Crackpots, Serial Killers and Flat Earthers

November 6, 2019

I saw you on that You Tube video with the Flat Earthers. How popular is this is this flat earth thing getting?

Frank T., Indianapolis, IN

The belief that the earth is flat seems to be garnering interest, but that doesn’t mean it is well-supported… or ever was. The flat earth video I was in now has well over 4 million views as of this writing, but at least part of those views has to be the “you gotta be kidding me” crowd tuning in to see if flat earthers are for real. (If you want ammo reaffirming the earth is a globe, have a look here.)

It would be difficult to know how many Americans actually believe such hooey, but whatever the numbers are, any wacky belief has a better shot at growing in the age of the internet.

Back in the days before the whole world was connected by electronic devices, wacky fringe groups found each other through personals in newspapers, small ads in magazines, direct (snail) mail, and by standing on street corners with posters, bullhorns, and tri-fold brochures. They worked hard to find and assemble their fellow screwballs, kept largely to themselves, and were generally shunned by the general population. (Sometimes shunning is good.)

Things are a bit different now. Any crackpot with a 6th grader’s knowledge of computers can design and launch a website, shoot, edit and post a You Tube video that is wrong in every sense of the word, and search the world for people who share their same fetishes, dopey ideas, or sick fantasies.

The fact that crackpots can find each other with greater ease than ever before in human history has two important consequences:

  • They can gather themselves and pool their resources to further increase their numbers
  • They can have a voice in society louder than their numbers and more potent than their specious arguments

But should these newfound blocs of b.s. command our attention? Yes and no.

No, because the actual arguments for flat earth, a moon hoax, a young earth, Roswell, paranormal ability, 911 conspiracies, chem trails and all the other crap that’s out there are still pathetic and wholly disproved. The recent historic spread of their (usually conspiracy-based) theories has not meant that their ideas have gotten more credible.

Yes, because critical thinking and basic science education seem to be in dire straits, and so people are more susceptible to the kinds of bogus videos one finds on pro-flat earther sites and from other fallacious sources. I’d bet a finger that someone could produce a slick YouTube video explaining that the Tooth Fairy exists and some (slim) segment of the population would truly buy into it.

Galileo’s Finger, Florence, Italy

People think that being on a published website or in a widely-distributed video indicates credibility. It doesn’t.  By the way, that false sense of trustworthiness applies to ideas written in books or being shown on TV as well. There are still good sources for information, but no one can fully police the internet or the airwaves.

Because crackpots can find each other in greater numbers than ever before — even though they may be only a tiny part of the population – once powerless, isolated nuts can now find comfort and influence in numbers.

Try this: Imagine the most insane belief that you can think of – something that only 1 in 100,000 people hold. (I chose 1 in 100,000 because that’s a tiny percentage of the population – something akin to the percentage of the U.S. population that are serial killers – if you accept the Atlantic’s numbers.)

So if your tiny number of wacky believers are only .00001 of the U.S. population, they still add up to over 3200 people in the country, and over 70,000 in the world! That’s plenty to spread the (false) word of ______. (Jeez, that’s a lot of serial killers too.)

I guess the point is that as long as crackpots can find each other – and suck innocent bystanders into their webs of wackiness – we need to actively refute them at every opportunity… and counter their negative influence on humanity.

(Deep breath.)