Around here, they think the Earth is flat

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Gra­ham Am­brose

Ev­ery Tues­day at 6 p.m., three dozen Coloradans from ev­ery cor­ner of the state as­sem­ble in the win­dow­less back­room of a small Fort Collins cof­fee shop. They have met 16 times since March, most nights talk­ing through the ins and outs of their shared faith un­til the own­ers kick them out at clos­ing.

They have no lead­ers, no for­mal hi­er­ar­chy and no en­forced ide­ol­ogy, save a com­mon quest for an­swers to ques­tions about the stars. Their mem­ber­ship has slowly swelled in the past three years, though per­se­cu­tion and wide­spread pub­lic de­ri­sion keep them mostly un­der­ground. Many use pseudonyms, or give only first names.

“They just do not want to talk about it for fear of reprisals or ridicule from co­work­ers,” says John Vnuk, the group’s founder, who lives in Fort Collins.

He is at the epi­cen­ter of a bud­ding move­ment, one that’s com­ing for your books, movies, God and mind. They’re thou­sands strong — per­haps one in ev­ery 500 — and have pro­po­nents at the high­est lev­els of sci­ence, sports, jour­nal­ism and arts.

They call them­selves Flat Earthers. Be­cause they be­lieve Earth — the blue, ma­jes­tic, spin­ning orb of life —

is as flat as a ta­ble.

And they want you to know. Be­cause it’s 2017.

“This is a new awak­en­ing,” Vnuk says with a spark in his earth-blue eyes. “Some will accept it, some won’t. But love it or hate it, you can’t ig­nore Flat Earth.”

The Fort Collins group — mostly white and mostly male, col­lege-age to sep­tu­a­ge­nar­ian — touts it­self as the first com­mu­nity of Flat Earthers in the United States. Sis­ter groups have since spawned in Bos­ton, New York, Hous­ton, Philadel­phia, Phoenix and Chicago.

In Colorado, Ptole­maic­science re­vival­ists have lofty am­bi­tions: rais­ing $6,000 to put up a bill­board along In­ter­state 25 broad­cast­ing their world­view. A GoFundMe site quickly raised more than $400 but has re­cently stalled. Any­one can con­trib­ute funds or sub­mit bill­board ideas, and the group has promised $100 to the win­ning sub­mit­ter.

“This is not some­thing you can force down others’ throats,” Vnuk says. “They have to come to it on their own jour­ney. A bill­board is a nonag­gres­sive way to in­tro­duce people to the idea.”

(All sci­en­tists, ed­u­ca­tors and fact-fol­low­ers con­sulted for this story re­jected the idea of a flat Earth.)

At the Tues­day night meet-ups, dubbed “Flat Earth or Other For­bid­den Top­ics,” be­liev­ers in­vite fel­low ad­her­ents to open dis­cus­sions in which the like-minded con­firm one an­other’s hunches and laugh at the folly of those still stuck in the en­light­en­ment.

“There’s so much ev­i­dence once you set aside your pre­pro­grammed learn­ing and be­gin to look at things ob­jec­tively with a crit­i­cal eye,” says Bob Kn­odel, a Den­ver res­i­dent and fea­tured guest at a re­cent Tues­day meet­ing. “You learn soon that what we’re taught is mainly pro­pa­ganda.”

Kn­odel worked for 35 years as an en­gi­neer and now runs the pop­u­lar YouTube chan­nel Globe­busters, which has nearly 2 mil­lion views across more than 135 videos. “I’ve re­searched con­spir­a­cies for a long time,” he says. “I’ve looked very crit­i­cally at NASA. Why is it that the as­tro­nauts have con­flict­ing sto­ries about the sky? Is it bright with stars, or a deep vel­vet black?”

His wife, Cami, shares his views. “Our YouTube chan­nel gets people to crit­i­cally think,” she said to the Fort Collins group. “The he­lio­cen­tric model says that we’re spin­ning at 1,038 mph. They say you won’t no­tice it be­cause it’s a con­tin­ual mo­tion. But you should be able to feel it. You shouldn’t be able to func­tion al­legedly spin­ning that fast.”

The weekly meet-ups also give fo­rum to friendly lines of ques­tion­ing. Some are straight­for­ward (“What do you say back to people who call you stupid?”) and sum­mon a ready-made an­swer (“You’re not stupid, pe­riod. They have to un­der­stand that there are de­cep­tions go­ing on at enor­mous lev­els”). Others stump even the ex­perts. “How are we Flat Earthers sup­posed to ex­plain to our friends the so­lar eclipse in Au­gust?” asked one at­tendee. The room fell silent. “We’ll have to do more re­search and get back to you on that.”

That re­search tends to fall on the shoul­ders of move­ment lead­ers, many of whom have back­grounds in re­lated fields. Mark Sar­gent is the fa­ther of Flat Earth or­ga­niz­ing in the United States. He worked as a soft­ware an­a­lyst in Boul­der for 20 years be­fore re­lo­cat­ing to Seat­tle, where he sets up Flat Earth meet-ups through YouTube. His chan­nel has amassed 7.7 mil­lion video views and al­most 40,000 reg­u­lar sub­scribers.

Like nearly ev­ery mem­ber of the move­ment, Sar­gent con­verted to Flat Earthism late in life. For most of his first five decades, he be­lieved Earth to be a spin­ning globe. But some­thing changed around the sum­mer of 2014, when he stum­bled upon a YouTube video con­tend­ing that Earth is flat.

