That's the text message my mom always sends when I'm heading into a situation that's controversial or ridiculous. A Twilight film marathon, a Logan Paul concert, even Fyre Festival II — it doesn't matter. She'll still send the text because she's sweet and concerned for her first born and people in general.
It lands on my phone as I sit in a meeting room in mid-November at the Embassy Suites in Frisco for a news conference called by the Flat Earth International Conference, a global gathering of people who don't believe the Earth is a slightly off-round body orbiting the sun in space or that space even exists. They claim to know (not believe, but know) the Earth is a flat object surrounded by a wall of ice. The sun and moon circle above it like the world's saddest baby mobile, and we're all just pawns of the government, the Vatican and/or Bill Nye the Science Guy and their twisted game of "keep away" with the truth.
David Weiss, one of the flat Earth (or FE for short) community's most prominent pundits, who hosts shows and makes videos proclaiming the geocentric Earth model, recognizes me and points me out to Mark Sargent, a fellow ardent flat Earther who also hosts and produces online shows and videos and starred in Netflix’s Behind the Curve documentary.
"That's Danny Gallagher," Weiss says. "He did the hit piece."
I put on a friendly face and say, "Actually, it was more of a sledgehammer."
The joke doesn't stick the landing. This would be the bar I'd have to limbo under for the next two days.
How does one of the most famous globe deniers in the FE community know my name and face? Let's back up a bit. I learned in June that the Flat Earth International Conference would be in DFW toward the end of the year and instead of writing a basic story about the conference's pending arrival, I took it a step further. The story listed a series of basic scientific proofs loaded with smart-ass comments and riffs about how things like "The Goddamn Moon" and "Fucking Shadows" show the curve of the Earth. If anything on this round Earth deserves a few curse words and hard smackdown, it's this.
A surprising number of people disagreed. Comments and direct messages on social media rained down, bringing links to YouTube videos with promises of my awakening and epithets like "globecuck," "globehead" and "globetard."
"The Earth is flat!!!!" wrote one person on Facebook Messenger. "Get over it!! You don't like it, too fucking bad!! Your articles sounds as stupid as you look!! Just another brainwashed globetard!!! Get an education globetard!!"
The story went viral thanks in part to flat Earth podcasts and YouTube shows with names like Globebusters and Strange World, which read and picked it apart, claiming they already debunked the science behind a round earth. Sargent read the entire piece on his Strange World podcast, and his co-host Karen B. Endicott, better known as Karen B., called it "sad." I was "uber-programmed," she said, and if I went to the conference, they would "flat smack me."
Weiss offered me an official invitation after I held a frustrating but friendly hourlong talk on one of his internet shows. I felt that "globetards" should have a presence there. I would attend and learn as much as I could about the flat Earth community and their way of thinking.
I wore a black and white T-shirt that looked like the Ramones' classic band shirt, except mine read "Globetard" over a minimalist icon of a classroom globe.
You're Not Going To Stump Us
"We all pretty much know what you're thinking," says flat Earth theorist, author and documentary filmmaker Rob Skiba during the convention's opening press conference. "This is crazy. This is stupid. Wasn't this settled 500 years ago? I can't believe we're talking about flat-freaking-Earth of all things in the 20th century."
He nails it. Minus a few expletives and questions about what motivates the flat Earthers, that's exactly my thought.
"There's no question you're going to ask we haven't already asked ourselves," Skiba says. "You're not going to stump us with any amazing piece of evidence we haven't thoroughly considered or investigated."
He then reads from a handout he shared with the members of the press, including a correspondent from Alex Jones' paranoia news screech InfoWars. The handout is titled "Debunking Flat Earth 101" and lists the things we should and shouldn't say about the organization, like how the Flat Earth Society is not affiliated with them, how "you don't know anything more about gravity than we do" and neither does science, according to an out-of-context quote from theoretical physicist Michio Kaku’s interview in the dubious documentary The Principle about how “in cosmology, we're off by a factor of 10 to the 120th.” The press conference includes not-so-subtle urges for us to use our journalism powers to investigate things like NASA, the Freemasons, Nazis and fish-eye lenses.
I raise my hand.
"Why what?" Skiba replies.
"Take your pick."
A barrage of explanations follows, all based on speculation and shadowy stories of lies on a global, historical scale.
Independent researcher Iru Landucci blames the cover-up on the Roman Catholic Church, which uses the Earth-is-round myth to somehow strengthen its hold on "economics, financial things, military things." Great scientific minds like Nicolaus Copernicus and Galileo Galilei were in on it because "they're all from the Jesuit order" even though the church accused Galileo of heresy for stating that the Earth revolves around the sun ... or is that just what they want you to think? It's an M.C. Escher portrait of paranoia.
