This weekend I watched Behind the Curve, a very interesting documentary about the Flat Earth movement. Instead of simply ridiculing people whose central belief has long been a byword for irrationality, the filmmakers take a basically empathetic approach toward trying to understand who these nut cases are, and how they got that way.
One of the most striking aspects of the film is that a couple of the gurus of the movement are filmed undertaking empirical investigations into whether our planet is actually a sphere. Spoiler alert: The experiments end up appearing to confirm that it is. Does this deter the experimenters? Further spoiler alert: No.
One of the more jaw-dropping segments of the documentary comes when Bob Knodel, one of the hosts on a popular Flat Earth YouTube channel, walks viewers through an experiment involving a laser gyroscope. As the Earth rotates, the gyroscope appears to lean off-axis, staying in its original position as the Earth’s curvature changes in relation. “What we found is, is when we turned on that gyroscope we found that we were picking up a drift. A 15 degree per hour drift,” Knodel says, acknowledging that the gyroscope’s behavior confirmed to exactly what you’d expect from a gyroscope on a rotating globe.
“Now, obviously we were taken aback by that. ‘Wow, that’s kind of a problem,’” Knodel says. “We obviously were not willing to accept that, and so we started looking for ways to disprove it was actually registering the motion of the Earth.”
Despite further experimental refinements, Knodel’s gyroscope consistently behaves as if the Earth is round. Yet Knodel’s beliefs seem unchanged when discussing the experiment at a Flat Earth meetup in Denver. “We don’t want to blow this, you know? When you’ve got $20,000 in this freaking gyro. If we dumped what we found right now, it would be bad. It would be bad. What I just told you was confidential,” Knodel says to another Flat Earther in attendance.
You will not be surprised to learn that the Flat Earth movement includes all sorts of theories about what the Earth is other than a globe spinning around the Sun. The most popular is that it’s a disk, surrounded by a high wall of ice, aka Antartica. What’s on the other side of the Wall? Nobody knows, or maybe They do but they won’t tell us, because we can’t handle the truth.
Ok I should try to be as understanding as the filmmakers, I really should, because these people are sad and pathetic and lonely and deeply alienated, which is ultimately why they believe what they believe, but it’s hard Ringo. It’s real hard.
Of course what’s really disturbing is that the Flat Earthers, whose numbers are apparently growing rapidly thanks to Youtube etc., aren’t just isolated freaks, but represent examples of a far broader phenomenon. A new book by Nancy Rosenblum and Russell Muirhead posits that Donald Trump is emblematic of a growing trend, which is conspiracy theories that feature no actual theory:
Conspiracy theorizing today dispenses with the burden of explanation. In fact, sometimes, as in Pizzagate, there’s absolutely nothing that needs to be explained, and there’s no real demand for truth or facts. There are no actual dots that need to be connected to form a pattern.
Instead, we have conspiracy charges that take a new form: bare assertion. Instead of trying to explain something that happened in the world, it’s about creating a narrative that itself becomes the reason for the conspiracism. And it even spreads in a much different way.
For instance, much of the conspiracism today spreads through innuendo. You’ll hear people say, “I just want to know more, I’m just asking questions.” Or, as President Trump likes to say, “A lot of people are saying…” This is conspiracy without any theory. It’s about validating preexisting beliefs by constantly repeating false claims that reinforce what you already believe.
So it’s not merely that someone thinks Hillary Clinton is an unworthy candidate; we have to make up a story about her sex trafficking in children. And by repeating these things and assenting to them, you’re signaling a kind of group affinity. Conspiracy without the theory has become a form of political participation.
That, unfortunately, sounds more than plausible.
Rosenblum points out that “conspiracy theory” is a clumsy phrase, since obviously actual conspiracies exist, and it’s desirable to theorize about them. She suggests “conspiracism” is a better term for a kind of epistemic nihilism which is far more common among Republicans than Democrats for what should be obvious reasons:
The right wing wants to delegitimize the government and, really, all of our knowledge-producing institutions. So it’s naturally beneficial for them to spread conspiratorial thinking. The Democrats, on the other hand, generally like government and want to improve it, so they have less reason to embrace conspiracism.
But I want to be clear: There’s plenty of conspiracy theory on the left. Jane Mayer’s book Dark Money, for example, or Elizabeth Warren’s claim that the business model of Wall Street is rigged — these are technically conspiracy theories, and I think they’re true. The difference, though, is that these are attempts to explain what’s going on; it’s not the sort of conspiracism I’m talking about here.
I think this could be tweaked a bit: Conspiracism is probably just as common on the far left as it is on the far right, except in the United States at present the far left is a bunch of freaks sitting in a basement somewhere talking about how the CIA is distributing so-called vaccines that are actually bioengineered to turn kids into corporate zombies, while the far right is called the Republican party.
Anyway this looks like a book worth reading.
ETA: Meant to mention that the popularity of the whole “red pill” meme — i.e., everything you’ve been told about the nature of reality is a lie — is an interesting offshoot of the general trend toward conspiracism. Another subculture that is big into this is made up of Men’s Rights Activists, especially its incel variants, where you find the most alienated MRAs.