“It was in­ter­est­ing, but I didn’t think it was real,” he says. “I started the same way as ev­ery­one else, saying, ‘Oh, I’ll just prove the Earth is round.’ Nine months later, I was star­ing at my com­puter think­ing, ‘I can’t prove the globe any­more.’ ”

He re­mem­bers the date — Feb. 10, 2015 — when he took the plunge and started cre­at­ing Flat Earth con­tent of his own. To his sur­prise, the daily videos he had be­gun churn­ing out ig­nited a firestorm on­line. The 49year-old now de­votes him­self to Flat Earth prop­a­ga­tion full time. He has made 600 YouTube videos and been in­ter­viewed more than 120 times.

His con­ver­sion to the cult of globe-bust­ing fol­lows a com­mon pat­tern among pros­e­lytes: la­tent anti-au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism, which first found out­let in pop­u­lar con­spir­acy the­o­ries of the mid-aughts, that by the mid-2010s trans­formed into full-blown con­tempt for the global model. In most cases, the cat­a­lyst was YouTube, with its highly pop­u­lar flatEarth videos that be­gan pro­lif­er­at­ing in late 2014.

Sar­gent ac­knowl­edges that he didn’t found Flat Earthism, which has ex­isted in some form since an­tiq­uity. But he and a hand­ful of others com­bined com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­ogy with old-fash­ioned sales­man­ship to grow a sham­bolic rump of mostly silent be­liev­ers into a fledg­ling move­ment that spans the coun­try.

“Be­fore I did the first few videos back in 2015, if you typed ‘flat Earth’ into YouTube you’d get 50,000 re­sults,” he says. “Now, you’ll come in with 17.4 mil­lion. That’s more than a 30,000 per­cent in­crease. And we’re grow­ing.”

The Cen­ten­nial State has been the cra­dle of the Amer­i­can flat Earth re­nais­sance since birth. The first Flat Earth In­ter­na­tional Con­fer­ence, which will be in Raleigh, N.C., in Novem­ber, fea­tures a num­ber of Colorado-based Flat Earthers, in­clud­ing Sar­gent, Kn­odel and Matthew Pro­cella, or ODD Re­al­ity, a Den­ver-based rap­per and YouTu­ber with 75,000 sub­scribers and nearly 7 mil­lion video views.

The move­ment, though, is not a mono­lith. Dif­fer­ences of opin­ion di­vide the com­mu­nity on mat­ters of sci­en­tific in­ter­pre­ta­tion, cos­mol­ogy, strat­egy and even the most fun­da­men­tal ques­tions of ge­ol­ogy, such as: what shape is our planet?

Many sub­scribe to the “ice wall the­ory,” or the be­lief that the world is cir­cum­scribed by gi­ant ice bar­ri­ers, like the walls of a bowl, that then ex­tend in­fin­itely along a flat plane. Sar­gent en­vi­sions Earth as “a gi­ant cir­cu­lar disc cov­ered by a dome.” He likens the planet to a snow globe, sim­i­lar to the one de­picted in “The Tru­man Show,” a fic­ti­tious 1998 ex­is­ten­tial drama about an in­sur­ance sales­man un­know­ingly liv­ing in an ar­ti­fi­cially con­structed dome.

What then lies on the other side of the ice walls or be­yond the glassy dome en­clos­ing our world?

Flat Earthers don’t claim to know with cer­tainty, in­stead pay­ing lip ser­vice to “com­mon sense” ev­i­dence they claim can be proved. When skep­tics de­mand proof, though, Flat Earthers wield reams of fig­ures from so-called cur­va­ture tests and gy­ro­scope cal­i­bra­tions that seem to but­tress their views. Lead­ers want Flat Earthism to be an ac­ces­si­ble creed for the com­mon man, an egal­i­tar­ian move­ment that gives life mean­ing by punch­ing back at sci­en­tific dis­en­chant­ment.

“They want you to think you’re in­signif­i­cant, a speck on the Earth, a cos­mic mis­take,” Sar­gent says. “The flat Earth says you are spe­cial, we are spe­cial, there is a cre­ator, this isn’t some ac­ci­dent.”

The ortho­dox say their faith makes them a per­se­cuted mi­nor­ity, mocked to their faces by friends and strangers for noth­ing more than First Amend­ment-pro­tected be­liefs. “We get ac­cused of be­ing id­iots, of do­ing it for money,” Kn­odel said. “Be­lieve me, there’s only hu­mil­i­a­tion in this. We do it be­cause we be­lieve it.”

He and other Flat Earthers can only spec­u­late why the global con­spir­acy has had such stay­ing power for more than 500 years, or why “the top” — the ubere­lite heads of gov­ern­ments, uni­ver­si­ties and ma­jor cor­po­ra­tions that al­legedly know “the truth” — would con­tinue to up­hold a scheme that of­fers lit­tle in the way of riches or strate­gic power.

“It’s not about money. They want com­plete mind con­trol,” Kn­odel says after the meet­ing in the lobby of the Fort Collins cof­fee shop. “They want to cre­ate two classes: the ul­tra rich and ser­vants. At that point they would’ve taken over the world, and en­slaved the pop­u­la­tion, and con­trolled ev­ery­thing.”

Un­til that dour day, bill­boards will be fundraised, meet-ups will be or­ga­nized and the world will keep on spin­ning. Or not.

“I started the same way as ev­ery­one else, saying, ‘Oh, I’ll just prove the Earth is round.’ Nine months later, I was star­ing at my com­puter think­ing, ‘I can’t prove the globe any­more.’ ”

Mark Sar­gent

Gabriel Scar­lett, The Den­ver Post

Mem­bers of Flat Earth Fort Collins watch YouTube videos on the topic at a meet­ing last month at the Pur­ple Cup Cafe in Fort Collins. The group is skep­ti­cal of the sci­ence be­hind Earth be­ing a spin­ning sphere.

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