Behind the Curve: The Science Fiction of Flat Earthers

A new documentary offers a compassionate, objective glimpse of flat earthers.

Posted Feb 26, 2019

 Michael Lloyd, used with permission
Behind the Curve Movie Poster Photo (2018)
Source: Michael Lloyd, used with permission

Behind the Curve, a new documentary movie on the flat earther movement, was released at film festivals in 2018 and is now widely available (see this review at Newsweek). I'm briefly featured in the movie as an authority on anomalous belief and was recently interviewed by Jeff Berkwits for the June 2019 edition of Sci Fi magazine about the movie and about flat earthers in general. The full interview with Jeff Berkwits follows here (portions used in the published Sci Fi article are highlighted in bold italics):

► As someone whose entire career and belief system is science-based, how do you explain the fact that there are people in today's world who believe that the Earth is flat?

As a psychiatrist whose expertise is the workings of the brain and unusual beliefs in particular, I can tell you that normal human thinking is often irrational. Arriving at beliefs “scientifically,” through empiric evidence gathering and objective analysis is not how most of us typically form beliefs! We just as often form them through intuition or subjective experience and through the filters of wide-ranging cognitive biases. As a result, most of us hold some false beliefs and some of us hold onto them very tightly.  

We aren’t born thinking scientifically… I learned the scientific method in grade school, adopted a specific way of seeking truth through experimental inquiry in college at MIT, and developed a healthy skepticism of personal biases in my training and work in psychology and psychiatry. That gives me a particular kind of scientific perspective that — for better or worse — most people don’t share. That said, I wouldn’t say that my entire belief system is science-based! That wouldn’t be a very fun way to live.

► Why do you think that this idea of a flat earth has gained popularity now, and what do you think the future of the movement will be?

I think we’re seeing a resurgence of flat earth beliefs (let’s not forget that it’s a very antiquated idea, not a new phenomenon!) because we live in a time of significant distrust of institutions — including both government and the scientific community. And also because the internet has democratized opinion and created a safe-haven for fringe beliefs that has resulted in the widespread propagation of misinformation and “the death of expertise.”  

As for the future of flat earthers, I think there’s likely to be a growing number of people who are attracted to the movement as rejecters of conventional wisdom in a general way. But as for the core belief in a flat earth itself, we’ll probably see more fracturing of doctrine within the movement as is typical for beliefs that are based more on faith than facts. I suspect this will contribute to its eventual disappearance as a fad.

► If Mark Sargent and/or Patricia Steere were standing in front of you, and you had only one opportunity to convince them the Earth is round, what would you tell them?

I don’t think that meeting people who hold opposing beliefs strongly, with the goal of changing their minds, is a particularly fruitful endeavor.  

I would however love to talk to a die-hard Flat Earther after he or she returns from a trip to the stratosphere (or beyond) courtesy of a Space X flight. Even then though, I’m sure not all flat earthers would back down. Entrenched beliefs that make up our identity can be highly resistant to change.

► For those who haven't heard of Behind the Curve, how would you describe the documentary?

Behind the Curve offers a glimpse of flat earthers through a fairly objective and compassionate lens. Although it focuses on two flat earthers in particular, and even “celebritizes” them, I especially like that it highlights the diversity of beliefs within the flat earth movement. For example, it reveals that some flat earthers think that Mark Sargent is a NASA mole! In retrospect that’s not surprising for a movement grounded in conspiracy theory, but it was eye-opening when I watched the film and helped to remind me that flat earth doctrine is not a monolith.

► How did you become involved in Behind the Curve, and prior to your involvement in the film, what did you know about flat earthers?

The directors reached out after they’d read a piece from my Psych Unseen blog about NBA star Kyrie Irving declaring himself a flat earther. Since then, I’ve written several follow-up pieces that cover the Flat Earth phenomenon from a psychological perspective.

Although my academic work as a psychiatrist studying psychotic disorders like schizophrenia has focused on unusual beliefs such as delusions, these days I’m just as interested in unusual beliefs held by normal people without mental illness. A central goal of my blog is to paint portraits of the “psychiatry or everyday life” — for example, revealing how we come to believe in things through cognitive biases that can cause difficulties in our personal lives or in our ability to function as a civil society.  

► What do you hope people will walk away from the theater thinking and feeling right after they've seen the documentary?

I hope that the average viewer will come away with a better understanding of flat earthers, instead of merely writing them off as kooks. Taking a broader view, I think the film helps us to see that people who embrace fringe beliefs are, for the most part, people like you and me. As I like to say, if you give me 10 minutes with you, I can probably uncover something that you believe that would raise eyebrows with your friends and neighbors.

► To what degree do you think that movies and TV, through its "bending" of scientific rules, has played a role in making ideas like the flat earth both popular and believable? What can be done—if anything—to alter those beliefs?

With the current state of movie-making CGI, it’s certainly easier now for some to believe that NASA footage might be fake. The movie The Truman Show, which is referenced in Behind the Curve, also provided some fuel for flat earthers and probably for conspiracy theorists in general.

But I don’t think science fiction is to blame for flat earthers. After all, flat earth theories are scientifically regressive, not progressive. I might feel differently if there were a rising tide of people who believe in the multiverse or the idea that we’re all living in a computer simulation. For the record, I think those possibilities are much more likely than the earth being flat, but I don’t waste a lot of time thinking about such things. That’s often the difference between fringe beliefs that cause us problems and those that don’t — problems usually arise from a lack of cognitive flexibility with high levels of unwarranted conviction and time spent preoccupied with an idea.

Altering individual beliefs can be very challenging. My best advice is that all of us should spend more friendly time — not trying to argue who’s right or wrong — with people who hold beliefs different than our own. That can go a long way towards promoting cognitive flexibility. Conversely, spending all your time with like-minded individuals — especially on the internet — can create a very unhealthy echo chamber. 

On a larger level, correcting scientifically unsound beliefs requires bottom-up improvement of science education, top-down support of scientific education and research, and dedication from those of us in science to regain the public’s trust.

► Is there anything else that I didn't ask you about Behind the Curve, your background, or any other projects that you are working on that you would like readers to know?

My only complaint about Behind the Curve is how much of my interview ended up on the cutting room floor! Thanks for the chance to talk more about flat earthers here. Readers interested in other kinds of conspiracy theories, fringe beliefs, and cognitive biases can check out my blog and follow Psych Unseen on Twitter and Facebook.

For more on Flat Earthers, see my other blog posts:

► "Flat Earthers: Belief, Skepticism, and Denialism"
► "Flat Earthers: Conspiracy Thinking on a Global Scale"