Belief in a flat Earth seems a bit like the attempt to eradicate polio – just when you think it’s gone, a pocket of resistance appears. But the “flat Earthers” have always been with us; it’s just that they usually operate under the radar of public awareness.
Now the rapper B.o.B has given the idea prominence through his tweets and the release of his single Flatline, in which he not only says the Earth is flat, but mixes in a slew of other weird and wonderful ideas.
These include the notions that the world is controlled by lizard people, that certain celebrities are cloned, that Freemasons manipulate our lives, that the sun revolves around the Earth and that the Illuminati control the new world order. Not bad for one song.
Even ignoring that these ideas are inconsistent (are we run by lizards, the Freemansons or the Illuminati?), what would inspire such a plethora of delusions? The answer is both straightforward, in that it is reasonably clear in psychological terms, and problematic, in that it can be hard to fix.
Making our own narratives
Humans are, above all things, story-telling animals. It is impossible to live our lives without constructing narratives. I could not present a word pair such as (cage, bird) without you joining them in a narrative or image. Same with (guitar, hand) or (river, bridge). Even when we read seemingly unrelated word pairs such as (pensioner, wardrobe), our brains actively try to match the two (and you’re still doing it).
The stories that define us as a culture, a group or as a species are often complex and multifaceted. They speak of many things, including creation, nature, community and progress.
We create stories for two reasons. The first is to provide explanatory power, to make causal sense of the world around us and help navigate through the landscapes of our lives. The second reason is to give us meaning and purpose.
Not only do we understand our world through stories, we understand our place in it. The stories can be religious, cultural or scientific, but serve the same purpose.
In science, our stories are developed over time and build on the work of others. The narrative of evolution, for example, provides breathtaking explanatory power. Without it, the world is simply a kaleidoscope of form and colour. With it, each organism has function and purpose.
Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.
Through evolution, we have developed an understanding of how we fit into the scheme of life, and the vast and deep history of our planet. For many of us, this knowledge provides meaning and an appreciation of the fact of our existence.
Similarly, the story of our solar system’s formation is rich and compelling, and includes the explanation for why the Earth is, in fact, more or less spherical.
So why would someone reject all this?
One reason might be that accepting mainstream scientific findings necessitates rejecting an existing narrative. Such is the case for evolution within fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible.
For the literally religious, accepting evolution necessitates rejecting their world view. It is not about weighing scientific evidence, it is about maintaining the coherence and integrity of their narrative. The desperate and unsuccessful search for evidence to contradict evolution by young Earth creationists is a manifestation of this attempt at ideological purification.
Another reason to reject scientific narratives is that we feel we do not have meaning within them, or we do not belong to the community that created them.
As I’ve said elsewhere concerning conspiracy theories, in a world in which there is so much knowledge, and in which we individually hold so little of it, it is sometimes difficult to see ourselves as significant.
What’s more, science, it turns out, is hard. So if we want to own this narrative, it might take a bit of work.
Freedom from rationality
It is therefore tempting to find a way of thinking about the world that both dismisses the necessity of coming to grips with science, and restores us to a privileged social position.
Rejecting science and embracing an alternative view, such as the Earth being flat, moves the individual from the periphery of knowledge and understanding to a privileged position among those who know the “truth”.
In BoB’s lyrics, he calls himself “free thinking”. In this phrasing we see a glimpse of the warrant he gives himself to reject science, considering it a “cult”.
He appeals instead to his common sense to establish that the Earth must be flat. The appeal to common sense is a characteristic way of claiming to be rational while denying the collective rationality of the scientific community (and a typical argument in climate denial).
It’s also about recapturing a feeling of independence and control. We know from research that there is a correlation between feeling a lack of control in your life and belief in conspiracy theories.
If we can rise above the tide of mainstream thinking and find a place from which we can hold a unique and controversial view, we might hope to be more significant and find a purpose to which we can lend our talents.
Coming back from the edge
So how could we engage someone with such beliefs, with view to changing their minds? That’s no easy task, but two things are important.
The first is to have both the facts and their means of verification at hand – after all, you need something to point to. Sometimes, if the narrative is weak or in tension, that might do the job.
The second thing, because facts are often not enough, is to understand the style and depth of the narrative an individual has developed, and the reasons it’s developed as it has. It’s only from that point that progress can be made against otherwise intractable opposition to collective wisdom.
But why bother? Why not let rappers rap, preachers preach and deniers deny? It might seem that we are just dealing with a fringe on the edge of the rational (or literal) world. But, of course, in the case of things such as vaccination and climate change, the consequences of inaction against these views are potentially damaging.
Either way, we should at least stand up for knowledge that has been hard won through collective endeavours over generations and individual lives dedicated to its pursuit.
Because if all views are equal then all views are worthless, and that’s something none of us should accept.