There are scientific references to a spherical Earth dating back to Ancient Greece. In 240 B.C., Eratosthenes used trigonometry and measuring shadows to estimate the Earth’s circumference. The explorer Ferdinand Magellan returned from circumnavigating the globe in 1522. And yet, in the year 2019, there is a stalwart contingent, united by the Internet, who sincerely believe that the Earth is flat.
This group is the subject of director Daniel J. Clark’s documentary, Behind the Curve. He focuses primarily on a couple of the group’s charismatic leaders, Mark Sargent and Patricia Steere. But rather than trying to disprove their (incorrect) beliefs (and don’t worry, they do that for themselves — the Flat Eathers in the documentary fund a number of scientific experiments that don’t go as well as they would have hoped), Clark approaches his subjects with empathy and humanity. Stubbornness in one’s convictions is a basic human characteristic. Behind the Curve is sad, and funny, and fascinating, but it’s also a reminder of the mental gymnastics we would all go to keep our worldview comfortably known.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Obviously in making a documentary, it’s important to keep a critical distance from your subject. But so much of what people say is so frustrating! Did you ever just want shake them or show them a geometry textbook?
DANIEL J. CLARK: We knew going in that we didn’t want to make a documentary saying, “This is what Flat Earthers think, this is what non Flat Earthers think.” because there’s tons of stuff on YouTube and it’s really not satisfying in any way. So in order to not have reactions to things they were saying, we did a lot of research and I would watch tons and tons of videos, so nothing they said when I was with them surprised me. With very few exceptions. But generally I knew what they thought about the moon and the phases of the moon, and why they thought that you couldn’t see Seattle, and all of that. So nothing really caught me off guard.
I would put a little distance between me and what I was hearing. And then I would call my producers on the way home and I would kind of just need to breathe a little bit. So that would be my therapy session.
What was one of the “exceptions” that caught you off-guard?
One thing that sticks with me is when Patricia Steere says that the only thing that would make her believe that an event happened is if she personally was injured in it. And this manifested itself at the conference because there was a little bit of fear at the Flat Eart conference, the very first one, that something would happen. And Patricia, just kind of talking casually, just said something along the lines of, “I know nothing is going to happen because I haven’t been paid to be a crisis actor.” So it’s a really interesting view on the world to think that people aren’t evil enough to do anything bad, but the government is evil enough to fake it.
So how do you argue with people like that, who seem to completely disregard facts and logic?
I think the first step is to not be condescending and not to talk down and not belittle people whose beliefs, in most people’s eyes, are wrong, because that doesn’t change much. Shaming someone doesn’t change the way they feel about something. In fact, it probably just reinforces it and they become more entrenched in their belief. So approaching it from the angle of, “I see where you’re coming from, now here’s where I’m coming from,” is better. I think it’s probably idealistic, because some people aren’t to listen necessarily. And this isn’t just Flat Earthers, this is everybody. So if you come at it from a more understanding and empathetic angle, I think you have a better chance of at least having them understand where you’re coming from.
What do you want the takeaway from Behind the Curve to be?
My dream would be that when people watch it, they take Flat Eartherism as an analogy to something they believe in, because it’s so easy to demonize another group or another person for something they think but you’re kind of just as guilty if you do that.
‘Behind the Curve’ is currently streaming on Netflix.