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A globe is displayed in the exhibit hall at the Flat Earth International Conference, held Nov. 15 and 16, 2018, at the Crowne Plaza Denver Airport Convention Center. More than 600 people were registered to attend. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“This guy was trying to tell me I’m wrong, and he was like, ‘I have a master’s degree in science.’ And I said, ‘I guarantee you that you’re smart, brother. But you’re a parrot. All you’re doing is repeating back what they told you.’ ”

— Conversation overheard in a hallway at the Flat Earth International Conference 2018, held on Thursday and Friday in Denver.

My new friend Russell is an impressively cheery human being, even as he is accusing me of playing a role in a vast, sinister conspiracy.

Right around 6 feet tall with a graying beard and a dad belly, Russell Kanning wears stylishly square glasses, a ballcap that says, “Flat Earth,” and a smile that never seems to leave his face. That smile’s there as he looks around the exhibit hall at the Flat Earth International Conference, which ran for two days last week in Denver and drew hundreds of people to a hotel near the airport — the nation’s biggest convention of flat-Earth believers in at least recent history.

The smile’s there as he tells me how buildings are visible on the horizon that should be hidden by the Earth’s curvature. It’s there as he heads off my questions by telling me that he doesn’t know exactly how the dome covering all of creation works. It’s there as he explains to me calmly that every politician is an actor, controlled by higher authorities.

“Trump,” he says, “is obviously an actor.”

It’s there as I begin to wonder whether this is what America will soon look like — a country where everyone has their own information sources, their own conventions to share their own facts, their own explanations, their own truth.

And it’s there when he says that I’m part of the global cabal to block that truth from being known.

“It’s big,” he says. “They change history. They’ve lied to us for all time. And you media guys are unwittingly a part of it.”

He smiles at me. I try to smile back.

Robbie Davidson, the organizer of the 2018 Flat Earth International Conference, walks through the exhibit hall in the Crowne Plaza Denver Airport Convention Center. The conference was held on Nov. 15 and 16, 2018. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)

From the conference’s main stage, the speakers talk in superlatives.

This is the largest crowd yet for the conference — 650 people from across the world are registered, almost 50 percent more than last year’s conference. Millions of people have viewed flat-Earth videos on YouTube.

“It’s not going away,” says Robbie Davidson, the conference’s organizer. “It’s getting bigger and growing larger every day.”

It’s still quite small, though.

Last year, a poll from Public Policy Polling found a mere 1 percent of people in America believe the Earth is flat. Statistically, there was no difference between women and men, Republicans and Democrats, Trump voters and Hillary Clinton voters. (People who voted in 2016 for Green Party candidate Jill Stein, though, were more likely to say they believe in a flat Earth.)

An online pollster earlier this year made waves when it announced that only two-thirds of young millennials believe the Earth is round. But a closer examination of the poll shows that 4 percent of those ages 18-24 who responded said they believe the Earth is flat, while another 5 percent said they had always thought it was flat but are now having doubts. (The remaining participants either said they didn’t know or were wavering on their belief in a round Earth.)

So, flat Earth thus far remains on the fringes, with every major university, scientific group, company and research agency not only firmly in the Earth-is-round camp but also using that assumption to create the technologies that undergird our daily lives — from tracking the weather, to pinpointing our locations via GPS, to beaming us television.

There is no credible scientific debate over whether the Earth is flat. But that makes a conference of flat-Earth believers a rather exaggerated lens through which to view a much more mainstream trend.

Across the country, established authorities are losing their influence.

In a different PPP poll last year, 37 percent of people said they believe global warming is a hoax, while 20 percent said they believe there is a link between childhood vaccines and autism — both of which are denied by the vast majority of scientists. Twenty-eight percent said they believe that secretive groups are conspiring to create an authoritarian world government.

Trust in government, trust in the media, trust in academia and trust in other traditional sources of information is near an all-time low. Meanwhile, there has never been more opportunity for people who share off-the-beaten-path beliefs to connect.

“We’re in an era now where you can always find information to validate even the most outlandish of perspectives,” said Kyle Saunders, a political science professor at Colorado State University who studies conspiracy theories. “If you go out on the internet, you can find reasoning or evidence or at least an argument for your side. It’s out there somewhere.”

Our widening economic disparities might only fuel that search. Conspiracy theories, Saunders said, are in some ways a response to stress. Everybody wants to understand the world in a way that makes sense to them. They want to see that one thing logically and fairly follows another.

But when life begins to feel outside of your control and cruel for no reason, one way to rationalize that is through a conspiracy theory. And it doesn’t help, Saunders said, that sometimes there actually are conspiracies working against regular people. Wall Street really did cook the books ahead of the financial crisis. Pharmaceutical companies really do sometimes engage in shady sales practices.

If we lose trust in each other, though, it suddenly becomes possible for anything — no matter how bizarre — to become true. Even our own perceptions can let us down.

