Going “Off the Edge” is more popular than ever – Book Review

I’ve written twice on Flat Eartherism.

On Spooky Geology – Anti-globular convictions: Flat Earth belief explodes in popularity

On this blog with thoughts on the 2018 Behind the Curve documentary – Flat-earthers as scientifical Americans.

I’ve also been covering some news about them on occasion with my Weekly Weird newsletter but not so much recently, for…. reasons. First, believing in the flat earth isn’t really news anymore – it’s practically mainstream. And, second, talking about it in any way gives oxygen to the beast of misinformation, allowing it to spread. So, I feel bad talking about it now. I would like, however, to recommend a new book by Kelly Weill about Flat Eartherism because it’s informative, important, sobering, empathetic, and well-written. I found it depressing but helpful. The world is a shit show. Sadly, it’s going to get worse, but we need to understand it inasmuch as to not contribute to its worsening.

Weill goes to Flat Earth conferences, was a regular visitor to the online forums, interviews the people in the center of the community, and has done great research about conspiracy ideology. This book is a perfect follow-up read from Christine Garwood’s Flat Earth book on “The History of an Infamous Idea”. She valiantly works at staying grounded in the land of homemade rockets to the stratosphere and high-flying egos of the “knowers”. I could not have done this. She’s a tough lady and I applaud her for this.

The efforts of Flat Earth proponent Samuel Rowbotham were incredibly similar to what’s going on today. Christians feel attacked by new ideas in the world; the working class feel oppressed by elitists; there must be a network of evil in the world. It’s no different today. The internet has allowed fringe ideas to become mainstreamed. I’m doubting that the internet was a net good for the world. I think it might kill us all – “it” being, ironically, the genuine worldwide network of evil, greedy interests who managed to manipulate us all. Sorry to be negative, but as Weill traces the continued radicalization of this cult-like community, the same movement can be seen in general society where extremism is mainstreamed. We’re in big trouble.

But on a more local level, I saw bits in this book that reminded me of why I left the skeptical community: it was elitist, they mocked people as “stupid” and blamed bad education, there was no room empathy or for my middle “gray area”. The “Skeptical” approach of throwing facts at things is a waste of time and may make things worse in some instances. I particularly liked the suggestion in this book of moving to the “middle” as a way to help those caught in this community to escape the extremes. I wish I could manage to change my own communication style and be more creative in reaching audiences who may believe fringe things. The “siloes” people exist in are difficult to access.

Why people choose to go “flat” is complicated. This book doesn’t get deep into all the factors because that would be quite a heavy lift. I contend that along with missing the feeling of “purpose” in their lives, flat earthers are steeped in anti-authority ideas – they are distrustful of government and the institution of science. With the rise of internet sources, everyone knows they can “do their own research” and have their views on the same platform as any other. Social media encouraged the fringe, the bizarre, and the controversial. News media treated the fringe as interesting, possible, and saw it as profitable. So, here we are.

There is a short bit at the end about what can be done and it is good advice but astoundingly difficult to undertake. I admit, I will not have discussions with fringe proponents of any ilk. But there is value in sticking with your friend or family member who goes down this path. Weill makes clear that it’s a path to either disaster or to disappointment. Living detached from reality will bite you eventually. The bigger problem is that it’s a disease that is rampant in today’s modern society and it affects the rest of us too.

Recommended reading.

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Flat-earthers as scientifical Americans: One message from ‘Behind the Curve’

Most people react to flat-earthers by labeling them as stupid or scientifically illiterate. A moderate effort to examine what they say will reveal that is not so. On the contrary, those who embrace conspiratorial beliefs seem to be bored with the conventional. Their active, creative brains spin more intriguing, complicated, and colorful trappings around mundane events and explanations. This was clearly in evidence in the documentary on flat-earthers, Behind the Curve.

The film has received good reviews and I recommend you watch it for yourself in an objective frame of mind. 

Decider does a brief overview of the important points but the reviewer thinks the execution of the project is inconsistent. I disagree. I think it’s marvelous. But I saw it by way of my own work on Scientifical Americans. So, unlike other commenters, I was not yelling at the screen. Instead, the film connected some dots for me, and a more coherent, but still complicated, insight into fringe beliefs evolved.

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