The Muselet #40: What Evidence

“Once upon a time people thought the world was flat. But they were wrong. The world is round. Like a pancake.” — Herman Finkers, Dutch comedian

Last weekend I watched Behind The Curve, a documentary about “Flat Earthers” — people alive today that believe the world is flat. Of course, I had heard about this group, but hadn’t given it much thought beyond your typical eye roll. “Oh another group of nut jobs. What’s happening to this world?”

However, I found the documentary fascinating, for a few reasons:

  1. For just the basic understanding of what flat earthers actually mean when they say the world is flat, and how that would work. 

  2. It gives idea of how these group manage to stay “on track” even when encountering evidence that counters their beliefs.

  3. It gives some hints as to how we should respond to these types of groups.

Now, my guess would be that there are few or likely no people in my audience that believe the world is actually flat. Very likely, you find the idea rather ridiculous. Good, this makes it a reasonably uncontroversial case to have a closer look at. Because it’s real, this group exists, and based on my impression from this documentary, these are not completely deranged people. So, how does that happen?

There are many other beliefs that bring people together in a similar fashion that are harder to disprove. Originally I included a list here, but I decided not to. There would be a good chance you would identify with one of them and instantly mentally check out, because “how dare I include belief X, and compare it to flat earthers!” If you want, you can do this exercise yourself. See if there’s anything you believe, that somehow matches the the type of dynamic and behavior of flat earthers. 

Before we go there, let me summarize what flat earth is all about.

In short, modern flat-earthers believe we live in a giant dome as visualized here:

The continents are laid out in a flat circle, with a huge ice wall surrounding it. If you’ve ever seen The Truman show — that’s more or less the idea, except the “real” dome is much larger. The flat earth belief is that “they” would like us to believe the world is spherical, but that’s just a lie perpetuated through our education system and “science.” Who “they” are is not entirely clear, but it’s part of a big conspiracy. 

“But, but, but…” you’ll say.

Please don’t ask any follow-up questions about this — I won’t be able to answer them. 

Ok, let me be open and somewhat judgmental on this, and then proceed to more productive territory. 

This is pretty kookoo, and relatively easy to invalidate. Go find that giant ice wall. Go execute a simple experiment involving putting 3 poles at equal hight in the ground at reasonable distance, and shine a laser through them to check if they align perfectly (as they should if the earth is flat). In fact, in the documentary, a sub-group of flat-earthers is formed that are interested in proving the earth is flat. To do so, they run exactly this experiment. Twice. The first one fails because the laser is too wide and the distance too large. They then repeat the experiment at the very end of the documentary and find... the poles don’t align. Yet, somehow this doesn’t convince them. They also buy a $20,000 device that measures the earth’s rotation, and find… that the earth rotates. Yet, they find this unconvincing.

What is going on here?

Here’s my theory. 

What attracts people to conspiracies and other radical ideas? Why do they get an audience? I think there’s various potential reasons for this:

  1. They are interesting. The idea that there’s age-old conspiracy going on that tries to hide the fact that the world is flat is objectively more interesting than that the earth is a sphere and there’s… no conspiracy. Right? Aren’t conspiracies more exciting than… there’s nothing going on? I completely buy into the idea that if I would start to buy into some, any, conspiracy tomorrow, my life will get a whole lot more interesting. Right?

  2. They give their member a sense of belonging. This also becomes visible in the documentary. There’s a lot of people in the world that don’t feel they belong to any group, to any tribe. They are lonely. And people need to belong. Becoming part of the flat earthers makes you part of a community. You share stories, and the fact that the world is rather hostile towards you and your ideas, actually makes this feeling stronger. It’s us against the world!

  3. They give people status in a group. The person highlighted as one of the flat earth leaders is Mike Sargent. According to Wikipedia: "Sargent has been a competitive video game player, and has worked as a software analyst.” This is a bit of conjecture, based on his history, and behavior in the documentary — but I find it very likely to believe that Mike really thrives on the status that this community gives him. He wasn’t exactly on track to become one of the most influential people in the world, but now he’s in flat earth… it’s very likely he feels his life got a lot more meaningful. He’s wearing a “I’m Mike Sargent” shirt! He has a Youtube channel that “lots of people” watch. He’s a keynote speaker at the “International Flat Earth Conference.” I think a lot of people would jump on an opportunity like that.

Very quickly, once sucked in, being part of such a group, becomes part of your identity. It’s the same effect of being in a cult. If you consider what you believe to be part of who you are, are you really open to being challenged on those beliefs? And the longer you’re in, could you imagine what it would be like to find out you wasted years of your life on something that turned out not to be true? (Again, listen to people that have left cults.) That’s scary, so it’s safer to stay committed. 

Purely coincidentally (or is it… all part of a consipracy?) I’m reading Adam Grant’s “Think Again” right now, which is about the value of rethinking our ideas and challenging our beliefs and convictions.

The key question he’s proposing we ask when trying to find an opening for changing somebody’s mind on a topic is simple: “what evidence would change your mind?” Granted, he generally deals with people that don’t flat-out reject science, so it’s a bit easier.

If the answer is “none” you’re essentially dealing with something more close to a religion. The funny thing about the flat earth group, though, is that there’s that sub-group in there that is designing scientific experiments, which look like a great potential way to challenge their own ideas. They are looking for evidence. Logically, you’d assume they think “We designed experiment A, our hypothesis is that the outcome will be B. However, if the outcome is C, we have to rethink our hypothesis.” But that’s not what happens. They do run the experiment (2 in fact) both of which prove that their hypotheses don’t hold, but it doesn’t lead them to rejection. They come up with all sorts of crazy reasons why this experiment wasn’t good and they need to change it. And they will likely either change it until they can interpret the result to be what they “know to be true” or they will likely abandon the experiments altogether. 

So, how do we respond to groups like this? One of the scientists in the documentary (but it’s a scientist, what do they know, right?) suggests the worst we can do is reject groups like these outright and ridicule them. This only puts them more on the defense and closes any remaining channels of communication and openings for changing their mind. The more “aggression” towards them, the more they will drift off. A more productive solution is likely to talk to them, to have open, non-judgmental conversations. Get to know them: where do they come from, why do believe what they believe, what’s behind it? By creating trust, you’ll be in a much better position to challenge these ideas.

Or perhaps, you’ll find yourself challenging your own ideas, and you find out they were right all along. 🤯