Space lasers start wildfires. A pizzeria that serves as a cover for a pedophile clique. Chinese bamboo paper ballots that take the place of the real thing. The world is full of strange ideas and they seem to be getting stranger by the day.
Daily Beast reporter Kelly Weill has been following the wacky world of conspiracy theories and what she calls “edge cultures” for years. “I got interested in niche ideas when I was in high school,” she tells Kirkus over the phone, “and I never got away from it.”
That fascination has led to the fascinating and often disturbing debut book Off the Edge: Flat Earthers, Conspiracy Culture and Why People Will Believe Everything (Algonquin, February 22). As the subtitle suggests, the book looks not only at today’s culture’s willingness to swallow poppycock, but also at the faint flames of bad ideas that engulfed the world nearly 200 years ago, rejecting Enlightenment science for superstitions and anti-science. intellectualism.
Weill’s primary case study is the idea, disproved since the days of the Greek mathematician Eratosthenes, that the Earth is flat. There are wrinkles in that theory: Some adherents today say the world is surrounded by ice, others that the plane humanity resides on is infinite and needs only willing explorers to take a peek and bring back the good news. .
Samuel Birley Rowbotham, the Englishman who invented the flat Earth theory in 1838 at the age of 22, would probably be satisfied with either interpretation, as long as the adherents contributed to its maintenance. He was a haphazardly trained idealist who, Weill writes, “loved getting high and litigated obscure political arguments.” He was also a small-scale con man who once “made money as a phospho-grifter,” viewing club soda as a panacea for whatever ails a person, before coming up with an even better idea: claiming the Earth was flat. He turned that statement, which at first glance seemed ridiculous, into something close to religion.
It worked, and Rowbotham found intellectual — well, pseudo-intellectual — heirs who shared several traits with him: they liked to argue, they thought they knew more than scientific experts (think Marjorie Taylor Greene vs. Anthony Fauci), and they were often found on the fringes of academia or at the gates of colleges thrashing their contrarian, often dyspeptic discourses.
Rowbotham’s heirs are still at work, as Weill shows. One of her examples, which is on page 1 of her book, is an “unconventional man, but a good one,” whom she met at a Flat Earth Society conference. Mike Hughes, of course, was convinced that the world was flat. He was also a pretty good tinkerer and mechanic who spent much of his time gathering support for a rocket that would launch himself into space and see a planet’s pancake for himself. It would spoil the story to say what happened, except to note, as Weill points out, that it didn’t end well for him.
At such conferences, Weill tells Kirkus, she noted that the attendees were from all social classes, broadly divided into age groups, educated differently, not outwardly imbalanced. But, she adds, they were almost all white, almost all Protestant, almost all conservative — and they were mostly an older demographic. (“Those are the people who can afford to travel to conferences,” she takes the risk.) And most, “despite decades of ridicule,” are pretty good-natured about the people they call “Globe Earthers” and consider them simply misled by scientists who have their own nefarious reasons to think the planet is round.
That mockery is a key element, Weill says, in making a flat Earth, or even one tenaciously married to just about any conspiracy theory. Mocking their beliefs pushes people away from others who are not like-minded, and, Weill notes, “loneliness and isolation are really powerful vectors of conspiracy thinking.” Take the case of author Eve Babitz, who died last December at the age of 78. A one-time icon of the counterculture that was all over the scene, she became a recluse after suffering severe burns in a horrific accident—and in her loneliness, discovered right-wing radio was just about her only friend, a source of strangely comforting fear and fury.
“There’s more than just radio,” Weill says. “Social media is much more powerful as a hook.” Indeed, her book takes a hard look at the algorithmic manipulation by which tech giants like Facebook and Twitter favor bad ideas over good ones, as long as they lure eyeballs and advertising dollars. Not to mention Alex Jones and his legion of imitators.
Therein lies one of the most disturbing aspects of from the edge† Flat Earthers don’t just believe in a flat Earth. There’s a Venn diagram of bizarre thinking to map out what Weill calls “a whole package of beliefs,” conveniently put together for easy wholesale adoption. While not every flat Earth is a right-wing one, she notes, most are. Most accept the premise that the 2020 presidential election was rigged against Donald Trump. Many believe that the storming of the Capitol was not such a bad thing. Many are doomsday preppers, convinced that some kind of apocalypse is soon approaching us and that the unprepared will be obliterated. Most are against vaccinating against Covid. Most are sympathetic, if not supporters of, the cluster of improbabilities that make up QAnon.
At the other end of the spectrum are the Holocaust deniers and neo-Nazis. Flat Earth may be, as Weill writes, “the ultimate incarnation of conspiratorial thinking,” rejecting science and authority in favor of what Kellyanne Conway liked to call “alternative facts,” but there are degrees of conspiratorial thought that go well beyond geographic ignorance and descend into truly dark realms.
“It’s all very challenging,” Weill says. “It’s hard to deal with people who have ideas that are racist and anti-Semitic at their core, whose valorization is close to sociopathy.”
Still, Weill goes to great lengths to remind her readers that at their most basic level, conspiracy theories are a means by which people try to explain the inexplicable, at least to themselves: “They let us mold our fears into something we understand.” Given how many things there are to fear, it’s no wonder that conspiracy theories and believers in them have grown logarithmically.
If isolation is the trigger for fear to become conspiratorial thoughts, then it is important to remain open to those whose ideas have not yet spread into evil. “One of the best ways to help people break out of a conspiratorial mindset is probably the most frustrating of all for those who have to do it,” she says, “and that’s maintaining a human connection with them… The Flat-Earthers I’ve talked to people who have left the movement and tell me that what helped them was that the truth was explained to them in a non-confrontational, non-condescending way – not in the form of a debate, but with someone they know who said, ‘Let’s talk this through.’ People who love them can bring them back, and we have to make room for them to return.”
That may seem like a big job with no end in sight, but it is a necessary one. from the edge makes a strong case for why that is, and it’s an intriguing tour of the world of funhouses that coexist with our own.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.