The Current

Flat or round? What one author learned about believers of the flat-Earth theory

After a Quebec politician seemed to question whether the Earth is actually round, we look at how the conspiracy theory has spread online, and what it will take to convince some people this rock we live on isn't flat.

Bonding over idea Earth is flat is 'immensely freeing' to believers, Alan Burdick says

The New York Times' Alan Burdick told us what he learned about the community of people who believe the Earth is flat. (Daein Ballard)
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You have likely grown up learning the world is round. But, believe it or not, there is a community of people that thinks the Earth is flat.

Just this month, a city councillor in Gatineau, Que., made waves when she questioned evidence that the Earth is round.

When Alan Burdick, an author and senior staff editor at the New York Times' science desk, discovered a conference for flat-Earth believers was happening in North Carolina about a year and a half ago, he decided to attend.

Around 600 people paid hundreds of dollars to sign up, and Burdick wanted to find out who they were and why they believe what they do.

Listen to a YouTuber who spoke at a flat-Earth convention in Edmonton last year.

Several hundred people have gathered in Edmonton to attend the Flat Earth International Conference at West Edmonton Mall. 1:27

The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti sat down with Burdick to talk about his deep dive into the world of flat Earthers. Here is part of their conversation:

What did you learn [at the conference]?

I heard pretty much the same thing in talk after talk after talk, which was … 'Wake up. There's this huge conspiracy out there to hide the truth about the actual shape of the Earth, and you know, if you're a free-thinking person … you'll stop and do your own research … and learn the truth.' Now, doing your own research essentially means watching all of the YouTube videos that everybody else watches, and essentially falling down the rabbit hole of of this, frankly, crazy thought. I mean I … didn't want to go into it with that kind of judgment, but I came out of it feeling like I was sitting in the middle, essentially of a mass delusion.

You cover science. So this was … a tough thing to do, to listen to this.

I kind of thought, initially, I might have to go in armed with all kinds of arguments about why the Earth is not flat. And I just almost immediately gave that up because … there was no arguing that was going to persuade anyone … These folks are all alike in the sense that, number one, they're very prone to conspiracy thinking. You know, I've heard mention of … the fake moon landing, and you know, false flags and Stephen Hawking didn't really have ALS and the astronauts are Freemasons. There was a certain degree of kind of anti-science or just distrust of science … and a really strong religious element.

When you ask them about, 'what about the pictures from space,' what do they say?

NASA and all these other organizations are simply Photoshopping pictures of the Earth … it's a very, kind of cloistered, self-fulfilling thought process that gets you here.

We heard, you know, about the Quebec councillor in Gatineau wondering why "they" are hiding the information. So, who does this community see as "they?"

"They" is essentially everyone who is not them ... You just have to kind of believe that the powers that be — your government — is deeply involved in deceiving you. Now, you know, that I suppose is not so far-fetched, but this takes it to the logical extreme. There are now also a group of people who are organizing conferences around the flat-Earth notion. They're organizing cruises. They're sort of making money off of this idea. And … I began to feel very cynical about that group … I feel like there's a degree of scam going on where they're really just kind of feeding off of the most provocative idea, and I'm not sure even how many of them actually believe it.

How do you go on a cruise if the world is flat?

That's the whole idea, right. You get on a cruise and you go looking for the edge of the Earth.

But you make the point that, I mean, you were dealing with people [of] all different education. You met a war veteran.

I met war veterans. I met, you know, kids in college. I met IT … designers and, like, computer people … If you come to believe that the Earth is flat, there aren't a lot of people that you can share this idea with, right. You can't go home over the holidays and talk with your family about it. So, it's kind of an isolating thought. And so, the notion that then you might come together with other people who believe this is immensely freeing and immensely powering. I heard again and again the language of coming out — of coming out as a flat Earther … It solves a kind of a loneliness.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


Produced by Danielle Carr and Richard Raycraft. Q&A edited for length and clarity. 

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