If someone asked you to describe a typical flat earther, what comes to mind? Thick-headed? Witless? Just plain crazy? Those are certainly adjectives that would have comfortably tripped off my tongue before watching Behind the Curve, a documentary on the flat earth movement that’s just started streaming on Netflix. What’s fresh about the film is not what it reveals about the absurdity of flat earther beliefs (one of the main areas of contention within the community is whether or not our flat-as-a-saucer planet is covered by a Truman Show-style dome). It’s the affection it makes you feel for its key players.
The documentary’s director, Daniel J Clark, wanted to develop our understanding of why flat earthers embrace a belief that science shows to be untrue. And so it’s the believers’ enthusiasm, their relationships and the sense of community that has built up around this dangerous rejection of science that take centre stage over cheap potshots.
As I watched the film, I wondered if there’s something to learn here about how we challenge the anti-vaccine conspiracy theories whose resurgence is putting children’s lives at risk. The World Health Organization this year ranked the anti-vaccine movement in its top 10 global health threats, while Unicef has highlighted the low vaccination rates that have contributed to a 30% global increase in measles infection rates in just one year.
One reading of so-called “anti-vaxxers” is as evil charlatans who wilfully misrepresent science in a way that causes child deaths. While there may be a handful who certainly deserve that description – most notably, Andrew Wakefield, the discredited former doctor who originally claimed a false link between the MMR jab and autism and who has now found a sympathetic home in Trump’s America (though Trump himself last week spoke out in favour of vaccination) – it’s not a helpful way to understand the vast majority of those who share anti-vaccine propaganda.
Some of them will be parents with autistic children. One of the cruel ways in which autism can manifest itself is children who seem to be developing normally in their first year or two start to regress, often around the same age they might have the MMR jab. The science of what causes autism is not particularly developed and an autism diagnosis can leave parents feeling guilty and searching for answers as to what they might have done wrong. Their emotional anguish is ripe territory for a fraudster proffering a simple explanation that involves levelling blame and malicious intent at a medical establishment they may be fighting tooth and nail to get appropriate care for their child. Would I fall for it under those circumstances? I don’t think I could say unless I found myself there. It doesn’t take more than a dash of empathy to see that these parents are hardly stupid or evil.
And you can’t develop an effective response to the anti-vaxx movement without understanding what motivates its believers. Sure, there are tactics on the table that don’t require any engagement with them at all. The health secretary, Matt Hancock, said that he wants to make social media platforms take down harmful lies about vaccinations, which seems a no-brainer given that a staggering half of all new parents have been exposed to anti-vaxx material on social media.
Hancock also refused to rule out a ban on children attending school unless they are vaccinated. Compulsory vaccination has already been adopted in countries such as Australia and now France. I’ve got no philosophical objection to this whatsoever. Children have rights that exist quite independently of their parents and sometimes it’s down to the state to enforce them. Once vaccination rates in the population fall below a certain level – in the UK, the MMR vaccination rate is just 88%, well below the 95% recommended by the WHO – you are putting not only your own child at serious risk by failing to immunise them but babies who are too young to have been vaccinated.
But I do worry about the potential backlash if governments wield compulsion without also thinking about how to engage those parents who are susceptible to anti-vaxx theories. Simply forcing sceptics to immunise their children risks making them angry and more susceptible to other conspiracy theories and to populist political movements that make ripping up compulsory vaccination one of their top priorities. Look what happened in Italy, where compulsory vaccination was introduced in 2017 despite resistance from a significant minority of parents. It handed huge political capital to the far-right Lega and populist Five Star Movement, both of which used MMR conspiracy theories as the basis to oppose the policy, giving them far more oxygen than they might have otherwise received.
So compulsion must be accompanied by a campaign to win over the hearts and minds of parents susceptible to anti-vaxx theories. Two insights are important: first, scornfully throwing facts at people who we think are too stupid to engage with the realities of science often backfires by making people double down in their own worldview. “The urge to call them out, set the record straight and pump them with facts is not helpful or productive,” says Nicky Edwards from the Frameworks Institute, which undertakes research on how to constructively change minds.
Second, people who subscribe to anti-vaccine conspiracies have more in common with the rest of us than we like to think. We on the liberal left tend to excel at pious superiority, with an unfailing faith in our own rationality. But flat earthers and anti-vaxxers sit on the same spectrum of human behaviour as the rest of us. “People who embrace fringe beliefs are, for the most part, people like you and me,” says Joe Pierre, a psychiatrist interviewed in Behind the Curve. “If you give me 10 minutes with you, I can probably uncover something that you believe that would raise eyebrows with your friends and neighbours.”
I’ve no idea what that belief might be, but I’ve no doubt Pierre would have as much success with me as the next person. He reminds us that when we seek to combat dangerous anti-science conspiracies, we’d do well to remember that science isn’t particularly intuitive; in fact, some argue, it goes against the grain of human irrationality. That’s why, in a democracy, science has to win out not just on the facts but in the battle for hearts and minds: our very lives can depend on it.
• Sonia Sodha is an Observer columnist