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Summary: Off the Edge: Flat Earthers, Conspiracy Culture, and Why People Will Believe Anything by Kelly Weill


Kelly Weill offers a history of the improbably durable belief that the Earth is flat, and thereby illustrates how conspiracy theories spread. Flat Earthers argue that a conspiracy keeps the true shape of the flat world secret from the misguided masses. Other outlandish conspiracies also appeal to Flat Earthers, and the internet amplifies these fabrications, Weill warns. But the web alone can’t explain or eliminate the tendency to conjure conspiracies. Human imagination enables people to make good discoveries as well as bad assumptions. Rather than debating Flat Earthers, says Weill, empathizing with them might be the best way to guide them back to the spherical world.


  • Belief that the world is flat has endured since an Englishman popularized that claim in the 1800s.
  • Samuel Birley Rowbotham coined the Flat Earth theory.
  • Religious leaders of the Flat Earth movement in America condemned belief in a round world as a denial of God.
  • Belief in Flat Earth theory surged as the internet eased the spread of conspiracy theories.
  • Some Flat Earthers exhibit criminal and neo-Nazi behavior and promote antisemitic sentiments.
  • Misguided Flat Earthers may respond to empathy, but not to debate.

Book Summary: Off the Edge - Flat Earthers, Conspiracy Culture, and Why People Will Believe Anything


Belief that the world is flat has endured since an Englishman popularized that claim in the 1800s.

Some people believe the world is flat even though astronomical and mathematical analysis proved by the fifth century BCE that Earth is a globe. The flat Earth theory spread among English communes in the 1800s, gained acceptance among religious groups in the United States in the early 1900s, and attracted people who believe manned flights to the moon were staged. The internet fueled the theory’s surge in popularity in the second decade of the 21st century.

“Flat Earth theory…represents a profound misunderstanding of the world.”

Believers vest in different versions of the Flat Earth theory. Many believe the world is shaped like a plate, encircled by ice and capped by a vast dome. Most doubt the existence of outer space. Some dismiss gravity as a misconception. In chaotic times, Flat Earth and other theories rife with conspiracy offer relief for some people’s anxieties about the unknown. Anyone can fall victim to believing conspiracy theories because the human capacity for abstract thinking can support beliefs with no grounding facts.

Samuel Birley Rowbotham coined the Flat Earth theory.

Samuel Birley Rowbotham was a recreational user of laughing gas in 1838 when he started a socialist commune, Manea Fen, in Cambridgeshire, England. The commune was part of a utopian movement among underpaid workers that arose in response to the First Industrial Revolution. The era was fraught with conspiracy theories.

Rowbotham claimed to have believed that the Earth is flat since childhood. He sought to prove it by conducting experiments in a swampy area of Cambridgeshire along the Bedford Canal, a flat waterway across a flat terrain. Rowbotham claimed he could see the entire above-water structure of boats at the end of the canal. When the water froze, he claimed he could see people ice skating six miles away.

“Rather than languish in the unknown, we tell ourselves stories about the secret causes of our problems.”

Not all his fellow utopians embraced his beliefs; many commune residents preferred communal drinking to working. Newspapers tarnished the settlement’s reputation by reporting that the leaders rejected the social institution of marriage in favor of sexual freedom. Manea Fen members condemned Rowbotham and removed him from their society. By 1841, the commune dissolved in bankruptcy.

Rowbotham promoted himself as “Dr. Birley,” a pseudonymous seller of miraculous medical treatments, including a supposed cure-all elixir of phosphoric acid and lime in the form of carbonated drinks.

In 1849, under the pen name Parallax, Rowbotham published a pamphlet, Zetetic Astronomy: Earth Not a Globe. The Greek word “zetetic” refers to a skeptical quest for truth based on direct observation, free of assumption. “Parallax” refers to changes in perspective. Rowbotham took parts of the Bible out of context to support his theory. His pamphlet warned that an apocalyptic fire would someday destroy Earth. He delivered lectures on Flat Earth theory and prospered from free publicity in newspapers, whether they respected or mocked him. Rowbotham died in 1884 at age 68, but his anti-globe beliefs persevere.

