Around here, they think the Earth is flat
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.’ ”
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.