This essay explores shifts in modern conspiracy theories that reflect growing mistrust of science—mistrust that has recently manifested in anti-vax sentiments and protests against coronavirus lockdowns. I analyze as my case-studies fringe theories about the shape of the Earth, particularly the shift from Hollow Earth in the last century to Flat Earth. These esoteric theories ultimately reveal a mistrust of government institutions and an emphasis on first-hand experimentation, which I argue are now part of the mainstream zeitgeist.
“Don’t trust everything you read online,” is the most popular injunction you hear when it comes to consuming content on the Internet, particularly in the year 2021. In July of last year, John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight released an episode dedicated entirely to conspiracy theories around the coronavirus, fully equipped with a slow-motion striptease by John Cena and the timeless invocations of the “the rational,” “the practical,” and “the experts.” It was a too-honest piece, one that I, as a leftist academic, readily consumed along with my midday meal. But I couldn’t help but think to myself: great, because that’s exactly what the conspiracy theorists need. To be told: they’re feeding you lies, buddy. Don’t march behind the sheeple – question everything.
It is clear, given the public attention to conspiracy theories these days – a topic that falls under my more idiosyncratic academic predilections – that we have entered an alarming age of information crisis. Of course, growing up we all had that one uncle who never failed to connect every global disaster to “Big Brother” or “the Jews.” It seems, however, that those uncles – with the help of a few YouTube rabbit-holes and Reddit threads – have found their ways to one another’s bosoms, and that there are far more of them than many of us expected. With the emergence of COVID-19, conspiracy theories have become a public health hazard: viral transmissions in the United States go hand in hand with viral videos of “Karens” forging mask-exemption ADA credentials and attacking poor retail workers who dared to ask them otherwise.
Anti-government protests have erupted across the world, although the most Covid-hoax / anti-vax variations have emerged largely in Europe and the Americas. In the fall of last year, police in London clashed with thousands of protesters who swarmed Trafalgar Square rallying against lockdown measures at a time when UK cases were surging. Conspiracy theorist Kate Shemirani let the public know in her speech to the crowd that not only did the coronavirus not exist, but that the development of a supposed vaccine would give the government the power to “look at every aspect of what’s going on in our brains” and “not only can they pick it up, they can download into us too.” This fall, the same phenomenon repeats itself: in London, Sydney, Paris, Berlin, Los Angeles, New York, Rome, Zagreb, Madrid, Toronto. Signs read, “Don’t Touch Our Children,” “I’m A Child I Can’t Consent,” “I fear God not Covid,” “I’m Not A Lab Rat,” and “Forced Penetrations Are Always Wrong”.
Hilarious as it may be to drink wine and watch the world burn through headlines like these, the cackling is pyrrhic at best. While the conspiratorial influence of fake-news and spam-bots reared its ugly head during the 2016 American election and the Brexit vote thereafter, the pandemic has revealed a new dimension of our paranoid pack-mind: a marked shift in our collective attitudes towards science. This is a shift that the partisan nature of Hillary’s emails or Boris Johnson’s model buses made it a little harder to notice; an attitude of suspicion towards not just governments and official narratives, but the so-called consensus achieved in the domain of biology labs and physics equations. No conspiracy theory encapsulates this shift quite as neatly as the Flat Earth theory: the theory that asserts, in every one of its permutations, that NASA is lying to us and the Earth is flat.
Given that the pandemic has brought the interconnectedness of the globe into full view, it is high time for us to talk about it: how our changing relationship to the shape of the globe tells a story about our growing mistrust of science. To do that, we’ll have to look at another popular story, one from seventy years ago: the wide-eyed free-thinkers in the early twentieth century, for whom the most gripping conspiracy theory was not that the Earth was flat, but that it was hollow.