Religious leaders of the Flat Earth movement in America condemned belief in a round world as a denial of God.

John Dowie, born a preacher’s son in Scotland in 1847, set out to establish his own church. He founded the city of Zion, Illinois as a utopia. He claimed to exercise faith healing through his personal “friendship with Jesus.” He published a newsletter, Leaves of Healing, and made millions building a following for his Christian Apostolic Church. In 1900, he announced plans to establish Zion as a religious community about 90 miles north of Chicago. Its leadership became a dictatorship grounded in Flat Earth beliefs.

Indiana fundamentalist Christian minister Wilbur Voliva read an issue of Leaves of Healing. He became a Dowie follower, and an eventual leader of Zion after Dowie essentially bankrupted it. Voliva intensified Zion’s enforcement of bans on dancing, drinking and other activities by drawing on its residents’ fanatical loyalty and his control of the city’s government.

“Healthy skepticism allows for doubt without making doubt one’s default position.”

By 1915, Voliva was delivering sermons peppered with his beliefs that the Earth is flat, “a stationary plane,” not a spinning globe, and that gravity does not exist. In 1923, he started radio station WCBD, one of the first in the United States. The station created a national audience for Voliva and his flat-world beliefs. By 1927, Voliva was worth more than $10 million. Two years later, the Great Depression decimated his wealth and Zion’s finances. New leaders replaced Voliva’s allies and ended the town’s bans on alcohol and tobacco. In 1940, new local schools opened with a “Globe Earth” curriculum. Voliva died two years later.

Samuel Shenton, born in England in 1903, sustained his belief in the Flat Earth theory even after outer space travel discredited both the concept and his Flat Earth Society. Like Voliva and Rowbotham, Shenton condemned belief in “Globe Earth” as denying the existence of God. In 1956, Shenton co-founded the International Flat Earth Research Society (IFERS). Three years later, it had only 25 members – all in England.

Flat Earther and airplane mechanic Charles K. Johnson and his wife Marjory, also a believer, befriended Shenton when his health was failing. Shenton died in 1971; Johnson became president of the society in 1972.

By 1994, the Johnsons had published 89 issues of the Flat Earth News, which focused more on the planet than Leaves of Healing had – and less on Christian fundamentalism. Among other claims, Johnson suggested that NASA had hired the great science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke – co-writer of the screenplay of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the classic 1968 film – to help stage images of astronauts landing on a fake moon.

Belief in Flat Earth theory surged as the internet eased the spread of conspiracy theories.

Johnson died in 2001. For more than a decade, the Flat Earth movement was quiet and, at times, nearly extinct. However, in 2009, it launched a website and solicited new members. The movement gained followers in 2015. As widespread use of the internet made promoting hoaxes and finding a gullible audience easier than at any other time in history, the once-flagging Flat Earth movement rose again online.

Conspiracy promoter Alex Jones typified the “truthers” who developed online audiences for Flat Earth theory and other bogus beliefs. Jones has run Infowars, a popular conspiracy-touting website, since 1999. He infamously claimed the US government secretly conducted the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks as part of a conspiracy “to enslave the masses.”

“Flat Earth rode, and continues to ride, the wave of shady web traffic.”

Eric Dubay distanced himself from the Society and promoted Flat Earth theory by posting videos on the subject on YouTube and by personally proselytizing Jones, who mocked him. Dubay separated the Flat Earth Society from the movement it spawned and pushed Flat Earth theory onto a broad audience. One instrument was an exceptionally popular video, 200 Proofs Earth Is Not a Spinning Ball, which was laden with fake science, including false statements about space travel.

YouTube, Facebook and other online platforms increased the public’s exposure to Flat Earth theory because conspiratorial content attracts advertising revenue. YouTube has long used an algorithm for video Recommendations that prioritizes odd subjects. A video about gazing at stars, for example, might lead to a video featuring a denial of moon landings or another espousing Flat Earth theory. Facebook realized in 2016 that its Recommendation algorithm was driving 64% of the users who joined extremist organizations. But the company took no action. Starting in 2019, YouTube made it harder to find videos about Flat Earth theory.

