At the end of last week, a group of people gathered in Birmingham, England for the first flat-Earth convention held in the UK. Most of the people at the convention attended because they believe in one of the most commonly held conspiracy theories of the modern era: that the Earth is flat.
Similar convocations have occurred in the US and Canada in the past, and the spread of the events through the English-speaking world is another sign that interest in flat-Earth conspiracy theories is growing.
There isn’t a dearth of writing that proves the flat-Earth hypothesis is wrong. And, yet, because the idea has persisted and even somewhat flourished, it’s worth understanding just what fuels its spread. For that reason, Harry Dyer, a researcher in education at the University of East Anglia, decided to attend the Birmingham event. He spoke to Quartz about his own beliefs, the goals of his research, and what his experience was like. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Quartz: How many people came? What were they like?
Dyer: I wasn’t aware of numbers. I attended via a video link they had set up.
They seemed incredibly friendly. They were keen to create an internal community. “Hope changes everything” was the mantra that came up a lot, as many like-minded people met in person for the first time.
What were your beliefs going into the conference? What were your goals going into the meeting?
My beliefs going in were the same as they are coming out of the conference: the world is round and heliocentric. My goals were to explore what flat Earthers meeting publicly means for science and the post-truth world in the 21st century.
What was the most interesting part for you?
It wasn’t the multiple models proposed throughout the conference. It was the range of feelings and animosity towards scientists. They seem to really love and engage in science but distrust scientists.
What do you think that means for education in society?
A couple of years ago, Michael Gove, now UK’s environment minister, said that this country has had enough of experts. It spoke to a trend that knowledge creation is increasingly being moved out of the hands of experts at universities. Related to that, the idea of trusting your gut or trusting your feelings came up a lot at the conference. I think it is indicative of [a form of] populism where people want to move away from statistics and create an environment that engages more in emotions.
Is that strictly true? Universities are still the main places where new knowledge is created. Public trust of scientists and doctors remains quite high. Are you just explaining the views of the fringe group or are you generalizing?
These are fringe people. Despite being a well-attended event, I don’t think these views are mainstream or will be mainstream in the near future. And there isn’t a widespread undermining of experts. But much of [what] [Michel] Foucault and other theorists learned about life in the 20th century came from studying people at the fringes of society. I believe that studying flat Earthers might do the same for the 21st century, showing us the trends about how knowledge may be treated in the future.
I know your aim in attending the event wasn’t to change the mind of flat Earthers. But if you were to decide that that is what you wanted to do, is there anything you learned at the convention that could inform about the best way of approaching the task?
Flat Earthers many times raised the point with physicists [who were not flat Earthers] that they were using huge measures of time and space. The flat Earthers said they would only believe it if they are able to see it or experience it. They put a lot of stock and a lot of value in what they could see and what they could observe by themselves. They want physical proof.
We have to approach them on a level of joint understanding. When we don’t agree on basic facts, it becomes very hard to find an entry point. The best way would be to show them something that proves the Earth is not flat. Unfortunately, I do not have the money to send each of them to space. But perhaps showing them a rocket launch might be a step in that direction. They were very skeptical of Elon Musk’s recent Falcon Heavy that put a car in space.
That said, they were enthusiastic about research. They often seemed more informed than the physics PhD students [who didn’t believe in the conspiracy] they debated on one of the panel discussions at the conference.
What about if the physical proof is presented through the eyes of an observer such as an astronaut?
They are very skeptical. If you believe the Earth is flat, then there has to be some sort of conspiracy to keep that information out of public domain. The conspiracy then goes from the government to scientists, who use false data. For them, there is very little outside evidence that is not explicitly linked to people part of the conspiracy.
What are the dynamics in this group that leads them to believe something that nearly everyone believes is an insane conspiracy theory?
From what I saw at the conference, they’re a dedicated group that’s keen to get the “truth” out as they see it. Many of the speakers explained that they came to flat-Earth beliefs through other conspiracy theories, and that this seemed to be the apex of those multiple theories. As such, they’re all very driven to uncover the “truth,” believing that even basic established facts are being altered and manipulated to control us.