Hollow Earth was a curious theory. It was first proposed in the seventeenth century by the English astronomer Edmond Halley and disproved by scholars a century later, most definitively in the Schiehallion experiment, which determined the density of the Earth – and that it was, in fact, as full as a Turducken. This only laid the matter to rest for another hundred years; smatterings of Hollow Earth writings began appearing in the nineteenth century, and in the interwar and postwar period, the theory experienced a popular resurgence in America, no longer as a viable scientific hypothesis, but as an element of pseudoscience, conspiracy theory, and literally subterranean fiction. Writers like Marshall Gardner (1), Vladmir Obruchev (2), Ferdynand Ossendowski (3), George Papashvily (4), Raymond Bernard (5), and Richard Sharpe Shaver (6), David Hatcher Childress (7) offered divergent takes on the matter: most insisted that the openings that led to the inside of the Earth were located at the North and South poles, but some proposed additional entrances in the mountains of Azerbaijan, the Amazon rainforest and the Paris catacombs. Some writers placed a sun at the center of the hollow sphere, others believed that it contained prehistoric, monstrous creatures lurking in the depths, and a surprising number argued for a race of advanced humans or aliens with their own societies and incredible technologies living right under the surface of our world. Some even proposed that this is where the inhabitants of Atlantis went, and where UFOs ultimately come from (8). There’s a strange racial tinge to some Hollow Earth theories: the primitive creatures are sometimes thematized as darker, or sexually deviant, while the techie aliens are glorious Aryans in some form or other (9). That said, there’s a strange explicitly anti-Nazi fascination too – many of the Hollow Earth theories insisted that it was within the Earth that the Nazis had gone into hiding, staging a second war between America and the Nazis below ground. Freud would have a field day with the spatial re-imagining of this conflict: an unresolved war replayed endlessly in the “unconscious” of the planet, as it were; right under the surface of our daily lives.
Flat Earth theory, by contrast, is both older and younger than Hollow Earth – older in the sense that the ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, and early Greeks believed the world was a disc floating in seawater, younger in the sense that most people got over that view during the Middle Ages. Its resurgence as pseudoscience manifested only slightly in the nineteenth century, most prominently in the Zetetic Societies in England and New York, founded by the God-fearing Samuel Rowbotham and his wife, and buttressed by their homespun “scientific” experiments. Zetetic journals circulated for a few years and a handful of books were published, but interest declined after World War 1. The theory got a new lease on life through the efforts of Samuel Shenton, who in 1956 established the International Flat Earth Research Society (better known as Flat Earth Society) in Dover, UK (10). But it was only after the launch of NASA’s Apollo program (1969–1972) that he began to amass thousands of supporters. Still, for most audiences the theory’s appeal passed, and after the death of Shenton’s successor (and a fire at the society’s California headquarters) it seemed to breathe its last. A Facebook page for the Society went live in 2012, but posts from its early years have little to no public engagement – until 2016, that is.
During the Trump election year, engagement on the page soared. It amassed over two hundred thousand likes, and my own deep-dive into the page’s online traffic showed that almost all supporter and detractor comments began that year, along with the proliferation of fringe, “unofficial” Flat Earth pages and groups on Facebook (including a Flat Earth dating group, might I add), all mushrooming between 2016 and 2018. The same can be said for Flat Earth YouTube content creators, except that their contributions happened to reach millions rather than thousands. A quick scan of Google graphs documenting searches of “flat earth” testifies to the same astronomical spike. In 2018, YouGov polled over 8,000 US adults and found that one in six Americans is not entirely certain of the Earth’s shape, and more strikingly, that only 66% of American millennials firmly believe that the Earth is round, a much lower number than among older groups in the country. The social media rabbit-holes of conspiracy and misinformation that preyed upon so many citizens in 2016 seem to have boosted this unlikely, pseudoscientific suspect. The first of a string of Flat Earth International Conferences was held in Raleigh, North Carolina in 2017, then in Denver in 2018 and in Dallas in 2019. Official media sources began to pay attention and report on the events: it seems that Flat Earth, unlike Hollow Earth, is less an idiosyncratic intellectual and artistic fetish and more of a community, intent on in-person meet-ups and “official” groupings. That said, according to a delicious CNN special on the Dallas conference, many attendees insisted they had nothing to do with the “official” Flat Earth Facebook page, which was a “government-controlled body designed to pump out misinformation and make the Flat-Earth cause sound far-fetched to curious minds.” A conspiracy theory about a conspiracy theory – the best of Internet content. There’s a lot to unpack here but bear with me.