Sargent claims "they” (he doesn't specify who “they” were, so I can only assume he meant the scientific community or someone named They) didn't figure it out until 1960" and if “they” let the truth float out to the masses about how we're not on an oblong sphere, we would see global turmoil and unrest break out among the gobsmacked populace.
"Would you tell the general public?" Sargent asks. "As a journalist, you'd probably say yes, it's a truth that people need to know, but think about what had been established at that point, the foundations of science until 1960. You can't just release that to the people because the shock wave would be almost insurmountable potentially."
Bob Knodel, one of the regular hosts of the Globebusters show on YouTube, presents something that could actually be researched and sourced beyond inconvenient coincidences and the ominous "they" organization. The round-Earth lie lives on because of those money-grubbing bastards at NASA and in the space industry, he suggests.
"Economically, it makes a big difference," Knodel says. "If you take the music industry and add to that the movie industry, add to that the box office industry, add to that the video game industry, you're not even close to the space industry. People fail to realize how massive the space industry is."
Well, it's not that massive, at least on NASA's end. In 2018, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) put the industry's total income at $9.8 billion. The Hollywood Reporter reported that the movie or box office industry's global take amounted to $41 billion. TechCrunch.com reported revenues for the video game industry at $43 billion. The U.S. House of Representatives approved a total budget of just over $20 billion in 2018 for all of NASA, or just 0.4% of the entire federal budget, according to the nonprofit Planetary Society, which may or may not be part of "they."
Of course, globe-deniers will say those government numbers are more fudged than a Baffle bar. "They" can fake every single piece of space research, so dressing up a few numbers on a budget is a snap.
And God Made the Firmament
At this point, some readers might be wondering: Are the flat-Earthers for real or just the most dedicated, elaborate bunch of trolls on the planet? While a few trolls might have crashed the party now and then, FE believers appear to be mostly sincere. How is that possible? Well, consider this: Texas voters will happily put evolution-deniers in charge of public schools, and Dallas is down the road from a museum that claims humans walked the planet with dinosaurs as if The Flintstones was a documentary. There are no limits to what humans will believe. In fact, religion and flat Earth belief often bump into one another, beyond the idea that the Vatican is the evil butler in this Agatha Christie novel of galactic conspiracy.
Robbie Davidson, founder and organizer of the conference, says he came to his flat-Earth belief from a "biblical mindset." He saw a series of YouTube videos that made reference to Genesis 1:7-9, which says in part, "And God made the firmament and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were about the firmament: and it was so."
This seems to be the foundation for Davidson and other attendees' belief that the Earth is a flat plain encased in a dome like a giant snow globe. Skiba noted in the press briefing that this is not a religious organization, but Davidson also told me, “There are no atheists in Flat Earth.”
"Then I was like, wait, why does the Bible say that?" Davidson says. "If I'm gonna call myself a literalist, you know, it was a check to myself."
Further research led to Sargent's videos and conclusions that when it comes to the globe model, "there was no science backing it up.
"There was theories and pictures," Davidson says. "Can we use the scientific method to prove the Earth from Earth? I'm telling you, you can't. It's not about what I believe to be true. It's what I believe to not be true."
Many of the experiments and "evidence" presented in the seminars and demonstrations during the two-day conference follow a similar path: draw a conclusion first, then fill in the blanks with whatever supports it. A demonstration of the flatness of water took place in the adjacent parking garage in which two large, clear tubes were placed on a wooden easel and one was bent to prove that water doesn't curve but seeks its own level. Ergo, we must be standing on a giant Earth pizza. A scientific, non-flat mind would say they simply demonstrated the existence of gravity — another myth! — but the discussion dissolves into more conspiracies and religious dogma they equate with scientific discovery.
Some of their theories also point to the faiths of previous civilizations and non-Christians. Michael Solomon cites in his lecture "The History of the Globe Deception" how ancient cultures including Babylonian, Hebrew, Celtic Irish and Hindu all left behind art and models that show a flat Earth.
"Separated by cultures, vast distances and time, yet they all had identical cosmology," Solomon says. "I love what science says. Science says, well, they were just ignorant people. They didn't know anything, yet they all had the same cosmology. Some would say they traveled across the world and proselytized. Have you ever heard of a Viking proselytize?"
What would it take to smash these foundations of religious belief that supersede scientific fact? The solutions vary among the speakers and attendees. An untouched video from a rocket launch made with a 4K camera, might do the trick. A globetard, me for instance, might point out such videos can easily be found with a simple YouTube or Google search. A benighted globetard would say something like that, but only because he doesn't grasp what flat-Earthers know. Those videos are fake. Any video that has a NASA or government agency label on it can't be trusted, and off we go for another spin on this paranoid merry-go-round: We know the Earth is flat, so any evidence to the contrary must be faked. Therefore, NASA, the people whose job is exploring the space around a nonexistent spherical Earth, are liars whose evidence can't be trusted, because we know the Earth is flat ...
