Why Is the Flat-Earth Conspiracy Still a Thing?
B.o.B.’s Twitter rant inspired an investigation.
Photo: Jon Feinstein/Flickr
By now, you've probably heard about C-list rapper B.o.B.'s Twitter rant, where he insisted that the Earth is in fact flat and that NASA has been using CGI to lie to us for decades. You've probably heard that Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist who has somehow gone from culturally beloved to the human personification of "well actually," took on his claims. Now B.o.B., real name Bobby Ray Simmons, has responded with a diss track aimed at Tyson (and Tyson's nephew shot back with a diss track of his own) as this story rockets further and further into the stratosphere of surreality.
In the wake of Simmons' pronouncements, the world at large seems stunned that there are, in 2016, people out there who still think the Earth is flat. After all, we've known that the Earth is round since the days of Greek antiquity—Pythagoras is credited with setting forth the proposition, and the idea was generally accepted worldwide from then on. In 1522, Ferdinand Magellan's circumnavigation of the globe by ship provided experiential proof that the world was round.
Despite all of this, flat-earth truthers persist. They've been around since at least the 1800s, when British writer Samuel Rowbotham published his book Zetetic Astronomy: Earth Not a Globe.
Rowbotham frequently used a six-mile-long drainage canal off the Old Bedford River to prove to others that the Earth was flat—if it was not, Rowbotham said, you wouldn't be able to see boats at the other end of the canal because they would be obscured by the curvature of the globe.
Rowbotham's claims were disproved by a surveyor, Alfred Russel Wallace, who saw a 500 pound bounty for proof of a curved Earth offered by early flat-earthers and took them up on it.
The Bedford Canal Rowbotham used was the stage for Wallace's experiment, which relied on a telescope, a sheet of fabric, and two red discs for reference points as detailed by Scientific American. Wallace's experiment was successful, but that didn't make a difference to the ideological flat-earth truthers, who simply insisted the results instead proved them right. Wallace called the frustrating experience "the most regrettable incident in my life."
After Rowbotham died, a woman named Lady Elizabeth Blount took up the cause and formed the Universal Zetetic Society. ("Zetetic" comes from the Greek for "proceeding by inquiry.") The Society was basically a club for adherents to the flat-earth belief, and published literature to that effect in an effort to convince others.
If Simmons were alone in his belief that the Earth is flat, he'd be deemed delusional. But he isn't
After Blount, the movement lay dormant for awhile, until it was revived in the mid-twentieth century by Englishman Samuel Shenton and American Charles K. Johnson. Renamed The Flat Earth Society, this is the movement that persists today. According to The Flat Earth Society's website, Johnson was an especially charismatic leader, and managed to increase the group's membership to 3,000. (As of now, 554 names are on the group's online register.)
So why does this belief persist? When VICE interviewed some flat-earthers back in 2014, they summed it up by saying simply that they trust "sensory observations" over scientific theory. But there's more to it than that.
What's most interesting about these flat-earth truthers, and what makes them worth more than just a couple of punchlines, is that such a belief can't be chalked up to simple stupidity or ignorance. You could never go to school a day in your life and you'd still accept that the Earth was round as a point of fact.
To dig into why people still cling to such an absurd belief, I called up Dr. Joel Gold, an associate professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. Since 2003, Gold and his brother Ian (also a doctor) have identified several psychiatric patients who possess a new and specific delusion that they are the subjects of a reality show and their every moment is being filmed. The brothers termed it "the Truman Show delusion," after the 1998 Jim Carrey movie with a similar plot. They also wrote a book on their work with these patients and the nature of delusion, so Gold seemed like a good candidate to talk to about people who believe in conspiracies.
But Gold was immediately careful to make the distinction between delusions and conspiracy theories. "This flat-earth conspiracy doesn't really fit that model [of delusion]," Gold said. "One of the definitions of delusion...is that despite the fact that there's evidence to the contrary, people still believe it. And there's a little sort of asterisk, that if enough people believe something—if a community believes it—it's not a delusion. So if this rapper was the only person on Earth who believed that the Earth was flat, then psychiatrists would probably deem him delusional."
But Simmons isn't alone, and that seemed to stump Gold just as much as anyone else.
In their work, Gold and his brother hypothesized that delusions come from a deficiency in one of the brain's basic systems. "We have this theory that there's a part of the mind called the suspicion system, that we all have, that's necessary for survival...and then there's something called the reflective system which oversees the suspicion system."
The example Gold gave was hearing a branch snap when you're out in the woods. Your suspicion system would alert—is that a predator?—and then your reflective system would rationalize the sound as most likely not a significant threat. "When the suspicion system overtakes the reflective system, or they become disconnected in some fashion, that fear...becomes the reality."
But in the absence of a triggering event—a branch snap, if you will—the flat-earth conspiracy doesn't fit the Golds' model. Events like the moon landing, the assassination of JFK, and 9/11 spawned conspiracies galore, but there's "nothing new," Gold said, that would trigger a belief in a flat Earth.
When Molly Osberg wrote about the psychology of conspiracy theories for Motherboard back in October, she interviewed Rob Brotherton, a science writer who published a book on why people believe in conspiracies.
Brotherton chalks it up to biases "built into our brains," like the intentionality bias (tendency to ascribe motives where there are none) and our natural ability to detect patterns, a talent that doesn't always lead us in the right direction and can cause us to turn coincidences into something sinister. Said Brotherton, "there's not that much of a difference, really, between conspiracy theorists and the rest of us." (For his part, Gold made clear that he did not intend to belittle people who believed in conspiracy theories, either.)
A Netherlands study cited by Osberg also found that people were more inclined to believe in conspiracies when they felt powerless and inconsequential in their own lives. In a way, believing that 9/11 was perpetrated by the US government is more comforting than believing it was carried out by foreign terrorists—it preserves the feeling of American exceptionality, of our total security. The need to believe that only we could do such damage to ourselves is tied to needing to feel like America is safe from outside actors.
But the flat-earth theory doesn't provide any obvious benefit. What, exactly, would NASA stand to gain by lying to us about a spheroid Earth? "The world is so complex that conspiracies ease our minds a little bit," Gold told me. But how is believing in a flat Earth comforting?
I'm still not sure what psychological purpose being a flat-earth truther fulfills
But after reading Simmons' tweets, researching the Flat-Earth Society, and speaking to a specialist on the science of delusion, I'm still not sure what psychological purpose being a flat-earth truther fulfills. Though it makes me grit my teeth, I understand the mental mechanisms behind conspiracy theories about Sandy Hook and the Paris attacks. Senseless violence just hurts too much; and conspiracies try to make sense of it as a kind of relief.
But belief in a flat Earth defies all other models. The fact that the Earth is round has outlived generations, governments, and entire civilizations. It's not something one can ascribe to just Bush, or Obama, or even the United States. But who knows? Maybe Pythagoras was in on it too.