Speakers recently flew in from around (or perhaps, 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 wasn't just three days of speeches and YouTube clips (though, granted, there was a lot of this). There was also a lot of team-building, networking, debating, workshops – and scientific experiments.
Yes, flat earthers do seem to place a lot of emphasis and priority on scientific methods and, in particular, on observable facts. The weekend in no small part revolved around discussing and debating science, with lots of time spent running, planning, and reporting on the latest set 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 you might be wrong".
While flat earthers seem to trust and support scientific methods, what they don't trust is scientists, and the established relationships between "power" and "knowledge". This relationship between power and knowledge has long been theorised by sociologists. By exploring this relationship, we can begin to understand why there is a swelling resurgence of flat earthers.
Power and knowledge
Let me begin by stating quickly that I'm not really interested in discussing if the earth if flat or not (for the record, I'm happily a "globe earther") – and I'm not seeking to mock or denigrate this community. What's important here is not necessarily whether they believe the earth is flat or not, but instead what their resurgence and public conventions tell us about science and knowledge in the 21st century.
Multiple competing models were suggested throughout the weekend, including "classic" flat earth, domes, ice walls, diamonds, puddles with multiple worlds inside, and even the earth as the inside of a giant cosmic egg. The level of discussion however often did not revolve around the models on offer, but on broader issues of attitudes towards existing structures of knowledge, and the institutions that supported and presented these models.
Flat earthers are not the first group to be skeptical of existing power structures and their tight grasps on knowledge. This viewpoint is somewhat typified by the work of Michel Foucault, a famous and heavily influential 20th century philosopher who made a career of studying those on the fringes of society to understand what they could tell us about everyday life.
He is well known, amongst many other things, for looking at the close relationship between power and knowledge. He suggested that knowledge is created and used in a way that reinforces the claims to legitimacy of those in power. At the same time, those in power control what is considered to be correct and incorrect knowledge. According to Foucault, there is therefore an intimate and interlinked relationship between power and knowledge.
At the time Foucault was writing on the topic, the control of power and knowledge had moved away from religious institutions, who previously held a very singular hold over knowledge and morality, and was instead beginning to move towards 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.
Ahead of the curve?
In the 21st century, we are witnessing another important shift in both power and knowledge due to factors that include the increased public platforms afforded by social media. Knowledge is no longer centrally controlled and – as has been pointed out in the wake of Brexit – the age of the expert may be passing. Now, everybody has the power to create and share content. When Michael Gove, a leading proponent of Brexit, proclaimed: "I think the people of this country have had enough of experts," it would seem that he, in many ways, meant it.
It is also clear that we're seeing increased polarization in society, as we continue to drift away from agreed singular narratives and move into camps around shared interests. Recent PEW research suggests, for example, that 80% of voters who backed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 US presidential election – and 81percent of Trump voters – believe the two sides are unable to agree on basic facts.
Despite early claims, from as far back as HG Wells' "world brain" essays in 1936, that a worldwide shared resource of knowledge such as the internet would create peace, harmony and a common interpretation of reality, it appears that quite the opposite has happened. With the increased voice afforded by social media, knowledge has been increasingly decentralized, and competing narratives have emerged.
This was something of a reoccurring theme throughout the weekend, and was especially apparent when four flat earthers debated three physics PhD students. A particular point of contention occurred when one of the physicists pleaded with the audience to avoid trusting YouTube and bloggers. The audience and the panel of flat earthers took exception to this, noting that "now we've got the internet and mass communication … we're not reliant on what the mainstream are telling us in newspapers, we can decide for ourselves". It was readily apparent that the flat earthers were keen 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 are decoupling themselves from scientific knowledge, moving towards a kind of populist politics that are increasingly skeptical of knowledge. This has, in recent years, manifested itself in extreme ways – through such things as public politicians showing support for Pizzagate or Trump's suggestions that Ted Cruz's father shot JFK.
But this can also be seen in more subtle and insidious form in the way in which Brexit, for example, was campaigned for in terms of gut feelings and emotions rather than expert statistics and predictions. Science is increasingly facing problems with its ability to communicate ideas publicly, a problem that politicians, and flat earthers, are able to circumvent with moves towards populism.
Again, this theme occurred throughout the weekend. Flat earthers were encouraged to trust "poetry, freedom, passion, vividness, creativity, and yearning" over the more clinical regurgitation of established theories and facts. Attendees were told that "hope changes everything", and warned against blindly trusting what they were told. This is a narrative echoed by some of the celebrities who have used their power to back flat earth beliefs, such as the musician B.O.B, who tweeted: "Don't believe what I say, research what I say."
In many ways, a public meeting of flat earthers is a product and sign of our time; a reflection of our increasing distrust in scientific institutions, and the moves by power-holding institutions towards populism and emotions. In much the same way that Foucault reflected on what social outcasts could reveal about our social systems, there is a lot flat earthers can reveal to us about the current changing relationship between power and knowledge. And judging by the success of this UK event – and the large conventions planned in Canada and America this year – it seems the flat earth is going to be around for a while yet.