Michael Marshall, project director of the Good Thinking Society in the U.K., talks about flat earth belief and its relationship to conspiracy theories and other antiscience activities.
This is Scientific American’s Science Talk, posted on March 27, 2020. I’m Steve Mirsky. I’m going to let my guest introduce himself in a moment, because he does a better job than I could.
So I'm Michael Marshall and I'm the project director of the good thinking society, which is a charity based in the UK. Uh, the whole purpose of our charity is to promote science to challenge pseudoscience. So we'll do work, uh, to forward science education. And then another part of the, the work that we do, which is the bulk of my work, is to find ideas that aren't backed by evidence and find people who are promoting those ideas, find people who are buying into those ideas and to explore them and figure out if anything can be done to prevent people being confused by them, harmed by them misled by them in those kinds of things. So I spent a lot of my time looking at things like alternative cancer kills and the people who promote those and alternative medicine. I've spent a lot of my time going to see people who say they can talk the dead. Who say they can do faith healing.
And then another part of my, uh, my time is spent talking to people who believe in, uh, unusual ideas and who are kind of proponents of them. And that's how I came across the flat earth world, uh, is through my, uh, slightly odd, uh, hobby. Uh, at the time before I was working full time as a, as a skeptic, it was a hobby of mine to, um, be in rooms filled with people who disagree with me. To just understand what brings people to ideas that I would look at and say, well, this can't be true. These kinds of fringe and extreme and unusual beliefs. Um, what brings people to believe them and what kind of paths lead people there? What evidence supports, uh, supports their position in their minds and how do they engage with the world with that worldview and try and have conversations.
I've got a podcast where I talk to people who have kind of fringe beliefs and instead of having a conversation that a lot of people would have, if they are a skeptic about something and they're talking to a believer where you shout at them and tell them they're wrong and point out all the evidence and tell them, and it gets into quite a volatile discussion sometimes instead of that, I try and have a civil and polite chat to try and explore the gap between us. So I say, I don't believe in this idea of yours, but I'm really interested to figure out why I don't believe it and why you do so let's have a conversation. So I have these kinds of civil discussions and that's kind of how I came across a that the flat earth theory and the idea that there are people walking around today who think the world is flat.
It's really interesting and serendipitous that we're sitting here because I knew that there was some flat earthers out there and I just thought it was kind of strange and funny. And about a week ago, I discovered a friend of mine who is very well educated, she's got a doctorate in biochemistry and, uh, she has a sister who's also very intelligent and very well educated. And my friend told me that her sister is a flat earther and that her sister is very indignant about the, uh, idea that, um, we don't take them seriously. And she said something to the effect of, this is hearsay that we're getting from me right now. That, well, you know, if you looked at the evidence, then you'd know that what you've been told isn't true. So all of a sudden I became fascinated with the flat earth people and then just on Twitter and I hadn't, I had not been a follower of yours until I saw this tweet that somebody I follow must've retweeted a, that you had just given a talk in Edinburgh where I had been. And, uh, so I reached out to you and it turns out you live in Liverpool and here I am in Liverpool today. So, uh, that's why we're here talking. So tell me what do the flat earth people, uh, think and why do they think it?
So you've got to sort of unpack that question a little bit because it's very easy for us to see, uh, the flat earth movement as one singular cohesive movement. And that's how I first thought about it when I first came across it in 2013 and when I came across the flat earth society in the UK. And so I had a conversation with the vice president of the flat earth society. And I assumed, as you probably have in your mind, that people who believe the world is flat think that the world is a disc. And in the center you've got the Arctic circle, then you've got all the continents of the world sort of splayed out to fill the circle. And an Antarctica is like the edge of the disc. But what I found out that when I first spoke to the flatter society is that not everyone in the flat earth world has that version of the world in their heads.
Some do believe it's a disk, but others believe that, yes, there's Arctic circle in the middle and there's the land masses around it. And then on Antarctica is the ice around the edge, but instead of it being a discreet disc, some people believe, in fact Antarctica just goes on forever in all directions. And so they believe that the earth is actually an infinite plane in all directions. That bisect reality, which is a really lovely idea.
SM: What does that mean?
