Flat-Earthers, Ancient Astronaut Theorists, and the Battle to Control Knowledge
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.
flat earth my fudge coffin.
5/9/2018 10:11:19 am
The flat earth cult, has to be one of the most mind numbing & bloody idiotic belief systems doing the rounds at present.
5/9/2018 04:55:59 pm
I wouldnt use YT comments section as a reference point but agree with what you said. Flat earth cult is mindnumbingly idiotic belief !
5/9/2018 10:13:11 am
Yes! On 2/24/2018 I wrote the following comment in this blog:
5/9/2018 02:31:50 pm
@T. Francke: First Von Daniken had to wait for Morning of the Magicians to be published (1960-4?) and read it, then knowing Von Daniken's history, probably to be released from jail.
5/9/2018 11:58:22 am
Who pays for “science”? The establishment. Who pays for alternatives? Book buyers with their personal money. It is obvious which is more democratic.
5/9/2018 02:22:17 pm
Hitting the ground very very hard when you step off the roof of a tall building has nothing to do with democracy, but quite a lot to do with science.
5/9/2018 12:16:37 pm
It would expend far much more energy than making a space program to fake one, and there is no rational thought to the flat earth goofiness, when all they'd have to do is go up in a jet or transit the ocean by ship, and they would clearly see with their eyes the Earth is round.
5/9/2018 01:55:16 pm
"Round" is not an exact term, and I've always wondered why people use bulging to say that the Earth is not "round." The Earth is not a perfect sphere. "Round" means "approximating a sphere," and even with bulges, the Earth does THAT much.
5/9/2018 02:32:38 pm
Early versions of "there's a sucker born every minute" are found in England by 1835, as carny slang, particularly in reference to the reliable success of "thimble rigging" (aka the Shell Game)
5/9/2018 05:52:06 pm
PS: Bearing in mind that this discussion relates to flat-earthers, it may be worth mentioning that the most common early alternative to the word "suckers" in that phrase was "flats".
5/14/2018 10:31:30 pm
God I regret reading this whole post.
5/9/2018 02:42:00 pm
No need for jet technology, use the ancient Greek method of climbing a mountain.
5/9/2018 01:33:02 pm
This is a matter of education being undervalued--because it's really not that hard to read scientific papers, even ones that aren't in one's own field of expertise--but it does take some training as to HOW. And while a lot of papers, particularly in engineering and "hard" sciences, assume that you can do certain levels of math, they still lay out the math they used, and that also can be researched.
5/9/2018 02:09:52 pm
5/9/2018 04:18:05 pm
Not quite on topic Machala, but I thought you'd find this interesting:
5/9/2018 04:47:45 pm
5/9/2018 06:56:05 pm
Machala, great comments.
5/9/2018 08:06:18 pm
5/9/2018 09:43:13 pm
Speaking of parroting the politically convenient...
5/9/2018 02:56:16 pm
Flat earthers aren’t actually serious though. They’re just really dumb trolls. If you asked them to take a polygraph they’d all fail. Nobody really believes it.
5/9/2018 08:16:45 pm
Tell that to the Mad Scientist Yakub.
5/10/2018 08:59:36 pm
Atlantis surrounded by mile-high walls. Ring a bell?
5/9/2018 03:17:07 pm
>>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.<<
5/9/2018 05:45:57 pm
The name of the game is to try to have your cake and eat it too. Fringe folks will reject any and all assertions by scientists until they find one that agrees with them or seems to support their position. Then it is solid gold.
5/9/2018 09:00:26 pm
"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”
5/9/2018 09:58:47 pm
The use of a dumbed-down and misplaced definition of "democratic" to undermine truth and reality sure seems to justify every anti-democratic warning there ever was. While democratic means can work, at least some of the time, to run a small group, or even a not-too-big society for a bit, can we ever teach these misguided sheeple that actual physical reality isn't created by consent? (pace Foucault and the other damned creators of post-modernism.)
5/9/2018 10:23:03 pm
I believe the point was in my earlier post, sayings off the web and off TV and in Holmes or in science, might be garbled by bias. You cannot rely on the internet for all research, and should use proper sources.
5/10/2018 12:37:38 pm
You may not be making it better.
5/13/2018 05:15:44 pm
If THAT was the point you wanted to make, you would have done better to do the more obvious, such as:
An Anonymous Nerd
5/10/2018 10:20:31 pm
I increasingly am disturbed by the way the Fringe successfully has mixed up the political concept of Democracy with some notion of who has, or can have accurate information. (And ultimately the search for accurate information and accurate explanations for that information is really all science is.)
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