Speakers recently came in from all over (or maybe across?) the Earth for a three-day event held in Birmingham: the UK’s first-ever public Flat Earth convention. It was well attended, and it wasn’t just three days of speeches and YouTube clips (although of course this was a lot). There was also a lot of team building, networking, debating, workshops and scientific experiments.
Yes, flat-Earthers seem to place a lot of emphasis and priority on scientific methods and, in particular, on observable facts. Last but not least, the weekend was devoted to discussing and debating science, with a lot of time spent running, planning and reporting on the latest series of flat-Earth experiments and models. Indeed, as one presenter noted early on, flat-Earthers “try to look for multiple, verifiable evidence” and advised attendees to “always do your own research and accept that you may be wrong.”
While flat-Earthers seem to trust and support scientific methods, they don’t trust scientists and the established relationships between ‘power’ and ‘knowledge’. This relationship between power and knowledge has long been theorized by sociologists. By examining this relationship, we can begin to understand why there is a swelling flat Earth resurgence.
Power and knowledge
Let me start by quickly stating that I’m not really interested in discussing whether the Earth is flat or not (for the record, I’m fortunately a “sphere-earth”) – and I’m not trying to mock or denigrate this community. What’s important here isn’t necessarily whether someone believes the Earth is flat or not, but instead what the flat Earth revival and public conventions tell us about science and knowledge in the 21st century.st century.
Multiple competing models of Earth shapes were presented over the weekend, including “classic” flat Earth, domes, ice walls, diamonds, pools with multiple worlds in them, and even the Earth as the inside of a giant cosmic egg. However, the discussion was often not about the models offered, but about broader issues of attitudes towards existing knowledge structures and the institutions that supported and presented these structures.
Flat-Earthers are not the first group to be skeptical of existing power structures and their tight hold on knowledge. This point of view is somewhat typified by the work of Michel Foucault, a famous and highly influential 20e century philosopher who made a career studying people on the fringes of society to understand what they could tell us about everyday life.
He is known for his view on the close relationship between power and knowledge. He suggested that knowledge is created and used in a way that strengthens the legitimacy claims of those in power. At the same time, those in power determine what is considered correct and incorrect knowledge. Thus, according to Foucault, there is an intimate and interrelated relationship between power and knowledge.
By the time Foucault wrote on the subject, the control of power and knowledge had moved away from religious institutions, which previously had a very special hold on knowledge and morality, and instead began to evolve into a network of scientific institutions, media monopolies. , legal courts and bureaucratized governments. Foucault argued that these institutions work to maintain their claims to legitimacy by controlling knowledge.
in the 21st century, we are witnessing another major shift in both power and knowledge due to factors such as the increased public platforms provided by social media. Knowledge is no longer centrally controlled and – as noted in the wake of Brexit – the age of the expert may be passing. Now everyone has the power to create and share content. When Michael Gove, a leading Brexiteer, stated, “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts,” it seemed he meant it in many ways.
It is also clear that we are seeing an increasing polarization in society as we continue to stray from agreed upon singular narratives and move into camps around shared interests. For example, recent research from Pew suggests that 80 percent of voters who supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 U.S. presidential election — and 81 percent of Trump voters — believe the two sides can’t agree on basic facts.
Despite early claims that a globally shared source of knowledge such as the Internet would create peace, harmony, and a common interpretation of reality (this idea goes back as far as HG Well’s essays on the world brain in 1936), it seems the opposite has happened. With the increased voice of social media, knowledge has become more and more decentralized and competing narratives have emerged.
This was a recurring theme throughout the weekend and became especially apparent when four flat-Earthers debated three physics PhD students. A particular point of contention arose when one of the physicists begged the public not to trust YouTube and bloggers. The public and panel of flat-Earthers objected to this, noting that “now that we have the internet and mass communication … we don’t depend on what the mainstream tells us in newspapers, we can decide for ourselves.” It was immediately clear that the flat-Earthers wanted to separate knowledge from scientific institutions.
Flat Earthers and Populism
At the same time as scientific claims to knowledge and power are being undermined, some power structures decouple themselves from scientific knowledge and evolve into a kind of populist politics that is increasingly skeptical of knowledge. This has manifested itself in extreme ways in recent years — through things like public politicians expressing support for Pizzagate or Trump’s suggestions that Ted Cruz’s father shot JFK.
But this can also be seen in a more subtle and insidious form in the way in which, for example, Brexit was campaigned in terms of gut feelings and emotions rather than expert statistics and predictions. Science is increasingly faced with problems with its ability to communicate ideas publicly, a problem that politicians and flatteners can get around with moves toward populism.
This theme also recurred throughout the weekend. Flat-Earthers were encouraged to trust “poetry, freedom, passion, vivacity, creativity and desire” rather than the more clinical regurgitation of established theories and facts. Those in attendance were told that “hope changes everything,” and warned them not to blindly trust what they were told. This is a story repeated by some of the celebrities who have used their power to support the flat-earth beliefs, such as the musician BOB, who tweeted: “Don’t believe what I say, examine what I say.”
The cities in the background are about 16 miles apart… where’s the curve? please explain this pic.twitter.com/YCJVBdOWX7
— Bob (@bobatl) January 25, 2016
In many ways, a public gathering of flat-Earthers is a product and sign of our time; a reflection of our growing distrust in scientific institutions, and the movements of power-holding institutions towards populism and emotions. In much the same way that Foucault thought about what social outcasts might reveal about our social systems, there is much that flat earths can reveal to us about the current changing relationship between power and knowledge. And judging by the success of this event in the UK – and the major conventions planned this year in Canada and America – it looks like the flat Earth will be around for a while.
This article was originally published on The Conversation.
List image by Getty Images