MM: So it will go on in North, South, East, West, just go on forever and there is the above and the below, but there's no way of getting from the top to the bottom because it's just infinity of all ice in all directions forever. So there's no way of getting below the earth. And so this was a, when I first came across the flat earth moving in 2013 this was quite a vociferous debate that was going on.
And it was quite a schism really. And so they had the, the flat earth society at the time, it was largely a forum where they would bring forth their proofs of one version of this theory or another. And I also think there's another schism going on in the movement at the time, which is between one side, which are people who genuinely really believed the world was flat. And the other side, which absolutely did not believe it, but enjoy the intellectual pursuit of arguing a position they need to be false. And so they would find quite esoteric and off the wall proofs that most people wouldn't think of. And so when I first came across it in 2013 there were people waiting into these arguments who believed the world was round but had never thought about it before, but just assumed in a sort quite an arrogant way that they must know better than anybody who's ever thought about it and come to a different conclusion.
And so they were stomping into these arguments saying, well, what about photos of the earth from space and what about this? And what about ships going over the horizon thinking, well this is the gotcha, but not realizing that those were the first things they'd thought about, that they thought that the world, the approved worlds round. And therefore it's probably likely that the people who think the world is flat, I've had the same idea and yet they're still flat earthers, so at least in their mind they must have a good answer to that. That the people who believe the world was round having these arguments didn't have cause they'd never scrutinized the idea. They rejecting it. And so what was happening was I think to a degree, the part of the schism that were just having fun and knew very well the world wasn't flat, but just enjoyed the pursuit of doing that.
They were winning those arguments with people who were coming in and arrogantly assuming that they could answer everything. And in winning those arguments, they were really converting even more people who really believed it. And so you had this kind of effect where it was sort of spiral out of control a little bit, but I think it wasn't, it wasn't viral in the way that in 2013 as a in the way that it was in 2016 and 2017 and I think part of that is because that esoteric off the wall version of proofs can be quite complicated to get your head around. So for example, if you have the disk version, the world and the infinite plane version, both models suffer from an inability to explain gravity. You don't have a spherical mass, you don't have a central mass, you don't have a central point pulling it all to one point.
So it's very difficult to explain gravity in either one of those models. But these people who were doing kind of esoteric arguments were saying, well, what is gravity? Gravity is an accelerant, falls towards the ground, I think 9.8 meters per second squared, accelerates downwards. They said that is identical to a world in which the ground accelerates upwards to meet you. And so when you let go of something, it isn't that it's accelerating downwards, it's a, the ground's actually accelerating up to meet it.
SM: So it's a form of relativity.
MM: This is exactly where they come to. So people would then say, well, if it's, if the ground is the earth is, you know, an infinite plane in all directions that bisects reality and is accelerating upward at 9.8 meters per second squared and always has been since the Dawn of time, you'd hit a problem, which would be the speed of light.
You can't go fast. The speed of light. So people don't have a gotcha for this. And so the people who were putting forth esoteric off the wall trollish arguments would say, well, look at Einstein's theory of relativity as you approach Lightspeed, time itself slows down and the maths in their head works back out again. So yes, we're getting quicker, but time's getting slower and we can account for gravity in that way. And that's quite a complicated idea to get your head around. And so I think the fact that these people were winning arguments was getting, was converting some people to movement, but the way in which they were winning them were keeping people away from the movement because they were quite complex ideas. You couldn't stick them on a meme as you can these days. Here's a picture of the earth. You couldn't explain all that stuff about science, the relativity proven gravity and an infinite plane version of the world.
So I think there was a limiting factor going on and that's why when I first came across the flat earth movement, it was probably still pretty small, pretty unknown. I've been given talks about pseudoscience for the last kind of five, six plus years. And I've mentioned that I came across the flat earth movement and people would always say to me, there's nobody who actually believes that nobody actually, they don't really exist, that people are having fun. So it stayed quite small. And then in 2015 and 2016 a couple of things happened that really ignited a movement. And it was the publishing of two videos on YouTube or two video series on YouTube. Um, one I believe was, uh, Eric Dubay, 200 proofs. The earth is not spending globe. Uh, and the other was Mark Sargent's, uh, uh, 14 videos in his flat earth clues series.
SM: So now, we're going to actually be converting more people.
