More FErs

Netflix has just started streaming a documentary, first screened in 2018, called, “Behind the Curve,” directed and produced by Daniel J. Clark. The IMDB summary reads:

Flat Earthers, a term synonymous with conspiracy theorists who wear tinfoil hats. Meet real Flat Earthers, a small but growing contingent of people who firmly believe in a conspiracy to suppress the truth that the Earth is flat. One of the most prominent Flat Earthers is Mark Sargent who, in the midst of the upcoming Solar Eclipse, proudly speaks at the first Flat Earther conference.

The film mostly follows a number of FErs, notably Mark Sargent, as they go to meet ups, host youtube shows, and, at the climax, attend the Raleigh conference. These sections were interspliced with interviews with a couple of astrophysicists from CalTech, a science writer, and a couple of psychiatrists.

The focus was on the community of FErs as a great big family, subject to sibling rivalries and spats, yes, but a community nonetheless. This allowed the emphasis at the end on the idea that FErs are not “crazy” or intellectually stunted but have found a community when others have rejected them. Within this community, the FErs can all be protagonists of their own world creation. The selected footage of the Raleigh conference certainly emphasized the apparent nature of the conference as a revival meeting, in which every speaker affirmed their belief in FE and gave their conversion story.

In parallel to the community was the issue of conspiracy theories, One of the key subjects in the film, Patricia Steere, made an interesting observation that conspiracy theories form a complex web, but FE is at that the center of that web. If you can sustain the conviction that governments and churches and universities, etc., have all hidden the FE truth for 450 years (it would actually have been longer, as knowledge of the earth goes back to about 400 BCE), then you can sustain a conviction in most any conspiracy theory.

And the film makes interesting comments on the experiments that FErs have been doing to prove the earth’s flatness. Two experiments in particular: a repetition of the canal level survey that was used in the 19th century to kickstart the FE movement, and a high-end gyroscope. Both experiments gave the wrong results (i.e., proving the earth is not flat) but the FErs concerned immediately tried to think of exculpatory reasons.

Implicit is FErs’ distrust of “science” or “scientism” (not explained, but I understand to be a fundamentalist dog whistle) and complex mathematics and an absolute commitment to trust only what they see with their own eyes. I found it fascinating that in the leveling of a canal in California, the initial experimental design called for the use of a high-powered laser, that would make the sightline visible. Just looking through a good theodolite is not good enough: how can others trust that the telescope is properly calibrated. It’s generally accepted by scholars who worry about FErs, that none of the FE models can explain solar eclipses; after the 2017 total eclipse, one FEr ignores that problem by stating that it looked as though the sun was eclipsing itself and that the moon was no involved. Personal observation is all that can be trusted.

The film does not however address

1) the role of fundamentalist religion in requiring a belief in a flat earth in order to sustain a literalist interpretation of the Bible

2) the strong possibility of active deceit in selecting evidence (beyond the inability to accept the results of the experiments)

3) the marked variation in FE models, other than some hints about infinite planes (new to me), and especially issues of stationary and moving FEs (of issue re gravity)

Finally, the last thing I learned was that the conference center where the Raleigh conference was held has, outside, a gigantic globe:

screen shot from Behind the Curve (2018)

screen shot from Behind the Curve (2018)