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Flat-earth beliefs are not so far from today’s fashionable pseudoscience

Wednesday 18 August 2021

It takes a satirist to understand how the pressures of social media and the ideological capture of education institutions are driving conspiracy theories into the mainstream – and undermining basic scientific principles


The term “flat-earther” is often bandied around to deride anyone with embarrassingly stupid beliefs. But does anyone really believe the earth is flat? That question was knocking around in my mind a couple of years ago as I toyed with the idea of a novel on the subject.

I had a dim, primary-school recollection that the bishops who tried to turn Queen Isabella against Christopher Columbus thought the world was flat, as did all his crew. Five minutes on Google dispelled that myth. Every significant thinker has believed the earth is a globe since Pythagoras in the 6th Century BC. 

The idea that the crew of the Santa Maria were terrified of tumbling over the edge was the invention of Washington Irving, creator of Rip Van Winkle, whose fanciful 19th-century biography of Columbus provided a heroic foundation story for the United States.

As Christine Garwood documents in her fascinating book Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea, the leading figures in 19th- and 20th-century flat-earthery were a marginal and unsophisticated bunch of cranks: Samuel Birley Rowbotham, who spoke to packed but mocking houses in Victorian England; Lady Elizabeth Blount, the philanthropist wife of a Shropshire baronet; and a signwriter from Dover called Samuel Shenton, given unexpected exposure by the indulgent astronomer Patrick Moore. In the US, a Scots-born faith-healer called Alexander Dowie founded the utopian colony of Zion, Illinois, with flat-earth doctrine enshrined in its city code, before being disgraced as a fraudster. From the 1970s until his death in 2001, former plane mechanic Charles Johnson ran the International Flat Earth Research Society from his desert ranch in California.

They were all conspiracy theorists, because they believed the authorities went to great lengths to conceal the truth. Insisting that the fallacy of a globular earth was central to science’s evil plan to destroy all faith in God, Johnson held that Franklin D. Roosevelt was a fellow flat-earther, and that the Yalta conference was designed to usher in a new age of truth under the fledgling United Nations; unfortunately, FDR died before the spinning-ball hoax could be exposed. Johnson also claimed the moon landing was filmed in Arizona, with a script by Arthur C. Clarke. An obvious crackpot on a par with the obsessives who believed in UFOs at Roswell or alien abductions, he gained worldwide notoriety because he could never refuse a reporter a headline-making quote.

While journalists and historians seeking to understand the world look for connections amid a slew of random events, conspiracy theorists have more in common with screenwriters, in whose vision nothing is accidental or superfluous. Those of us who eschew conspiracy theories in real life have no problem with them in fiction, and I’ve taken advantage of that in The End of the World is Flat

I’ve given most of Johnson’s beliefs to a handsome Californian tech billionaire called Joey Talavera, but I’ve added a dramatic twist: I’ve made him an arch conspirator, as well as a conspiracy theorist. In my tale, Talavera hires a London-based cartographical charity called the Orange Peel Foundation to foist his own flat-earth beliefs on the rest of the world. Cheered on by an army of bots masquerading as young, idealistic Twitter users, Orange Peel notes that globalisation is held by many people to be a bad thing, so the word “global” ought to be outlawed in favour of “worldwide”. 

With the thin end of the wedge thus inserted, the charity invokes the gobbledegook philosophy of a fashionable academic (in whom one critic found a resemblance to the famous American gender theorist Judith Butler – as if!) to argue that the division of the world into hemispheres is a racist project. In next to no time, the bots are claiming it’s bigoted to believe the world is globular – and gullible blue-tick celebrities fall into line.

It’s daft, but no dafter than the idea that there are more than two human sexes, or that the non-European peoples of the world had no concept of “man” and “woman” before colonialism imposed such reactionary notions upon them. These views have grown increasingly popular in certain corners of academia and social media, in an attempt to make people with gender dysphoria feel more comfortable. My satirical point is to use the obviously ridiculous example of flat-earthery to illuminate the subversion of science by (for instance) proponents of gender ideology, whose ideas are now deeply embedded in our schools, universities, institutions, charities, media and political parties.

We’re all used to living in a world where crazy ideas abound. However, the adherents of the present nonsense aren’t so easy to spot as they used to be. Time was, the crackpots wore tinfoil hats and were reliably swivel-eyed. Now, the lunacy has gone mainstream.

The classic conspiracy theory rests on three assumptions: nothing happens by accident; everything is connected; and nothing is as it seems. It tends to attract people who feel powerless or defeated and want to believe the worst of the powerful. Some tenacious examples from the last decade or so: Pizzagate (lurid allegations about leading US Democrats in a paedophile ring); QAnon (claims of a Satanic cult and paedophile ring conspiring against Donald Trump while he was president); “birther” and “truther” theories (relating to the birthplace of Barack Obama and the “truth” about 9/11); the claim that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump; the supposed link between Covid-19 and 5G phone masts; and the wilder claims of the anti-vax movement.

