MOYA SARNER

Focus-Science and Technology - - CONTENTS - Moya Sarner is a free­lance writer and editor based in Lon­don.

Writer Moya spent some time hang­ing out with Flat Earth­ers to find out why they’re so com­mit­ted to a world­view that sci­ence re­jected cen­turies ago.

“CON­SPIR­ACY THE­O­RIES ARE NOTH­ING NEW, BUT THE RISE OF FLAT EARTH­ERS SEEMS TO HAVE CAUGHT PEO­PLE’S IMAG­I­NA­TION”

For more than 50 years, Gary Heather be­lieved, un­ques­tion­ingly, that the Earth is a globe. But one evening in Au­gust 2015, he was brows­ing YouTube at his home in Hamp­shire and found a video called Flat Earth Clues. He watched all two hours, five min­utes and 43 sec­onds of the film – and he wished it was longer.

He de­scribes the mo­ment as a kind of awak­en­ing: “You’re hav­ing a cup of cof­fee, and you al­ways have the same brand, and in your mind you think that brand is how cof­fee tastes. And then all of a sud­den you have an­other brand of cof­fee, and at that mo­ment you drink it, you in­stantly re­alise there are other flavours out there you didn’t know ex­isted.”

Over the last three years, Heather has be­come a pas­sion­ate Flat Earther, tak­ing part in ex­per­i­ments to collect evidence call­ing into ques­tion the cur­va­ture of the Earth, and cam­paign­ing at Speak­ers’ Cor­ner in Hyde Park. He’s far from alone. Heather co-or­gan­ised the UK’s first ever Flat Earth Con­ven­tion in April this year, which saw some 260 Flat Earth­ers de­scend on a ho­tel in Birm­ing­ham for three days, with other con­fer­ences planned this year in Den­ver, USA and Ed­mon­ton, Canada. The Flat Earth So­ci­ety’s Twitter feed cur­rently boasts over 55,000 fol­low­ers.

Con­spir­acy the­o­ries are noth­ing new, but the rise of Flat Earth­ers in par­tic­u­lar seems to have caught peo­ple’s imag­i­na­tion, and stoked up their dis­be­lief. So what is it that draws peo­ple to these the­o­ries, de­spite un­told evidence to the con­trary, and what does it re­veal about so­ci­ety at large?

UN­COM­MON BE­LIEFS

Heather, who goes by the name Gary John on so­cial me­dia, is a cen­tral fig­ure in the UK’s Flat Earth com­mu­nity. How­ever, in his case the term Flat Earther is not en­tirely ac­cu­rate.

“The thing is, is it flat?” he ex­plains. “There’s a mas­sive ques­tion mark about it not be­ing a globe, and we’re as­sum­ing the al­ter­na­tive is it must be flat – but how do we know it isn’t con­cave, or con­vex, or hol­low? I can’t tell you what it is, but I be­lieve I know what it isn’t. I’m not a dis­be­liever of ev­ery­thing I’ve ever been given, but I try to look at it with an open mind. Be­cause I’m not a sci­en­tist, I’ve also got to bear in mind that what I come up with may be flawed.”

Heather’s voice lifts with ex­cite­ment as he de­scribes the at­mos­phere at the Flat Earth Con­ven­tion. At­ten­dees could meet other Flat Earth­ers for the first time, to dis­cuss the­o­ries about what shape the Earth re­ally is, and how and why they feel the truth has been cov­ered up for so long. Heather doesn’t have an an­swer for this, though he thinks it is likely that the sci­en­tists them­selves have been mis­led.

He also be­lieves there are ques­tion marks over the ex­is­tence of grav­ity, the Moon land­ings, the as­sas­si­na­tion of JFK

and what re­ally hap­pened on 9/11. I ask him what he thinks about the anti-vaxxer con­spir­acy the­ory: the idea that vac­cines cause harm­ful ef­fects such as autism which are be­ing cov­ered up. This is an­other be­lief that has been in­creas­ingly hit­ting the head­lines in re­cent years, with a raft of celebri­ties com­ing out in sup­port of the move­ment. Sim­i­lar to many an­ti­vaxxers, Heather ex­presses a dis­trust of the peo­ple who make these vac­cines. “Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies are out to make, for want of a bet­ter word, a fast buck,” he says. When I tell him I think it’s far more dan­ger­ous not to vac­ci­nate your chil­dren, he tells me, “I would to­tally dis­agree.”

