What I learned from a flat-earth science workshop

I’ve had an unrelenting fascination with conspiracy theories ever since I toured the online world of 9/11 truther-ism in middle school. In a recent recurrence of this childhood curiosity I visited the 2018 Flat Earth Conference in Denver, Colorado, to witness the mother of all conspiracies: that all the major governments and corporations of the world, diverse as their aims and methods might be, are nonetheless united in their efforts to hide the Earth’s true shape from the public.

At the conference I played the role of an amateur journalist. I talked to attendees ranging from firm believers to on-the-fencers, trying to understand what exactly drew people to such an elaborate and implausible theory. I even got to meet some professional journalists, fellow observers of the bizzare events unfolding before us who offered some welcome words of insight and journalistic advice.

What did I return from the conference with, besides funny stories about nuts, eccentrics, and blockheads? Surprisingly: a definite view that flat earth (and similar phenomena) aren’t being understood properly by our culture. Rather than categorizing flat earth as unscientific, we should instead view it as anti-scientific, in the sense that it comprises a critique of science. And while this critique isn’t empirically valid, it’s formally correct: it really says something important about the state of science and belief in the modern era.

I could probably write a book expanding on this idea; in the meantime, I want to share a specific encounter I had at the conference which was uniquely formative and memorable: a workshop that refuted physicists’ understanding of gravity by using the example of a gallon of milk.

The 2018 Flat Earth Conference consisted of lectures and workshops held over the course of two days. Both were hosted primarily by big names in the flat earth community — most of whom drew their followers from Youtube — although some were hosted by lesser-known figures whose originality and enthusiasm earned them a share of the spotlight.

On the second day I attended a workshop from this latter group, hosted by a soft-spoken but eager man in his mid-30s. He stood at the podium before an audience of about 30 people who were gathered together in a somewhat oversized hotel ballroom, and whose attention was directed at a screen which showed the unmistakable signs of a Powerpoint presentation.

Click after click, I watched as with complete seriousness the speaker proudly declared that the force of gravity had hitherto been completely misunderstood. This, he claimed, owed to an ambiguity surrounding the gravitational acceleration g, and in support of this view he pulled some out-of-context quotes from prominent scientists about the mysteriousness of gravity, which he erroneously perceived as encouragement for his bizarre and dim-witted endeavor to reinterpret it.

As to the actual theory I can’t remember much, probably owing to the simple rule of thumb that useless information is the forgotten first. His alternative to the ‘orthodox’ conception of gravity involved the example of a gallon of milk, which as we all know falls when released at a certain height but floats when emptied and placed in water. This floating he understood as nothing but the opposite of gravity, a kind of anti-gravity, whose existence had been neglected by the scientific community but which is readily known to any middle school graduate as a phenomenon known as buoyency.

What was peculiar about this workshop wasn’t so much the unscientific character of the speaker’s ideas. It was rather the prevailing mood or spirit of that hotel ballroom, which I’ll try my best to convey now. The audience was neither completely enthusiastic nor dismissive, but eager in their attempts to track what the speaker was saying, putting rightful pressure at some points and filling in conceptual gaps at others. A couple hands went up as points of clarification, and when the speaker seemed unsure of what he was saying, some audience members would offer their own conjectures and reference examples in order to help.

In other words, the entire event had the feeling of an 18th century British-empiricist salon. The unscientific character of the speaker’s ideas stood in a strange juxtaposition with the emboldened individualistic and even freethinking spirit of both him and his audience. I really got the sense that, misguided though they were, these people were truly attempting to work from first-principles and derive some ideas about the world which were entirely their own. And of course, the results of this pursuit were just as rigorous as we’d expect them to be.

The popular understanding of the flat earth conspiracy is that it’s an unscientific way of thinking: that despite their claims to the contrary, its adherents have thoroughly rejected science and common sense in favor of wreckless ignorance. Under this conception the workshop I attended can only be viewed as a complete farce: as a testament of one man’s stupidity and arrogance in the face of established scientific facts.

But I want to suggest that on the contrary, despite its erroneous description of the Earth, the flat earth conspiracy is actually onto something, and that this surprising fact can be glimpsed in the nature of the workshop I attended.

The prevailing theme of the conference was the idea that people should confirm scientific truths with their own observations. The enemy wasn’t so much science as such but rather unreflecting submission to scientific conclusions, which the attendees saw as perfectly exemplified in the acceptance of the globe earth.

It was in this respect that the workshop speaker saw his activity not as unscientific, but rather as the height of rationality. For him a textbook on general relativity is useless for the simple reason that he doesn’t comprehend it, and that he doesn’t feel comfortable simply submitting to the authority of the person who wrote it. Like the shape of the Earth on which he lives, when it comes to the force of gravity, the speaker sought to make his own experience and the limits of his understanding — constrained as they admittedly were — as his exclusive points of departure.

And here we can actually say that there’s something ‘scientific’ about the flat earth conspiracy: its insistence on first-person confirmation. Wasn’t this, after all, the spirit of the Enlightment, and the calling-card of the Renaissance man who rejected submission to authority as a source of truth? No matter how silly and outright stupid the conclusions of flat earthers may be, we should always remember that they’re founded on the rejection of scientific assent, a phenomenon which is prevalent in our modern culture almost by necessity but which is seldom discussed.

So if we want to understand the flat earth conspiracy, and false-but-questionably-popular theories in general, we should seek to understand what makes them so compelling, an endeavor which is stillborn as soon as we dismiss them as ‘unscientific’. No, in the case of flat earth, the truly interesting critic only comes when we allow ourselves to be a little sympathetic and view the whole issue as one pitting scientific assent against personal confirmation and understanding.

Or to put it in a more memorable way: in quite a literal sense, the flat earth conspiracy should be understood as a theory which takes the individual’s lived experience as the basis of their worldview.

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