What Flat-Earthers (and other conspiracy theories) Tell Us About Modern Society

When you hear that people believe the world’s flat, your first thought might be, “Why on earth (pun intended) would anyone believe this?” 

To answer this, you need to answer a much more fundamental and deeper question…. Why do you believe the world is round?

While this might seem like a trick question or play on words, to understand why people believe in falsehoods, you have to need to understand why people believe in truths.   

Only then can you understand how people and society influence perspective.

Facts Aren’t True, Only Useful

Human knowledge will be, at best, limited and incomplete because we experience the world through a very limited number of senses (five) and from one small vantage point in the vast universe.

We are not gods or sentient beings and can never fully understand the true nature of anything. The philosopher Gödel even proved that math itself is riddled with flaws, so does it surprise anyone the creation and existence of human beings is an imperfect process.

Though imperfect, our perception of knowledge and facts are still very useful.

This perception helps us accomplish practical tasks like building bridges.  We use math and physics to design bridges, then use outcomes like the sturdiness of that bridge as evidence of math’s correctness.

In other words, knowledge and facts don’t need to be absolutely true, only useful.  And we use it’s usefulness to verify it’s truthfulness.

How is a Round Earth Useful to Most People?

How is knowing the earth is round useful to most people?  Unless you’re an astronomer, navigator or rocket scientist, it isn’t really.

So, if it’s not useful, why get worked up over people who claim the world is flat?

Because saying the Earth is flat isn’t merely a criticism of a single physical fact but a criticism of the entire system of knowledge, learning, and education that created the fact and our faith in it.

This system of logic and knowledge known as truth is useful in helping me achieve my personal life goals in ways analogues to how math and physics are useful to build bridges.

Even though the Earth’s curvature has little to no practical value to my everyday life, the system of knowledge that produced that fact is very useful.  So, I’ll adhere strongly to my belief in it and get upset when others question it.

When Conspiracy is the Rational Choice

If I believe something is true because it’s useful, then the rise of flat-earthers and other conspiracy theorists implies that falsehoods are providing more utility than truths to a growing number of people. 

I recently saw a Netflix documentary called “Behind the Curve” and was struck by how happy these people were.  There was comradery and energy and acceptance. They had talk shows and academic conferences that led them to feel smart and important.  Their life had meaning and a sense of purpose. 

It made me ask, “What could they possibly gain by accepting the roundness of the Earth?”  And I realized that the answer was nothing. 

There is no utility in losing purpose and fulfillment over some abstract fact of no practical value. 

Rather than being irrational, believing the Earth is flat is the only rational choice for these people.

In one heartbreaking scene, a guy tries to use lasers to test Earth’s curvature for himself, but he couldn’t get it to work.  Deflated and dejected, he admits that, “science is really hard.”

Indeed. Science has progressed to the point that it’s beyond the reach of ordinary people. Nowadays, you need a PhD just to follow scientific conversations.  Most people don’t even think about trying to make a scientific contribution. 

The flat earth people will never get to speak at academic conferences run by university professors or NASA, but they can speak, be accepted, and feel a sense of importance and meaning at flat-earth conferences.

In another scene, a NASA scientist realizes the depth of misunderstanding and with great empthy tells his fellow scientists they need to stop mocking flat-earthers and instead accept and mentor them as human beings equally driven to seek purpose and truth.

The rise of flat-earthers, anti-vaxxers, climate-deniers, and the myriad of other conspiracy theory groups tells us that finding purpose and fulfillment is becoming increasingly unobtainable for more and more ordinary people.  

As the utility of truth provides fewer opportunities for regular people to feel important, fulfilled, and in control of their lives, the number of people turning to falsehoods will only continue to grow.

This is obviously dangerous because the world (flat or round) is full of hucksters and con artists eager to sell them snake oil solutions. 

When we hear that flat-earthers are on the rise, our focus shouldn’t be to criticize the people holding these beliefs but to instead criticize our own society for allowing falsehoods to become a rational means for achieving satisfaction and meaning.

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