In a recent podcast on Young Earth Creationism, I happened to mention the fact that Christians and Jews used to think the Earth was flat, based on a literal reading of certain Old Testament passages. People have known about the round Earth since the time of the Ancient Greeks, but many still thought that the Scriptural references to an "unmoving" world (Psalm 104:5) with "corners" (Ezekiel 7:2) and an "end" (Daniel 4:10) must mean that we are living on a flat plane situated at the center of the universe. Over time, science made it clear that those verses can only be read metaphorically. I thought this point, made in service to a larger argument, would prove uncontroversial. I was wrong.
Over the next week or two, I received several emails from apparently very sincere and very angry Flat Earthers who admonished me for my heretical and anti-scientific belief in a spherical Earth. I mentioned those emails on Facebook a couple of days ago and the resulting comment thread is something to behold. An actual debate erupted about the shape of the Earth, hundreds voiced their opinion on the subject, and the flat Earth position was represented by a not-insignificant percentage of people. I'm pleased to report that most seemed to be firm believers in the globe, but there were plenty who insisted stridently that we are all a bunch of fools who have been deceived by a massive, centuries-old conspiracy. Perhaps oddest of all, there were a number of people who had not fully adopted the flat Earth faith but confessed that they were "open" to the possibility and had been "researching" the issue for sometime. Apparently their research has not yet included boarding a plane and flying west across the Pacific.
I realize this is all anecdotal. A few emails and a bunch of Facebook comments don't necessarily represent the culture as a whole. But based on my recent experience, I'm inclined to believe the survey data showing that only 66% of those between the ages of 18 and 24 believe absolutely in a round Earth. Overall, according to the poll, just 84% of Americans are willing to fully acknowledge the shape of the planet they reside on. And this is to say nothing of the people who believe that the Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax, the Moon landing was faked, dinosaurs never existed, 9/11 was an inside job, the condensation trails from airplanes are chemicals that the government puts into the atmosphere to control the weather and read our minds, etc. The question is not whether these beliefs are all crazy and wrong (yes, on both counts), but how a sane person could come to convince themselves of such nonsense, and, most importantly, why.
The "how" is simple enough. We human beings are remarkably adept at convincing ourselves of things. All we really need is one piece of cherry-picked "evidence" that, in our minds, could possibly fit with whatever version of events we find most appealing. The evidence doesn't need to prove our theory or render it plausible. It just needs to not completely contradict us.
So, a Flat Earther points out that the Earth appears flat when you look to the horizon (it doesn't); a 9/11 truther says that jet fuel can't melt steel beams (yes, but it weakens them); a Moon-landing conspiracy theorist notices some strange shadows in a photograph (due to the terrain); a chemtrail proponent claims that condensation from airplanes would evaporate more quickly (false); a Sandy Hook truther says that a news article about the shooting was posted online before the shooting took place (timestamps can be wrong). We can easily explain these mysteries, of course. Even if we couldn't, that wouldn't prove the wild theories these people are putting forward. But this isn't about proof. This is about creating a little bit of room for the conspiracy theorist to construct his fantasy world. And he doesn't need much room. Give him the slightest perceived gap in the official narrative and he'll fit an entire mythology inside the crevice.
To me, the "why" is a more interesting question, and the one that I think I see more clearly after my run-in with the Flat Earth club. You cannot believe any of these things unless you really want to believe them. It takes an incredible amount of psychological work to maintain a conviction that the Earth is flat. To a rational and healthy person, this work seems exhausting and depressing. After all, you have to believe that world is not only flat but populated by oblivious dupes and evil charlatans. You must believe that every government on the planet is run by dastardly conspirators, and every astronaut, every NASA engineer, every pilot, every sea captain, every person who has ever flown from LA to Beijing or Syndney to San Francisco is a despicable liar complicit in the cover up. Many conspiracy theories require an equally dim view of mankind. And I think that is precisely the point.
Due to their overwhelming egos, these people want to believe that everyone is wrong and stupid and lying except them. They want to be the only lights of truth and virtue in a world comprised of deception and idiocy. They want us all to be morons so they can be geniuses. They make utter fools of themselves in an effort to put themselves above everyone else. The appeal of the crazy conspiracy theory is the pedestal it provides to its faithful. They get to belong to an exclusive club of Right People, people in the know, people who get it.
Admittedly, we all sometimes feel the temptation to see the world that way (though not that shape). We all want to be right and we all find that the pleasure of rightness is magnified by the corresponding wrongness of our neighbor. But the Flat Earther and the Sandy Hook conspiracy theorist and the rest of their ilk have taken that desire to fantastic extremes. That's why you can't reason with these people. They are simply too arrogant to humble themselves before the evidence you present. They would rather deny reality itself than admit that they might be wrong. They are so desperate to gain exclusive rights to truth that they end up clinging to the most insane falsehoods imaginable. In pursuit of the pleasures of rightness, they have fallen into the wrongest forms of wrongness.