At the end of last week, a group of people gathered in Birmingham, England to attend the first Flat-Earth Convention in the UK. Most people at the convention attended because they believed in one of the most common conspiracy theories of modern times: that the earth is flat.
Similar convocations have occurred in the US and Canada in the past, and the spread of events in the English-speaking world is another sign that interest in conspiracy theories is growing at the Earth level.
There is no lack of scripture proving that the flat earth hypothesis is false. And because the idea has persisted and even flourished, it makes sense to understand what drives its dissemination. Because of this, Harry Dyer, an educationalist at the University of East Anglia, decided to attend the Birmingham event. He spoke with Quartz about his own beliefs, the goals of his research and how his experience was. The interview was compressed and edited for clarity.
Quartz: How many people came? How were they?
Dyer: I did not know numbers. I visited via a video link they had set up.
They seemed to be incredibly friendly. They were interested in creating an internal community. "Hope changes everything" was the mantra that arose a lot when many like-minded people met for the first time in person.
What were your convictions for the conference? What were your goals that went into the meeting?
My convictions that came in were the same as they came from the conference: The world is round and heliocentric. My goals were to explore what the Flat Earthers public meeting for science and the post-truth world in the 21
What was the most interesting part for you?
It was not proposed by several models throughout the conference. It was the range of feelings and hostilities towards scientists. They really seem to love and engage with science, but they distrust the scientists.
What does this mean for education in society?
A few years ago, Michael Gove, now British Environment Minister, said that this country has enough of experts. There is evidence that there is a trend that knowledge production is increasingly being removed from the hands of university experts. In this context, the conference came up with the idea of trusting the gut or trusting one's feelings. I think it's indicative of [a form of] populism, where people want to move away from statistics and create an environment that triggers more emotion.
Is that true? Universities are still the most important places where new knowledge is created. The public confidence of scientists and doctors remains high. Do you only explain the views of the fringe group or do you generalize that?
These are marginal peoples. Although it is a well-attended event, I do not think these views are mainstream or may become mainstream in the near future. And there is no widespread undermining of experts. But much of Foucault's [what] [Michel] and other theoreticians who learned about life in the 20th century came through the study of people on the margins of society. I believe that the study of flat earths could do the same for the 21st century, and show us the trends of how knowledge can be treated in the future.
I know that your goal in attending was not to change the minds of flat earths. But if you decided that's what you wanted to do, is there anything you learned at the Convention that could inform you about the best way to approach the task?
Flat Earther has many times pointed out physicists [who were not flat Earthers] that they used large amounts of time and space. The flat earthlings said they would only believe it if they could see or experience it. They value what they can see and what they can observe for themselves. They want physical proof.
We must approach them on a level of common understanding. If we do not agree on basic facts, it will be very difficult to find an entry point. The best way would be to show them something that proves that the earth is not flat. Unfortunately I do not have the money to send them all into space. But maybe it's a step in that direction when you show them a rocket launch. They were very skeptical of the new Falcon Heavy by Elon Musk, who brought a car into space.
They were enthusiastic about the research. They often seemed to be better informed than Physics PhD students [who didn’t believe in the conspiracy] who discussed them at one of the podium discussions at the conference.
What if the physical evidence is presented through the eyes of an observer like an astronaut?
They are very skeptical. If you think the earth is flat, then there must be some kind of conspiracy to keep that information out of the public eye. The conspiracy then goes from government to scientists using wrong data. For them, there is very little external evidence that is not explicitly related to people in the conspiracy.
What are the dynamics in this group that make them believe something almost everyone believes is a crazy conspiracy theory?
From what I saw at the conference, they are a dedicated group eager to see the "truth" as they see it. Many of the speakers stated that they came to low beliefs through other conspiracy theories, and that this seemed to be the culmination of these multiple theories. As such, they are all very keen to expose the "truth" and believe that even basic facts are manipulated and manipulated to control us.