Flat-Earthers keep appearing. Here's why this trend is troubling.

The hundreds of people that show up for flat Earth conventions are not the problem. What this type of thinking leads to is.

I don't remember exactly when I first stumbled into it. I do recall it was a rapper's Twitter account turned my eyebrows skywards. His tweets had something to do with the Earth being flat. I waited for the punchline; none arrived. The tone was effectively this: 'How do we really know it's round?' I also don't recall if that rapper was B.o.B—I've since discovered that high-level athletes buy into it—and it's good that his GoFundMe to prove Earth is flat has only received $6,899 of his $1m goal, but still.

I have little patience for stuff like this, yet I've also long been fascinated by cults. The power of small cults that became established religions, like Christianity and Islam, is simply incredible, but smaller ones are even more baffling.

The flat Earth movement certainly fits this bill. You have the cult requirements: an oppressor—all those suspect professors and physicists oppressing us by, you know, thinking we inhabit a globe—and a rallying cry to combat the status quo.

Of course, many Flat Earthers do have cultish inspirations; in this case, the Bible. An entire industry has popped up, including the crafty marketing efforts by, I kid you not, a former advertising salesman at a Christian radio station. Robbie Davidson's recent Flat Earth International Canada conference drew 250 attendees at $199 a pop. He's not alone, as Maclean's reports:

Davidson's YouTube channel, Celebrate Truth, has more than 100,000 subscribers. That reach expands when he collaborates with Emmanuel Lokonga, another Edmontonian who is an HVAC technician by day and the voice behind Thecontroversy7 YouTube channel. An early adopter, Lokonga started his channel in 2009. Now he has more than 150,000 subscribers who tune in for his steady stream of End Times prophecy, thoughts on demonic possession (see Beyoncé, homosexuals and yoga as chief offenders) and flat Earth.

Because if you practiced yoga on a circular planet, you'd obviously fall off.

Flat Earthers are easy targets. They know that; one showed up to the conference wearing a tin foil hat. Any cult that can make fun of itself is a distraction at best; at least they're not advocating for ethnic cleansing. But underlying the “conspiracy" is a troubling trend that is not only persistent but growing: the notion that conventional wisdom is in the hands of elite academics and should, by default, be open to interpretation.

The end of the world in Norse mythology. (Image: Shutterstock)

A recent YouGov poll found that 66 percent of millennials “firmly believe the Earth is round." Scientific American found these data disconcerting, so they got a hold of the raw results; testing for age, they concluded that 82.5 percent of 18-24-year-olds fit into that category. That's better, yet that still means nearly two out of every 10 millennials believe the planet is not, in fact, round. This honestly shouldn't be a hard one.

Even stranger is the fact that more millennials are likely to believe climate change is influenced by human activities, showing that scientific literacy is not the issue. Younger people are also less likely to be religious than older generations.

Education researcher Harry Dyer might have an explanation. Earlier this year he attended a flat-Earth convention in Birmingham, England, and shared his experiences with Quartz.

The idea of trusting your gut or trusting your feelings came up a lot at the conference. I think it is indicative of [a form of] populism where people want to move away from statistics and create an environment that engages more in emotions.

To Dyer, the problem isn't believing the Earth is flat per se. That will likely remain a fringe occupation for the tin foil set. What's important, and disconcerting, is that information exchanged on the fringes indicate future trends. Remember how quaint those tea party rallies were a decade ago?

Information is always emotionally driven. Venues that offer conflicting ideas—universities at their best—serve as a buffer against extremism. Yet universities in particular (and education in general) have been monetized and specialized. The subtler aspects of debating have been sacrificed by the vengeful hands that pound out tweets scrawled in ALL CAPS.

Being heard is now more important than being right, and being right has long been more valued than being compassionate. In such a toxic environment all facts are open to interpretation. Sadly, the interpreters are only proficient in one language—and even that one, barely.


Stay in touch with Derek on Facebook and Twitter.

Develop mindfulness to boost your creative intelligence

Sharon Salzberg, world-renowned mindfulness leader, teaches meditation at Big Think Edge.

Image: Big Think
Big Think Edge
  • Try meditation for the first time with this guided lesson or, if you already practice, enjoy being guided by a world-renowned meditation expert.
  • Sharon Salzberg teaches mindfulness meditation for Big Think Edge.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

A new theory explains Jupiter’s perplexing origin

A new computer model solves a pair of Jovian riddles.

(NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill)
Surprising Science
  • Astronomers have wondered how a gas giant like Jupiter could sit in the middle of our solar system's planets.
  • Also unexplained has been the pair of asteroid clusters in front of and behind Jupiter in its orbit.
  • Putting the two questions together revealed the answer to both.
Keep reading Show less

Vikings unwittingly made their swords stronger by trying to imbue them with spirits

They didn't know it, but the rituals of Iron Age Scandinavians turned their iron into steel.

Culture & Religion
  • Iron Age Scandinavians only had access to poor quality iron, which put them at a tactical disadvantage against their neighbors.
  • To strengthen their swords, smiths used the bones of their dead ancestors and animals, hoping to transfer the spirit into their blades.
  • They couldn't have known that in so doing, they actually were forging a rudimentary form of steel.
Keep reading Show less

The secondary ticketing market is worth $15 billion. How long will fans have to pay?

Artists and fans are the big losers as bot-powered scalpers make a killing.

Bruce Springsteen performs on stage at The New York Comedy Festival and The Bob Woodruff Foundation present the 12th Annual Stand Up For Heroes event at The Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden on November 5, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Brian Ach/Getty Images for Bob Woodruff Foundation)
Politics & Current Affairs
  • The secondary ticketing market is predicted to grow to $15.19 billion next year.
  • Artists, athletes, management, and venues see none of this revenue—it all goes to scalpers and ticketing agencies.
  • Some companies are likely in breach of anti-trust laws, but no one seems to be regulating the industry.
Keep reading Show less