May 04 2023

Meteostat-12 Meets Flat Earthers

I know this wasn’t the purpose of sending up a €4.3bn satellite into geostationary orbit, but tweaking flat earthers is a fun side effect. European countries have collaborated on this project, having weather satellites in orbit since 1977. The latest iteration is Meteostat-12, which was launched in December and is now in orbit 36,000 km above the equator. This means it will have a constant view of Europe, where it takes high resolution pictures every 10 minutes. The goal is to provide a constant stream of weather information surrounding Europe. Two more satellites are planned, which will keep Europe in weather data through the 2040s.

If you believe the data coming back from Meteostat-12 it absolutely proves that the Earth is a globe. It also breaks a lot of the false claims of flat earthers. For example, because of the distance of the satellite it can take a picture of the entire Earth at once, without having to stitch multiple images together. In these pictures you can also clearly see the curvature of the Earth. The satellite is stationary so you don’t see the Earth rotating, but you do see day and night cycles, and you see weather patterns moving across the Earth. You are also seeing one hemisphere of the Earth. As evidence goes, this one is a complete slam-dunk.

But of course that initial caveat is the key – flat earthers will simply deny this evidence is real. But even there they should be squirming just a bit (if they weren’t already completely deluded). Flat earth conspiracy theories generally revolve around NASA, who, in their fevered imaginations, is an all-powerful organization that has been perpetrating the round earth hoax for, well, I guess longer than NASA has even been known to exist. However, the Meteostat-12 has exactly nothing to do with NASA. This is entirely a European project. This problem is easily “solved”, however – apparently NASA has control over the European Space Agency and all European governments as well.

Because if I ran an organization with that much power, with governments around the world trembling on their knees, bowing down before my intimidating might, that’s what I would do with it. I would use that world-spanning power to perpetrate a pointless hoax about the shape of the Earth. But let’s set this childish cartoon villain, logic-destroying problem aside.

What fascinates me is the process. What is going on inside the mind of flat earthers that they can maintain their beliefs in the face of incontrovertible evidence? From one perspective, they are following the standard conspiracy-theory playbook. Grand conspiracies, those on the level we are talking about here, are inherently implausible, because they require an impossibly coordinated effort among people with a ridiculous amount of power. But even then, inconsistencies are unavoidable. These inconsistencies are resolved in one of several ways. One is to expand the scope of the conspiracy. Why doesn’t the ESA disprove the globe earth hoax? Because they are controlled by NASA, who apparently must control every space agency around the world, and the governments that back those agencies. It creates a very strange international geopolitical situation, but every time you come up with another problem with this view of the world, just expand the conspiracy.

The other two main intellectual strategies for maintaining the conspiracy include dismissing evidence that disproves the conspiracy and explaining away the lack of evidence to support the conspiracy. What about these pictures from Meteostat-12? They are fabricated to support the conspiracy. Why hasn’t anyone travelled to the edge of the Earth? Because NASA has a massive army (who knew) that guards the edge and will kill anyone who approaches. How did NASA acquire such a massive army, how do they recruit new members, why have I never heard of anyone who belonged to this army, where do they get the necessary massive funding? Conspiracy theorists just wave away any such questions. Any inconvenient evidence was clearly fabricated. Any missing evidence is clearly being hidden or suppressed.

In this way conspiracy theories are a completely inward-looking walled-off believe system. They are immune to any external evidence or logic. There is no way from within the conspiracy theory to falsify the theory itself. This is why belief in a grand conspiracy, such as the flat earth, operates like a cult.

The movie Behind the Curved documents many instances of this process. In the film some flat-earthers correctly hypothesize that if they had a large and precise gyroscope they could prove the Earth is not spinning. So they manage to acquire one for $20,000, and low and behold the thing is rotating every 24 hours, proving that the Earth is spinning. This causes only the briefest of momentary bouts of cognitive dissonance, which is quickly resolved when the flat earther realizes that the firmament rotating above the Earth is dragging the gyroscope with it. Phew! At the end of the film other flat earthers acquire a powerful laser and detection equipment. They hypothesize that if they fire that laser across a large enough body of water they can prove the water surface is flat, and not curved as a globe Earth would require. They fire up their laser (actually the laser didn’t work so they had to use a light shining through a pinhole)  and – of course it shows that the Earth surface is curved. “Huh, that’s interesting.” But it did not take long to come up with a BS excuse, something about the reeds in the water.

So evidence is useless to something this deep in a conspiracy hole. That should give anyone pause. If you have a belief system that is entirely immune to evidence, then that makes you extremely vulnerable. Ironically, this makes conspiracy theorists extremely gullible and easy to bamboozle.

But also, with the flat earthers, the absolute nonsensical extreme beliefs, the impossibility of the grand hoax being allegedly perpetrated, is a feature, not a bug. The idea is – if they can fake this, they can fake anything. The absurdity of the flat earth belief is the point. It is not about logic or evidence, it is about justification for any other belief you choose to hold. It is about suspending reality, and absolute death of truth, and the primacy of raw belief. Whatever you believe can be true, and no amount of evidence or internal contradiction can ever disprove it – because the earth is flat.

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