"We know they're lying," says Chris Pontius, a flat Earth model builder and noted flat Earth believer who also got screen time in the Netflix documentary. "I'm convinced they didn't go to the moon."
Dogmen Are Real!
Flat-Earthers have also created their own collectible and artistic cultural community, and a chunk of their work was on sale at the convention. There are overpriced T-shirts and apparel with "HOAX" spelled out in space iconography, or with an image of a skeleton in an astronaut suit under the phrase "Dead Space." Fans could pick up self-published books and DVDs that claim to smash the evils of "scientism," the FE community's term for the imposing Cthulhu of actual science.
There's even a genre of flat Earth music that extols the virtues of the geocentric model. The hits range from original tunes like the energy blues sounds of "No Photographs of Earth" and "Don't Believe in Gravity" by the Flat Earth Man to covers of popular songs like Adele's "Hello" that get the Weird Al treatment, its lyrics changed to "Hello from the inside/I'm here to tell you NASA lies/And there never was a space probe/And those planets you've loved so are wandering stars."
Inevitably, there's very bad rap that could make Macklemore cringe, with such lyrics as "Once you go flat, you don't go back"; "Eat, sleep, debunk the globe, repeat"; and "Like when Lance dropped his pants, there's no ball."
The conference also offered live ... well, let's call it entertainment. The evening started with the filming of a scene for a feature-length comedy about a redneck stuntman named Roland Reddy who comes to the realization that we're all on a giant cookie cake. The stage is set up to resemble a game show called Leveled Out with Sargent as its host, sporting his trademark illuminated eyeglasses and what appears to be Blofeld's leisure wear. The questions are just setups for flat-Earth celebrities like Weiss and Jeran Campanella to throw juicy chunks of bloody sirloin to the doubting masses, among them "Bill Nye has a masters degree in jack shit!"
The sect even has its own comedian thanks to the conversion of alt-right comedy star Owen Benjamin. The piano-playing comic was kicked off Twitter and considered too extreme for right-wing think tanks like PragerU because of YouTube diatribes about how "Hitler wasn't evil and didn't hate the Jews. Hitler just wanted to clean Germany of its filth and parasites," how AIDS is a hoax and other "bits."
Benjamin's act starts with the standard jokes: airports and self-deprecating comments about his tall stature and being a "height supremacist." Then, 20 minutes in, he steps behind a keyboard with a song called (and yes, he sang this to rounds of cheers and applause) "That Nigger Stole My Bike." Benjamin plays around with the keyboard and comes across an awe-inspiring, new age-y yawn that sounds like something Yanni would write for a science documentary soundtrack. Over it, he says, "I'm Neil DeGrasse Tyson and I stole Owen Benjamin's bike."
Owen, who is white, explains during the Q&A portion of his show that he doesn't call African American people the "N-word" but wanted to use a shocking word to make a point about how the word is absurd and getting upset at it is "treating black people like children." As the evening progresses, Benjamin reveals he believes "dinosaurs were a Smithsonian lie." When he discounts the idea that Bigfoot isn't real, someone from behind me shouts "Dogmen are real!"
The closing moments of the conference turn from genuine curiosity and awkward comedy into a gelatinous slog of just getting through the end. The conference has an awards show. It's just like the Academy Awards if the budget was way lower and the organizers had an even bigger vendetta against the people in the audience who weren't up for an award.
Accolades go to YouTube flat Earth videos over the course of 90-plus minutes with self-inflated intro speeches for categories like Best FE Newcomer, Best Awakening and Best Junior Channel. If it had been longer, they could have added categories like Best Use of an iMovie Transition, Best Jump to Conclusion and Best Conclusion to Jump.
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I dart for the cash bar, order the brownest spirit they have and down it without bothering to look at the label on the bottle.
The two days passed. I was far from "flat smacked." I was exhausted. Given how flat Earthers interpret words to meet their definitions, they will probably raise the "Mission Accomplished" banner, send more Facebook messages with more exclamation points and give both an award in 2020.
Kaku offered me a better explanation for the contribution that even the idea of a flat Earth can make to this very round, almost perfect sphere called Earth.
"Let's say the movement did not exist at all," Kaku says. "People do wonder about this. You know in the back of people's minds, you know on a Sunday afternoon walking down the street they do wonder about the fact that maybe the Earth is flat. People do think about these things, but they don't say it and there’s no one there to rebut it. So this gets it in the open basically."