Let’s talk about flat earth

And the climate hoax. And 5G. And microchips in vaccines. Don’t worry, I don’t want to convince you of any of conspiracy theories. But they are interesting for sure. Why are they so attractive that some people even define their identity by believing in them?

 

To answer this question, I did my own research. At least by the standards of conspiracy theorists, meaning I watched a bunch of YouTube videos, and did some “critical thinking”. Therefore it’s obvious I’m a trustworthy source.

How does one enter the universe of conspiracy theories?

Both my “research” and my personal experience lead me to believe there are at least two predispositions helpful to become a conspiracy theorist: A general distrust in institutions paired with a high self-esteem. Poor education or personal hardship make it more likely, but aren’t a must.

If you ask flat-earthers, meaning people believing the earth is flat, many will tell you they found the theory idiotic at first. But when they tried to disprove it, they failed. Hence, they started to believe it. While that sounds crazy, it’s quite reasonable: Although basically everybody knows the earth is a globe, most won’t be able to explain why. Therefore it’s almost logical to believe a person who can supposedly explain why we live on a flat disk.

Furthermore, it’s not a binary process. There’s no single switch that makes you believe in flat earth or any other conspiracy theory. One might start with something innocent like doubting the moon landing. But from there it’s only consistent to ask: If they lied about the moon, why shouldn’t they lie about earth’s shape? Of course, nobody actually knows who “they” are, but that doesn’t matter.

Surprisingly, critical discussions can amplify a person’s tendency to believe in conspiracy theories. I observed this once by myself. A friend discussed with a relative, we’ll call him Peter, about climate change and electro mobility on Facebook. He asked me to participate and I couldn’t say no. I simply pointed out some logical fallacies Peter made and linked some studies.

However, his theories just became crazier: A few posts later, he tried to convince me, that photovoltaics kill birds by burning them and emit more CO2 than a coal power plant. To “prove” the latter, he linked a climate-denier website.

Until today, I found only one explanation why the discussion went sideways: Peter wanted so badly to be right, he searched for arguments supporting his theories. But there were virtually none. Hence, only the conspiracy sites popped up on Google, which became a self-amplifying mechanism so that he was only presented such websites from now on even when there are reliable sources (one could look into the theory behind recommender systems, Google basically is one nowadays, and find that this mechanism absolutely exists).

Why does one believe in conspiracy theories?

After we looked at some ways to be introduced to conspiracy theories, the real question is: Why do they work? Why do people define themselves by believing the earth is flat or whatever? How does it become part of their identity or even their whole identity?

“I started to believe in people, especially in some of the big names, they showed me attention early on and I loved it. [I] seemed to gain respect, felt a guru status coming on.” That’s what “Seek Truth Speak Truth” (STST) told in his first video as an ex-flat earther about his previous experiences [1]. Seemingly, the conspiracy theory itself isn’t the reason people follow it, but they are in it for the social experiences. The Netflix documentary “Behind the Curve” paints a similar picture [2]. If you ignore the flat earth topic, it’s just a bunch of people having fun.

They have conventions, barbecues or do experiments. While there are vastly different ideas about the “right” flat earth theory (no wonder, because none works), they all are united in knowing something the general public seemingly doesn’t.

But there’s more: “I think it comes down to a little bit of jealousy. Maybe on a different path I could teach high-end astrophysics. (…) Scientists love proving things and that’s what I thought I was doing”, STST says in his video. In fact, especially flat earthers love conducting their own “experiments”. While they basically always prove the globe-shape by accident, they gain respect from their followers and subscribers, because none of them notices.

Being ridiculed by non-conspiracy theorists or marked with a warning on social media doesn’t seem to bother them. In fact, it often supports their point of view, it supposedly proves they are sought after. For some, it almost feels like a heroic act. You could observe this during several “Querdenker” demonstrations, for example when “Jana aus Kassel” compared herself to Sophie Scholl [3]. I mean, who wouldn’t like to have a place in history books due to fighting evil? Even better, you can be sure that nobody will kill you as a consequence of your actions (in opposition to what happened to the real Sophie Scholl). So, you seemingly get the fame without the risk.

In summary: Conspiracy theories provide an alternative society in which people can get the recognition they desire but cannot achieve otherwise or at least they don’t know how to.

What are the consequences?

First and foremost, it’s almost impossible to convince somebody a conspiracy theory is wrong if they already believe it. No wonder, nobody would like to lose an integral part of their identity. Most likely, if you even try to do that, you’ll be considered “part of the system” or at least a “sheep”. Hence, Beate Bube, head of the Baden-Wuerttemberg Office for the Protection of the Constitution, proposed an exit program for conspiracy theorists [4].

Even critical discussions are almost impossible as there’s basically no common ground on which an argument can be formed. Example: Because gravity doesn’t support the flat earth model, those believing in the latter simply decided that gravity is a hoax. If one is sure enough that they are right, there’s no bound at which a theory is too crazy. Usually, that’s funny, but sometimes it’s not. In 2016, a man fired an assault rifle in a pizzeria while he tried to rescue children from a paedophile ring that was supposedly operating there according to a conspiracy theory [5].

While most conspiracy theorists probably won’t hurt anyone, it gets more likely that some will when there are more of them. Even if not, the belief in conspiracy theories itself is a real problem. It makes rational discussions almost completely impossible which might not matter on a small scale, but will be a real problem when tackling climate change or —as we can observe now—a pandemic. Conspiracy theories are easy to spread. It’s much harder to contain them. Hence, preventing them altogether is better than letting them run free from the beginning.

 

by Bastian Heinlein

Picture: wikipedia (gemeinfrei)

 

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w-aaHZ4OX7Q

[2] https://www.netflix.com/title/81015076

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gMuNRcBXe9c

[4] https://www.zeit.de/wissen/gesundheit/2020-10/coronavirus-aktuell-neuinfektionen-covid-19-ausbreitung-live?liveblog._id=urn:newsml:localhost:2020-12-31T11:50:26.776326:265fa6db-ade1-48d3-989e-ec08346e7798__editorial

[5] https://nyti.ms/2sWGGKc