My mission is not to ridicule flat-earthers – CNN, Vice, and anyone with a 7th-grade education and an internet connection have flogged that horse way past its death.
No, when I first emailed FEIC conference organiser Robbie Davidson, I just wanted to understand this logic-defying movement.
But, the more I questioned the multifarious band of self-proclaimed conspiracy theorists that represent “flat earth theory”, the more I found myself trying to devise my own conspiracy as to how this obviously flawed ideology could flourish in the information age.
There is no accepted model of what the flat earth is – some say our planet is enclosed by a giant dome, others believe a giant ice wall lines the earth’s edges.
Flat-earthers have no leader, although a select few money hungry YouTubers vie daily for their clicks.
And, as far as I can tell, aside from believing that the earth is flat, there is no underlying ideology that binds believers together. Some flat-earthers are Wiccan vegan feminists, some are gun-toting libertarians, and more than a few are “the end is nigh” Christian proselytizers.
I’m not going to try and explain who flat-earthers are, what they believe, or when the movement started to really gather steam.
I’m going to explain why they even exist.
Flat-Earthers, Like All Of Us, Crave Meaning
The flat earth community is, for the most part, peculiarly religious. They think the earth is the literal centre of the universe and, by joining together in this belief, their lives are imbued with the meaning, community, and perceived moral and intellectual high ground religion once provided the Western world.
To quote Jeran Campanella, one of the movement’s most prominent advocates: “The idea of a creator – that this is a created place that we live in, I am a created person and I am important and what I do in my life is important and that I’ll be held ultimately responsible for my actions – I think that’s kind of a requirement of being a flat-earther.”
Jeran was, however, one of the least religious speakers that presented at FEIC17 – an event unsettlingly hallmarked by many of the idiosyncrasies of the Pentecostal Christian church.
One flat earth presenter prompted his audience to parrot his words in unison. Another urged believers to pursue fellowship with their flat earth kin. All called upon the community to evangelise their friends and family.
I told one attendee I wasn’t a flat-earther, and, with cult-like conviction, he shot back, “Not yet. There’s a flat-earther in everyone. They just don’t know it.”
It was not, however, just the atmosphere of FEIC17 that was unnervingly religious. Free from the constraints of society, speakers delivered long-winded sermons peppered with quasi-Christian imagery and ideology. Talk of the mythical Nephilim (half-man, half-God giants who apparently once roamed the earth), condescending explanations of the “original” meaning of Hebrew words, and fervent end times conjecture were woven together to create a rich, confusing tapestry.
When Mark Sargent – a balding, charismatic white guy who is undoubtedly the flat earth community’s golden child – concluded that Satan, backed by colluding world governments, is behind the “spherical earth myth” the crowd hooted and hollered in approval.
The unveiling of such esoteric truths inspired tangible comradery.
“I didn’t ask to be part of the flat earth thing. I didn’t find flat earth, flat earth found me,” he said.
And, as with all religious movements, persecution from the uncaring outside world is an ever-present reminder that the path is narrow and the chosen are few.
One believer explained what “coming out” as a flat-earther is like:
“The lightest is like ‘you’re retarded’ then it’s usually closer to ‘go kill yourself’, ‘I hope you die’ or ‘don’t breed.’ That’s like the number one that I get,” he said.
Another said he’d been told that he deserves to be locked in Guantanamo Bay and anally raped until he dies.
Yet, rather than dissuade, this abuse confirms many of the emotional tenets that bind together the flat earth community.
They are special. They are right. They must prevail.
Flat-Earthers, Like Most Of Us, Are Deeply Untrusting
Religious fervour, however, can only get any movement so far.
What links pasty, pierced pagans peddling sacred geometry with freedom-loving veterans and well-meaning Jesus folk?
If there is one common thread binding the flat earth community together, it is a deep-seated belief that we have all been lied to.
As Darryle Marble posited in the event’s opening presentation: “Reality is kind of scary. Nothing ultimately is what it appears to be… This [flat earth theory] is a gateway drug to every other truth that we have been deceived about.”
Jeran Campanella extrapolated on this idea in his NASA Space Lies talk: “People will lie to you. There is nobody that has never lied to you. Science is just an excuse for people to be stupid. It’s just an excuse to give up on the search through life. I’m not going to believe things until I can prove it myself.”
Both Darryle and Jeran hint at the two fundamental attitudes held by all flat-earthers:
- You should only believe something that you can experience with your own five senses and;
- Every “fact” you have ever been taught should be considered a lie until you can personally prove it to be true
These misguided sentiments proved highly convenient for the conference’s zealous speakers. Rather than presenting data, credible sources and coherent arguments, speakers merely brushed over their own version of the “facts” – often citing their own YouTube channels as reputable sources. Then, at the end, they simply encouraged believers to “do your research and make up your own minds” later on.
“Don’t listen to me, I may be a nut. Find out for yourself then you’ll know, which is what all of these people have done,” Mark Sargent iterated in his speeches and interviews.
Yet, for a community that prides itself on taking nothing at face value, the presenter’s words were not just instantly accepted, they were eagerly espoused and extrapolated on.
Iru Landucci, a man who proclaimed that the Garden of Eden is in Antarctica, didn’t even bother to translate the Italian Wikipedia screenshots he based his presentation on. Yet he was lauded by many as the speaker who took the most “evidence-based” approach.
Darryle Marble asserted that the Sandy Hook Massacre was fake, a fact one flat-earther construed as proof all mass shootings in America, the UK and Australia (yes, Port Arthur too) are also government cover-ups.
Jeran Campanella said that NASA rocket launches are staged, and directly after this talk I overheard a woman explaining to another wide-eyed attendee between puffs on a cigarette, “The word NASA is actually Hebrew for deception”.
