Let me tell you about John.
John says he’s not crazy. I believe him.
“I am a normal person,” he says.
But John isn’t a ‘normal’ person. Not quite.
Well, he is and he isn’t.
This article was originally published on September 12, 2016.
John is a Doctor. A medical doctor.
Actually, John is more than a doctor. John is the kind of Doctor who manages other Doctors.
John earns a substantial amount of money. John lives with his wife and three children in a large house in a well-to-do suburb in Sydney. John is comfortable. Comfortable enough to have a hot tub and sauna in his backyard. Comfortable enough that when he arrived home from a work trip to find his wife had spent thousands of dollars on a brand new tree house for their kids, John didn’t blink. Barely even mentioned it. Went on with his day.
John is intelligent. Intimidatingly intelligent. When John talks he holds eye contact. You’re afraid of saying something silly in John’s presence. You want him to think you’re smart. You make a clever joke; a sideways glance. Is John laughing? I hope John is laughing.
John is the kind of person you want to impress.
John is tall. His eyes tend to squint. He laughs infrequently but smiles easily. When you arrive at John’s home the first thing he shows you is his Arcade Machine, a cocktail cabinet with thousands of video games installed. John is in his 40s. He’ll school you at Street Fighter 2, but he prefers the classics. Asteroids, Pac-Man. John has an almost childish passion for things.
John is a great guy. A good Doctor. A loving husband and a great Father. John is all these things and more.
But one tiny detail, not evident. Not immediately.
John believes the earth is flat.
John absolutely believes the world is flat.
This not a joke. This is not irony or an exercise in intellectual curiosity. John is not playing Devil’s Advocate.
Again: John believes the world is flat.
A common misconception: before Christopher Columbus circumnavigated the globe in 1492, people commonly believed the earth was flat.
Untrue. The concept of a spherical earth was posited as early as 6th century BC. By 3rd century BC Hellenistic astronomy established it as a physical given. Early Islamic astronomers believed the earth was spherical. In the 7th century the Armenian scholar Anania Shirakatsi described the earth as being “like an egg with a spherical yolk surrounded by a layer of white and covered with a hard shell”.
We do our ancestors a disservice. By the time Christopher Columbus set sail human beings had been aware of a spherical earth for roughly 2000 years.
But there were dissenters. There’s always been dissenters. The Greek philosopher Thales thought the earth floated on water like a log. Archelaus believed the earth sank in the middle, like a saucer. Early Christian dissenters argued for a flat earth. Passages in the Koran discuss the earth as being “laid out” during creation, which some interpret as a flat earth descriptor.
1893, 400 years after Columbus went on his legendary voyage Orlando Ferguson, a Real Estate developer from North Dakota, drew this map. A combination of biblical and ‘scientific’ references, Ferguson called himself a professor and took this image (and an accompanying 92 page thesis) on tour across America. He believed the earth was flat.
1956, one year before the Soviet Union sent Sputnik 1 into orbit, Samuel Shenton formed the Flat Earth Society. One of his primary goals: reach children before they were of school age, before they had a chance to see globes in the classroom. After the launch of Sputnik 1 Shenton famously said: “Would sailing round the Isle of Wight prove that it were spherical?”
In 1961 the Soviets sent Yuri Gagarin into space.
In 1969 the United States put a man on the moon.
It’s 2016 and there are still people who believe in a flat earth. Some believe Antarctica is a ring of ice that encircles the earth. Some believe there’s undiscovered land beyond that wall. Many believe gravity literally doesn’t exist. Fringe flat earthers believe the sky is actually a glass dome. Almost all believe that NASA faked the moon landing.
Flat earthers generally believe all photos of a spherical earth from space – and there are thousands – have been doctored.
“On the one hand it seems incredible that people believe this, on the other hand there’s a basic explanation.”
That’s Peter Ellerton, founding director of the University of Queensland Critical Thinking Project. Peter’s written extensively on why people believe in a flat earth, but believes the answer is relatively straightforward. It’s simply the narrative people write for themselves. Once that narrative has been established, it’s near impossible to rewrite.
“The psychology of why they believe what they believe isn’t wildly different from the reasons why we believe what we believe,” explains Peter.
“It just so happens that these people have written a strange story.”
Peter’s view: human beings like to tell stories. Stories are what allow us to understand and interpret the world we inhabit. Stories define our reality. These stories can be constructed based on scientific consensus or built upon existing narratives in religious texts — either way, they’re created in much the same way. And they’re equally as rigid. It’s difficult to convince a lifelong anti-vaccer to vaccinate their children. And it’s difficult to convince flat earthers that the earth is round. It’s tough to untie that knot.
But the knot that is Flat Earth Theory is unique: it involves the rejection of our most fundamental understanding of the world and how the universe works. The earth is a spherical planet that revolves around the sun: that’s a belief most would consider absolute. Peter believes there’s a cognitive dissonance at play; it takes a certain level of arrogance to reject scientific expertise, but there’s also a simple pleasure in it.
“Flat earthers feel crappy because they don’t understand a lot of this stuff,” Peter believes, “so they find a way to minimise the stuff they don’t understand.”
By rejecting the established science, flat earthers place themselves in a position of power.
“Suddenly they feel like they’re the experts, and that’s a good feeling. Why wouldn’t you want to maintain that feeling?”
That’s Gemma. Gemma is John’s wife and a Clinical Psychologist. She does not believe in a flat earth.
“The earth is round,” she tells me. “It’s bloody round. I’ve seen pictures.”
