London Skeptics in the Pub events rarely, if ever, disappoint but last night's talk at the Monarch in Camden with Michael Marshall, Circular Reasoning:The Rise of Flat Earth Belief, was one of the very best I'd ever attended. Michael is an articulate, informed, and entertaining speaker and his talk was chock-full of fascinating information that shed light on a subject that SitP host Carmen correctly introduced as something we "didn't think we'd need to have a talk on" in 2019!
With a pint of Red Stripe on the go, arms covered in mosquito bites from my recent Greek vacation, and my heart weighed down with the emotional detritus of romantic failure, I'm pleased to report that an hour or two in the company of Michael Marshall and London SitP proved to be just the tonic that my aching body and soul required. I'd mistakenly thought the earth may not be moving for me any time soon but I was quickly to learn that the earth is moving for me, and for everyone else, all the time.
At quite a rapid clip too. Michael began with a quick run through of his skeptical CV. Co-founder of the Merseyside Skeptic Society, he now works for Simon Singh at the Good Thinking Society and moonlights for Be Reasonable where he creates a series of podcasts interviewing people with unorthodox, and often anti-scientific, beliefs. A series in which people are questioned on their beliefs with intellectual rigour but not laughed at - because that doesn't get anyone anywhere.
He's also done some roundly, and properly, applauded work exposing the lies of various homeopaths but he was down in London with us on a balmy Monday evening in August to give us a run through of the history of Flat Earth belief from its modern inception in the 1830s to its present day revival. One that, enabled by YouTube and social media, is proving surprisingly popular and is being used to recruit for other conspiracy theories, anti-vaccing beliefs, and even the idea that a shady cabal of Jews are secretly running the world.
Flat Earth belief seems, and is, a very silly idea but those that sign up to it can often be found expounding far more dangerous, if equally ill informed, theories. With Daniel J. Clark's 2016 film for Netflix Behind the Curve, and a host of YouTube videos, the last five years, in particular, have seen an incredible rise in Flat Earthers. As the old joke goes, the Flat Earth society is proud to have members from all around the globe.
'Modern' belief began in 1838 when the fundamentalist Christian Samuel Rowbotham claimed he could prove the Earth is flat and wrote a book, using his pen name Parallax (!), called Zetetic Astronomy:Earth Not a Globe which saw concerned citizens writing to the Astronomer Royal, Sir George Biddell Airy, seeking rebuttal of Rowbotham's claims.
Rowbotham's book is still influential among Flat Earthers now. In 1870 one of Rowbotham's followers, John Hampden, challenged the evolutionary anthropologist Alfred Russel Wallace to a bet. Wallace believed the Earth to be spherical, Hampden thought it flat. The Bedford Level experiment took place on a canal on the fens of Cambridgeshire. Boats were to be viewed on this notoriously flat area travelling out to the horizon and observed through a telescope to see if there was any curvature observed.
Not many stayed long. Perhaps due to the rise in aviation and the newly available ability to see our planet from above, in the early 20c membership dwindled to next to nothing and the next significant marker on the Flat Earth timeline did not come until 1956 when another Christian fundamentalist (you'll be starting to see a theme), Samuel Shenton from Dover, restarted the Universal Zetetic Society and changed its name to the Flat Earth Society.
A year after Shenton died yet another Christian fundamentalist, this time based in California, Charles K. Johnson takes over the reins and puts it out that the Apollo moon landings were faked in order to lead people away from the biblical truth that the Earth was flat. As with all these conspiracy theorists it's never quite sure who gains from spreading the 'lie' that the Earth is spherical.
In 1997, Johnson's house burned down and all the records of the membership of his now pseudeoscientifcally titled International Flat Earth Research Society were lost. He'd not kept back ups, presumably trusting in God to keep them safe.
For nearly a decade the Society did not exist but it was reformed in 2004 by Daniel Shenton (no relation to Samuel) and that's the form that exists to this day. In 2013 our speaker met with Michael Wilmore, the Vice President of the Flat Earth Society, and learnt that not only were Flat Earthers out on a limb with traditional science but there were schisms within the 'movement' itself.
There were two types of member. People who genuinely believed the Earth to be flat and those who didn't believe but just enjoyed arguing for sport. Debating society types and Internet trolls. Internet trolls who were so good at arguing a position they did not actually hold that they cemented the belief further in the heads of the genuine believers!
Another schism had developed between different groups as to what shape the Flat Earth is. In a development that starts to get as ridiculous as the plot to Dr Seuss's The Sneetches, some believed that Antarctica was an 'an infinite ice shelf that bisects reality'. Others believed you could fall off the edge of the world. It was discers versus infinite planers.
Gravity proves them both wrong but understanding gravity is not your average Flat Earther's strong point as we will learn. A troll's response to the tricky question of gravity is that it doesn't exist but the Earth is rising at such a speed all the time that if you let go of an object the Earth soon rises to meet it. The object does not fall.
The trolls had come up with such a strong, if totally untrue, rationale for their beliefs that they caught the scientific and Skeptic communities out and when, in 2016, Eric Dubay released the book 200 Proofs Earth is Not a Spinning Ball, Flat Earth belief saw a huge resurgence in interest.
Dubay's book listed many (two hundred!) reasons that the Earth was flat and they stretched from the credible if untrue to the frankly ridiculous. Dubay cites that water can't stick to a ball, that rivers run downhill and water finds its level, that architects have never had to factor in the curvature of the Earth, that aircraft flying East aren't overtaken by the spinning globe to make them go backwards, and he asked why don't pilots fly off into space, why can't we feel the world spinning beneath us, and why don't people fall off Australia?