For every single presenter’s claim, a dozen conspiracy theories were piled on until their original (and totally fallible) points were lost.
No American outside of the flat earth movement denies that questioning official information sources is natural, healthy and often necessary.
The CIA did drug unknowing staffers with LSD in the 1950s as part of the MK Ultra project – an operation still cloaked in secrecy to this day.
Ronald Raegan did covertly facilitate the shipping of over 1500 missiles to Iran despite a US embargo.
The upper echelons of Wall Street did turn a blind eye to Enron’s blatantly deceptive practices and stock market manipulation throughout the 1990s, leaving everyday shareholders $74 billion out of pocket.
But, all these shocking revelations of high-level deception were brought to light using ream after ream of paperwork and weeks of recordings that ultimately amounted to undeniable proof – something that flat-earthers are neither able to recognise nor produce.
Flat-Earthers, Because Of Us, Are Basic
At this point, you may be wondering how ordinary people who claim to be sceptics fall so far down the conspiratorial rabbit hole that they end up truly believing in the disjointed, inarticulate clusterfuck that is flat earth theory.
On the second day of FEIC17, I met a professor of astronomy who’d registered under an alias. His mission was to infiltrate the movement his students were emailing him about every other week, gather intelligence, and effectively refute flat earth theory once and for all, saving its adherents from intellectual hellfire.
I told the professor – who wished to remain anonymous as he was attending sans his employer’s permission – that I was struggling to ascertain any common denominator linking the 500+ FEIC17 attendees together.
Despite the movement clearly fulfilling basic religious functions, not all the attendees were religious.
And, while conspiratorial thinking dominating nearly every conversation, no consensus was ever reached.
The mole offered up a simple, yet powerful explanation: “They don’t read books.”
Intrigued by his hypothesis, I wrapped up my interview and headed to the lobby to poll attendees with a simple question: “How many books have you read on the subject of the flat earth?”
For the first time in two days, the flat-earthers were unanimous:
“The majority of my research is personal observation and research online just like everyone else. YouTube, just general searches of Google and NASA’s website, certain other websites.”
“None. No books yet, I bought two. I’ve never read no books but I’m on the computer and reading stuff like that.”
“None, but I’ve seen hundreds of hours of videos.”
“No books. I find it easier just to watch things online.”
YouTube. YouTube. YouTube.
The online behemoth that allows everyone to watch anyone say anything is not only the flat-earther’s digital meeting place, it is also their primary source of information.
According to the rogue professor, an intellectual diet consisting solely of passive, unfiltered video content is not conducive to optimal brain function:
“Here’s the problem: They don’t like to read because it’s boring, and it’s boring because they don’t understand what they’re reading. A person like this can pick up a book and read a few paragraphs to you and you’d understand it, but if you then ask them what they’d just read they couldn’t tell you because they don’t have any reading comprehension at all.
Reading comprehension and thinking ability go together. If you can’t read with comprehension you probably can’t think right either. And so, they can’t know logical, cogent arguments,” he explained.
Not an hour after the professor had said this, I noticed a large pile of boxes filled with flat earth books in the hotel lobby.
“We did OK, didn’t actually unload everything from the truck though. In fact, we’re packing these up and bringing them back,” the weary purveyor of flat earth textbooks told me.
Academics – those aptest readers of our society – are, indeed, scarce within the movement’s ranks.
When I asked Mark Sargent what the flat earth movement could use more of, he replied, “Literally anyone with a master’s degree.”
He was, however, quick to qualify this statement in a later presentation:
“Not that many people that believe in flat earth have a tertiary education. If you have a master’s degree in physical science I don’t care what it is, you’re indoctrinated to the point where you can’t break out. There’s nothing you can do, you’ve got too much invested in it.”
This fierce anti-intellectualism can only spawn in a country with a troublingly uneducated populace.
“Science education is pretty spotty at best here. Science is considered a boring subject to most people and again it comes back to ability to think and reason properly.”
“When I look at it, the [flat earth] arguments are easy to respond to, but the average person is totally unequipped to do so. That’s problematic and part of that is lack of understanding–of not just scientific facts but also how science works.”
Ignorance, lack of education, poor reading comprehension – these aren’t simply flat-earther problems. They’re American problems.
A 2016 study found that, overall, American students of the 1960’s were better at reading than those of today. In fact, 2/3 of American students cannot read at their grade level at all – a lack of competence they’ll undoubtedly carry into their adult lives.
Let’s face it: If you ask someone on the street how the tides work, or what gravity is, or why astronauts don’t explode in space, chances are they won’t be able to give you a compelling explanation.
So, you, like most of us, will turn to the internet for answers.
And, when you Google your question, you’ll probably be presented with a wall of text punctuated by one or two links to YouTube videos.
Lazily, you click through.
Just like that, you’re looking for answers to legitimate questions on YouTube – a place where people like Mark Sargent and Jeran Campanella are lying in wait with carefully crafted explanations of how the world really works.
Explanations designed to make you feel special, smart, and wanted.
Explanations from people who, by the way, make money exclusively from the popularity – not the truth – of their ideas.
And, if you’re one of the few thousand people in the world with just the right mix of loneliness, suspicion, ignorance, and pride – who knows, you might just go for it.
Cultish, conspiratorial, uneducated – to some degree these words describe every flat-earther I met at FEIC17.
But these people aren’t born in a vacuum: They are the product of a broken nation – a society that is spiritually stunted, socially divided, and intellectually starved.
Until these fundamental failings are remedied, their numbers will continue to grow.
It is for this reason that mocking flat-earthers is not enough.
We need to take flat-earthers seriously – not because they are right, but because of how profoundly wrong they are.
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