In the beginning, flat earth theory was a mere distraction for John. He liked to argue about ideas, enjoyed conspiracy theories, watched a few videos here and there, had conversations with his wife. An amusing distraction. Six to seven months later, says Gemma, it became an all-consuming part of John’s life.
“Every spare minute he’s lying on the couch,” explains Gemma, “just saturating himself in this stuff.”
In the beginning, Gemma tolerated John’s discussions, even participated. Eventually, as those discussions increased in frequency and intensity, Gemma banned all flat earth talk from the house. If she finds John watching YouTube videos about the flat earth conspiracies, or any conspiracy for that matter, she simply walks out of the room.
John’s tendency to approach ideas from unique perspectives, his ability to maintain an open mind to strange ideas and treat them with respect – these are personality traits that attracted
Gemma to John in the beginning of their relationship. But there’s a dogmatism to John’s flat earth obsession that repels her.
“It’s broader than him saying the earth is flat,” says Gemma. “It’s more like, what kind of a person thinks that?
“It’s the rigidity I can’t handle. The idea that the earth is flat, that they won’t hear otherwise. I’m not a layperson, I’m a clinical psychologist. That’s madness.”
Like Peter, Gemma believes there’s a certain level of arrogance at play. But she also believes there’s paranoia involved.
I ask Gemma if she’s worried about John.
“Am I worried about him?”
She laughs. She laughs for a long time.
“Mark,” she repeats, with emphasis, “the earth is round.”
“Once I believed it,” John explains, “everything fell into place.”
John didn’t always believe in a Flat Earth, but he’s always been curious, about almost everything.
One video in particular convinced him, on YouTube. One specific wrinkle: the earth and its apparent lack of curvature.
“I just couldn’t disprove it,” he says.
And he tried.
Using his own money, and his own spare time, John bought equipment, online, in an attempt to somehow check the curvature of the earth. In his own experiments, he claims, he could not not prove that the earth was round.
He looked at large scale photos of the earth and its horizon. Dead straight. Why? One video in particular: two men found the perfect spot. They stood 10 kms apart on opposite sides of a massive body of water. One shone a red laser towards the other: straight as a die. The figure opposite could see the beam of light. Same level. Same height.
John doesn’t understand why. Shouldn’t the curvature of the earth make that impossible?
He believes there’s only one conclusion: the earth is flat.
John doesn’t bring up the subject much, doesn’t discuss it with his colleagues. He will occasionally broach the topic with friends, he says, but he’s had mixed results.
“People get angry,” John explains. “They don’t want to hear it.”
John and Gemma once had dinner with their next door neighbours. They were comfortable with one another, so John discussed his research into flat earth theory, asked a few probing questions. The mood, John says, switched almost instantly.
“He looked at me like he was going to hit me,” remembers John.
“The first thing you get shown in school is a globe, that’s your foundation. When you remove that, you remove the foundation. I think that scares people.”
Gemma remembers that dinner. She has a different perspective.
What John didn’t mention: his neighbour is an astrophysicist. His literal job description: ascertain the nature of objects in space. Suggesting the earth is flat doesn’t just challenge his existing world view, it rebukes his entire life’s work.
Gemma’s says the neighbour wasn’t angry, he just thought John was an idiot, similar to the idiots who called his institute on a weekly basis to tell him the earth was flat.
This concerns Gemma. She’s embarrassed, not for herself, but for John. The idea her husband is being thought of in this way, dismissed for the strange belief he has allowed to define him.
“I want to protect him,” she explains.
Flat earth theory has changed Gemma’s own perception of the man she fell in love with. The man she married. The father of her children.
“It’s affected our relationship,” she says.
“I had a panic attack in the car thinking about it, just wondering, ‘is this the kind of person I’ve chosen to spend the rest of my life with’. It’s at that level. It’s a huge issue in my life.”
Peter Ellerton said something during our conversation. He said: “these people aren’t a mystery, they’re just a little sad.”
Gemma echoes the sentiment. This is a reality John has to live with.
She remembers one moment. John standing in the kitchen, telling Gemma he felt estranged from humanity, that he was “existentially lonely”.
“He said: ‘no-one thinks the way that I think. People aren’t comfortable with my ideas. There’s no-one I can connect with and talk to’.
But there’s a dichotomy. Gemma recognises that. John feels lonely, but that loneliness makes him feel special. There’s a comfort in that loneliness, in believing you’re enlightened one.
“I love him,” says Gemma, finally. “He’s a highly intelligent person and worthy of respect, but this is fucking mental. It’s crazy.”
John says something striking; something telling.
“When you look at flat earth theory,” he says, “when you think about it, it’s beautiful.”
It’s understandable. Relatable even.
On a certain level it’s easy to be seduced by the idea of a flat earth. It draws you in; a tractor beam of alluring ideas and concepts. A flat earth: it all but confirms the concept of a creator, our collective hope for something more than this. It places us — humanity — back at the centre of the universe. No longer hurtling through the void of an infinite universe beyond our measure and comprehension. No longer at the mercy of physical forces beyond our control. No longer Carl Sagan’s pale blue dot.
No longer insignificant. There’s a comfort in that. John is correct: there’s a beauty in that.
Because now John looks at the stars – we sit in hushed awe, daunted and humbled by the scope of the universe and our place in it – but John’s stars move differently. He sits on his porch. He watches the sun set; a sun we no longer orbit. He is comforted, perhaps resolute.
In the place where he sits, in this precise moment in time, John’s stars revolve around him.