A convention-goer carries a sign at the Flat Earth International Conference 2018 at the Crowne Plaza Denver Airport Convention Center on Nov. 15, 2018. The conference drew supporters of the belief that the round Earth is a hoax. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)

When I called Matthias Steup, a University of Colorado philosophy professor, to ask him how we know anything, he soon posed this classic, if unsettling, thought experiment: How do we know that we are living our lives out in the world and are not actually disembodied brains being held in vats hooked up to computers that simulate every aspect of our existence?

Steup’s argument for us not being brains in vats is that we know the technology doesn’t exist for that to occur or that we know there isn’t a network of evil, brain-stealing scientists to make it happen. But how do we know that our vat-brains haven’t had that knowledge erased? What keeps us from falling into the conspiratorial abyss?

“We have to live with the outcome that if we have evidence that gives us knowledge that we are not brains in vats, it is fallible evidence,” he said. “…You have to trust scientific evidence.”

Our beliefs have been rooted in this trust ever since the Enlightenment three centuries ago — the world is knowable through observation and measurement and rational deduction. It is the very foundation of modern thought. But, now, as Davidson said from the stage at the flat-Earth conference last week, “the foundation is starting to crumble.”

Saunders fears he may be right.

“Parts of our society — I think you could say the haves — are moving toward science,” Saunders said. “And the have-nots are moving away from it. Those two trends are just another reflection of the polarized culture that we live in and make it hard to live as a single society.”

He paused slightly to consider what he just said.

“And that’s dark shit.”

Here is an incomplete list of everything that I am told at the flat-Earth convention is possibly part of a conspiracy:

The moon landing, the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, the International Space Station, space flight, pictures taken from space, pictures of the Earth’s curvature, gravity, maps of Antarctica, the Antarctic Treaty, the South Pole, 9/11, the Sandy Hook shooting, AIDS, cancer, the Irish potato famine, the Civil War, vaccines, genetically modified food, the Federal Reserve, organized religion, the Catholic Church specifically, the compiling of the Bible, the medical industry, the education system, the government, a competing flat-Earth organization, and even other convention-goers.

“I think there’s paid government people here,” Russell Kanning tells me. Then he cracks a smile. “Because I’m a crazy conspiracy nut.”

Russell Kanning with talks to convention attendees at the 2nd annual Flat Earth International Conference in Denver, on Nov. 15, 2018. (John Leyba, The Colorado Sun)

Repeatedly, people I talk with or people who speak from the stage refer to an ill-defined, all-powerful “they” pulling the levers of the world. They are trying to keep people oppressed. They are hiding humanity’s true potential.

“They wanted us to be completely separate from our reality so that we would voluntarily relinquish power to the system,” one speaker, Karen B. Endecott, says.

And for many of those in attendance, flat Earth has been the gateway conspiracy that leads to others. Almost all say they started adulthood thinking the Earth is round. It’s only been in the past five years — aided by YouTube videos and Facebook groups — that most say they have come to believe the Earth is flat. But that one realization, they say, has opened their eyes to more.

Russell tells me that believing in flat Earth “snaps you out of 10 or 12 deceptions.” Endecott says she doesn’t really believe in coincidences anymore. Davidson, the conference organizer, tells me there’s a popular line in the flat-Earth community: “Once you go flat, you never globe back.”

“For me it’s about, ‘What? Is that true? I’m going to go look into that,’” he says of his approach to converting the unconverted. “Let them go on their own journey.”

That approach makes Davidson believe he is the true keeper of scientific principles in this debate. In his view, “science” as a unified authority has become hostile to scrutiny. It instead preaches unquestioned dogma to the masses, he says, and he repeatedly uses the term “scientism” to distinguish the scientific community from the grassroots investigations of flat-Earth believers.

At times, he tells me he would welcome having his flat-Earth views debunked. Then he could go back to his regular life in Canada, where he says, “In my circle, I was respected.”

But then he speaks with pride about the evidence he and others are assembling to try to prove their views and how he believes they have pushed the scientific community back on its heels.

“Every which way you go on this, you’re going to be stumped,” he says. “… We’ve thought of everything because we honestly do not like waking up in the morning being ridiculed, called names.”

Over and over, people at the conference tell me to do experiments for myself, to draw my own conclusions. Take a super-zoom camera out to a beach and see that objects in the distance never disappear over the horizon. (They do.) Look closely and discover that all photos of a round-Earth are Photoshop fabrications. (They’re not.) Prove that anyone has ever seen 24-hour sunlight in Antarctica during the southern-hemisphere summer. (A common flat-Earth belief is that Antarctica is not a continent but an ice wall that rims the firmament of Earth and makes it impossible to fall off the edge. And they have.)

But the fact that all of my information comes from official sources is only further proof to flat-Earth believers that it is wrong and theirs is correct. Approached head-on, flat Earth becomes virtually undebunkable. To its adherents, the authority they trust most is themselves.

