I find conspiracy theories fairly amusing, as distractions go.
On the surface, they invariably provide a world view that makes our own reality sound somewhat drab by comparison. The idea that a shadowy cabal is behind the scenes manipulating our lives for their own nefarious ends is intoxicating, and certainly sexier than the actual real world forces manipulating our lives for their simpler, greedier ends. Instead of picturing, say, a Cambridge Analytica twisting media to steer elections for the highest bidder (how vanilla, how beige in their criminal ambitions!), I’d much rather be told of a sinister offshoot of Illuminati who put something in the water supply which is making people have bat babies.
What conspiracy theories do best is present an alternative opinion, then back it up with often vague facts very credibly presented. Those facts usually let your imagination fill in some of the gaps, and what they lack in substance they often make up for in how plausibly they’re presented. My day job is sales, so I derive a great deal of pleasure from seeing people convince others – sometimes even convince themselves – of a sometimes tissue-thin series of propositions.
However, the reason conspiracies are so persuasive and pervasive is that – usually – one can discern a motive. If you believe the moon landing of 1969 was faked it could be because it’s more attractive to believe America was trying to win a propaganda war with the Soviet Union. A belief that Elvis Presley faked his death represents a refusal to accept that a larger-than-life figure could die in as mundane a manner as crapping himself into a heart attack. Any of a half dozen theories about the JFK assassination is more compelling than the lone gunman Lee Harvey Oswald, despite the lone gunman having subsequently become an American institution up there with football, mom’s apple pie and the stars and stripes.
In short, a conspiracy theory often appeals most because there is motive: someone profits by the alleged machinations of the conspirators.
This is what sets my mind on end when I consider the Flat Earth Society.
For those not among their number, the Flat Earth Society refute the conventional scientifically held notions that the world is a globe. They espouse a number of beliefs, but the main one is that the world is actually a large disc with the Arctic Circle occupying the middle and Antarctica taking the form of a 150-foot-tall wall of ice around the outer rim. Stop and consider what a dramatic, visually satisfying image that creates. The entire world, the map as you think you know it, rewritten into a Discworld by Pratchett surrounded by an epic ice wall straight out of Game of Thrones. Beautiful, right?
Imagine sailing towards an imposing wall of frozen water, knowing that on the other side was only the void. That you were literally sailing towards the edge of the world. If their beliefs only included Frost Giants living on the other side of the wall I’d make a move to rename Earth Midgard.
There are, obviously, lots of questions raised by this new model. We have many photos of the Earth taken from space, from the Pale Blue Dot of the Voyager 1 space probe to Chris Hadfield’s photos taken from the International Space Station. We have hundreds of years of scientific study, such as how the Earth’s shape and spin generate gravity. Or how the moon orbits the Earth and the Earth in turn orbits the Sun, giving us our days and nights.
To use my ‘boat sailing towards an ice wall’ we need to explain tides to take us to said wall: our current scientific model says that tides are a combined effect of gravitational attraction and the revolution of the Earth-moon system about its common centre of mass. That theory falls to pieces when you consider that the Flat Earth Society maintains gravity is an illusion caused by the disc moving upwards through space at about 32 feet per second squared.
One of the things I like most about a scientific outlook is that it begins from an admission of ignorance. I don’t know why x causes y, but here’s a theory: what is the least biased way I can prove that my theory is empirically correct? What I like even more about conspiracy theorists is that they almost never debate from a position of ignorance, and they have an answer for almost everything. The gravity explanation above is just the tip of the iceberg.
What propels the disc ever-vertically at 32 feet per second squared? Dark energy. That would be dark energy, the currently poorly understood form of energy that contributes to the expansion of the universe. I presume the Flat Earthers have selected dark energy because a cursory Google search says it works in opposition to gravity. The fact that it is largely unproven means we can’t definitely say it doesn’t propel us through the cosmos, but it sure as heck sounds scientific.
Why haven’t people provided evidence of the ice walls?* NASA patrol them like the Night Watch, of course, turning back the intrepid explorers to prevent them falling off the walls into outer space. NASA are recurring bad guys in the Flat Earth story. It is they who falsified the photos of the globe from space, and they who supress photos of the majestic Frisbee on which we currently barrel upwards in what must be the least aerodynamic manner a large, plate-shaped object can travel.