Some Flat Earthers exhibit criminal and neo-Nazi behavior and promote antisemitic sentiments.

A church in suburban Toledo, Ohio fired its minister Nate Wolfe for his association with the Flat Earth movement. Social ostracism binds Wolfe and other Flat Earthers.

Mike Hughes achieved greater fame than most Flat Earthers because he rode a homemade rocket into the sky above a California desert to see for himself if the horizon was a curve or a flat line. Hughes’ rocket ride and his life ended in a fatal crash. Before his death in February 2020, Hughes discounted the history lessons he learned in school, developed a distrust of government and decided the Earth was flat.

“Conspiracy theory’…refers to an unproven allegation of a secret, deliberate and malevolent plot, like a scheme to conceal the true shape of the world.”

Financial victims of Flat Earth theories include Michael Marshalek, who bought a ticket on a website operated by a company called Over the Poles, which acknowledged the Flat Earth theory and sold tickets for flights over Antarctica for at least $11,900 each. Over the Poles disappeared from the internet, disappointing fleeced ticket holders who hoped to see the ice wall surrounding the Flat Earth.

Some Flat Earthers disavow Adolf Hitler, but consider the Holocaust a hoax, despite voluminous historical proof, while others exhibit “undiluted Nazism.” Conspiracy theories increasingly blamed societal upheaval in the late 19th and early 20th centuries on Jews. Such bogus theories about domination of the world, flat or round, often draw on ancient antisemitic prejudices.

Eric Dubay, whose YouTube videos revived interest in Flat Earth theory, recorded a rap album called The Flat Earth Movement which included such songs as “Bruce Hitler” and “Goyim Revolution.” A Colorado man, Steven Hildebran, attended a right-wing rally carrying a sign that blamed Globe Earth beliefs on a conspiracy among Jews. Nathan Thompson, who founded the Flat Earth Facebook group, praised as a “masterpiece” a book called The Greatest Lie on Earth, which falsely claims that Jews cause the world’s problems. Conspiracy theories easily intertwine, so some people accept both the Flat Earth theory and antisemitism, itself a false conspiracy theory of long standing.

Misguided Flat Earthers may respond to empathy, but not to debate.

Many people embraced delusions as outlandish as Flat Earth theory during the “wildly conspiratorial” administration of former President Donald Trump. Some public figures openly accepted Flat Earth theory; these believers range from a city council member in Gatineau, Canada to Deftones guitarist Stephen Carpenter to professional football player Sammy Watkins. Flat Earth’s popularity soared during the Trump administration and became entangled with political conspiracy theories, including Pizzagate and QAnon.

By 2020, QAnon followers and Flat Earthers formed a conspiracy movement that became a force in the Republican Party. Candidates for Congress in 2020 included 97 QAnon believers. Two were elected, including Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene, who claimed on Facebook that lasers in outer space cause wildfires.

“Conspiratorial belief is not without consequence. Flat Earth can result in devastating effects to its followers, people driven by religious conviction or distrust in authorities or belief in faulty science.”

The coronavirus pandemic triggered widespread doubt and anxiety, lowering American resistance to conspiracy theories. A June 2020 poll of 10,000 respondents found that 71% were aware of a conspiracy theory claiming powerful people planned the pandemic and 25% percent were inclined to believe it. In mid-August 2020, when 163,000 Americans had already died of COVID, Facebook hosted 1,150 groups with a total of about three million members criticizing efforts to slow the pandemic’s spread.

Facebook and YouTube now try to impede their users’ embrace of fictitious conspiracy claims. Viewers of YouTube videos about conspiracy theories now have easy access to more factual text, but evidence suggests that only a small percentage of viewers will read counterbalancing facts about conspiracy theories they’ve already embraced.

