This brilliantly titled Netflix documentary is about the growing trend for flat eartherism, a belief which has found new life in a growing movement of 21st century empiricists who don’t believe anything unless they can see it with their own eyes or read it on the internet.
The flat earthers believe that our spherical planet is in fact a giant disc in a large dome, encircled by a 200ft wall of ice. This means their astronomical knowledge is closer to the Norse people than modern scientific thought, or 400-year-old Copernican thought for that matter. The current resurgence can be attributed in large part to internet prophet of the flatter-day saints Math Powerland (who demanded full creative control to appear in the film) and disciple Mark Sargent (who didn’t).
Flat eartherism not only requires a conspiracy involving NASA, the world’s scientists, and governments of adversarial nations, but also, one would assume every sea boat captain or pilot as well. This may seem unlikely, but Sargent can see Seattle across the bay near his house. How do you explain that?
Sargent is a self-confessed conspiracy fanatic who cheerfully admits to having read up on every conspiracy going and relishes his status as minor celebrity. It’s certainly true the flat earthers are more positive than their sinister cousins in the conspiracy world whose views often embody vile prejudice and old tropes, particularly of the anti-Semitic variety. But while they’re a smiley and inoffensive bunch this doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous to allow your beliefs to inform your view of reality rather than the other way round. Hear that, Descartes?
In one scene, Sargent’s partner and co-conspirator bemoans the fact she’s been accused of being part of a conspiracy herself. Her name, Patricia Steere, apparently suggests she works for the CIA and aims to steer people towards it. And yet she struggles to see her own haphazard approach to truth in her accusers.
Much like creationists, anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers they reject the views of scientists as dogmatic and conspiratorial, but are more than happy to accept the science that allows them to have computers which connect to the internet. And while believing the earth is flat might appear to be an inconsequential side issue, it’s part of a terrifying trend of post-truth, and once you disappear down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories it’s hard not to end up in Wonderland.
While it’s easy to see how scientific views of creation or climate change are uncomfortable for established religions or oil companies respectively, it’s not entirely clear why it’s so important to prove the earth is flat. Some of the flat-earthers are clearly just conspiracy obsessives, but many of the movement’s followers seem to be attracted to the sense of community and inclusion of people who don’t always fit in elsewhere. There’s even a flat earther dating service for when the people on Tinder just aren’t crazy enough.
Behind the Curve asks what can be done to prevent the spread of this absurd belief. By not engaging you push them further towards the fringes of society, but it’s almost impossible to engage in debate with people who see a conspiracy in their own shadow. A good place to start might be not making a documentary about it.
On its own terms the documentary is well-told, with contributions from numerous flat earthers, but also exasperated scientists. The animated segments and whimsical music, largely suggest a ‘look how crazy these people are’ approach. But the question of whether the documentary itself (and the extensive news clips included in the film) is part of the problem is hard to avoid.
Yes, it might be presented as a wacky conspiracy theory, but it also clearly presents the side of its advocates to a far wider audience. And this have cake/eat cake attitude from the media is what created a huge movement of support for Donald Trump.
Sargent frequently references The Truman Show by way of analogy. The earth is actually a large dome, and we’re being kept in a fake reality. But the truth is many of these people just want to be at the centre of their own universe. And to this end they’re willing to alter the shape of the entire universe.