07 July 2017

Who Are Flat Earthers?

The Flat Earth movement is a sociological eye opener about how people come to believe things. Rational, scientific arguments alone simply don't cut it for a great many people on a great many issues. This first hand, interview based account from the Denver Post is important because the character of the members doesn't fit a lot of naive stereotypes (I've highlighted some in  the excerpt below) - although conspiracy thinking is one critical part of the mix.

Some have been educated in the sciences. They use computers and aren't Luddites. Their metaphors are as more pop culture than religious and most arrive at their views late in life rather than out of commitment to childhood religious teachings. They are anti-authoritarians, not strict adherents to transmitted authority and religious ideologies that predate the Copernican revolution (ca. 1514 CE).
Every Tuesday at 6 p.m., three dozen Coloradans from every corner of the state assemble in the windowless back room of a small Fort Collins coffee shop. They have met 16 times since March, most nights talking through the ins and outs of their shared faith until the owners kick them out at closing. . . . 
They’re thousands strong — perhaps one in every 500 — and have proponents at the highest levels of science, sports, journalism and arts.  They call themselves Flat Earthers. Because they believe Earth — the blue, majestic, spinning orb of life — is as flat as a table. . . . 
The Fort Collins group — mostly white and mostly male, college-age to septuagenarian — touts itself as the first community of Flat Earthers in the United States. Sister groups have since spawned in Boston, New York, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix and Chicago. In Colorado, Ptolemaic-science revivalists have lofty ambitions: raising $6,000 to put up a billboard along Interstate 25 broadcasting their worldview. . . . 
(All scientists and educators consulted for this story rejected the idea of a flat earth.) . . .
“There’s so much evidence once you set aside your preprogrammed learning and begin to look at things objectively with a critical eye,” says Bob Knodel, a Denver resident and featured guest at a recent Tuesday meeting. “You learn soon that what we’re taught is mainly propaganda.” 
Knodel worked for 35 years as an engineer and now runs the popular YouTube channel Globebusters, which has nearly 2 million views across more than 135 videos. “I’ve researched conspiracies for a long time,” he says. “I’ve looked very critically at NASA. Why is it that the astronauts have conflicting stories about the sky? Is it bright with stars, or a deep velvet black?” 
His wife, Cami, shares his views. “Our YouTube channel gets people to critically think,” she said to the Fort Collins group. “The heliocentric model says that we’re spinning at 1,038 mph. They say you won’t notice it because it’s a continual motion. But you should be able to feel it. You shouldn’t be able to function allegedly spinning that fast.” 
The weekly meet-ups also give forum to friendly lines of questioning. Some are straightforward (“What do you say back to people who call you stupid?”) and summon a ready-made answer (“You’re not stupid, period. They have to understand that there are deceptions going on at enormous levels”). Others stump even the experts. “How are we Flat Earthers supposed to explain to our friends the solar eclipse in August?” asked one attendee. The room fell silent. “We’ll have to do more research and get back to you on that.” . . . 
Like nearly every member of the movement, Sargent converted to Flat Earthism late in life. For most of his first five decades, he believed Earth to be a spinning globe. But something changed around the summer of 2014, when he stumbled upon a YouTube video contending that Earth is flat. 
“It was interesting, but I didn’t think it was real,” he says. “I started the same way as everyone else, saying, ‘Oh, I’ll just prove the earth is round.’ Nine months later, I was staring at my computer thinking, ‘I can’t prove the globe anymore.’ ” 
He remembers the date — Feb. 10, 2015 — when he took the plunge and started creating Flat Earth content of his own. To his surprise, the daily videos he had begun churning out ignited a firestorm online. The 49-year-old now devotes himself to Flat Earth propagation full time. He has made 600 YouTube videos and been interviewed more than 120 times. 
His conversion to the cult of globe-busting follows a common pattern among proselytes: latent anti-authoritarianism, which first found outlet in popular conspiracy theories of the mid-aughts, that by the mid-2010s transformed into full-blown contempt for the global model. In most cases, the catalyst was YouTube, with its highly popular flat-earth videos that began proliferating in late 2014. . . . “Before I did the first few videos back in 2015, if you typed ‘flat earth’ into YouTube you’d get 50,000 results,” he says. “Now, you’ll come in with 17.4 million. That’s more than a 30,000 percent increase. And we’re growing.” . . . 
The Centennial State has been the cradle of the American flat earth renaissance since birth. The first Flat Earth International Conference, which will be in Raleigh, N.C., in November, features a number of Colorado-based Flat Earthers, including Sargent, Knodel and Matthew Procella, or ODD Reality, a Denver-based rapper and YouTuber with 75,000 subscribers and nearly 7 million video views. 
The movement, though, is not a monolith. Differences of opinion divide the community on matters of scientific interpretation, cosmology, strategy and even the most fundamental questions of geology, such as: what shape is our planet? 
Many subscribe to the “ice wall theory,” or the belief that the world is circumscribed by giant ice barriers, like the walls of a bowl, that then extend infinitely along a flat plane. Sargent envisions Earth as “a giant circular disc covered by a dome.” He likens the planet to a snow globe, similar to the one depicted in “The Truman Show,” a fictitious 1998 existential drama about an insurance salesman unknowingly living in an artificially constructed dome. . . . 
He and other Flat Earthers can only speculate why the global conspiracy has had such staying power for more than 500 years, or why “the top” — the uber-elite heads of governments, universities and major corporations that allegedly know “the truth” — would continue to uphold a scheme that offers little in the way of riches or strategic power. 
“It’s not about money. They want complete mind control,” Knodel says after the meeting in the lobby of the Fort Collins coffee shop. “They want to create two classes: the ultra rich and servants. At that point they would’ve taken over the world, and enslaved the population, and controlled everything.”
From the Denver Post.

Others have faulted the story for its moral equivalency standpoint that threats this viewpoint as valid, although the one line parenthetical statement midway through the story that "(All scientists and educators consulted for this story rejected the idea of a flat earth.)" is probably sufficient when the majority view is so universally and bipartisanly held. 

Only one in 500 people is a flat Earther, while 64% of Americans (including 44% of Americans with graduate degrees and 45% of people who know people from Korea) can't find North Korea on a map.

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