I read a fascinating article at Ars Technica this week, originally published on The Conversation, about Flat Earthers and why people embrace obviously inaccurate scientific claims. Harry T. Dyer, a sociologist at the University of East Anglia, argues that the core issue at stake isn’t the shape of the Earth but rather who controls knowledge. Advocates for the Flat Earth theory are standing against what they perceive to be the tyrannical control of science and government over the creation and distribution of knowledge. He relates this to the work of the postmodernist philosopher Michel Focault, who argued that knowledge is created and controlled to legitimize those in power. For Dyer, Flat Earthers are expressing their rejection of the legitimacy of elite scientists and academics as holders of social prestige and power.
Dyer spent a weekend watching a Flat Earth conference and studying the way that advocates of the theory talked about it and about science and society in the broader sense. I was struck by the similarity between Flat Earth rhetoric and that of other branches of the so-called alternatives to science, such as the ancient astronaut theory, Nephilim theory, lost civilization studies, etc. Here is Dyer discussing how Romanticism and the cult of celebrity serve in place of epistemology in Flat Earth circles. He is speaking of a debate that occurred between a group of physicists and several Flat Earthers:
A particular point of contention occurred when one of the physicists pleaded with the audience to avoid trusting YouTube and bloggers. The audience and the panel of flat-Earthers took exception to this, noting that “now we’ve got the Internet and mass communication … we’re not reliant on what the mainstream are telling us in newspapers, we can decide for ourselves.” It was readily apparent that the flat-Earthers were keen to separate knowledge from scientific institutions. […] Flat-Earthers were encouraged to trust “poetry, freedom, passion, vividness, creativity, and yearning” over the more clinical regurgitation of established theories and facts. Attendees were told that “hope changes everything,” and warned against blindly trusting what they were told. This is a narrative echoed by some of the celebrities who have used their power to back flat-Earth beliefs, such as the musician B.O.B, who tweeted: “Don’t believe what I say, research what I say.”
This rhetoric is indistinguishable from that of the ancient astronaut or lost civilization theorists. But it also speaks to a paradox of modern democracy. B.O.B., heaven forfend, gets one thing right. He understands that when knowledge is the exclusive province of expensively trained professionals, it is no longer democratic. For the majority of people, there is no way to evaluate whether a scientific study’s findings are correct, and much of the work of science becomes a question of faith. B.O.B., disingenuously to be sure, dares his listeners to research his claims, providing a superficial democratic patina to his challenge to knowledge that mainstream science can’t match. Anyone can go on YouTube or read a blog and imagine that they are “researching” Flat Earth theory. But very few can access, read, or understand scientific articles in academic journals, much less critically evaluate their methodology to confirm whether the conclusions are justified.
Compare this to the role played by Erich von Däniken or Graham Hancock in posing as an intermediary between an interested but ignorant public on one hand and elite but out of touch scientists on the other. Both repeatedly claim not to be making claims but rather to be asking questions and raising possibilities, aping the language of democracy in order to question the knowledge industry’s grip on what makes knowledge legitimate. While their actual goal is anti-democratic—to replace one elite with another, namely themselves—the pose they strike is reminiscent of political revolutionaries who claim to act in the name of the people against a hated elite.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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