How can you go exploring with people who don’t trust maps?

April and I watched Behind the Curve on Netflix last night, a documentary about flat earthers and this movement that has really sprung up in just the last 4 years. There are now thousands of people who believe that the earth is flat, and the documentary interviews some of the leaders in the movement, attends their international conference in 2017, and records some of their experiments that attempted to prove the earth was flat.

Like many conspiracy theories (and for the flat earthers, calling it a conspiracy theory isn’t pejorative—they allege that there is a conspiracy perpetuated by all governments, education institutions, and scientists), there is an overlap with other conspiracies. A large number of Flat Earthers also tend to be anti-vaxxers (people who are opposed to giving kids vaccines or getting vaccines themselves), and they tend to reject any scientific finding by anyone but themselves

One segment of the documentary was of an astrophysicist meetup and a speaker was talking about how the scientific community often does a disservice to people who believe in these conspiracies. Because the people who have bought into this are often intelligent and inquisitive, and they have the potential to be great scientists. But either through miseducation, or trauma, or something else, their very healthy skepticism has been turned into a denial of science and a belief in only what they themselves can observe and measure. And even then, as the documentary highlighted, people in these movements will often reject their own measurements if those measurements don’t support their worldview.

That speaker at the meetup said that, rather than push flat earthers and anti-vaxxers and similar conspiracy theorists to the fringes, and just ignore them, we have to engage. But we shouldn’t engage argumentatively. Rather, we should recognize their intelligence and curiosity and say, “Let’s go explore together!” And in exploring together, the hope is that people will find the truth.

But that left me with the question: what do you do when the people with whom you want to go exploring:

  1. Don’t trust the map? They want to make their own map. But they also don’t trust cartography instruments or physics.
  2. Reject anything that doesn’t fit with their conspiracy? Everything you find (reality) that doesn’t fit will be rationalized away.

I thought that the documentary was actually very kind and generous. It didn’t mock, and the scientists interviewed were similarly gentle. They are all educators to one extent or another and want to help people understand the world better.

But none of them could tell us how to engage with flat earthers. Because even when the flat earthers in the documentary did some really neat science experiments, and those experiments proved the earth wasn’t flat by virtue of their own hypotheses and measurements, they then rejected the outcome and did a new experiment. Which also then proved the earth wasn’t flat. So they then invented a new rationalization for why their experiments weren’t aligning with their worldview.

How do you go exploring with someone who rejects what they see? I truly want to know. I feel that this question is central to so many challenges we are experiencing in our world today, and particularly in the USA where anti-education sentiment and science denial are resulting in deadly epidemics and people being put into positions of leadership who reject the findings of 97%+ of climate change scientists.

How do we go exploring with someone whose views on science, politics, society, and how everything works is so different? How do we not push them to the fringes? Because I don’t want to push people away. I don’t think any of us want to marginalize others. But I legitimately don’t know what else to do other than disengage.