The mindset of flat-earthers

There are people who claim that scientists are lying (possibly bribed to do so) or delusional (don’t understand their own science or are brainwashed to believe falsehoods). A very visible group of those people are people that are convinced that the earth is flat, and that everything that relates to spaceflights, naval navigation, map-making—and more—is faked.

The same people use GPS and mobile phones, but somehow believing that science is fake and still using the technology that depends on that science doesn’t cause any conflict in their thinking.

It is tempting to think that doing simple experiments to show that the belief in a flat earth is wrong would change their mind, but, anecdotally, in the majority of cases that doesn’t seem to work (certainly not on camera! or instantly!). (See for exceptions this page.)

What I find really disturbing to see in a discussion is how quickly they employ (without thinking) various cognitive strategies to deny or ignore contradictory evidence. In a discussion they only hear what they want to hear. Often they laugh at everything you say, and may counter not with arguments but with attacks on you as a person (since you’ve got all these deficiencies there’s no point taking you seriously or taking to you at all).

Flat-earthers show that a person can be utterly unable to doubt his or her conviction (even though a lot of them claim to be skeptics!) It reminds me of talking to a man with body dysmorphic disorder. He’d pinch the skin on his belly and say to me: “Look at all that fat! Just look at it!” (he had no discernable fat on his belly).

While the conviction that the earth is flat on itself seems somewhat harmless, it rarely is only that belief. Usually it is part of a whole range of conspiracy theories. Often people with these ideas are quite paranoid and think that pretty much the whole world is trying to hurt them or at least brainwash or deceive them. That can turn into dangerous scenarios.

The way of thinking is analogous to that of truthers, anti-vaxers, climate change deniers, any sort of ideological or religious fundamentalism, etc. Often multiple conspiracy theories are embraced at the same time.

To get a taste of the mindset of people with this affliction, please watch this video:

In the video (real) skeptics and flat-earthers meet to observe two tests to show the curvature of the earth. The body language, quick denial and defections of the flat-earthers are all fascinating. One woman confessed that she didn’t watch the tests at all (which is of course the best way to prevent that one’s convictions are challenged).

There are countless videos on Youtube of flat-earthers claiming to have found the ultimate proof that it’s all a big conspiracy. I link to one of them, and a response video. Especially enlightening are the comments. See for example this interaction between the poster and person from Argentina trying to be helpful.

In the above text I tried to express how extremely disturbing I feel it is to see this mindset—especially because it’s not limited to flat-earthers. I find it difficult to put it into words. In the West anti-science thinking, superstition, and conspiracy thinking seems to be on the rise. In the rest of the world both superstition and conspiracy thinking seem even more pervasive. The mindset that involves this makes rational dialogue impossible, and undermines science. Everybody depends on science to make their life better, and yet religious people and anti-science thinkers seem to want to join to destroy all we’ve gained.