What it means to believe that “real” trees no longer exist
Something tremendous is happening; over the last few weeks, without too many of its globe-headed detractors noticing, a surprisingly vast community on the tattered fringes of intellectual orthodoxy is in turmoil. A bizarre new theory has turned the flat earth upside down. The flat earth is still flat, but now it’s dotted with tiny imitations of the truly enormous trees that once covered the continents, and which in our deforested age we can hardly even remember.I’ve always been mildly obsessed with the flat-earth truth movement, the sprawling network of people utterly convinced that the world has been lied to for centuries about its own physical shape. The particulars differ, but here everyone takes it as a given that a conspiracy reaching from your first schoolteacher to NASA to the metaphysical Beyond has deluded humanity, making us believe that we’re nothing more than something that grew on a rock, a layer of biological grease mouldering on the surface of a ball suspended in empty space, when we’re actually living on a flat plane.
Part of this fascination is anthropological: once, if you wanted to encounter an entirely different ontological system, you had to probe deep into jungles and deserts, pith helmet capping your Western arrogance. Now, with the peculiar cosmology of capitalist production subsuming an entire planet into its logic, mythological worlds are increasingly homogenized, and all that difference and weirdness is no longer geographically extensive. If you want to encounter very different realities, you can find them online, and each time the world reveals itself to be a little richer than you’d thought.
Still, among all the bizarre, self-enclosed universes the internet has to offer—gold-standard bores, UFO chasers, people who believe that cartoons are real in a nearby dimension or that the secret rulers of the world are betraying their existence by leaving little clues on the currency—the flat-earthers are special.
Today we’re going to follow up on an older Skeptoid episode from a few years ago, the Flat Earth Theory. In that episode we looked at the history of belief in a flat Earth, which was mainly driven by 19th and 20th century Christian fundamentalism driving clumsy efforts to prove the literal truth of the Bible. That era ended when the last of the well known proponents, an elderly couple who called themselves the Covenant People’s Church, died after their house burned down in 1996, taking with it the archives of their International Flat Earth Research Society of America. And where their story ended, today’s story begins, with a new, reinvented version of the Flat Earth theory.
The Biblical literalists have moved from the center of Flat Earth belief to its fringe, and their place has been taken by believers in conspiracy theories and alternate science. 21st century Flat Earthers are less likely to recite Bible verses and more likely to oppose vaccination, to charge that 9/11 was an inside job, and to claim the government is drugging the population with chemtrails sprayed from airliners. Flat Earthing is now entwined with perpetual motion machines, with a belief that Nikola Tesla held the secrets to free energy now suppressed by the global elite, cold fusion and zero point energy, and declare that it’s all part of the grandest coverup of all: that the Earth is actually a flat disk and not a globe.
An excellent resource for tracking the popularity of ideas is Google Trends, which tells us that Internet searches for the term “Flat Earth” began a sharp increase at the beginning of 2015. The popularity of this search term is still rising, and is presently at its greatest over the course of Google’s entire tracking history. This is with the exception of January 2016 which saw a tremendous spike. By then a pair of fringy C-list celebrities had been trumpeting the Flat Earth and declaring their rejection of the Earth as a sphere loudly and proudly, though it’s never been clear whether they actually believed this or were just bucking for attention. One of these was a rapper named B.o.B, who had been among the most vocal; and to the delight of the Internet, astronomer and beloved science personality Neil deGrasse Tyson began correcting him over Twitter. Within a short time it developed into a rap battle, with Tyson’s nephew providing the rhythm. The other was celebrated salacious person Tila Tequila, for whose Twitter feed the Flat Earth tweets constituted the most intelligent and weighty content.
If the new Flat Earthers were limited to these two “celebrities” and the handful of remaining Christian Flat Earth fundamentalists, that would be one thing. But they are not. Google Trends proves that B.o.B and Tila Tequila were only riding a wave that had been building for the better part of a year. Where was it building? YouTube provides another indicator. Search YouTube for “Flat Earth” and you’ll find countless videos, mainly amateurish explainers full of gross misunderstandings and misinformation, yet many with tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of views. Most of these were posted throughout 2015 and 2016. What triggered the sudden renewal of interest?