The beliefs held by the Flat Earth Society are not the craziest ever posited, and on the surface they’re actually fairly benign. Part of their appeal is that they are a very vocal minority. Make enough noise and people wonder why you’re banging your drum. Besides, it’s not like THE EARTH STILL ROUND is headline news (with the byline WATER STILL WET). A vocal minority can portray an image of plucky underdogs, rejecting the narrative we all unwittingly buy into.
They have entertaining attempts at legitimacy, too. The Flat Earth rocketeer, “Mad” Mike Hughes, is determined to launch a home-made steam powered rocket high enough into the air to obtain photographs of the Flat Earth without NASA censure and censorship. Among other defences of their position is their reinterpretation of Erathostenes 2000-year-old calculation of the circumference of the Earth as a measurement of diameter. It all sounds very respectable.
The alarming concept hiding behind Flat Earthers’ sincerely held beliefs is just that: they are beliefs attempting to unbalance the weight of scientific evidence. Like their less-cuddly counterparts, the anti-vaccination movement, they promote an idea that pseudoscience or a deep sense of conviction is sufficient to challenge a status quo that they portray as maleficent.
Some of this goes back to a thing called the Zetetic Method. This is an alternative to the Scientific Method in that one formulates a question about the world, then immediately sets to work attempting to answer it with an experiment. In really simple terms, it relies on observation of the outcome of experiments i.e. the perception that the world is flat with our available senses leads to the deduction that it must be flat. This, for some, is the equivalent of the discredited Andrew Wakefield paper that attempted to link autism to vaccines and gave birth to the anti-vaccination movement.
It would be very convenient if we lived in Kellyanne Conway’s “post truth” world of “alternative facts”. You tell me you heard me bad-mouthing you to a mutual friend, I tell you that your hearing has been skewed by the door your ear was pressed up against. I produce some vague evidence about the sound-diffusing effects of various woods and cite a study from 1964 saying only people with anti-Semitic tendencies are affected by Wood Ear Syndrome. You provide video evidence of the bad-mouthing with signed eyewitness testimonies and a tearful confession from the mutual friend, I accuse you of infringing on my rights to free speech: I mean, isn’t your accusation just further proof of the liberal agenda trying to intrude on the private rights of concerned citizens who don’t kowtow to The Man? What are you really trying to say, you feckless hippy? More importantly, what are you trying to conceal?
Aside from their conspiratorial natures, I’m not trying to directly compare the Flat Earth Society with anti-vaccination. The latter are an actual danger to public health, the former are a danger to intellect.
So it brings me back to my original point: who profits from a belief in the world being flat?
According to the Society, those who profit from the round Earth conspiracy directly are the devious swines of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Their gain, obviously, is financial. Apparently it is easier to fake a space programme than to actually have one, so all the round Earth photos are an attempt to justify the government funding they receive. If their reports of the ice wall being patrolled by NASA goons are to be believed, I would imagine most of that lucrative funding – $19.65 billion in 2017 alone – is spent policing the ocean surrounding the continents. I mean, it’s a big fucking ocean. NASA’s flotilla would make it the world’s largest naval power.
But who profits from proving the existence of a Flat Earth? If they somehow provide concrete evidence of their beliefs, it’s not as simple as every school throwing out its globe. No-one actually directly gains. There is no esteemed counter-NASA waiting in the wings with a replacement of our Heliocentric model of the solar system, or a new body of future Nobel prize winners with a revolutionary understanding of why dark energy would be acting like the black powder in a firework.
I am loathe to draw this comparison, but if The Rapture prophesised by certain evangelical North American Christians came true, they’d take it as a validation of their faith, their adherence to scriptures and a reward for a life lived according to an interpretation of God’s will. I imagine they’d be pretty smug about it, too, rising up into Heaven as the rest of us heathens and aetheists end up consumed by literal Hell on Earth. But if it came to pass that the Flat Earth Society provided incontrovertible evidence of our home being a record on some cosmic turntable (simultaneously uncovering decades of NASA conspiracy and thousands of years of conspiracy by Eratosthenes, Galileo Galilei, Ferdinand Magellan, Isaac Newton and many, many more), what would it actually achieve?
And if the answer is, as I sincerely believe, “nothing”, then really, what’s the point?
I Can’t Do Footnotes, So:
*Despite being against the belief in a round Earth, the society seems pretty okay with global warming as a genuine concern, despite a lot of the evidence of it coming from satellite imagery from their nemesis, NASA. My concern is this: if we live on a disc and the ice wall is melting, will the Earth eventually . . . overflow? Also, does that let the Frost Giants in?