Off the Edge: Flat Earthers, Conspiracy Culture, and Why People Will Believe Anything, by Kelly Weill – Used or new @ SecondSale.com
Conspiracy theories help us feel safe by providing an explanation for things that feel incomprehensible and beyond our control.
Daily Beast journalist Kelly Weill takes a deep dive into what I think must be one of the strangest conspiracy theories out there, especially considering its longevity and sticking power: the idea that the Earth is flat, and this fact is being kept from us in favor of…something against Jesus?
Despite reading an entire book on it, I’m still not entirely clear. I’m reminded of something author Tony Russo wrote in Dragged Into the Light, about the conspiracy theory reasoning being so nebulous that it’s not really worth busting your brain to try and grasp it. I just don’t have the power for these mental gymnastics any more.
The Flat Earth concept has been around since the 1800s, traced to an Englishman named Samuel Birley Rowbotham who proposed a theory of zetetic astronomy, which is complicated for me to explain (Weill does it much better) but at the heart of it, proposes that a globe earth is essentially incompatible with the Bible and employs a bunch of debunkable arithmetic calculations and measurements. Weill deep dives into the entire bizarre history and its context and then applies it to examining the present-day iterations of Flat Earth and what they mean for the bigger picture of our current politics and social beliefs.
I admit I wondered at some point: well, who cares? Who cares if some people think the earth is flat, or won’t accept things they can’t see with their own eyes (this is part of the zetetic astronomy theory, which has no reasoning for a million other things they accept without proof)? Science knows it’s a globe. I don’t need to see it myself from space to believe this.
But there are much bigger implications, I suppose unsurprisingly, and Weill connects those dots clearly. The biggest issue I took from this is a thorough breakdown of the highly problematic YouTube algorithm. Apparently it learned that the way to get viewers to stick around longer — thus putting more eyeballs on more advertising — is through extreme content. Hence, you may navigate to the site to watch a cooking tutorial, but your next recommended video on autoplay will be a vegetarian cooking tutorial. Which segues into a vegan one.
This is relatively harmless compared to conspiracy-related content, but you can see where it’s going. And as Weill relates, Flat Earth belief is far from harmless. One man with whom she had a friendly relationship through her research, Mike Hughes, died from a crash in early 2020 after building his own rocket launch with faulty parachutes in order to prove Flat Earth theory. Others have found themselves involved with a number of dangerous, abusive personalities. YouTube just far too often seems like an especially ugly gathering place.
She also traces Flat Earth’s “comeback” in 2015 to Donald Trump’s “conspiracy-laden presidential campaign that many dismissed as a joke […] The joke was on the doubters.” That sums up why I think these topics are so worth reading about and better understanding, both as they currently play out and through their historical roots: the joke is often on those who dismiss them. We’ve seen this repeatedly, especially in recent years and especially when things seem ultra ridiculous.
The writing is completely engaging, if my interest did flag a bit during some of the historical sections. But it’s straightforward and readable, and Weill manages to write with both a (very necessary) sense of humor and a hearty dose of compassion for the people involved. This is never mean or judgmental, which I think is important as people become increasingly more sharply divided over these kind of topics.
Perhaps most importantly, she shows that a sort of deprogramming is also possible, and that even the most hard-held and passionately defended beliefs can be changed.
Published February 22, 2022 by Workman Publishing
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.