Just like the Flat Earth hy­poth­e­sis and the idea that the Moon land­ings were faked, the link be­tween vac­ci­na­tions and autism is com­pletely un­sup­ported by sci­en­tific evidence. But con­spir­acy the­o­rists ques­tion the in­sti­tu­tions that pro­vide this evidence, and coun­ter­ing their be­liefs with log­i­cal rea­son­ing doesn’t seem to work (see ‘Why you can’t ar­gue with a con­spir­acy the­o­rist,’ right). In­stead, we need to look to psy­chol­o­gists and so­ci­ol­o­gists to help us un­der­stand why these the­o­ries ex­ist, and whether they’re on the rise. This lat­ter ques­tion is a par­tic­u­larly con­tro­ver­sial one.

Dr Rob Brother­ton is a psy­chol­o­gist at Gold­smiths, Uni­ver­sity of Lon­don and the au­thor of Sus­pi­cious Minds: Why We Be­lieve Con­spir­acy The­o­ries. “Peo­ple are al­ways say­ing that this is the golden age of con­spir­acy the­o­ries, that there have never been more than now,” he ex­plains, “but the his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive sug­gests that that’s maybe not the case.”

Dr Michael Wood, a lec­turer in psy­chol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of Winch­ester, says that it has been dif­fi­cult to mea­sure the change in con­spir­acy the­o­ries over time be­cause ear­lier sur­veys took a scat­ter­gun ap­proach, ask­ing about dif­fer­ent the­o­ries and us­ing dif­fer­ent word­ing.

One study that does of­fer some hints was car­ried out by po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists Joseph E Uscin­ski and Joseph M Par­ent in 2014. They turned to the let­ters pages of the The New York Times and the Chicago Tri­bune from 1890 to 2010, count­ing let­ters to the editor that re­ferred to con­spir­acy the­o­ries. While they found spikes, such as in the 1950s dur­ing the ‘Red Scare’ when fear of com­mu­nism was at its peak, the au­thors did not find that con­spir­acy the­o­ries have be­come more com­mon – in fact, the level has re­mained fairly con­sis­tent.

This is what we would ex­pect to find, says Brother­ton: “Be­liev­ing in con­spir­acy the­o­ries is, at least in part, a psy­cho­log­i­cal phe­nom­e­non. Ev­ery­one is on a spec­trum: some are more in­clined to be­lieve and some are less, and it makes sense that this would stay rel­a­tively sta­ble over time.”

DEATH OF THE EX­PERT?

What has changed in the last decade, how­ever, is that the rapid growth of the in­ter­net has made it eas­ier for con­spir­acy the­o­rists to find each other, says Dr Harry Dyer, a lec­turer in ed­u­ca­tion at the Uni­ver­sity of East Anglia. This is what made Heather’s con­ven­tion pos­si­ble. More than this, so­cial me­dia, Dyer ex­plains, has had a lev­el­ling ef­fect, mean­ing ex­perts have less power than they used to. This was never clearer than when rap­per B.o.B tweeted about his be­lief that the Earth is flat in 2016. His voice was just as pow­er­ful as – if not more pow­er­ful than – that of Neil deGrasse Tyson, the as­tro­physi­cist and head of the Hay­den Plan­e­tar­ium in New York City, who tweeted back his own evidence.

Dyer ar­gues: “On so­cial me­dia, ev­ery­body gets to have a say and cre­ate knowl­edge. Celebri­ties like B.o.B can have their say about the shape of the Earth along­side Neil deGrasse Tyson. They both have an equal foot­ing on Twitter, and that means that knowl­edge has been sep­a­rated from tra­di­tional power struc­tures.”

Dyer ar­gues that this trend of top­pling sci­en­tists from their pedestals is linked to the enor­mous po­lit­i­cal up­heavals that have taken place in the last few years. Take politi­cian Michael Gove’s fa­mous 2016 claim that, “Peo­ple in this coun­try have had enough of ex­perts,” when he was chal­lenged to name econ­o­mists who sup­ported Brexit. Or con­sider Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­den­tial aide Kellyanne Con­way’s coin­ing of the term “al­ter­na­tive facts” in 2017, in or­der to de­fend in­flated claims of the crowd size at Trump’s in­au­gu­ra­tion. Dyer says that this sort of rhetoric “is be­ing wielded more and more to say: we don’t need knowl­edge, we’ve got emo­tions, we’ve got our gut feel­ings about the world. It speaks to a gen­eral shift away from ex­perts, which can have, as we’ve seen, quite dra­matic ef­fects.”

But why would some­one be drawn to be­liev­ing a con­spir­acy the­ory when there’s so much evidence that points to the con­trary? Brother­ton says that cer­tain bi­ases in our think­ing can help to ex­plain this.

