It is easy to dismiss Flat Earth conspiracy theories as nothing more than harmless fun that has no consequence out in the real world. While it is certainly true that this particular pseudoscience is much less dangerous than, for instance, anti-vaccine nonsense, alternative medicine quackery or climate denial, there are still good reasons to debunk it.
There are several celebrities, including Tila Tequila, David Avocado Wolfe and B. o. B., who push Flat Earth misinformation to millions of followers. Debunking Flat Earth is also a pedagogic way to explain the red flags of pseudoscience in a non-partisan environment because there is very little emotional or ideological interference for most people when it comes to this subject.
Modern Flat Earth activism online is in many ways a symptom of anti-intellectualism and filter bubbles and it can be beneficial to combat these things more generally. It is also a great case study to show that, yes, some people really do believe exceptionally unreasonable things. Finally, debunking Flat Earth conspiracy theories can be part of boosting the signal of science and reason to crowd out the pseudoscientific misinformation that is so prominent online.
Some flat earthers are celebrities with large audiences
Flat Earth pseudoscience is not merely a fringe belief held by some random cranks on the Internet who has zero influence. Some celebrities have actually stated that they, in fact, think the Earth is flat. This includes reality TV star Tila Tequila, alternative health guru David Avocado Wolfe and rapper B. o. B.. Other celebrities have claimed that they think the Earth is flat like Shaquille O’Neal, but later admitted that it was a joke.
Together, Tequila, Wolfe and B. o B. have over 15 million followers. Of course, not all of them will come to believe in the conspiracy theories of the celebrities they follow, but they have a large audience and fan base and thus a lot of influence. Even if their followers do not buy the specific Flat Earth conspiracy theory, the underlying mistrust of science and society might be more influential.
Pedagogic way to explain the red flags of pseudoscience
In many ways, Flat Earth pseudoscience is a “safe” topic to discuss on the Internet. Most people will not have an ideological aversion to critical information. It does not really matter that much if the viewer is a democrat or republican, religious believer or secular atheist, environmentalist or capitalist and so on. Thus, there is very little emotional resistance from any of these groups to understand that Flat Earth claims are pseudoscientific in nature.
Thus, debunking Flat Earth nonsense can be an excellent case study to highlight the many typical features or red flags of pseudoscience. This includes quoting scientists out of context, misusing basic science, confusing mechanism with fact, creating fake controversies, false balance, conspiracy theories, fake experts and so on. If people can understand these red flags in a relatively emotionally neutral context, they could perhaps have a better chance at recognizing these red flags in other contexts, where it might be much more difficult to discuss or make progress.
Flat Earth pseudoscience is a symptoms of anti-intellectualism
In the 1990s and early 2000s, a lot of the online presence of Flat Earth societies on various websites and forums was probably based on satire. With the advent of YouTube and the growing conspiracy movements, more and more people have seriously claimed that the earth is flat. Before, many cranks were often socially isolated and rarely encountered thousands of other people who shared their viewpoints.
With the Internet, it has become possible to connect with people who share your own worldview and experience enormous reinforcement. It is also very easy to become ideologically isolated online with search engines silently adapting to your search behavior and showing you material that the search engine algorithm has predicted that you want to see. This is ultimately done to monetize the preferences of individuals, but has the disturbing side effect of reducing the amount of divergent information that a person will see. It is like a form of technological confirmation bias. On social media, you also get to decide who you follow and who to block, further strengthening ideological isolation. Technological and social filter bubbles skew their world.
Ultimately, the Flat Earth movement is a symptom of anti-intellectualism. It is an extreme distrust of modernity and science on the base of a conspiracy theory that does not even remotely make sense even by the low standards of conspiracy theories. For some reason, all the governments of 200+ countries of the world have decided to fool people into thinking that the Earth is really shaped like a sphere. On the Flat Earth model, Antarctica is at the ends of the flat disc, and protected by the military. Why all the governments of the world are conspiring together and why they are trying to hide the supposed fact that the Earth is flat is exceptionally difficult for Flat Earth activists to understand.
Debunking Flat Earth conspiracy theories is thus one aspect of combating anti-intellectualism.
Good way to illustrate how people can fall for misinformation
Many people have a hard time to imagine how “people could be that dumb” to believe that the Earth is flat. It is often challenging to fathom how people can come to believe the most radically absurd claims about the world that we know are false. However, it is a simplification to blame it all on personal factors like a supposed lack of intelligence. This is because it not only underestimates situational factors, but also fails to explain why many, very intelligent people also accept pseudoscience and quackery.
Flat Earth pseudoscience, due to its patently absurd content, offers a stark reality of the power of misinformation. Misinformation can contribute to people starting to buy into claim that are so strongly incompatible with everything we know about basic physics. The realization that there are people who think the Earth is flat can in many ways be sobering and make it easier to understand how and why people can be ignorant and misinformed enough to be against vaccines or reject climate science.
Although Flat Earth conspiracy theories do not have anywhere near the level of danger that the anti-vaccine and climate denial have, it stands out because we have known that the Earth is not flat since the ancient Greeks like Aristotle and Eratosthenes. There is very little, if any, opposition among major political ideologies to labelling Flat Earth beliefs as pseudoscience, so it is in some ways a set of claims that almost everyone, except Flat Earth believers, can agree on is pseudoscience. It also opens up for conversations like “well if there are people who are misinformed enough to think the Earth is flat, maybe they could be misinformed on other issues as well?”
Boosting the signal of science and reason against the noise of misinformation
Flat Earth conspiracy theories are pseudoscience and all scientifically accurate refutations of pseudoscience is a good thing. Looking at these issues from a much larger perspective can be equally sobering. There is so much misinformation, pseudoscience and quackery out there on the Internet and offline. Regardless of the specific details around Flat Earth conspiracy theories, it can often be beneficial to boost the signal of science and reason against the background noise of vapid nonsense.
You will probably not convince that many Flat Earth activists, but bringing attention to the larger issues of scientific rationality versus pseudoscientific conspiracy theories might very well make it worth debunking Flat Earth pseudoscience. In a growing misinformation war, scientific information that refutes pseudoscience is sorely needed.
Flat Earth pseudoscience pales in comparison with many other forms of pseudoscience, both in deceptive content and societal consequences. So why bother debunking it? Why even care? It turns out that there are some arguments for why it might be of value to debunk Flat Earth nonsense: debunking pseudoscience and anti-intellectualism wherever it can be found is often a good thing regardless of the topic, it helps to boost the signal of science and critical thinking, it is a pedagogic case study on identifying the many red flags of pseudoscience because the issue does not have that much ideological and emotional baggage for most bystanders who come across the subject and it is perhaps one of the most explicit ways of illustrating that people really can and do believe extreme nonsense.
Finally, there are several celebrities with large number of followers that actively promote Flat Earth pseudoscience. Although they will probably not convince that many people that the Earth is flat, they will probably be effective at spreading their general distrust of science and society.