Well, it's, they are genuinely worth looking up because what I found really fascinating about the Eric Dubay 200 proofs, the are 200 of them in there, is that, uh, it was published in 2016 so it was three years after we had the, uh, infinite plane and the gravitational kind of explanation via Einstein's theory relative to, so it was three years of what you'd expect to be evolution and sophistication and, but in fact, proof number one, the horizon looks flat proof. Number two, even if you go up a mountain, the horizon looks flat. Proof number three, water, uh, cant stick to a curved surface. It always goes level and you can't get it. So there's no way it could stick to a ball. So they're all very, very simplistic arguments. And there's 200 of them. Um, some of them stick to sort of a pseudo physical properties. Others go to a conspiracy theory.
So I think proof 199 is saying that, well Isaac Newton and Neil Armstrong and Galileo, they were all Freemasons. Therefore the world is flat. And so you have this kind of a, this video and it was also published as a free ebook which collected lots of different so-called proofs of the world being flat that picked from lots of different genre of proof. So if you came to the flat earth, if you, if you were generally interested in conspiracy theory, you'd come to it and you'd find enough conspiracy theory reasons to believe the world is flat in there. If you came to it because you, uh, placed way too much emphasis on the, uh, the, the, your own powers of observation. You know, you can't show me the curve. I'm looking out at horizon. I can't see the curve. You can't tell me my eyes are wrong. If that's your, your style of thinking.
There were arguments in there for you that would tell you that that would support the idea of the world is flat. So I think it kind of covered all its bases a little bit. If you came from a fundamentalist Christian perspective, uh, in a biblical literalism the world is 6,000 years old and created in seven days as per the Bible, uh, which a large part of, of flat earth movement is actually crash creationism in a, in another guys. Um, there were creationist arguments in there that would support, uh, the, the, the idea of the world is flat. So it really did pull together different genre of flat earth arguments into one document. And I think that's why it became quite successful because it had a little bit in for anybody who might be, uh, in any way inclined to doubt the veracity of the round earth theory.
SM: That inclination is usually a preexisting condition.
I think so. I think so. So a lot of the way that people are stumped, we're coming across this information was through YouTube recommendations. Uh, this is, I think it was a study by the American Academy of sciences at their last kind of convention, which actually went there. The a scientist went along to the a U S flat earth convention and spoke to people there and asked, how did you get into the flat earth movement? And of the 40 people they asked, 39 of them said, I saw it recommended to me on YouTube. And the faulty of said, my son saw it, recommended to him on YouTube and pass it along to me. So it's what's appearing in that right-hand bar of up next on YouTube. So I think when there were people who were looking for moon landing denial videos, YouTube, once these Flat earth videos started getting out there and started having a sensationalist kind of style, so it'd have a sensationalist title, uh, there'd be people, people would come and watch it because they believed it.
Some people watch it cause they thought it was silly. Some people watched it because they wanted to scrutinize it on a point by point basis and watch it five times in a row to really get to the grips of every single argument. So they could write an article about how wrong it is. YouTube at the time said that it didn't say there's three distinct audiences with three distinct agendas. It says there's one audience of three times the size. So this is a pretty good video because loads of people are watching this all the way to the end. And so once YouTube saw that it started recommending it to people. So you'd be watching a video about moon landing denial and YouTube would say, I think someone who's a bit into moon landing denial might also be into the flat earth theory and it would float it there as a suggestion.
And if people clicked it, that solidified that link a little bit and the more people clicked it, the more that became solidified. And I think that's how a lot of people find their way in. And then it's because it became such a solid link. I think it even went beyond people who are already looking for conspiracy theory, uh, ideas. Um, you had people who'd be looking for videos of the, of the earth from space and they might see this video and then then they might watch it. And then that kind of strengthens those relationships. So YouTube had this kind of arguably accidental, I don't think they were deliberately doing it, but had this algorithm that was recommending sensationalist and extreme ideas regularly to people who were searching for things that weren't necessarily about that. And I think that did serve as a, as a recruitment tool and those two videos and the responses to those, those two videos and video series from Mark Sergeant, Eric Dubay, that really ignited a movement because I think they came around with just the right time or the wrong time in our perspective, uh, that it captured, uh, that YouTube algorithm in full flow.