He factored in the trajectories of cannonballs and the flight of helicopters, he claimed the Earth must be flat because the Bible says so, and, perhaps best of all - there are many contenders, he stated simply that when he looked out of the window the Earth didn't look round to him. He also said that as Pythagoras, Copernicus, Galileo, and Neil Armstrong were all freemasons they simply couldn't be trusted. What he basically did was offer an answer for everyone, covering all bases, and appealing to all biases.
Another 'recruiting sergeant' for Flat Earthers, he's even nearly got the right name, is Mark Sargent who also believes that the JFK assassination was carried out by the US government, that the moon landings were faked, and that there is a civilisation on Mars! Sargent claimed he was initially cynical of Flat Earth theories but after nine months spent trying to disprove them he found he was unable to so now he believes.
In 2012 he released a book, Flat Earth Clues:The Sky's the Limit, in which he argued that the Earth is actually housed in a giant dome much like a bigger version of the Jim Carrey film The Truman Show. People who suggested he'd simply nicked his idea from The Truman Show were treated to another theory. Sargent believed that Hollywood and the people in it run the world and had made The Truman Show expressly as a double bluff to throw people off the Flat Earth scent. It was an act of dark arts and a masterpiece in counter information.
He believed that in the sixties and seventies the USA and USSR found the edge of the world, the wall of the dome, and signed a truce but continued the Cold War for a few more decades as a phony war so they could control their citizens. He cites the gravestone of the Nazi scientist turned US space race ace Wernher von Braun which references Psalms 19:1 (see first line of this piece) as evidence that von Braun was confessing to his knowledge of a Flat Earth from beyond the grave.
The dome is believed to be festooned with images of stars and planets to give the illusion of space which means that Sargent believes (a) there is a civilisation on Mars as well as (b) Mars does not exist. Cognitive dissonance is rife within Flat Earth believers and very rarely do they find it problematic.
Flat Earth pub groups started, there's a well known one in Chester which I missed while having a lovely Thai meal there on Sunday night, and offered up something of a four point manifesto. Some of the points contradicting each other, naturally.
(i) Don't trust experiments you haven't carried out yourself.
(ii) Photos from space are hoaxes (YouTube videos, however, are genuine).
(iii) There is no such thing as oxygen. Air is just air.
(iv) Water doesn't bend.
Have none of them ever had a piss? In April 2018 Michael Marshall attended the Flat Earth UK convention in Birmingham and he ended the talk by telling us about some of the characters he met and saw speak there.
The thing that most alarmed Michael Marshall was that nobody in Birmingham blinked an eyelid at this blatant antisemitic untruth. Another speaker, David Murphy - an ex-Wall Street software engineer and volunteer fireman in NYC around the time of 9/11 - told how, in 2005, he became a 9/11 'truther' and spoke about the mid life crisis that had resulted in him choosing to live off grid.
Murphy went on to advise drinking and washing with one's own urine and said that not only could it reverse aging but it could be helpful in the cure and/or treatment of everything from the common cold, toothache, and flu to AIDS, cancer, and smallpox. Many cite an interview with Murphy, in which he argues against Neil de Grasse Tyson and the pre-Christian Greek polymath Eratosthenes, that appeared on Macedonian television in 2016 as their 'red pill' moment.
Another curious case is that of Darren Nesbit. Sometimes styling himself, unnecessarily, as DAZ NEZ, Nesbit believes the terrorist attack at the end of the 2013 Boston Marathon was a 'false flag' operation, that the Illuminati carried out 9/11, and that the Earth has a four dimensional time space warp along its edges so that if you go off the side you reappear on the other side.
Yes, like Pac-Man! Nesbit went on to accuse other Flat Earthers of being in a cult and although that level of attack seems rare it's not uncommon for each speaker to completely contradict the previous speaker, each other's basic points, and even to undermine their own theories. The audience didn't seem to mind, lapping it all up in a masterclass of cognitive dissonance.
Some of the diagrams that Flat Earthers revealed to prove the Earth is flat looked suspiciously spherical so there is hope that eventually the scales will fall from their eyes but the main problem seems to be they simply don't want to believe the truth. Flat Earth belief is a gateway drug to other conspiracy theories and those who propagate it juice the understandable mistrust of authority that their followers have for all its worth.
Martin Kenny, also speaking in Birmingham, proposes the idea that as all things are born from eggs, the Universe must therefore be a cosmic egg before embarking on a baffling journey into numerology that claims that various groups of people take turns at running the planet, each for 24,000 years. The Polarians have had a go, so have the Hyperboreans, and let us not forget that period under the rule of the Lemurians.
Of course it's all bullshit and it's impossible for ALL of these belief systems to be true as they so completely contradict each other. But it's not about being right. What's important is believing that everyone else is wrong. A need to somehow feel superior underpins most conspiracy beliefs. A need to know something that others don't. It results in terrible ideas and unbearably pompous people. The sort that post memes on Facebook and Twitter that contain, usually in capital letters, the words "WAKE UP SHEEPLE"!
It's that and those who won't let the ancient Abrahamic faiths die and read their texts as literal. They've brought us the Crusades and they've brought us ISIS so, in comparison, Flat Earth belief seems fairly innocuous, a bit silly. It's when Flat Earth is used to open the door to belief in worldwide Jewish plots, false flag operations, and other dangerous crap that it starts to look more worrying and that's why, if you've got a Flat Earther as a friend or in the family, it might not be such a bad idea to have a quiet word.
A lengthy, and equally fascinating, Q&A (I'd never seen so many hands up - we could probably still be there now) touched on chemtrails and Trumpism and it all made up for a wonderful evening. The heavy heart I'd entered the Monarch with had been lifted by a fantastic, enriching, and often very funny evening. I'd like to thank Michael Marshall and I'd like to thank London Skeptics in the Pub. Going round the world saved me from going round the bend.