Off the Edge: Flat Earthers, Conspiracy Culture, and Why People Will Believe Anything
THE SUMMER BEFORE he fell from the sky, Mike Hughes was experimenting with amateur jet propulsion. It was going badly.
“Problem again today,” he texted me in August 2019.
“With the rocket, or weather?” I asked.
This was his second failure in two days, and I’d lost count of the times
he’d run into trouble with wind or parachutes or spare rocket parts he’d purchased off Craigslist for $325. Most people would have given up years earlier, maybe taken up a less lethal hobby. I certainly thought he’d quit.
“He’s gotta know, right?” I remember asking my husband. I was standing in our kitchen, texting Hughes with one hand and brandishing a spatula with the other, making an omelet while trying to talk Hughes out of launching himself into low orbit. “Deep down, he’s gotta know Earth is round. That’s why he keeps having these ‘rocket failures.’ Earth is round, and he doesn’t want to prove it.”
I liked Mike. He was an offbeat guy, but a good one. We’d met the previous year at a conference for people who believe the earth is flat. I was there as a journalist for the Daily Beast, the news website where I reported on extremist movements and conspiracy theories. He was there to drum up support for a self-manned rocket launch into the upper atmosphere, during which he would decide the planet’s shape for himself. He and I sat around talking trash and the particulars of 2
rocket science. Throughout the next year, he’d send me updates: pictures of rocket designs, gossip from the conspiracy scene, and invitations to more conspiracy conventions. This wasn’t a guy with a death wish. This was a man who’d lived six bombastic decades and had no intention of stopping. So when he texted me about a summer’s worth of rocket trou-bles, I thought it was his good sense finally rebelling against a bad idea. After all, who truly thought Earth was flat?
But “Mad Mike” Hughes was a believer—in thrifted rocket parts, in back-of-the-envelope flight calculus, in himself, and most famously, in Flat Earth.
Flat Earth theory, the idea for which Hughes was willing to shoot himself into the stratosphere, represents a profound misunderstand-ing of the world. But the theory and those who believe it are also mis-understood, by the world at large. I’ve spent years hobnobbing with Flat Earthers at conferences across the United States and interviewing them on the weekends, becoming the friend of some and the enemy of others. Some have called me for legal advice, and others have labeled me a saboteur out to sink the movement. Ally or archnemesis of Flat Earthers, I’ve spent enough time among them to sympathize with them on one key grievance: nearly every common assumption about Flat Earth is wrong. Maybe you learned as a kid that people expected Christopher Columbus to sail off the edge of a flat planet. Or maybe you’ve seen people refer to Flat Earth an example of a backwards-think-ing ideology held in Europe’s Middle Ages. The truth is that, by at least the fifth century BCE, Greek astronomers and mathematicians had already determined that the earth was round and had popularized the formulas that proved their calculations. By Columbus’s day, the globe model had been the default for centuries. (In fact, we can credit the Columbus Flat Earth myth to “Rip Van Winkle” author Washington Irving, who seems to have more or less invented it in his heavily embel-lished Columbus biography in the 1820s.) Flat Earth theory is a new idea, one that emerged in a utopian commune in England decades after Irving’s account of Columbus. It simmered in hard-core religious com-munities in the United States in the early 1900s, found a home with moon-landing skeptics in the back half of the twentieth century, and skyrocketed to popularity in the late 2010s, the same time Mike Hughes was teaching himself rocket science.
Hughes was a walking reminder of the other mistake people make about the movement: that Flat Earthers are wackos, denizens of soci-ety’s fringes. But Flat Earthers exist among us—often so inconspicu-ously that you’d never notice unless you asked. Some are parents, some are self-taught aerospace engineers, and some are professional athletes. Some are clever, some are kind, some are neither, and at least two have released bad rap songs that praise both Flat Earth and Adolf Hitler. On the whole, however, Flat Earthers comprise a spectrum of people who are seldom much different, or any dumber, than the rest of us.
Their theory typically claims Earth is as flat as a Frisbee, surrounded by ice at its perimeter, and maybe enclosed by a great, impenetrable dome. The details vary from believer to believer. Most Flat Earthers (but not all) do not believe in outer space. Though many are dismissive of gravity as a concept, some claim that the planet is constantly acceler-ating upward, while others disagree and claim that the only reason we don’t drift off the ground like escaped party balloons is because humans are heavier than air. But unless you find yourself in an argument over the theory’s nuances at a Flat Earth conference, they are of secondary importance. Flat Earth is best understood not as a viable science with meaningful specifics but as the ultimate incarnation of conspiratorial thinking. Members of the movement believe governments and scien-tists are actively peddling a “globe lie” in order to control the world by tarnishing religious teachings or by making people feel insignificant next to the great expanse of outer space. For the past 150-odd years, this bizarre theory has grown by borrowing age-old mistrusts and exploiting new forms of communication, from newspapers to radio to—eventually, explosively—the internet.
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