This Filmmaker Wants Us to Take Flat Earthers Seriously

Conspiracist respecter and ‘Behind the Curve’ creator Daniel J. Clark makes a case for empathy at Hot Docs April 30.

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Apr 26 2018, 8:09pm

Mark Sargent at the inaugural Flat Earth International Conference in Behind the Curve. 

If there’s one thing the last couple of years have taught me, it’s that no opinion is uncontroversial. There are certain questions you shouldn’t really have to ask on a first date, for instance, because the answers are self-evident. Are Nazis bad? Should reality-show hosts be president? Should Ricky Gervais get his own Netflix special? These are all no-brainers. As is the question of the Earth’s shape.

It might be hard to take seriously the fringe belief that the Earth is flat, but a new documentary asks us to do just that, or at the very least to quit making fun. Behind the Curve offers portraits of flat Earthers as human beings who are worthy of our respect, and it makes a compelling case for empathy and dialogue.

Flat Earth believers are actually less fringe-y than I expected. According to a recent survey, while only 2 percent of American adults firmly believe the Earth is flat, 84 percent were confident that we live on a round planet. That leaves a lot of people on a pretty wobbly fence.

Something like a flat Earth theory seems relatively inconsequential—these aren’t the people NASA’s going to hire to pilot space shuttles, after all. Then again, as Behind the Curve makes clear, flat Earth is pretty much at the top of the conspiracy pyramid; you only get there once you’ve accepted everything else, from chemtrails to lizard people.

And yet shouting them down doesn’t seem particularly productive. The more we ostracize them, the more likely they are to dig in their heels and defy mainstream science. These aren’t stupid people, as the film makes clear. A lot of them are smart, inquisitive, and actually want to test their theories—the problem is, they aren’t satisfied by the overwhelmingly pro-round-Earth results. They need more proof. Always more proof.

Behind the Curve will have its world premiere in Toronto at Hot Docs April 30. VICE spoke to director Daniel J. Clark on the phone about his choice to offer flat Earthers a platform, and why we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss them. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Patricia Steere speaks at the inaugural Flat Earth International Conference in Behind the Curve.

VICE: What got you interested in flat Earth theories and following flat Earthers for this film?
Daniel J. Clark: I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but I've always been interested in how people really dive into them. One of my partners on the film, Nick [Andert], he texted me one day. He was on Reddit and saw something, and he's like, "We should make a documentary about flat Earthers, because I don't think anyone's ever done that, and it seems to be growing." We looked into it, and a month and a half later, we started filming.

What did you hope to find from talking to these folks?
From the beginning, we knew we wanted to not make it a piece that was in any way making fun of flat Earthers or people with conspiracy theories. We knew we wanted to make it a very empathetic movie and understand how and why people might believe this. And then we found Mark [Sargent], who's one of the leaders of the movement, and talked to him for a minute, and it was like, "OK, this makes perfect sense, we're definitely going to do this."

You mention empathy, and I thought that was something really interesting in the film. Especially hearing scientists talking about treating people with these kinds of opposing theories—that we're tempted to dismiss outright—with empathy rather than derision. You definitely give the flat Earthers a lot of room to explain their positions. The two risks that come with that, I think, are either validating those theories, or mocking them.
A couple of people have expressed that: "Aren't you giving them some sort of credibility by making this movie?" I don't agree with that. I don't necessarily think that making a movie about someone validates what they believe, but it definitely shows that, hey, these are humans. I think a lot of people's immediate reaction is, "These people [flat Earthers] are dumb. These people are crazy." No, they're just people, and they believe something that you don't.

I'm sure flat Earthers are a mixed bag also. They'll say, "They at least showed our side of things, and that's what's important," and they'll probably also be upset that there are scientists in there, and the movie comes from a perspective of a non-flat Earther, which they knew. They didn't think I was a flat Earther.

Did that make it hard to get them to open up to you? I'm sure they're used to people treating them like crackpots.
I think at first that could be the case. I started with Mark, and then I went to Patricia [Steere] in Houston. They have a show that a lot of people watch and appreciate, and so when they spoke on our behalf [to other flat Earthers], saying, "These people are fine, you should talk to them," I think that helped us get a lot of people to open up.

Nathan Thompson (creator of the world's largest flat Earth discussion group) at the Flat Earth International Conference.

You mention how you see flat Earthers potentially reacting to the film. Did you see this film as something you wanted flat Earthers to watch, or was it aimed at everyone else?
At first there was the thought that we could make a movie that flat Earthers or conspiracy theorists would watch, and come to an understanding of themselves. That is still entirely possible, but as we were making it, I think we shifted our focus. I use my brother as an example. My brother is a super science person, loves sci-fi, loves everything about space, and he's one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. He has the most disdain for flat Earthers. He doesn't have the patience to even talk about it. I think I ended up making the movie more for people like him, which are people who aren't willing to give them even a moment's thought, or are aggressively against them.

If you're trying to fix the flat Earthers, that's honestly a much harder job than to try to get someone to see someone else as another human being. So the movie is kind of for my brother [laughs]. And he likes it.

Is that the end goal, [building] that kind of empathy and respect between people?
Absolutely. I think it's the biggest point that I'm trying to get people to take away from this. When Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye go onscreen and just make fun of them and rip into them and call them stupid, does that help at all? No, that just absolutely secures the [flat Earther] position, and I think if you take that back to political ideologies, climate science, that kind of thing, you can really see how this same logic applies. The further you antagonize someone, the more secure they become in their position. I'm not saying our movie will change the world, but I hope it gives people an entertaining but also a thoughtful look at maybe treating people a little bit differently.

Did you find yourself, at any point, convinced by anything that the flat Earthers were telling you?
Yes. Well, not yes. Before we even went out, I actually sat and watched countless hours of flat Earth videos, trying to really get used to their claims and how they react to certain things, because when I was first watching every point they make, I'd be like "What? Come on!" I think that's the natural reaction if you're watching a flat Earth video for the first time, and they say that the sun and the moon are spotlights in the sky and Antarctica is an ice wall.

If I was ever with someone [and] they brought up a point that I couldn't immediately, in my head, say, "This is why," I would actually go research it. Everybody who becomes a flat Earther [first] tried to debunk it and couldn't, which is kind of like saying your keys are always in the last place you look. A lot of people do find the evidence that proves flat Earth wrong to them, and they stop exploring it. But those who don't, yes, they couldn't debunk it.

I noticed that everybody in the film who believes in a flat Earth kept on saying that: that they went in looking to debunk it. And I thought, am I just waiting for that moment? Am I going to watch this film, and that moment's going to come, that I'm going to stop believing that the Earth is what it is? That didn't happen [laughs].
To be fair to flat Earthers, we don't necessarily lay out their arguments in too much detail. We really didn't feel like we wanted to make the movie, "Is it or is it not?" We just wanted to say, "They believe this. Here's some information you need if you have basic questions about what they actually think, and then from there, we'll just go on to the community itself."

Follow Frederick Blichert on Twitter.

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