Feb 05 2019

What Drives the Flat-Earthers?

I am still stunned that there are seemingly average people walking around today with the firm belief that the world is actually flat. The numbers, while still small, are also surprisingly high. In a recent survey only 84% of those surveyed were confident that the Earth is “round”. The rest expressed some doubt, were confident the Earth is flat, or were unsure. For those 18-24 only 66% were confident the world is round. (The survey was presented as a dichotomy between round and flat – it’s hard to say if this had any effect on the responses, but we’ll put that aside.) Belief in a flat Earth correlated with being young, religious, and poor.

Wrapping your head around this fact, for anyone with a modicum of scientific literacy and general sense, is not easy. But I am trying not to settle for any simplistic explanation of this phenomenon. Certainly any fringe movement like this is going to attract those with mental illness or an otherwise tenuous grip on reality. It also attracts dedicated conspiracy theorists. There are also the Sherri Shepherds of the world who simply can’t be bothered to clutter their mind with extraneous facts, such as the shape of the world on which they live.

But there seems to be still more going on, especially with the recent increase in this phenomenon. First, let me put to rest the scientific question – the Earth is undeniably roughly a sphere. I already reviewed some of the common arguments the flat-earthers raise, and they are all demonstrable nonsense.¬† There are many sources online going over the countless hard proofs that the Earth is round. What flat-earthers do, like any conspiracy theorist, is look for anomalies and then declare the Earth is flat. What they don’t do, and cannot do, is explain all the actual observations that anyone can make, let alone those made by scientists and astronauts. They can’t explain lunar eclipses, or the changing orientation of the moon, direct observations of the curvature of the Earth from high commercial jets, or along very long bridges. And of course they can’t explain all of space travel and the countless images and videos from space showing a round Earth.

When confronted with direct evidence that they are profoundly wrong, they typically give a handwaving explanation such as, “It’s an optical illusion.” They can’t really explain what they mean by that, or they try and hopelessly fail, but that is apparently good enough for them. Desperately, they retreat to the apparent anomalies to which they cling. And of course they have to resort to, “It’s a conspiracy,” to dismiss all the actual direct photographic evidence. That is their all purpose get-out-of-jail-free card. They do all this while professing their activity to be, “truth-seeking.”

There is an intimate relationship between belief in a flat earth and conspiracy thinking. It seems that some flat-earthers start out as dedicated conspiracy theorists first, and for them the flat earth is the ultimate conspiracy. For others they go down a scientifically illiterate rabbit hole confusing them about the shape of the Earth, and for them this proves that there must be a giant conspiracy. Many other conspiracies then come along for the ride – because if the elites of the world can lie this big, they can lie about anything. It also means that they have some motivation to tell such lies – it must be part of their master plan to control the world. It is a “through the looking glass” moment, and they feel like they are waking up from the Matrix.

A recent documentary video by The Guardian takes a look at a subset of flat Earth believers – those who are activists. They may be different from simple believers, so it is difficult to extrapolate from them to all flat-earthers, but the video is revealing. One additional feature that comes to the fore is that the activists were often confronted by some mid-life type crisis. One woman had a brush with death. It seems clear that for them the flat Earth movement is a profound source of meaning, identity, and purpose. They are now part of a small fringe group, misunderstood and ridiculed, but they firmly believe they have the truth on their side and eventually they will convince the world of their view. It’s sad, because they are profoundly wrong. They are destined to be nothing but ridiculed. They seem proud to be in front of the cameras, but they are just immortalizing their own pathology.

It’s also pretty clear from listening to them that they have fallen victim to confirmation bias. Once they look at the world through the lens of the flat-earth belief system, they see confirmation everywhere. One activist even said that he could never change his view, he has just seen too much. But that is exactly how confirmation bias works – it produces the powerful illusion of knowledge, but built from biased observations. Now they are further trapped by cognitive dissonance, tribalism, and a host of emotional motivations. They will further defend themselves by simply accusing others of the same thing – we are trapped in the conventional view. They are the one’s who had the courage to question and doubt.

It’s a great example of why the marriage of scientific literacy and critical thinking is so important. Either cognitive skill alone is not sufficient. You need the critical thinking skills to understand how cognition can go profoundly wrong, and you need basic scientific literacy to know how to correct it.¬†Belief in the flat Earth represents the extreme of what can happen when someone is massively lacking in both. It is a failure of logic and factual knowledge, wrapped in the allure of the grand conspiracy theory in which one is a member of the army of light, with a purpose and meaning. It’s the perfect storm of self-deception.

For that reason it is probably also near-impossible to get through to someone once they are a dedicated flat-earther. The self-deception is constructed to immunize itself from refutation – that is part of the same process that gets them into the belief in the first place. At that point it is a religious belief, a cult even. It is a lesson and cautionary tale in the frailty of human cognition and emotion. We shouldn’t miss the lesson by being simplistically dismissive of those who have fallen into this pit. There is something to understand here, something about the human condition. There will likely always be the equivalent of flat-earthers – some grand conspiracy to fend off all the scary uncertainties of life, and to give one vision and purpose. Yes – we still need to confront the specific factual claims that they get wrong. But that is not the source of their belief. It is something deeper, something that is not going away. But we can mitigate it and minimize it, through scientific literacy and critical thinking skills.

The flat-earthers remind us of why these skills are so important.

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