“Our brain has a bias to­wards see­ing mean­ing rather than just chaos, so some­times we may think we see a pat­tern when it doesn’t re­ally ex­ist.” He ex­plains that this has evo­lu­tion­ary ben­e­fits: if a noise in the bushes is be­lieved to be caused by a tiger

rather than the wind, the lis­tener will take eva­sive ac­tion which could save his life. “So when it comes to con­spir­acy the­o­ries, it’s all about tak­ing am­bigu­ous in­for­ma­tion and weav­ing it all to­gether, spot­ting the pat­terns and con­nect­ing the dots.”

Then there is pro­por­tion­al­ity bias, where we as­sume that if some­thing big hap­pens, such as a ter­ror­ist at­tack or a pres­i­dent be­ing as­sas­si­nated, some­thing big must have caused it. “Pres­i­dent Kennedy was as­sas­si­nated by a lone gun­man who no one had ever heard of, which psy­cho­log­i­cally does not fit with our in­tu­ition,” says Brother­ton. So a con­spir­acy the­ory de­vel­ops that it was caused by some­thing big­ger: the Mafia, the CIA, the Il­lu­mi­nati. A 1979 study demon­strated this ef­fect by show­ing par­tic­i­pants fake news­pa­per ar­ti­cles with two ver­sions of the same story. In one ver­sion, an as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempt on a pres­i­dent was suc­cess­ful and the pres­i­dent died; in the other, the pres­i­dent sur­vived. When faced with the big­ger out­come (the pres­i­dent dy­ing), par­tic­i­pants pre­ferred a con­spir­a­to­rial ex­pla­na­tion; when the out­come was less sig­nif­i­cant, they be­lieved the story of the lone gun­man.

BI­ASED BRAINS

Con­spir­acy the­o­ries seem shot-through with para­noia, and there is evidence to sug­gest that the more para­noid some­one is, the more they tend to be­lieve these the­o­ries. But Brother­ton points out that stud­ies show that this is not se­vere, ‘clin­i­cal level’ para­noia. “It’s mun­dane, ev­ery­day sus­pi­cions that we all have to some ex­tent – not out­landish, tin­foil hat lev­els of para­noia.” Re­cent stud­ies have also found that peo­ple who are more likely to be­lieve in con­spir­acy the­o­ries also tend to have a need for unique­ness – a de­sire to be in the small group of peo­ple who are ‘in the know’.

In the grand scheme of things, con­spir­acy the­o­rists can seem pretty harm­less. But there can also be a dan­ger­ous side to these the­o­ries when they take hold. In July 2018, Pub­lic Health Eng­land an­nounced that more than 750 cases of measles had been iden­ti­fied across Eng­land so far this year, with any­one who had not re­ceived two doses of the MMR vac­cine at risk – the vac­cine at the cen­tre of the anti-vaxxer con­spir­acy the­ory. And Dyer be­lieves that the anti-ex­pert, ‘follow your gut’ rhetoric that fu­els con­spir­acy the­o­ries is also help­ing to fuel the rise of the alt-right and neo-Nazism in Europe and Amer­ica.

Brother­ton is care­ful to point out, how­ever, that the char­ac­ter­is­tics linked with con­spir­a­to­rial think­ing are within all of us. “These habits of mind can creep into a lot of be­liefs that don’t nec­es­sar­ily look like con­spir­acy the­o­ries on the sur­face,” he says. “If you think about a time you didn’t get a job you think you de­served, you might find your­self won­der­ing, ‘Maybe some­one didn’t want me to get it’.”

Wood agrees: “If a con­spir­acy the­o­rist is some­one who be­lieves in a con­spir­acy the­ory, then most of us are con­spir­acy the­o­rists be­cause most of us be­lieve at least one.” So per­haps the most dan­ger­ous thing of all is to as­sume that con­spir­acy the­o­rists are all other peo­ple.

BE­LOW: Flat Earth­ers are not unique: other pop­u­lar con­spir­acy the­o­ries con­cern the as­sas­si­na­tion of JFK (top row) and the Moon land­ings (bot­tom row)

LEFT: Some ex­perts sug­gest that Flat Earth­ers (top) and the far right (bot­tom) are both guilty of the same kind of ir­ra­tional think­ing

ABOVE: Flat Earther ‘Mad’ Mike Hughes built a steam-pow­ered rocket so he could go up and see if the Earth is round. In March this year, he man­aged an al­ti­tude of just 570m be­fore de­ploy­ing his para­chutes and land­ing back on terra firma with a bump. Rocket build­ing ain’t that easy, eh? LEFT: Flat-Earth the­o­ries en­joyed a resur­gence in the late 19th Cen­tury: this map of the world dates from 1893

ABOVE LEFT: Gary Heather ap­peared on ITV’s This Morn­ing. Pre­sen­ters Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby were unim­pressed with his the­o­riesRIGHT: Many Flat Earth­ers cling to an Old Tes­ta­ment view of the Earth

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