Apr 23 2019

Behind the Curve – Flat Earth Exposed

I finally watched Behind The Curve, a documentary about the Flat Earth movement. It is a powerful documentary which provides important insights into this fascinating phenomenon. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend it.

For me the most interesting moments were those when the Flat Earth believers the film focuses on show a flash of insight. They never quite get there, but they have all the pieces in front of them, they see them, they see their significance, but can’t quite make the final emotional connection.

The other aspects that I found most interesting were those that provided generic insight into how ideological movements work. There is some basic and universal human psychology going on, and in some ways it’s a mirror to any group of humans, including skeptics.

I also was especially interested in the question, directly addressed by the film, of how best to approach Flat Earthers and the entire movement. What is our responsibility here as science communicators, and what is our best strategy?

Some reviews have focused on those moments when Flat Earthers did experiments to test their theory, and were wrong. These are, of course, delicious. For example, one group purchased a ring laser gyroscope, a $20k device that can very sensitively measure movement. They say straight up, and correctly, that if the earth is a globe and it rotates once every 24 hours, then there should be a 15 degree drift in the gyroscope every hour. That is their experimental hypothesis.

So – they set up the device and…it measures a 15 degree drift every hour. QED – the Earth is a rotating globe.

That, anyway, is how a normal and intellectually honest scientist would behave. However, Flat Earthers are pseudoscientists. They start with their conclusion and work backwards. They are only interested in proving what they already know. So, they were taken aback by this outcome and then started doing what fake scientists do, rationalizing. It apparently didn’t take them long to come up with their special pleading – the gyroscope was responding to the rotation of the heaven above the Earth. Why? Energy, or something.

So they did a follow up experiment (good for them for at least doing that – but again, only if you are willing to listen to the results). They encased the gyroscope in metal to block the energy from the sky. This should stop the drift, if their hypothesis is correct. It didn’t. The gyroscope still drifted 15 degrees per hour (because the Earth is still rotating). Did that stop them? You know the answer. They figured the metal they used was not the correct one. They next planned to encase the gyroscope in bismuth, because reasons. We don’t get to hear the result of that experiment, but we know it.

The Flat Earth wiki has this explanation:

Researchers have published information pertaining to the detection of microseismic noises and resonances due to the assumed rotation of the earth, and from this some have erroneously misinterpreted these works as a direct observation of 15 degrees per hour beneath the device. Regardless of the popular assumption of directly observed earth rotation, assessing such works in their entirety, directly form the source creators, suggests that no such claim is made at all. Further, we find that Copernican proponents of the earth’s rotation believe how the device operates in detection of the earth’s rotation, but seem to have difficulty with demonstrating that idea using the source research itself.

None of this is surprising to skeptics. One of the consistent traits of true believers is that they are immune to evidence. The film ends with another set of Flat Earthers using lasers and sticks to test the curvature of the Earth. Again – they essentially demonstrate the predicted curvature of a spherical Earth, to which the researcher says, “Interesting.” But again, apparently it did not take them long to “realize” that the lasers were being deflected by weeds (in the exact amount and direction predicted by a round Earth).

Even more interesting to me than this, however, was the moment the film-maker was in the car with Patricia Steere. She is in an interesting situation, because she is a career conspiracy theorist. However, she becomes the target of the even more extreme conspiracy theorists in the movement, who believe she is a CIA plan trying to manipulate the movement.

So – she sees first hand from the opposite perspective how the conspiracy mindset works, the pattern recognition, focusing on coincidences, and sinister assumptions. For example, they think her name is a clue because it ends in the letters “CIA”. Because that’s what you do if you are a CIA operative, you use a fake name that ends in the letters CIA. Steers actually sees what they are doing, and she wonders aloud for the camera something to the effect, “Is this what I’m doing?”

You want to scream at the screen – “Yes, yes. Make the leap. This is exactly what you are doing. You are a conspiracy theorist just like them. Get it?” But her flirtation with insight ends in a Theodoric of York moment – “Nah!”

Another powerful aspect of the film has a similar (but much smaller, in my opinion) climactic moment, but runs in the background throughout the film – the echochamber effect of being in such a movement. The subjects of the film are overwhelmed with confirmation bias, from themselves and each other. They also have the mentality of being in a small beleaguered group, and trying to change the world.

This latter feature felt familiar (in a bizarre sort of way), being an activist skeptic. It’s a good reminder that we need to remain humble, open, and self-critical. It is a very dark mirror to stare into, but we shouldn’t make their mistake of failing to apply the offered insights to ourselves.

The primary agent of this aspect of the film is the star, Mark Sargent. If there is a character with the least insight in the film, it’s him (at least as portrayed). He represents the celebrity Flat Earther, clearly basking in the adulation of the other Flat Earthers. He actually wears a t-shirt, without the slightest hint of irony, that says in huge letters,  “I am Mark Sargent.” He wants to make sure when he is at events that everyone knows he is a celebrity believer.

There is one moment in the film where Sargent is arguing that scientists who believe the Earth is a globe cannot possibly give up their belief because it is too important to them. He uses The Truman Show as an analogy, and says that scientists are not like Truman, they are like the Mayor of the fake town, way too invested in their fake reality. At that point the film maker asks, “Are you the mayor of the Flat Earth town?”

Sargent just looks to the side with a slightly blank expression. I think we are meant to interpret this as him confronting a moment of self-reflection, but I don’t know. You might also think he just really liked the idea of him being the mayor of flat earth town, and was trying to find a way to square that with his recent analogy.

Finally the film addresses the very important question of – what is the cause of the Flat Earth phenomenon, and what can be done about it? They interviewed scientists and communicators who pretty much agreed that we need to take a nurturing and compassionate approach. I mostly agree with what they said, but it ultimately came out a little naive.

Some expressed a clear “knowledge deficit” model, the notion that belief in pseudoscience is primarily caused by a lack of scientific knowledge. This is true only in a limited way. It is mostly not true. The knowledge deficit model does not explain pseudosciences like Flat Earth.

This is also not a problem that scientists caused or can fix, as others suggested. I am not saying that the scientific community should not invest more in reaching out to and educating the public. They should. But we need to be realistic about what we are confronting.

This is obviously a much bigger topic than I can tackle here, and I have written about this extensively. Briefly, we need to approach belief as the complex topic it is, and realize our limitations. We do need to increase scientific literacy, and we also need to increase understanding of critical thinking. We need to directly confront the claims of pseudoscientists as well, expose fraud, and use such claims as teachable moments.

But even all that is not enough, because there are deep psychological and societal forces at work as well. There is a lot of money to be made in promoting pseudoscience. Social media also plays a role in spreading false beliefs and insulating them from reality. There are con-artists in the mix, and also those with mental illness. The media also has an influence spreading extreme beliefs.

The underlying motivations for any particular belief are also varied. This film did do a good job of showing a variety of people who have come to the Flat Earth community from different places, for different reasons, and have varying roles to play. The result is a complex mix with no single or simple solution.

You really do need to watch the documentary for yourself. There is a lot more I have not touched on, and it is rich enough that you will likely take other observations away. Also, you just need to see it for yourself. No description can really do it justice.

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