; I am more than accustomed to the very human refusal to admit a logical basis to an idea they hold to be true. I am much more interested in what the world looks like to these people. What do they think when they see the nearly ubiquitous images of the spherical earth?
I wrote a hard science fiction novel called Flat Earth and although I didn’t think much about flat earther’s at the time, and the book is not about the conspiracy ideas, I am occasionally surprised by people stumbling onto my website where I describe the book. I am quite explicit in its description, for I do not want anyone to feel duped or put upon, but I wonder at those who think they are going to find a book-length proof of their firmly held beliefs only to be disappointed yet again.
Instead, and this is the viewpoint I wonder about, the flat earther is surrounded by images in which the earth is a sphere. They are inundated by maps and globes in their school classroom, Google Earth on their computer, artist conceptions of the solar system, the frequent tweets from the international space station, and Sagan’s pale blue dot. In fact, there are so many images that run counter to their chosen reactionary view that I wonder that they manage to cling to it so tenaciously. To do so points to more than ordinary recalcitrance. For every one image on a spoof site declaiming the medieval peasant’s view of the flat earth, there are millions of photographs of the actual earth proving it is a sphere. For every planetarium and orrery there are none which purport to show how an unusually shaped flat earth might fit amongst the planets.
For the flat earther the world must seem to be under a vast delusion, and they alone—and a few of their compatriots online—possess the truth. They must feel hemmed in on every side, that millions had been spent on educational models, doctoring photos, faking nineteenth century explorer’s privations, merely to confuse the gullible. They never mention what the many millions of people who engage in the conspiracy earn from their quite difficult ruse, and I can only imagine that the flat earther compares the complicated plot involving world governments and many thousands of scientists to the schadenfreude sought by online trolls. The flat earther must feel that fun is being had at their expense and they are not invited to the party.
Such a person would feel profoundly isolated before the advent of the internet. But now they may find others who suffer from the same dislocation of idea, the same paranoid delusions, and therefore their sense of self receives a small underserved boost. Now they can point to several people world wide who share their view, and for them that vastly outweighs the cornucopia of evidence to the contrary, just like an unfounded claim on a website about optical illusions forcing ships below the horizon outweighs a real test that they could easily perform. They accept at face value the statement made by a website they could have designed better themselves, but put off the trip to the beach with the telescope to see if the claim is true.
Their main feature is a kind of stubbornness, similar to the religious believer. They think that what is thrown up by their fallible brain must be true regardless of the physical world, and disregarding evidence to the contrary. In that, they are not alone, but I think their example performs a valuable service. Like the eastern Canadian example of a flat earth society argued, we should run our own experiments instead of merely accepting what we are told. Unfortunately, humans are a herd animal rather than the independent thinkers that we need to be. Einstein didn’t come up with relativity to explain the world because he was under the misapprehension that Newton’s laws were wrong. He sought to answer a different question that the flat earther’s gods and websites would not have been able to address. Other scientists were rapidly trying to substantiate Einstein’s theory, and it has been found quite robust when explaining the forces of time and gravity in a flexible space. Overturning it could very will win a Nobel prize, although spoofing it by a silly website would gain nothing more than a just obscurity.
Any view, regardless of how fantastic, has followers, but before we don our Harry Potter glasses—because the book is true you know—let’s grab the kids and take them to the beach where we can watch boats slowly sink below the horizon. Then we can go home with paper and pen, or a basketball, an orange, and a flashlight, and try to think of how that might happen. The kids will be the better for the experience, and rather accept information at face value and then not bother to test it, like the flat earthers, they will know enough to think through problems on their own.
Weena cannot be blamed for her attraction to the fire, but in these days of freely available matches and stoves, we need to think and test before we are covered in third degree intellectual burns.