Edmonton hosted what’s being billed as Canada’s first-ever Flat Earth conference. We went inside — with two scientists for good measure
A man from Edmonton walks up to the microphone. He wants to know: why won’t the scientific community come clean about flat earth?
Mark Sargent launches into his answer. A prominent flat earther, he’s seated on stage in a high-backed leather chair in a conference room at West Edmonton Mall’s Fantasyland Hotel.
“Because by the time they figured it out … the industrialized world — the cement was already cast,” he says, warming up.
“If some scientist revealed it tomorrow on CNN, or whatever, and it was broadcast that the Earth is not (round) — there’s potential for some real shock waves, some real upheaval,” he continues. “The first one is academic — literally in every university in every country, astrophysics and astronomy would have to be shut down overnight. Those would not reopen.”
He goes on. Other sciences would have to be retooled from the ground up. Basic belief structures would be shaken.
This is how Day 1 of Canada’s first flat earth conference begins. About 250 people registered to attend, the majority of them dedicated to the false proposition that the Earth is flat.
I went with two actual scientists, brothers Jason Schultz and Ryan Schultz. To be clear, neither think the Earth is flat. Both have degrees in physics — Jason an undergrad, Ryan a masters. They registered on a lark to see how long they could stand the conference.
But Ryan Schultz also had altruistic motives: he wanted to better understand flat earth adherents. How do you talk to people who are so fact averse?
‘Ridicule and name calling’
The two-day conference has all the trappings of a professional gathering — name tags, media lists, merchandise bags.
Towering over it all is organizer Robbie Davidson, a 46-year-old from Edmonton who fell into flat earth three years ago. Something happened in 2015, he says, the year when many people on the internet became flat earth adherents. In 2017, he organized a flat earth conference in North Carolina, which he said was the first of its kind.
The events are about bringing flat earth into real, physical space. “I knew that it wouldn’t become real to a lot of people until it moved off of online into buildings,” he said. “You could say, ‘Oh it’s just a bunch of crazy people online.’ The minute it (starts) moving into buildings … things are going to change.”
In the lead-off speech Thursday, Davidson said flat earthers are standing up against “ridicule and name calling.” He tells the story of being ostracized from two churches over his flat earth beliefs. He knows people who have allegedly lost their jobs for being flat earthers. Pretty much every speaker talks about how thinking the Earth is flat is hard on relationships.
Then Sargent — who believes the world is a “Truman show-like enclosed system” that’s been hidden from the public since 1956 — opens the floor to questions.
Another man from Edmonton wants to know why a famous flat earther — such as rapper B.o.B, Tila Tequila or Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving — hasn’t funded an expedition to the edge. Why hasn’t someone flown off? One questioner, who identifies himself as a medical doctor who believes the Earth is flat, asks about the moon. Sargent answers everyone with little trace of doubt.
Partway through, I turn to Ryan Schultz. What is it like for him to hear this?
“It’s a little frustrating,” he said.
For example, the conference began with “an address to scientists.”
“It was kind of like, ‘We’re sick of feeling small, we’re sick of feeling not smart.’ And I think that’s maybe a piece of it — these complicated ideas make people feel little.”
The mic drop heard around the world
One thing that emerges from the talks is that as much as they’re painted as crazy, flat earthers want to be acknowledged in the mainstream.
One person who comes up often is Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist who famously dropped the mic on B.o.B.’s flat earth theories. He’s booed almost as soon as the conference starts.
But even if media coverage is negative, their beliefs appear to be part of the marketplace of ideas, something that is a legitimate topic of debate.
“Even if people are laughing at it, there might be that one person that goes, ‘Huh, I want to look into it a little bit,’” Davidson said.
So should we ignore them? Ryan Schultz, who kept a level head throughout, was suprisingly patient.
“There is a genuine curiosity,” Ryan Schultz said. “A bunch of the questions in that Q & A panel were people who were genuinely interested in scientific phenomena who have a misguided understanding of how they happen, or for some reason they don’t want to believe.”
“I think that’s a big part of it — for science to make sure it communicates itself in a way that is easily digestible and attempts to make contact with everyday people … so when someone has a question about why the moon and the sun come out at the same time — there’s someone that can answer that question in a way that doesn’t make them feel small.”