Both Hollow and Flat Earth are theories replete with a sense of adventure and discovery: you, the average Joe and Jane, can bring the truth to light and formulate hypotheses about the big, wide world – literally. It is the practical approach to science without the science. In The Play of Nature, Robert Crease proposes that science has a social division of labor embedded in its design: a theoretical side and an experimental side (11). The theory of science works with mathematical concepts and equations, constituting the “hard,” incomprehensible part of science; the experimental side is the manual work, the action, the practical application and gathering of data. No complex mental process is required there: the subject must simply perform the experiment. The seduction of both Earth-related theories is that they hinge on hands-on performance of experimentation, without an officiating scientific institution or knowledge-base to sanction or notarize the experiment’s methods and results. It is the science of the comparably disenfranchised subject: the practical side that needs no diploma, no socioeconomic access, just ingenuity and diligence. Expeditions to find the entrance to the Hollow Earth demanded only the physical, willing body: admiral Richard Byrd’s exploration of the South Pole allegedly yielded contact with the subterranean race, as did Richard Sharpe Shaver’s more humble research in his local Berwick, Pennsylvania. At the 2018 Denver conference, Flat Earth Youtube celebrity Rob Skiba whipped out a white lab coat, saying: “I have no academic credentials. But I do have a cloak of credibility.” Scientists can have a monopoly on science because of just that: the authority of the cloak, the academic structures, the conferences – all things that the Earth-skeptics of all shapes and colors have decided to claim for themselves, too. It is worth considering the very first question asked of me when I applied to join the “Official Flat Earth and Globe Discussion”, one of the Facebook groups with the largest followings: “Do you SOLEMNLY SWEAR to ONLY post claims you can support with first hand science or observations you did yourself?”
In this sense, Flat Earthers are performing on a more popular and international scale what a handful of Hollow Earthers were performing a century ago: a critique of the elitism and inaccessibility of academic institutions and scholarly conversations, the need for a democratizing of the sciences, journals, and jargon, for a shedding of the cult of expertise, the paywalls, and the overall gatekeeping of knowledge. They are presenting an institutional critique from the practical point of view of experimentation itself. But that’s not enough to explain them fully.
The two theories may look similar enough if sociological marginalization and the shared word “Earth” are all that one takes into account. But there’s a stark difference in the orientation of these two theories to the planet: while Hollow Earth advocates insisted there was more of the Earth to explore and discover, a wealth of flora, fauna, sentient species, and actual habitable landmass just beyond reach, Flat Earthers today insist that there is – remarkably – less. Fandoms and cultic disciples of subterranean (proto-)science fiction like Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) and Ray Palmer’s “The Shaver Mystery” (1945–1949) were enraptured by an optimism about experimental science. If only we took it upon ourselves to conduct the voyage, we would unearth not only the truths hidden from us, but vast expanses of more world – be that the rich underworld of Agartha, the lost language of Mantong, or the superior race of aliens with advanced technology far beyond our species’ wildest dreams. Science was additive: science brought about wonders, and the official structures of science were merely standing in the way of all the wonders it could do. And could we blame the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for their optimism?
