Let’s get this out of the way first – Flat Earth is a dumb movement. They are wrong. The world is round. Yet, the new documentary Behind The Curve about the flat earth movement is absolutely fascinating, and there is even something you can learn from people who have managed to find success pushing cause that is so clearly false.
The film Behind The Curve wisely chooses to focus on the anthropology of the flat earth movement, rather than the arguments, answering the question – who are these people who are so drawn to an absurd idea? What drives them? Why do they do this?
You meet two leaders in the movement who have a deep connection to one another – Mark Sargent and Patricia Steer. The film presents clear relationship tension between them, and by the end I found myself rooting for them to get together the way one would in any romantic comedy.
Part of the power of this film is that it presents people who believe absurd ideas with empathy, so you find yourself relating to them. The scientists in the film even go so far as to say that these people have a natural skpeticism which might make them good scientists, yet they fell off the path at some point, and have to be treated with empathy so they can return to the rest of society.
What is even more interesting is that despite the absurdity of their cause, flat earthers are finding an audience. Behind the Curve shows a movement where people build large followings, becoming niche celebrities, make merch, and even launch a 700 person conference at over $100 pet ticket by the end of the film. I have friends working on legitimate activist issues who struggle to get similar results. When was the last time you were able to get 700 people together for the issue you cared about?
So how do they do it?
Why Are Flat Earthers Finding An Audience?
First, they make lots of content. The documentary states that there are over a million hours of flat earth content on YouTube. That is a massive volume, and I’m not sure that there as many hours of content out there for even mainstream causes. But more importantly, flat earthers exploit the YouTube algorithm to create pre-suasion for their ideas.
Pre-suasion is when you here something before the real argument that primes you to accept it. For example, if I ask “when was the last time you had a big opportunity that changed your life?” and get you thinking about that, you might be more likely to accept the buisness offer I make next as a life changing opportunity. If I ask you to think about times someone scammed you first, not so much.
The YouTube algorithm wants you to spend as many hours as possible watching YouTube content. To this end, it suggests things it thinks you will like. However, this algorithm has been known to push people towards more and more extreme content on all issues. If you like a vegetarian video, it might start recommending vegan videos, because people who like one are likely to watch the other. The vegetarian content acts as pre-susaion for the vegan content. If you accept that the meat industry regularly hurts and exploits animals, it’s not a huge leap to accept that the dairy industry might also do the same thing.
Most flat earthers came to the movement through other conspiracy content. If you accept that “they” – whoever “they” are – are engaged in massive conspiracy to lie to you about 9/11, the JFK assassination, aliens, etc. then it isn’t a huge leap to ask “what else are they lying about?” If someone presents you a new conspiracy, you’ll be more open to it. So the YouTube algorithm drives people from one conspiracy video to progressively more extreme conspiracy videos. Hence, flat earth.
Second, they pace their audience. Pacing is when you acknowledge what your audience already believe and feels. One of the most popular flat earth videos mentioned in the film starts (paraphrased) ‘Is this a joke? No – but I could see why you’d think it is.’ The flat earthers acknowledge the fears and objections any normal person would have at the start of their videos. ‘Yes, this seems crazy. I thought it sounded crazy at first too. I actually came to debunk it. I started out just like you.’ This is textbook persuasion.
The negotiation book Never Split The Difference suggests doing an “accusation audit” in difficult negotiations. An accusation audit is when you name ever accusation the person you are trying to persuade might make of you. Many flat earthers do this – ‘you probably think I’m crazy, this is absurd, etc.’
What is fascinating about this is that flat earthers are better at applying the science of persuasion than actual scientists. Most scientists when they encounter flat earthers begin by invalidating their reality – the opposite of a pace. The ones interviewed in the film rightly say that in order to bring these people back to the scientific consensus you have to first begin by acknowledging their reality.
I wish this attitude of empathy and acknowledgement extended to other issues. It seems that when dealing with something as absurd as flat earth, people aren’t threatened, so they can acknowledge those they disagree with as human beings. When debating a more mainstream issue – which political candidate should win, what diet is best, how we should raise our children, etc. – this attitude of understanding goes out the window in favor of a blame or a screaming match.