Uh, so what do just, I'm interested specifically in the videos you say of, uh, the earth from space or the moon. What's the response? Those are all faked?
Yeah, pretty much. So, uh, I, I've, I've had lots of conversation with flat earthers and when you bring up those visual pieces of evidence, they'll say, well come on, you can't trust visual evidence. And they say photographs for example, you show me a photograph from of the, of the earth from space. I'll show you a composite job, I'll show you a Photoshop job, I'll show you a hoax. And they'll say that NASA even admits that those four photographs are composites, is that, will they are composites. But even if they are, composites, they're composites of what their comes into photos taken from space. It's just they're taken with a camera that isn't far enough away to get the entire earth and in one goal. But you're going to see snapshots of the earth and then you come, you compose those together because you've got a two dimensional representation of a three dimensional object.
You're going to have to sort of stitch those together a little bit, but just cause it's a composite, it's gotta be it composed of something you're saying. It's a composite doesn't throw out the fact that this is actually a genuine photo as well. Um, and so they will talk a lot about how, uh, we can't trust NASA. That's a big, big part of it. NASA’s part of the conspiracy, some lots of the flat earthers that I've met, I went along to the UKs flat earth convention and spent three days in a hotel in Birmingham with 160 flat earth, one of the most genuinely enjoyable weekends of my entire life. Really, really fun. Um, and I went there not to tell them they're wrong and not to be superior, but to really understand what brings people to that movement. Um, but what I heard lots of time was that well, NASA is evil.
NASA is a tool of the government, a tool of the Illuminati, a tool of the new world order. Um, they rely on their budgets so they need to keep that money rolling in, which is why they keep churning out material that suggest the world is round. Um, some people even believe that NASA is a tool of Satan. Uh, and they have all sorts of convoluted uh, explanations as to why that is. Uh, one of my favorite explanations was one of the speakers at the flat earth convention an Argentinian conspiracy theorist who said, we know for a fact that the UN is a front for the one world order because if you look at the Spanish name for the UN, it is the O N U and if you read that backwards it's U N O which is Spanish for one. And therefore we know for a fact the UN is a, a front for the one world order because the reverse name of it in Spanish is Spanish for one.
And my friend I was at the convention with leftover and said does he realize that UN is already French for one?
SM: That logic that numerology, when you connect the dots like that is so it's so intriguing.
MM: It is. And so they'll see that and they'll say, well, look at the, uh, look at the image, the logo of the U N and you have the flat earth, you have the Arctic circle in the middle, you have all the continents around it. And so let's say, why would the UN have the flat earth as their local? If it isn't true that the world is flat? And I had this conversation with the flat earther and I said, well, what else would you want the UN's logo to be? And it's, well you could, if the earth is really round, you'd show it from the side.
Okay, but then which countries are you not putting on? Do you want to show America and not Europe? Do you want to show the Northern hemisphere and not show Australia? Right? And so he said, well, okay, fine. So you show up from the top. But if that's the case, why isn't that Antarctica on the UN's logo, it's missing. And his idea for that is because Antarctica is either the disk around the edge or it's where the dome that surrounds the world is. And I said, well, Antarctica isn't a nation. This is the United nations. It isn't a nation. You know, there's good reasons. If you, if you sort of sense check these ideas, but if you're presented them in a way that says the U N is a front for the Illuminati and the one world order, and here's proof, look at their logo, therefore flat and you're not, then encouraged to sense check your ideas to uh, to look for ways to doubt yourself, to look for ways to disprove your theories rather than looking for evidence that proves them.
You end up in a place where all you're doing is confirming your ideas further and further and further. And this is what we see. We see it in our lives all the time and we're guilty of it all the time. But I think we're guilty of this. This is a movement that's specifically guilty of it.
SM: Does Heliocentrism hold and the other planets are flat disks or something as well or are they?
MM: yeah, it depends on who you talk. So it's not just that there's the disk version and the infinite plane version. There's actually lots of, there's a myriad of different versions of the, the flat earth and the universe beyond it. So some will believe that we're flat. But the universe around it is pretty much as is, that's quite a niche belief in the flat earth world. Um, some believe that, uh, many believe the sun isn't very far away, so it's very hard to, to uh, justify the solar system as conventional science would have it with a flat earth belief, especially a flat earth belief that may be rooted in creationism and therefore has this kind of earth as the center of everything kind of way.
