A Deep Dive Into the Weird World of Flat Earth

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.

19 thoughts on “A Deep Dive Into the Weird World of Flat Earth

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    1. Same here! And honestly their reasoning just comes across as so ludicrous and unconvincing. The book is really interesting and and entertaining read but I didn’t come away with any better idea of how they’re actually buying this, aside from that they’re already primed to believe conspiracy theories.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. A while ago my son showed me to a youtube video on a conference held by Flat Earthers. I was amazed, and could not believe it. How is it possible to believe in something like that today, when we have all the science to prove it is not so. Scary, indeed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s so crazy, isn’t it. And their reasoning against the scientific evidence is just not convincing in the slightest. There really is something to the YouTube indoctrination though. I had no idea it was SO pervasive and apparently convincing.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have noticed that with the Youtube algorithm and it has definitely led to me spending less time there. I am subscribed to a few vegetable gardening channels, and mostly I stick to those, but if I follow the “autoplay” out of curiosity, it often progresses from vegetable gardening to homesteading to people who are living off the grid to people who are prepping for the end times – when all I actually wanted to know was how to keep pigeons off my veg.

    Encouraging that the book shows that people can be helped out of these conspiracy theories, though – I have not heard much about that happening successfully and it’s good to know it’s possible!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s so interesting that you’d noticed it (and such a perfect example of the weird progression it takes!) The author demonstrates how it’s worked for her and for other journalists who have similarly tested it with exactly the same result – just this very quick progression into the most extreme iteration of any topic! I think I just never use the autoplay so I’ve mainly avoided realizing the extremism of it, but it’s really so odd. Apparently they’ve blocked Flat Earth videos or hidden the search keywords, various strategies like this, because this group gets so out of control. This is just the weirdest conspiracy theory, really.

      I agree – I always like to be able to see how people were deprogrammed and I wish there’d been more of it, but even the bit here was helpful and reassuring!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s also really easy to understand how someone wouldn’t notice it. I’m hyper alert to anything conspiracy-ish because my dad has a dyed-in-the-wool conspiracy theorist my whole life, so I really notice things like that. But the progression always starts with just more radical versions of things you agree with (e.g. gardening can reduce carbon footprint) and ends up at the most extreme position (humanity is the disease). But if you’ve started off by agreeing with the first few videos, I suspect you’re much more likely to be nudged into agreeing with the next few.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I can completely understand why that would make you hyper-sensitive to it! It is just really interesting how it builds on a topic you already agree with, as you say, which I think is also boosted by the feeling that you’re amidst likeminded thinking. There’s a kind of group aspect to it and during times of turmoil when people are starkly divided as we’ve been in many places in recent years, it plays right into this.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for introducing this new book to me as I’m often interested in books on conspiracy theories, especially why they seem so attractive to people.

    Usually we can see the appeal as they could be true but these ones, such as Flat-Earthers, seem so bizarre. Presumably, they have an explanation as to why no-one’s found the edge yet – it’s probably a cover-up.

    Like

  4. Kelly Weill has been serving as a fill-in co-host of The Daily Beast’s Fever Dreams podcast and I’ve been wanting to read this book ever since I heard her talk about it a few weeks back. So glad you reviewed it. Now, after reading your great review I want to read her book even more! Thanks!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s such an odd one! I was still a bit perplexed about why it’s so appealing even after reading this, but I did see more of how easily it spreads and why it’s been able to make such a big weird comeback!

      Like

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