We live in interesting times. I was pointed toward a documentary about members (adherents? disciples?) of the Flat Earth movement that’s currently showing on Netflix, called Behind the Curve.

The documentary primarily follows Mark Sargent, a prominent evangelist for the Flat Earth movement that has taken on a bit of momentum in recent years. We meet others as well, from Patricia Steere to Math Powerland (no, really).

Each of these people seems sincere in their beliefs. That could easily make this a challenging watch. It’s not, though. It’s fascinating. In many cases the subject matter is stronger than the structure at play, but it all comes together to create a compelling moment. It’s certainly one I won’t forget.

Flat Earth is a bunch of bunk, but I want to give people a hug and tell them it's OK that the world is crazy and scary.
The flat-hand signal there is apparently the “salute” (?) that Flat Earthers give.

I have to give the documentary a lot of credit for remaining kind in the treatment of its subjects. It’s a force of habit for many people simply to ridicule and deride others who don’t believe accepted doctrine.

This is especially true when it comes to accepted consensus. You need only to turn on your television to see everyone from Neil Degrasse Tyson to Stephen Colbert turning derisive sneering into an oft-lucrative art form.

In short, it’s easy to call someone “stupid” or “crazy” and move on with your life. It’s an emotional bloodsport we’ve elevated to a place of great honor in our society. Everything from sitcoms to Twitter have reinforced the idea that the best way to deal with “heterodox” thought is to tear down the person.

I agree instead with the person speaking at a convocation of scientists, captured in this movie. He points out that many of the people who believe things as outlandish as flat earth theory, faked moon landings, or the artistic merit of The English Patient, aren’t stupid people.

In many cases, they’re intelligent people who would benefit greatly from empathetic communication. They can and should be spoken to with a presumption of respect and intelligence, and work from there.

Calling someone stupid simply stops the conversation. Finding out why they believe something like Flat Earth Theory can go a long way toward understanding how to discuss it with them. If you start from a point of disrespect and attack, any human being is going to go into a defensive mode and stop listening.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that you shouldn’t point out the flaws in their reasoning. You’re not obliged to go along with a delusion, as much as that seems to be the cultural norm these days. It’s fine to pretend someone you love is Teddy Roosevelt, but only so long as you’re Abby and Martha Brewster.

There will also be people you simply can’t reach. It might be beyond your personal ability. That’s OK, let them encounter someone else who can continue the conversation.

By and large, the movie does a terrific job of approaching these people sympathetically. Where it fails is that it diverges every so often from the intellectually curious to the self-righteous, as if it’s forgetting its own lesson.

Then it wraps up with a moment that needed more exploration than being interspersed with the end credits. A Flat Earth group, doing an experiment to prove that curvature is a lie, fails. Instead of continuing to explore their reaction to the failure in detail, it’s seemingly played for a chuckle. That’s all well and good, but undercuts the empathetic approach advocated earlier in the movie.

There’s another experiment earlier in the movie that works against another set of Flat Earthers, but that’s not followed up, either. It’s left dangling, and as a viewer I was unsatisfied that it was discarded and we just kept moving.

You can’t help but feel like the movie moves past these moments because the director can’t completely resist the default urge to mock just a little bit. That may feed into the perspective of other viewers, but for me it just doesn’t work.

In all, it’s a worthwhile movie to watch. If anything, it’s a fascinating exploration of the human desire to be important, to be heard, and to be special. It’s a testament to what makes conspiracy theories enduringly powerful; their adherents can hold a claim to intelligence and perception beyond the average.

There are undoubtedly conspiracies in this world. But we should approach the claims of them with extreme skepticism. The burden of proof should be on the people proving them to exist, not vice versa.

In short, I recommend this movie to you, if you have Netflix.

This review can also be found on my Letterboxd profile. Share and share alike, as it were. I also talk about it on a podcast. Cheers!

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