Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Flat-Earthers, and the fundamental problem with their conspiracy theory

Over the past few months, I've discovered that people who actually believe the earth is flat are, indeed, a thing. Take this guy, for example:
It is a stunt worthy of Evel Knievel. This week, if all goes to plan, "Mad" Mike Hughes, a Californian, will launch himself 1,800 feet (550 metres) into the sky in a homemade steam-powered rocket made of scrap metal. As well as providing entertainment, Mr Hughes wants to prove a point. On his trip over the Mojave Desert, which could propel him at speeds up to 500 miles (800km) per hour, the 61-year-old limousine-driver-turned-daredevil hopes to prove the earth is flat.
Some may be surprised to learn that people still hold such views. After all, the earth has been photographed from space. But such photos could have been faked by the evil forces who secretly control the world, right? And all those centuries of scientific evidence suggesting that the Earth id spherical could be wrong, right? In America interest in the flat-Earth movement appears to be growing. In September Bobby Ray Simmons Jr., a rapper also known as B.O.B., launched a crowd-funding campaign to send satellites into orbit to determine the Earth's shape. On November 8th, 500 "flat-Earthers" assembled in North Carolina for the first annual Flat Earth International Conference. Data from Google Trends show that in the past two years, searches for "flat earth" have more than tripled.
Aside from the distinct possibility that Mr. Hughes's stunt (which appears to be on hold, at least for now) could earn him a Darwin Award, his attempt to prove that the Earth is flat, B.O.B.'s aforementioned GoFundMe account (as well as his rap battle with Neil DeGrasse Tyson), and that Flat Earth Conference in North Carolina - in the research triangle, no less! - are all indications that this conspiracy theory, as ridiculous as it is, is gaining momentum. NBA player Kyrie Irving may or may not be a flat-Earther. People in Colorado who believe the Earth is flat are claiming to be “persecuted.” During last August's solar eclipse, the Chronicle actually bothered to find out what a local flat-Earther thought about the phenomenon.
The Earth has been known to be round since the days of the ancient Greeks (the story that Christopher Columbus sailed to America to “prove” that the world is round is bullshit). Easily-observable natural phenomena - not just sunrises and sunsets, but the movement of the stars, the change of seasons, weather phenomena, lunar and solar eclipses, etc. - are easily explained by the existence of a round earth spinning in space. Flat-Earth explanations for these phenomenon, such as they are, are invariably convoluted, hand-wavy, or simply non-existent. Furthermore, just because you can’t perceive the curvature of the earth with your eyes doesn’t mean that it isn’t curved. You’re just too small, and the earth too large, to the curvature to be perceptible.* 
So on one hand, it doesn’t matter what flat-Earthers think. The planet on which we reside is spheroid, and that fact will not change no matter how many conferences they have, how many billboards they try to erect, how many B-list rappers or sports figures they recruit to their cause, how many nutjobs fly homemade rockets over the desert, how many ridiculous Youtube videos they make, how many levels they bring on to airplanes, or how many arguments they start in the comments section.

On the other hand, though, it matters a lot. The fact that we even have to have this argument in 2017 is as disturbing as it is humorous, and says a lot about the power of anti-intellectualism, pseudoscience, conspiracy theories and even the internet itself. It is in many ways an extreme example of the same forces that give us everything from Alex Jones to Pizzagate to 9/11 Trutherism to creationism to climate science denial to the anti-vaccine movement to the fact that a profoundly ignorant and pathologically-lying buffoon is currently the President of the United States. There's a notion that science itself is a conspiracy, that everything we’re being told is wrong, and it only appears to be gaining momentum. It's a "tsunami of stupid," and it's really quite depressing.
Science aside, however, there's a fundamental problem with the flat-Earth conspiracy theory. It's the same problem that plagues any large-scale conspiracy: the bigger it is, the more likely it is that somebody involved in it will either intentionally or inadvertently reveal its existence, or that something else will go wrong with it.

People talk. Whistleblowers come forward. Cover gets blown. Somebody, either in a moment of moral clarity or because they're disgruntled with the whole enterprise, comes forward and spills the beans. It happens all the time in the real world, whether it be corporate conspiracies (Enron) or criminal conspiracies (mob informants who bring down entire crime families).

In order for the Flat Earthers' theory - i.e., the idea that the Earth is actually flat but the truth is being hidden by a vast conspiracy - to be correct, it would require that untold millions of people employed in a wide range of professions have to be complicit as well as silent. This includes astronomers, physicists, meteorologists, geographers, geologists, oceanographers, aerospace engineers, historians, the military, the entire aviation, shipping and telecommunications industries, even everyone who has claimed to have flown across the southern hemisphere.** This complicity would have to extend across both the public and private sectors and to every country and advanced culture on earth regardless of political or religious ideology.

Not only would the silence and complicity of each and every one of these untold millions of people, both living and dead, be required, but so would astronomical money and resources be required to continually and flawlessly perpetuate the hoax. The odds that a whistleblower wouldn’t eventually emerge out of the millions and millions of people involved in the conspiracy, or that something wouldn’t eventually go wrong with the apparatus supporting the conspiracy, are pretty much zero.
What purpose, furthermore, would such a vast, complicated and expensive conspiracy serve? How does foisting the false idea of a round globe on the population benefit anyone in any way? There are much easier ways to get rich, maintain power, keep the masses uninformed, or inflict evil upon the world that don’t involve an elaborate conspiracy about the shape of the earth that would involve untold numbers of people and resources and require rigorous maintenance across the centuries.

I honestly don’t think that a lot of the people who call themselves “Flat-Earthers” are truly believers in a flat earth. I think some of them are bored internet trolls, others are hoaxers or satirists testing the limits of Poe’s Law, others are simply looking to make a name for themselves or to profit from Youtube video hits. But the "true" Flat-Earthers - biblical literalists (even though the Bible really doesn't say anywhere that the earth is actually flat), people who are easily suggestible, and people who are hopelessly ignorant of science - are, sadly, out there. There's really nothing that can be done for them, except to laugh at them.
If there’s a bright side to Flat Earth, it is that it is truly is the conspiracy theory to end all conspiracy theories. Unless you want to argue that the sky is really not blue or that water is really not wet, you really can’t get much crazier than arguing that our globe is actually flat.
*Although, on several occasions, as I’ve sat at the window of an airplane at cruising altitude, I’ve fixed my eyes on a point on the horizon in front of me, and have faintly but definitely perceived the earth’s curvature. This is especially easy to do if you’re flying over an ocean or area of generally flat topography and there are few or no clouds. I've also seen this for myself coming back from a recent trip to New Orleans.

**There’s a rather simple, albeit expensive, way to disprove a flat-Earther: invite them to fly with you around the south pole. There are plenty of options for doing so: Air New Zealand flies from Auckland, New Zealand to Buenos Aires, Argentina; Qantas flies from Sydney, Australia to Santiago, Chile and Johannesburg, South Africa; LATAM flies from Santiago, Chile to Auckland, Sydney and Melbourne, Australia. According to the dominant flat earth model (the north pole is the center of the earth and what we normally think of Antarctica or the south pole is actually its outer edge), then these flights would be impossible. You could even make a really cool vacation out of it!

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