Since an overhaul of YouTube’s Recommendation algorithm, the initial results of searches for Flat Earth show videos that debunk the theory or news reports on conferences for Flat Earthers. Facts alone seldom change the minds of conspiracy believers, who think and believe as cult members do. Instead of debating them, the best approach is to use empathy in a way akin to guiding someone out of a destructive codependent relationship.

About the Author

Kelly Weill is a journalist at the Daily Beast covering extremism, disinformation and the internet. Previously, she reported on culture for Politico.


Here is my review of the book Off the Edge: Flat Earthers, Conspiracy Culture, and Why People Will Believe Anything by Kelly Weill:

Off the Edge is a fascinating and well-researched exploration of the Flat Earth movement, a modern resurgence of an ancient belief that the earth is not a globe, but a flat disk surrounded by an ice wall and covered by a dome. The author, Kelly Weill, is a journalist who has covered various conspiracy theories and fringe groups for The Daily Beast and other publications. She traces the origins and evolution of the Flat Earth theory, from its roots in the 19th century religious sects and eccentric personalities, to its revival in the 21st century internet culture and social media platforms. She also examines the psychological and sociological factors that drive people to embrace such a radical worldview, and the consequences of rejecting scientific evidence and rationality.

The book is divided into three parts: The Past, The Present, and The Future. In the first part, Weill introduces some of the key figures and events that shaped the Flat Earth theory, such as Samuel Rowbotham, a self-proclaimed “Zetetic” who conducted dubious experiments to prove his flat earth claims; John Hampden, a wealthy eccentric who challenged anyone to disprove his flat earth beliefs; Lady Elizabeth Blount, a high-society aristocrat who founded the Universal Zetetic Society and published a magazine called The Earth Not a Globe Review; Wilbur Glenn Voliva, a charismatic preacher who ruled over a utopian community in Zion, Illinois, where he enforced his flat earth doctrine; and Charles K. Johnson, a fervent flat earther who revived the International Flat Earth Research Society in the 1970s and 1980s.

In the second part, Weill delves into the modern Flat Earth movement, which emerged in the mid-2010s with the help of YouTube videos, Facebook groups, podcasts, and online forums. She profiles some of the influential flat earthers of today, such as Mark Sargent, a former video game designer who created a series of videos called Flat Earth Clues; Patricia Steere, a former radio host who co-hosted a popular podcast called Flat Earth & Other Hot Potatoes; Eric Dubay, a yoga instructor and neo-Nazi who authored several books on flat earth and other conspiracy theories; Math Powerland (aka Math Boylan), a former NASA artist who claimed that he was part of a conspiracy to fake space images; and Mad Mike Hughes, a daredevil who attempted to launch himself in a homemade rocket to see the edge of the world.

In the third part, Weill explores the implications and challenges of the Flat Earth movement, both for its adherents and for society at large. She discusses how flat earthers cope with cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, distrust of authority, and social isolation. She also examines how flat earthers interact with other conspiracy theories, such as QAnon, anti-vaccination, and climate change denial. She also considers how flat earthers affect public discourse, education, science communication, and democracy.

Off the Edge is an engaging and informative book that offers a comprehensive and balanced account of one of the most bizarre and persistent conspiracy theories in history. Weill writes with clarity, humor, empathy, and insight, drawing on extensive interviews, observations, historical sources, and scientific literature. She does not mock or dismiss flat earthers as irrational or ignorant, but rather tries to understand their motivations and perspectives. She also does not shy away from criticizing their flawed logic, faulty evidence, harmful rhetoric, and dangerous actions. She exposes the dark side of the Flat Earth movement, such as its links to extremism, violence, fraud, and cult-like behavior. She also warns of the broader threats that conspiracy theories pose to our society’s values and institutions.

Off the Edge is a timely and relevant book that sheds light on a phenomenon that reflects our current era of misinformation, polarization, and alienation. It is not only a fascinating history of an eccentric idea, but also a compelling analysis of human psychology and culture. It is a book that will appeal to anyone who is interested in learning more about the Flat Earth movement or conspiracy theories in general. It is also a book that will challenge readers to think critically about their own beliefs and sources of information. It is a book that will make you wonder: How do we know what we know? And who do we trust?

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