Source: Pixabay

What’s Your Flat Earth?

Lose the smugness. Behind the Curve reveals the flat earther in all of us.

Behind the Curve, a documentary about people who believe the earth is flat, is a remarkable film. Most would put flat earthers behind the glass for us to gawk at, like animals in a zoo. These filmmakers adopted a far more humane approach: they put us all in the zoo right next to them.

Flat earthers are our paragons of irrationality, ridiculed for the sheer brazenness of their beliefs. How can they endure the weight of such overwhelming evidence to the contrary, unless they’re irredeemably stupid or deranged?

Yet the film introduces us to people who defy these hurtful caricatures. We’re struck by their intellect, their curiosity, and their ingenuity. It’s hard to insulate preposterous claims from criticism. Flat earthers invent a range of creative hypotheses to prop it all up, along with experiments to test them. Bob Knodel, one of the more engineering flat earthers in the film, defends their ethic. “Not any one single experiment proves anything conclusively, that’s why we’re building a preponderance of evidence.“

It sounds strangely scientific. And this is how the filmmakers pull us all into the zoo. They break down the various defense mechanisms flat earthers use and present them in uncomfortably familiar terms. In one comical exchange, a flat earther concedes the impact of his negative results. “If we dumped [made public] what we found right now, it would be bad.” We’re reminded how we cherry-pick evidence to confirm our explanations, and bury the evidence that refutes them.

We all hold some beliefs that stand outside the consensus. The psychiatrist, Joe Pierre, remarked, “I often like to say that if you gave me five or ten minutes with you I can probably tease out some belief you have that your friends would think that’s a little bit strange.” And we all use pseudoscientific and rhetorical tactics to protect those beliefs, even professional scientists.

But you may protest. Despite these similarities, flat earthers are still in a class of their own. And in a sense, you’re right. Uncommonly, flat earthers see conspiracies everywhere.

But the filmmakers won’t allow us to retreat into the comfort of this explanation, either. Science denial isn’t rooted in irrationality as much as a commitment to some underlying beliefs. For flat earthers, their ground truth is conspiracy. They believe there are shadowy people across all institutions, pulling the strings and orchestrating grand deceptions. According to the astrophysicist, Hannalore Gerling-Dunsmore, “You cannot believe a flat earther theory without believing in some giant conspiracy, because you have to have some reason why all this proof is wrong.”

Behind the Curve - Official Release Trailer

And so the real villain in our story is revealed. Beliefs would wither and die without the sustenance of community. Community allows belief systems to stand against reality. The main protagonist in the film, Mark Sargent, in declaring his love for the flat earth community, underscores the societal connection of denial. He notes that the movement “feels like it’s part of something bigger.”

Through the threat of ostracization, communities inoculate belief systems against dissent. In many cases it’s the agony of ostracization — from partners, families, and friends — that drove flat earthers deeper into these communities in the first place. By turns, these portraits of community are heartwarming and uplifting, and then sad and chilling, particularly as the conspiracists themselves become victims of conspiracy theories.

Belief systems and community are what unite us in this struggle. But it’s a difficult admission, particularly when beliefs envelope our core identities. Reporting on a global survey of vaccine distrust, for example, Julia Belluz drew our attention to the awkwardness of this connection between religion and vaccine denial. Religions, as organized belief systems, exert a powerful influence over our perceptions of reality. They push otherwise incontrovertible topics, such as climate change and evolution, to third rail status.

But belief systems are every bit as powerful and resilient in a secular context as well. Consider the broad range of left- and right-leaning ideologies across the political spectrum. And belief systems extend deeply into our most rational and empirical institutions, as scientific research programs. The physicist, Spiros Michalakis, highlighted this key difference between skepticism and denial. He said, “Someone who is skeptical is willing to test their own hypothesis, their own assumptions. They are actually looking for the truth, even if it turns out that they were wrong.” Research programs may use the same tactics of confirmation bias and ad hoc hypothesizing to make their underlying core beliefs immune to criticism.

Behind the Curve transforms a subject of ridicule into a masterful work of social criticism. Commenting on the film, the writer Tim Urban offered this moral: “What flat earthers can offer is a way to have 99.9% of people say, Well, that’s ridiculous. Imagine believing that. And then to turn it around and say, How are you a flat earther?”

We all elevate our core beliefs above criticism. We all choose to argue, rather than co-explore. We all resort to cheap rhetorical and pseudoscientific tactics. We all choose to ostracize rather than embrace and understand.

I left the film wondering, What is my flat earth? What beliefs are so intrinsic to my identity that not even reality could penetrate them? How does my community protect those beliefs, and how would I respond to those who conspire against them?

And then, ever so slightly, I felt my reality curve.