What flat-earthers have got right

flat earth
© Elena Schweitzer/Shutterstock

CBS News recently ran a documentary about flat-earthers: people who insist the Earth is actually flat. According to them, the sun is a small orb in the sky floating above Earth.

"We've never been to space. Period," said Patricia Steere, a leader in the Flat Earth movement.

According to flat-earthers, a massive conspiracy is keeping this information secret from humanity. Flat-earthers gather online and in person to discuss their theories, even running their own experiments to disprove the curvature of the Earth.

"We're supposed to be spinning at a thousand miles per hour, but we can't feel it," said Netta Hagler, a Flat Earth community organizer. "I don't believe I'm spinning right now."

Flat-earthers make for a good documentary because it's baffling that anyone could believe in such an outddated idea despite encountering airplanes, time zones, telescopes, GPS systems and shadows. Doesn't their logic crumble upon mild examination?

But there's something deeper here than a ridiculous scientific theory. Flat-earthers are asking a hard question: How do you know what you know? Does it come from your personal experience? From science? Photos? Or do you just listen to so-called experts?

A friend of mine once filmed a documentary about flat-earthers (different documentary, I think?). He said that for every fact he threw at the flat-earthers, they had an answer. It's not that they hadn't thought about counterarguments. In fact, they seem to revel in coming up with explanations.

"The Flat Earth thing is like everything else to me. I just want people to question everything," said Michael Hughes, a flat-earther who literally made his own homemade rocket and launched himself into the sky to see if the Earth was curved (he didn't get high enough). "Question what your congressman is doing, your city council. Question what really happened during the Civil War."

He gets at the uncomfortable idea that people, including authorities, really do lie all the time. We know this because we catch them every so often. From Nixon to Clinton to Trump, it's not hard to figure out that coverups may just be a daily reality in politics.

"It's a giant game of chess. We, all of us in humanity, are the pawns," added Steere. "Part of the whole Flat Earth thing is keeping us locked down, not knowledgeable about who we are, who we really are as people and what we're capable of."

Scientists are better sources of information on science than the rest of us. So even if a bit of doubt is useful, thinking the Earth is a flat disk is going too far. But perhaps that's the point of the Flat Earth theory — to make you decide where, exactly, you draw that line. Growing up, I believed what I was taught in school. The American government determines what my school taught. Now, the president of the American government is saying that humans don't cause climate change. Will that trend change what kids are taught in schools down the line?

Flat-earthers may be harmless, but other kinds of conspiracy theorists are all too relevant. Climate change deniers are leading American environmental policies. I have friends who don't believe in climate change because they've seen self-proclaimed "experts" say science doesn't back climate change in YouTube videos.

But perhaps flat-earther skepticism is also the cure. Maybe it's time for climate change deniers to take a leaf out of the flat-earther book and really examine where their information comes from.

What flat-earthers have got right
A lot of people believe the Earth is flat. It's silly ... or is it?

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