The rise in a belief that the Earth is flat is bizarre and somewhat frightening, a repudiation of one of the most basic elements of scientific consensus. Texas Tech University psych researcher Asheley R. Landrum attended a 2017 flat earth convention and interviewed 30 attendees to trace the origins of their belief in a flat earth, finding that Youtube videos were key to their journey into conspiracy theories; her findings were bolstered by a survey of more than 500 participants.
Landrum presented her research at an AAAS meeting a year ago, and it paints a compelling picture of the role Youtube plays in spreading conspiracy theories.
I think that a good model for understanding the spread of these theories needs to also take account of the breakdown of epistemological consensus about how we know things are true.
This breakdown has at least two contributing factors: the first is a decades-long, deliberate campaign to undermine the consensus about how we know things are true, from the denial of the link between cancer and smoking to climate denial. The denial playbook starts with undermining the idea that science produces reliable outcomes, or that a scientific consensus can be trusted.
But denialism is greatly augmented by a legitimate perception of corruption in both expert circles and regulators. The anti-vax movement, for example, relies on two true facts to suggest an untrue conclusion:
* the pharma industry is corrupt and willing to endanger people for profit; and
* regulators are captured by pharma and willing to let them get away with it; therefore
* vaccines can't be trusted.
In a democracy that values free expression, it's hard to imagine how we'll get people to stop saying untrue things (though of course we can tweak our suggestion algorithms to stop prioritizing "engagement," which ends up promoting untrue things).
But we can (and indeed, must) address the legitimate concerns of conspiracy theorists: the ability fo self-dealing, powerful companies to get away with bad acts, and the willingness of regulators to let them.
If you want to learn more about Flat Eartherism, I strongly recommend this interview with Mark Sargent, a notorious Flat Earther, who talked with the skeptical podcast Oh No Ross and Carrie in late 2017. Sargent's frank discussion of his conspiracy theory mindset provides really important insight into an extremely frightening breakdown in reason in our society.
"Believing the Earth is flat in of itself is not necessarily harmful, but it comes packaged with a distrust in institutions and authority more generally," she added. "We want people to be critical consumers of the information they are given, but there is a balance to be had."
Landrum called on scientists and others to create their own YouTube videos to combat the proliferation of conspiracy videos. "We don't want YouTube to be full of videos saying here are all these reasons the Earth is flat. We need other videos saying here's why those reasons aren't real and here's a bunch of ways you can research it for yourself."
But she conceded that some Flat Earthers may not be swayed by a scientists' words. When the US astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson explained how small sections of large curved surfaces will always appear flat to the little creatures that crawl upon it, his message was seen by some Flat Earthers as patronising and dismissive, Landrum said.
Believing in A Flat Earth [Asheley Landrum/AAAS] (slides)
Study blames YouTube for rise in number of Flat Earthers [Ian Sample/The Guardian]