And you know, the sun was created on, on one of the days after the earth, it was already created. And so some of that belief that instead of the sun being millions and millions of miles away, it's actually quite nearby and much smaller. And that's how they account for time differences across, uh, across the world. How you account for seasons, it's just that you're further away from the sun at that point. Um, others believe that the world is a disk, but it's under a dome. Um, which again goes back to the biblical idea of the firmament from and being the roof on top of the world. Um, one of the, one of the, the, uh, piece of evidence I've heard brought, uh, for that, uh, firmament idea for that domed theory. A idea was from Mark Sargent who said, uh, if you look at the gravestone of Werner Von Braun, so Von Braun, obviously the, uh, the, the Nazi scientist smuggled out of Germany after the second world war by operation paperclip installed towards the head of the U S space program. Um, his V2 rocket technology is partly responsible for, for America getting into it, getting to the moon first. Um, but if you look on his gravestone, it references Psalms 19 one. And if you look up Psalms 19 one, it reads, the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth his handiwork. So it says Mark Sargent, why would the father of space exploration have on his gravestone a reference to the biblical roof on top of the world, if not a post deathbed confessional? Here's what of saying, there is a firmament and the only way to get me out of Germany was to go along with their hoax.
Now I would argue the reference is much more about the first bit of the heavens declare the glory of God for a man who saw his technology has been the key to the heavens. It was the, the way that men put mankind, unlocked the sky. Um, but if you're a flat earther or you see that gravestone, and this is proof then that there is a roof on top of the world and if you believe there's a roof on top of the world, then it starts to ask questions about what is space beyond it. And so I spoke to Mark Sergeant about this and he said, well, the sun or moon is still there, but they're much closer and they're separate bodies with their own separate light sources. And the way we know that, he said, it's because sunlight is warm and Moonlight is cold. And I said, what do you mean by that?
He said, well, sunlight, obviously warms you. He said, yeah, that wasn't a bit undisputed. Uh, he said, Moonlight. He said, if you go out in the night with a thermometer and you put that in shadow and take a temperature reading, and then you move it away from the shadow into the open clearing and then take a temperature reading, the temperature drops. And that's because the Moonlight is cooling the thermometer down. Well, what's actually happening is your first temperature reading is in shadow and therefore in a shaded area. And then to get into Moonlight, you have to move it out of a shaded area and expose it to whatever, whatever other winds and things you have. And that's a, that's the reason for it. Um, and so when, my favorite things about Mark Sargent's theory actually is that like many flat earthers, he was a conspiracy theorist who believed in all sorts of conspiracies beforehand.
So, uh, JFK was assassinated by the government or by an insight. It was an inside job. The moon landing was never real. Uh, he believed there was a civilization used to live on Mars who carved a face on a rock on Mars. All the, all the kind of classic stuff. And so when I spoke to Mark, I thought one of the ways to try and understand, um, what counts as a standard of evidence and how do you sense check? I thought I'd ask him, was there ever a conspiracy theory that you used to believe in that you now no longer believed to be true? And I thought maybe this will help me understand where you can come back from an idea. He said, well, it's funny because I used to, he said, I used to always wonder why are all these different conspiracies true? And then I realized the world is flat.
It all made sense because I thought, why did the government killed JFK? It's because they knew that we couldn't get to the moon. So the moon landing had to be faked because you can't get past the firmament because the world is flat and under a dome. So he said it was like, um, the, uh, the, the flat earth is kind of the Rosetta stone of conspiracy theories to a degree. It makes all the rest of it make sense. But he said there's one thing that no longer makes sense to me because I no longer believe that there's a face on Mars. And I want to meet the guy who came up with that cause I really want to know who's behind him. And I said, yeah, that's cause you no longer believe in Mars. That's cause you believe that the planets and the stars are just projections on the dorm. So you have a different view of the universe depending on what version of a, of the flat earth you, uh, you believe in. What are some of the,
um, most popular, um, Co conspiracy theories? You know, the, the flat earthers also believe in, are they anti vacs predominantly?
