Dramatized image of Flat Earth advocate flicking round earth.

What Flat Earth Can Teach Us About Civil Discourse

This week, Mark Sargent, an originator of the Flat Earth movement, joined Divided We Fall for a discussion on civil discourse, engagement across differences, and, of course, Flat Earth. This post is part of our Spirited Discussions series. If you like this article, you can read more like it here.

Until recently, I did not suspect that stating “the world is round” could be considered controversial.  But after watching the Netflix documentary “Behind the Curve,” I learned that a growing movement of “Flat Earthers” would object to such a statement. Unable to resist the debate, I found myself, one week later, speaking with Mark Sargent, one of the leaders of the Flat Earth movement and a protagonist in the Netflix documentary. The full audio of our discussion can be found on Mark’s Youtube channel. But, I will summarize the highlights here.

First, and perhaps most importantly, I must mention that before I even conducted my interview with Mark certain followers were disappointed that Divided We Fall would provide a “platform” for a Flat Earther. They condemned Divided We Fall as an “alternative fact” publication. I took pause at these critiques. For even as someone who believes wholeheartedly in debate across political differences, I had to concede that scientific debate is categorically different. Science, unlike politics, can provide us with objective truths. There are not “two sides” to certain scientific questions.

However, I would remind these critics that engagement is not endorsement. Additionally, I find discussion across differences to be intrinsically valuable because, as John Stuart Mill noted, it makes us productively question our own views. Mill stated: “Even if we all were agreed on an essential proposition it would be essential to give an ear to the one person who did not, lest people forget how to justify their original argument.”

Even if you reject Mill’s argument and are someone who cares about “winning” over “understanding”, I would contend that civil engagement is the best way to change someone else’s mind and that disengagement has consequences. Behind the Curve documents how the ostracism of Flat Earthers by their families and friends has inadvertently caused the movement to grow. In their isolation, Flat Eathers have built a community and an identity which, naturally, are more difficult to alter than mere opinion. And the movement is growing. Mark has 80,000 followers on his YouTube channel and several celebrities, including Boston Celtics star Kyrie Irving, have at one point or another joined the movement. Yet, as Mark mentioned in our interview, the scientific community has by and large not attempted to engage. To this Mark says: “If you don’t want to, that’s fine. We’ll win by attrition.”

So it was that I found myself speaking with Mark Sargent. During parts of the discussion, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that there were areas where Mark and I could agree. Admittedly, none of these agreements were about Flat Earth directly but it is never a bad thing to find some common ground. Mark and I agreed about the divisiveness of online discussion forums. Mark joked that “If you can’t say something nice, you are probably in the YouTube comments section.” We agreed on the importance of empathy in debate and I learned how, despite staunchly defending his views, Mark’s calm and personable demeanor is a result of his former employment as a customer services representative. We also agreed on the need to promote scientific literacy across the American public. I suspect Mark and my ideas of what scientific education would include would differ, particularly when it comes to my “globe-ist” views, but we had broad agreement nonetheless.

Once we got to the main topic at hand, I asked Mark if he had changed his mind at all on Flat Earth. He replied, oppositely, that he had only grown more and more convinced that the Earth is flat as the movement has grown. This response strikes me, as an armchair psychologist, as confirmation bias. But before we point fingers at Mark, I would ask readers to consider the last time they dismissed facts from the “other side”. Or how often they selectively searched for data to support their argument. We are guilty of this, in my experience, and we should not throw stones from glass houses.

Eventually, Mark told me about the types of evidence that could potentially convince him that the Earth is not flat. What an incredible way to try to change someone’s mind: by asking them how to do it! Despite insisting—in my view incorrectly—that you cannot see the curvature of the Earth from an airplane, he said that he would be willing to fly in a high altitude aircraft and be disproven. He also told me that if someone could show him continuous video footage from takeoff to orbit in which the Earth turned into a globe in the background, he would concede. Although the Red Bull Space Jump seems to pass that test, Mark raised objections to the type of camera used for filming. Nonetheless, at least I now know how I could try to change Mark’s mind if I were so dedicated. That’s not a bad start.

My discussion with Mark forced me to recall, as John Stuart Mill eloquently stated, my justifications for how I know that the world is round: because backyard astronomers can see other globe shaped planets in our solar system; because I can see the changing shape of the moon through the lunar cycle caused by its orbit and the spin of the Earth; because gravity, a force that we all experience everyday, pulls objects to the center of mass and a flat earth would defy that scientific law; because innumerable people (astronauts, pilots, astronomers, physicists, engineers) and institutions (NASA, NOAA, AAAS) that I trust tell me and can show me that it is so; and because, as Benjamin Franklin quipped, the only way for three people to keep a secret is if two are dead and the idea of a international conspiracy to pretend the Earth is flat for unclear reason or benefit without anyone whistleblowing would be Earth shattering (pun very much intended).

All in all, I would like to thank Mark for taking the time to talk. Our discussion reminded me of the importance of engaging with someone you disagree with, even and especially when that disagreement is absolute. Our discussion reminded me that, more often than not, people don’t change their mind, but we must be okay with that outcome. And it reminded me that disengagement is simply not an option. Let Flat Earth be our warning.

This post is part of our Spirited Discussions series. If you like this article, you can read more here.

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Mark Sargent

Mark Sargent, an originator of the Flat Earth movement, who rose to fame in hit Netflix documentary Behind the Curve.

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Scoot
1 year ago

My initial reaction to a flat earth discussion was tempered by the fact that many disagree on what exactly is scientifically verified. I do not buy the hype of Climate alarmists, for example, and I am sure they would accuse me of the same things I was about to accuse the flat earth movement. I also laud what I think is the aim of your article here, to engage civilly. The exchange of ideas is important, and people can lose sight of being civil in pursuit of being right. That being said: There are some things that are objective facts.… Read more »

Valerie Cullers
1 year ago

This is an excellent blog post! Civility is so important when we discuss ideas with others, no matter how different they are than our own. Thank you so much for this post!

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