It’s no accident that most of these examples originated in the US, where a highly polarised society and culture, with virtually no middle ground, breeds resentment on the part of whichever side feels dispossessed. Since people with less education find it harder to distinguish the real from the fanciful, and non-college-educated Americans are more likely to vote Republican than Democrat, it’s no surprise that most of the theories emanate from the political right.

Of course, some conspiracies are real. Lyndon Johnson did invent an accident in the Gulf of Tonkin as a pretext for war against North Vietnam. The oil industry really did spend billions pretending that the scientific consensus on man-made climate change was a delicately balanced controversy. The once-niche claim that Covid-19 began life in a Wuhan laboratory is now being taken seriously by everyone from Dr Anthony Fauci to the director-general of the World Health Organisation.

So how do we tell the difference between real and unreal conspiracy theories? It’s an increasingly important life-skill, and it’s not a matter of intelligence: many avid conspiracy theorists have inquiring minds and are highly motivated researchers. But education is key, because it develops critical thinking. Class and geography are factors too: those who have no direct or indirect contact with the worlds where conspiracies supposedly take place – the media, government, corporate boardrooms etc – are more likely to believe claims about rigid manipulation and control. Those of us who have worked in such places, or have friends who do, know that chaos and bungling incompetence are more likely to reign than ruthless, conspiratorial efficiency.

That may reassure well-connected graduates that they are immune from the deception. But I have bad news: in the brave new world that I satirise, the educated are just as vulnerable to fallacious ideas, if not more so. That’s because educators and opinion-formers have themselves been captured by an ideology that turns science on its head. 

Guidance issued by transgender lobby groups, in widespread use in schools, teaches children that if they self-identify as the opposite sex, they really are of the opposite sex. Teachers at medical schools in the US – terrified of being condemned by students – lecture that biological sex is a social construct. The American Medical Association recommends removing sex from birth certificates. The British Medical Journal has published an editorial arguing that the collection of data about biological sex is potentially harmful and should be abandoned. The First Minister of Scotland has put out an election video saying that her “chosen” pronouns were “she” and “her” (implying that she could as easily have picked “he” and “him”). The Welsh government insists that any man claiming to be a woman really is a woman.

90 per cent of people would probably reject these notions, especially if polled anonymously, without threat of reprisal. But that figure is bound to fall as more young people pass through an education system where teachers are under pressure to chant mantras rather than tell the truth, and as they themselves become the new teachers.

Angry, politicised young people, who take the ability of clownfish to change sex as evidence that humans can do so too, regularly instruct non-believers to “educate themselves”. Welcome to the future.

Is this bizarre and alarming state of affairs, which has seen a massive increase in the number of teenage girls seeking to bind or remove healthy breasts because they want to be boys, the result of a conspiracy? In my allegorical version, it certainly is. The anti-science contagion is all down to one super-rich guy pulling the strings. In the real world, the situation is more confused.

The fact that young people who believe they are the opposite sex are being encouraged onto lifelong medical pathways leads some people to conclude the whole gender movement is driven by Big Pharma. But as Helen Joyce argues in her bestselling book Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality, there is no evidence for that. Far more likely, she says, that the pharmaceutical industry spotted a lucrative bandwagon and jumped aboard.

That’s my anecdotal impression too. A friend in a senior position at a household-name drug company says that his firm is driven as much by cock-up as any other sector: even if they wanted to, they could never have pulled off this kind of scam.

As in my fictional version, there are some seriously rich donors behind the scenes. Three billionaires have helped fill the coffers of activist organisations that seek to deny the immutability of human sex: Republican ex-army officer Jennifer Pritzker, who is trans; medical technology heir Jon Stryker, who is gay; and the investor and philanthropist George Soros. For mentioning all three funders in her book, Joyce was accused of peddling an anti-semitic conspiracy theory, even though she didn’t claim that they conspired and made no reference to the race or religion of anyone involved. 

As it happens, I cannot find any suggestion that Stryker is Jewish: his paternal grandfather had his funeral at the United Church of Christ, and Stryker’s mother was the daughter of missionaries in China. But such minor details seem not to matter in these Barking Twenties, when conspiracy theories can be weaponised to fit any argument, however imperfectly.

What we do know for certain is that Stonewall, the UK’s most powerful transgender lobby group, has misrepresented equalities law to the 800-plus employers in its Diversity Champions scheme, which employs around a quarter of the UK workforce.

Thanks to various Freedom of Information disclosures, it is now clear that charities and commercial companies making bizarre statements about “birthing parents”, “chest-feeding” and “cervix-owners” are doing so because Stonewall has convinced them that the words “mother” and “woman” are “transphobic”.

Whether that adds up to a conspiracy, or merely a perfect storm of social insanity, is a moot point. Either way, these ideas are espoused by some of our most educated people, including senior politicians.

I wrote my novel in the hope that fiction can succeed where rational argument is struggling. When our leaders can’t tell the difference between facts and fanciful woo, we’re all in trouble.

Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) before the Council of Salamanca, 1487, 19th Century engraving.

Simon Edge is a satirist and author. His book, The End of the World is Flat, is published by Lightning Books