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The Michael Shermer Show

A series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

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EPISODE # 251

Kelly Weill on Flat Earthers, Conspiracy Culture, and Why People Will Believe Anything

Off the Edge (book cover)

Since 2015, there has been a spectacular boom in a nearly 200-year-old delusion — the idea that we all live on a flat plane, under a solid dome, ringed by an impossible wall of ice. It is the ultimate in conspiracy theories, a wholesale rejection of everything we know to be true about the world in which we live. Where did this idea come from?

Weill draws a straight line from today’s conspiratorial moment back to the early days of Flat Earth theory in the 1830s, showing the human impulses behind divergences in belief. Faced with a complicated world out of our individual control, we naturally seek patterns to explain the inexplicable. The only difference between then and now? Social media. And, powered by Facebook and YouTube algorithms, the Flat Earth movement is growing.

At once a definitive history of the movement and a readable look at its expansive, absurd, and dangerous present, Off the Edge introduces us to a cast of larger-than-life characters, from 19th-century grifters to 20th-century small-town tyrants to the provocateurs of Alex Jones’s early-aughts internet, whose rancor sowed the early seeds of our modern division. We accompany Weill to Flat Earther conferences, where we meet moms on vacation, determined creationists, scammy YouTube celebrities and their victims, neo-Nazi rappers, and even a man determined to fly into space in a homemade rocket-powered balloon — whose tragic death proves as senseless and absurd as the theory he set out to prove.

Incisive and clear-eyed, Off the Edge tells a powerful story about belief, exploring how we arrived at this moment of polarized realities and explaining what needs to happen so that we might all return to the same spinning globe.

Kelly Weill is a journalist at the Daily Beast, where she covers extremism, disinformation, and the internet. As a leading media voice on the role of online conspiracy theories in current affairs, she has discussed Flat Earth and other digital fringes on ABC’s Nightline, CNN, Al Jazeera, and other national and international news outlets. She lives in New York.

Shermer and Weill discuss:

  • how Flat-Earthism is ultimately a conspiracy theory about how NASA and the government are covering up the biggest secret in history,
  • how Flat-Earthism is a proxy for other conspiracy theories, such as 9/11 truth, QAnon, and anti-Semitic beliefs about nefarious Jewish organizations conspiring to achieve world domination,
  • Weill’s experiences attending Flat-Earth conferences and getting to know the believers in the theory,
  • Flat-Earth arguments and why they’re wrong,
  • how the new Flat-Earth theory is similar to but differs from historical ones,
  • the nature of belief: do flat-earthers really believe what they claim?
  • the binary/black-and-white thinking of conspiracy theorists,
  • the tribal nature of conspiracy theories (us vs. them),
  • the role of social media in propagating conspiracy theories,
  • Should social media companies be regulated? Broken up?
  • What about free speech?
  • how censorship of extreme conspiracy theories fuels their followers to recruit more members.

If you enjoy the podcast, please show your support by making a $5 or $10 monthly donation.

This episode is sponsored by The Lost Debate and Wondrium:

The Lost Debate (sponsor)
Wondrium (sponsor)

This episode was released on March 1, 2022.

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