Sunday, May 17, 2020

A fascinating look at the flat earther community

I thoroughly enjoyed watching the documentary Behind the Curve on Netflix earlier tonight. It's a documentary made in late 2018 about the burgeoning flat earth movement in the USA. It's a movement, like many another conspiracy theory movement, that is just made for the internet generation, and it seems to draw its self-worth almost entirely from its social media numbers (and we all know what company it is in there).
Yes, I went into the movie with preconceptions, which I probably shouldn't have done, but it's kind of hard not to have preconceptions about something as fundamental as whether or not the earth is round, and whether or not we are really hurtling through space. It's something that most people have made their minds up about, one way or another, pretty early on in life.
But it was a fascinating glimpse into the kinds of people who get into that kind of conspiracy theory. Among the leading lights are narcissists looking for self-validation from a fawning YouTube audience, the occasional severely unbalanced individual who needs professional help, and a few who seem to be driven by a genuine semi-scientific curiosity but don't seem to quite have the kind of scientific rigour required, and find themselves repeatedly disappointed at the difficulty of proving their own convictions in a convincing way. Their followers are a mixture of outsiders, anti-establishment rebels, mavericks, goofballs, and apparently regular folks, as well as a good number of clearly lonely people in search of a ready-made welcoming club of likeminded lonely people. These are not all stupid and/or uneducated people - they just have a different outlook and/or agenda. A 2019 survey suggested that one in six Americans are not entirely convinced that the earth is round.
The doc mainly focuses on the flat earthers themselves and, rather than deliberately setting out to make them look ridiculous, it gives them just enough rope to hang themselves with what they do and say. There are also a few contributions from scientists and psychologists, who make at least some attempt at rationalizing where these people are coming from, and hypothesizing where they might have gone wrong on their journey.
It treads a fine line, but I think that Behind the Curve manages pretty well not to just blow off flat earthers as ridiculous jokers. However, it does allow itself the odd lingering camera shot of a few points of sublime irony, and it manages to maintain a lightheartedness without sinking into farce. But you will nevertheless probably come away with a surprising feeling of sadness and melancholy.

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