By contrast, Flat Earthers are not an enchanted people. For them, experimental science is meant to reveal how much emptier the world is than we think: deflated and flat, with Game of Thrones–style ice walls surrounding it on all sides, and no concept of outer space, let alone satellites and moon-landings. Official science, they claim, overstates its powers; NASA purports to have left our planet, to have frolicked on otherworldly terrain and come back bearing colorful photographs, maybe even hope of water on Mars, hope of life somewhere else. But the truth of it is a lot more boring; a lot more adult: it was just Photoshop, stupid. Aren’t you a little too old for magical thinking? Homemade experimental science “proving” the Earth’s unbending horizon and the nonexistence of gravity gives us less world: science is approached with pessimism, as a method by which we lose things – and those things are not just the classroom model globe.
There are ramifications to this attitude that bring us full-circle, with COVID-19 breathing down our necks and seemingly reasonable people swarming our streets. The World Health Organization listed what it called “vaccine hesitancy” or anti-vax sentiment as one of the top 10 global health threats in 2019. In early 2020, Gallup polls found nearly half of Americans were unwilling to take a COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available, and over one third of French respondents were hesitant or opposed to taking it, despite being one of the worst-hit countries in Europe. One can hear echoes of the Flat Earthers’ disenchantment and mistrust of science in the adherents of “vaccine hesitancy.” How magical and naive it must seem, to think an injection of an unknown substance can give you more life, more health, a halo of protection, when all it can actually do is take from you: your child through autism, your privacy through alleged government surveillance. You can only trust the experiments you yourself conduct, and even then, you mostly trust them to prove the loss you already anticipate.
There is a reason this conspiracy theory about the shape of the earth motivates us now more than ever before, in contrast to other shapes, fantasies, or metaphors. The Flat Earth Society’s Facebook page is replete with ridiculous neckbeard-blog content, but occasionally articles like The Guardian’s “Why We Can’t Trust Academic Journals to Tell the Scientific Truth” get shared, which trouble the convenient binary between the critical and the insane. The article stages a takedown of academics rallying against fake-news in the 2017 March For Science, citing studies of how 70% of researchers who try to replicate one another’s experiments fail to arrive at the same results, or studies that deem over half of life science and economic research unreplicable. In the last few years, the publish-or-perish culture of academia has been widely decried, especially because it requires a constant stream of “cutting edge” scientific discovery, encouraging the fabrication of data sets and the eschewing of dutiful replications that won’t get published or advance anyone’s career. John Oliver himself has done a special on this, detailing how the proliferation of scientific “studies” on television and social media – most of which are decontextualized, wildly contradict one another, and have never been replicated – makes for a popular environment that sees science as bullshit. Pulling up an enlarged Vox graph titled “Everything We Eat Both Causes and Prevents Cancer” he proclaimed: “There’s no Nobel prize for fact-checking.” And he’s right – there isn’t.
Conspiracy theories thematize what we as a society are most afraid of; they attach seemingly far-fetched images to undeniably real feelings circulating among us. As such, conspiracy theories about the Earth’s shape may just be literal expressions of how we feel about science, and about our future prospects as insignificant specks on the inscrutable face of the world. Ultimately, what we might be most afraid of is that science can’t save us. We dethroned God for the salvation science once promised, and now we find ourselves doubly disenchanted. And maybe — just maybe — instead of constantly telling people how little they can trust their eyes and ears, we need to figure out a way to build their trust in the official institutions that have for so long failed them.
- Gardner, M., A Journey to the Earth’s Interior, 1974.
- Obruchev, V. A., Plutonia, 1924.
- Ossendowski, F., Beasts, Men and Gods, 1922.
- Papashvily, G., Anything Can Happen, 1940.
- Bernard, R., The Hollow Earth, 1964.
- Shaver, R. S., “The Shaver Mystery,” Amazing Stories, 1945-1949.
- Childress, D. H., Lost Continents and the Hollow Earth, 1998.
- Reece, G. L., UFO Religion: Inside Flying Saucer Cults and Culture, 2007
- Shaver, R. S., “The Shaver Mystery,” Amazing Stories, 1945-1949.
- Garwood, C., Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea, 2007.
- Crease, R., The Play of Nature, 1993.