The truth is that these persuasion techniques work regardless of the issue. If you can use someone to convince a large mass of people that the earth is flat, what would happen if you applied them to your more legitimate issue?
Lastly, flat earthers build community. Because their issues is so fringe, there is greater camaraderie in their movement. People in the documentary talk about losing friends over this issue. If most of your friends reject an aspect of who you are, you’re going to seek out people who can receive that part of you. As a consequence, flat earthers tear up and hug their leaders when they meet them. Finally, someone who understands me.
The leaders in that movement regularly engage their followers. The two mentioned earlier have a weekly radio show where they talk about what happened in the movement and issue that week. This regularly weekly content retains their audience and keeps them invested. Again – is anyone doing this on your more legitimate issue? Do you communicate regularly with your followers about what you’re doing and what’s going on? Why not?
The leaders in flat earth also have a sense of humor and play. One asks ‘name another conspiracy theory where people make funny merch like this.’ Even in a movement that claims that “they” are lying to you about everything and the whole world is a massive controlled conspiracy, people still frequently to find ways to laugh about their issue and make the movement a fun playful thing to be a part of. Meanwhile, mainstream political parties act like the world is ending every time they lose an election. Who is having more fun? Whose party would you rather go to?
The Dark Side of Flat Earth – Why People Stay
The documentary is also a fascinating look at the opposite side of persuasion – how people believe and become attached to false ideas. Why do likable people who have skills they could use to apply to any movement become attached to an idea that is clearly false?
I think the persuasion ideas listed above can account for who people get into the movement. But what keeps them there? Why do they stay when presented with counter evidence?
First, cognitive dissonance. Once you believe something, you seek more confirming evidence for what you believe. So, if you clicked on this link, you were probably expecting to hear how flat earthers are dumb and wrong, right? This is an example of seeking confirming evidence. We all do it. When was the last time you read a book by the other side of an issue you’re passionate about?
Second, sunk cost. If you’ve invested hundreds of hours in a cause or idea, what does it mean if you were wrong? Was all that time wasted? You want to believe your efforts were meaningful, so you’re going to attempt to justify the issue you worked on. Plus, if you’ve developed friendships in the movement, will you lose those if you change your mind?
Many people who leave tight religious communities experience this. They’ve made all their friendships and social life through the church. If they change their beliefs, they aren’t just having a difference of opinion, but breaking up with an entire community and condemning themselves to loneliness. (I know, having left a church.)
As people increasingly find their sense of meaning and community in non-religious movements or political causes, we may see the same thing. These flat earthers have build a strong sense of community in their movement. What does it mean if they leave that all behind?
You can tell them they should just do it, but how what would the social repercussions be for you if you did the same? What would happen if you wore a red MAGA hat around your left-wing friends? What if you told your vegan friends you were doing the carnivore diet, or your paleo friends you thought meat was murder? What would happen if you joined a fringe religious sect, and began sharing it’s teaching with your friends? These are tests of friendship that reveal who is with you for you and who has conditions on their connections.
Cognitive Bias Effects Us All
While the documentary explores this in the context of flat earthers, these are cognitive biases that effect us all. One could easily flip that around and say – what would it mean for scientists if they were suddenly to become flat earthers? Wouldn’t they lose all their sunk costs of degrees, social status, and friendships too?
And the truth is yes – these cognitive biases apply to us all. In an interview, one of the things the director of Behind The Curve said was that he hopes the audience looks at the ways in which they are like a flat earther. We all have places where we are easily persuaded, have sunk costs, and where our biases get the better of us. When people claim to be totally objective, they ignore all of the science and research around persuasion.
There are certainly groups and ideas I could extend the above paragraph to, it’s harder to look out how they might apply to us. There is a zen teaching that one should only ever apply the dharma to themselves. Likewise, Christ said not to worry about the speck in your brothers eye, but the log in your own. It’s easy to use this persuasion stuff to explore why other people believe dumb ideas, but the real challenge is being able to look at your own beliefs. In what places do you have these biases? In what ways are you not helping the issues you care about? How could you be more honest about the truth and effective in serving it?