Yeah. So this is where I think it gets quite important for me because, uh, when I spent time at the, at the, the flat earth convention, when I've talked to flat earthers and then talk to people who are, you know, scientists and skeptics about it, they all say, well, at least the flat earth is harmless. And I think the problem is, uh, the flat earth beliefs don't exist in isolation. So one of things that really surprised me actually at the, at the convention that I went to was how little material was about the flat earth. So the Argentinian, uh, conspiracy theorist that was presenting that I mentioned before, he was talking not only was the a one world order and Illuminati that was, you know, run by Satan and, and various of the tools of Satan. But he was also pointing out how dinosaurs were faked and how it was a, the dinosaurs were invented by an artist who looked at, who looked at our giraffes and rhinos and crocodiles and sort of mixed the three together to create dinosaurs. But he also said, if you want to know who's really got the, what's really going on behind the world, read the book, the protocols of the elders of Zion and that will tell you what's going on. And
there you go. Now, now you're really at the end. One of the good roots.
Totally. And what surprised me was I was shocked to hear this hugely influential antisemitic hoax document. Uh, the protocols, elders designer, a fake that was created to stir antisemitism. I was shocked to hear that brought up on stage at this convention where I was expecting to hear about the flat earth, but I think I was the only one who was shocked. No one else seemed to bat an eyelid. And so we do see these different conspiracy theories clustering together. And uh, I spoke to a journalist actually at the, at the convention that weekend and they were having a lovely old time interviewing people saying, Oh, isn't this fun? Isn't it silly? Said, well, it is fun, but if you really want to know what's going on, just see that couple over there with the baby. Ask them if the baby's vaccinated, ask them in that baby was ill tomorrow.
Would they go and see a doctor or would they believe that big pharma is a tool of oppression and evil and moneymaking, all this kind of stuff. You know, one of the speakers at the convention, as well as being a flat earther and as well as being a nine 11 truther also believes that you can cure all manner of diseases, including HIV and AIDS by drinking or injecting your own urine. And this is, these are ideas, these are the ideas that are sort of bedfellows. And so I think a flat earth is in some ways, it's just the most visible of a, an ecosystem of conspiracy theory. Uh, and I think if you really want to try and, uh, help people challenge their own beliefs in the flat earth, you have to see it as such. You can't see it in isolation. You have to try and look at the, the wider pattern that it fits within.
Uh, this is so fascinating. Um, and you're obviously a tremendous talker. So why don't you, why don't you promote your podcast.
I've got a couple of things that I do, but the one in which I talk to people who, uh, who put forward ideas that I disagree with is called be reasonable with the idea being that I'm there to be reasonable to put forward a reasonable face to it. And so, um, I've talked to all manner of people from people who believe the world is flat to people who believe the world is hollow. I wish that's a really interesting interview because that goes in places in, in, in the same way that you might not associate, uh, antisemitic hoaxes with the flat earth belief. The hollow earth belief goes into some of the key risk positions too. And that's well worth the listen. Um, and I've interviewed people who believe they can talk to the dead and, and many of the things like that. But I've also interviewed people who are promoting, uh, the drinking of bleach as a cure for cancer, uh, and people who are putting forward white supremacists beliefs, uh, anti-feminist beliefs and some pretty extreme positions.
And the, the, the idea of the show really is to kind of understand the way we as people structure our beliefs. Cause I think the structuring of belief is very, uh, is very similar. The details of the beliefs change. And I think that flat earth is a, is a great way of examining the, the, the nature of belief, um, untainted by the possibility that it might be true. And then once you, once you really examine that and understand that once you've understood that the factors that influence people's beliefs, you can sort of lift that entire framework up and then lay it over some of these other beliefs that are much harder to point to a single fact that disproves it. So I think, yeah, understanding people who hold fringe or extreme positions is a useful thing. If we want to try and limit their influence and bring people back to a more reasonable position.
And, of course, bleach is back in the news, as some people have been recommending it as an anti-coronavirus gargle. Do not, under any circumstances, do that.
That’s it for this episode, get your science news at our website, www.scientificamerican.com. Where all of our coronavirus coverage is out from behind the paywall, available free.
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