Joe and Neil discuss a wide variety of topics, including the flat earth conspiracy theory.
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?
After my recent run as a cut-rate media critic with the 10 Million Dollar Bigfoot Bounty, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to resist taking on another television show. Fortunately, the highly anticipated Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey has premiered only a few weeks later. Time to cut my media-writing chops on some higher quality fare.
I want to do something different with these than a simple recap. A review would be fun, but every media outlet on the Internet seems to have a review of the new Cosmos series already, so adding one more seemed like a wasted effort. Instead, I’ve decided to take bit of a skeptical eye to the proceedings, watching each episode and identifying the high points and the low points — the Best of and Worst of the new Cosmos, if you will. So without further ado …
Episode 1: “Standing Up in the Milky Way”
THE BEST MOMENTS
First off, the host. I’ve liked Neil deGrasse Tyson ever since the days when he hosted NOVA ScienceNow, and I listen regularly to his Star Talk radio podcast; so I knew going in that he would probably slip nicely into Carl Sagan’s role as narrator of the series. He did not disappoint. While he’s not quite the noble poet of science that Sagan was, he has an affable way of making scientific ideas accessible and entertaining to the lay person, which is exactly what this series needed in 2014 on FOX. This isn’t Tyson as the fierce science advocate, though; instead, this is Tyson playing the straight man to the wonders of the universe.
Second, I’m really fond of the visual narrative motif built into the Spaceship of the Imagination. I think most people can agree that the Spaceship is one of the cornier moments of the original Cosmos; so if it had to come back for this sequel, why not make it a more functional part of the narration? The visual cue of Beneath/Past, In Front/Present, Above/Future is a elegantly simple way to help cue viewers in a series that is so often going to be jumping back and forth. Not paying close attention to every word Tyson says? Well the shot is moving “Below,” so whatever they’re about to talk about must be science history. Subtle but effective.
Finally, some of the FX visualizations during the “Cosmic Address” segment were pretty cool. The Spaceship flying past the Mars Rover; the visualization of the inside of Saturn’s rings; the dark, icy rogue planet — honestly, I just enjoyed the whole tour of the universe. Opening with the whole concept of scope — and how being tiny doesn’t mean we have to be insignificant — set a fine tone for things to come.
THE WORST MOMENTS
I think the weak point of the first episode was definitely the animated Giordano Bruno story. The whole sequence fell flat for a number of reasons.