The first I heard of the recent revival of suspicions that our Earth is a disc, not a sphere, was early last year, from a business-minded friend with a post-grad degree. F and I had met up one clear summer day on a sundeck above some public baths by the sea, which afforded us a wide, unobstructed view of the horizon. Having detailed a series of increasingly fringe conspiracy theories – 911 as inside job, faked Moon landings, wealthy Satanist masons (royals, celebs etc.) ritually sacrificing babies – F dropped the bombshell that NASA has used composite images to fabricate evidence of a curved Earth.
‘Are you shocked?’ F asked me. Amazed would be more accurate. Though I knew the other topics were popular online, the flat-Earth model is millennia, not centuries, out of date. Memories of snowdomes, Victorian terrariums, medieval woodcuts and scenes from The Truman Show sprang to mind.
But, I asked, what about eclipses? Lunar phases? Day and night? Tides? Equinoxes and solstices? Technology (telescopes etc.)? Sure, the Sun and Moon look the same size, but you can’t always believe your eyes… Informed by three weeks of online research, F attempted answers. And, charmed by their quaintness, I tried to forget all the seemingly obvious concepts we tend to take for granted; to surrender to the enchantment of a brand new Earth: a motionlessly floating ice-rimmed disc beneath a star-strewn dome, not a dizzily revolving orb among numberless others scattered through space. Gazing out at the sunlit sea, I fleetingly sensed the appeal of believing that Truth can be so simply revealed, while anything too complex (maths? physics? chemistry?) exists to deceive us.
Since then, I’ve come across a few essays by thinkers who share my interest in the cultural implications of what behaves like a religious debate. I’ve also indulged in some of the same sort of research to which F referred, and the best Google results have proved absurdly funny if little else. Meanwhile, on a coastal walk in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs, I’ve seen two young women holding placards stating ‘THE EARTH IS FLAT’ (satire? street theatre? activism?) and, months later, spray-painted nearby: ‘RESEARCH FLAT EARTH NASA LIES FLAT HORIZON’. Even a magazine dropped in my mailbox contains an article headed ‘FLAT EARTH’ (filler between advertisements) full of common misconceptions re the natural world, e.g.:
‘Mr X’ doesn’t mention mass. Not that s/he’d need a science degree to understand that whether we call gravity a force or ‘a theory’, a man falling from standing lands harder than an ant dropped from many times its own height. And water weighs more than air. Whatever. Questions like Mr X’s recur without end on flat-Earth websites:
Whether or not errors of grammar point to deeper disorders, dispelling such mysteries isn’t rocket science. Or so I thought. But over the months, when I’ve spoken of folk like Mr X, others tend to close off. Many scoff – as if flat-Earth assertions affront their intelligence – yet propose no sound, logical counterargument. It’s as if they believe uncritically in science… not unlike some devotees of democracy who scorn Trump supporters. Yet, to go to the polls those voters had to be motivated. And, like flat-earthers, many are tired not just of lies but of being ignored. Disenchanted, defiant and angry, what have they got to lose? But electing a wacko president has widespread consequences. Does it matter if a few misfits insist the Earth is flat? Many already share equally left-field beliefs re other conspiracies that can’t (and might never) be verified.
But loss of faith in the word of mainstream authority creates a niche for YouTube’s webcam gurus spouting the rhetoric of ‘truth’ – such as greybeard flat-Earth conspiracy theorist Rich West, self-professed veteran of hundreds of out-of-body experiences, whose nebulous thesis amounts to reality’s being whatever you choose to believe. For old souls who’ve endured too many incarnations in our terrestrial prison system, he offers ‘soul contract revocation’ training. PayPal accepted. Advocate of liberating alternative choices, Rich West (is that his real name or a cynical wink at his detractors?) seems happy to exploit global belief in capitalism.
So, what might the flat-Earth revolution indicate (if it continues) in the face of globalisation? Does language shape our world view or must perception come first? Can religious fervour reverse the equation of ‘Seeing is believing’? And if so, which do you trust – the judgemental, parental, protective guardian of Eden in Genesis, or the coolly rational, seemingly soulless spirit of scientific advancement? To this day, F hasn’t quite been converted, ‘sitting on the fence’. Maybe something more fundamental than mere material shape is at stake. Yet F’s doubts about a spherical Earth (how can water curve?) sound wilfully dense. What might make more sense (and I generalise) is the idea of resistance.
Not all of us feel at home with the runaway momentum of dehumanisation and dissociation from nature wrought by corporate-driven technological progress. And one form of protest may be the childlike regressiveness of rejecting concepts that strain your comprehension – to seek refuge in geo(ego)centric myths and magical images: such as a Sun and Moon wheeling by turns above us like baubles on a mobile dangling from a nursery ceiling. Putting faith only in what they can witness, pitting their innocent minds against Science, like righteous Christians fighting evil infidels, flat-earthers can think themselves spiritually superior – the irony being that science has developed the complex technologies enabling viral proliferation of the conspiracist hash they keep swallowing: narratives of epic scope, with corners smoothed off and holes glossed over, their symbols and patterns interpreted as the deeds or schemes of gods and demons, and illustrated like all good bedtime stories… briefings for an ascent into dreamland.