At one point during the conference, a man walks past me wearing a T-shirt with NASA’s globe logo — but the familiar four letters at the center have been replaced with the word FRAUDS. Just then, my phone vibrates, and I glance down at the screen.

I have an email setting up an interview with someone deep inside the purported conspiracy.

Astronaut Steve Swanson, who grew up in Steamboat Springs, takes a photo of Earth from a window in the International Space Station, on Sept. 7, 2014. (Courtesy of NASA)

Throughout his 195 days in space, Steve Swanson always spent his free time the same way. He’d float down into an observation room in the International Space Station and stare out the window.

“First of all, my geography got much better,” he joked.

“You also realize things from up there. We do live on a fragile planet. You can see how thin the atmosphere is. … You see the Earth is one sphere in the sky. It reflects more on how we are a human race on this Earth. One human race. Not different religions or countries.”

Swanson grew up in Steamboat Springs and graduated from CU with an engineering degree — one of more than a dozen current or former astronauts with Colorado connections. He helped build the International Space Station. He’s completed four spacewalks.

After retiring from NASA in 2015, he now works at Boise State University in Idaho, where he is a distinguished educator in residence. I’d called him to ask the obvious: Did he actually go to space and see a round Earth with his own eyes?

“It’s tough to fathom people not believing that the Earth is round,” he said.

But, at the same time, he said he could see how people would develop skepticism for authority. And soon the conversation pivoted to science education and how scientists can sometimes be frustrated in answering questions they consider ignorant. Or how researchers will sometimes present findings as absolute truth rather than an understanding based on the best-available data and research.

“We kind of get on a high horse and preach sometimes,” Swanson said. “I don’t think that’s the best way to do it.”

It made me think of something Saunders had told me earlier. At some point, people who believe in a conspiracy theory start to develop an identity based on that theory — it’s why one speaker at the flat-Earth conference encouraged the audience to shout with him, “I’m not ashamed!”

But once that identity hardens, anyone outside of their group becomes suspect. The way to debunk a conspiracy theory, then, is to make friends with the theorists.

“People change,” Saunders said. “People come in and out of the conspiratorial belief all the time.”

People check out the booths at the Flat Earth International Conference 2018 at the Crowne Plaza Denver Airport Convention Center, on Nov. 15, 2018. More than 600 people were registered to attend the conference. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The longer I talk with Russell, the more one thing he says bugs me.

Today, Russell and his wife, Kat, live in Texas and work as truck drivers. But there was a time, not long ago, when Russell lived in California, worked as an accountant and, by his own recollection, “used to hate conspiracy theorists.”

“Now,” he says, “the only conspiracies I don’t believe are the ones I haven’t looked into.”

I press him on his journey, and he tells me about becoming a Christian in 2004 — his current belief is that Satan is at the root of all the conspiracies and deceptions in the world. I push him some more, and he talks about having a mid-life crisis.

I ask him: What happened?

“My first wife divorced me and took the kids,” he says.

He has three children — two sons through foster care whom he no longer has much contact with and a daughter whom he says he sees about once a year.

“I’ve had everything taken away from me,” he says. “When you’ve had your kids taken away from you, it affects you. I’m questioning everything.”

I ask him about his daughter. She’s in grad school in California. One of the last times he saw her, they were on a beach, and, even though he knows she doesn’t agree with him on flat Earth, how could he not talk to her about it at that moment? Look at the horizon over the ocean, he said. No curve.

“Eventually, I hope she’ll be able to follow in my footsteps,” he says, the smile fading from his face. “But she’ll have a lot of unprogramming to do.

“She thinks I’m crazy right now. But I understand.”

The more people I talk to at the convention, the more I hear about jolting events in their lives that started them on the path to flat Earth. One woman — who works as a kind of therapist — tells me about the deaths of two of her clients, a premonition she had of her own death, her divorce and bankruptcies. A man tells me about the passing of his mother.

People talk about conversations they’ve had with God. They talk about how science argues that everything came from nothing in The Big Bang, how people are made from mere dust. They talk about feeling helpless and insignificant in a universe where the Earth is an almost impossibly small sphere relative to everything else.

“You are not helpless,” one speaker exhorts the crowd from the stage. “We’re not helpless.”

Near the end of the day, I walk through the exhibit hall looking for Russell to say goodbye and wish him well, but I don’t see him. Instead, I wander into the darkened main ballroom, where another speaker is finishing up his talk, illuminated only by a spotlight from the back of the room.

The spotlight’s path to the stage silhouettes a slice of the crowd. Their faces look attentively toward the speaker, absorbing what he’s saying.

“This is the flat-Earth offensive!” he declares. “You are the resistance!”

And as he steps back from the microphone, many in the crowd rise to their feet and cheer.

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    John Ingold is a co-founder of The Colorado Sun and a reporter currently specializing in health care coverage. Born and raised in Colorado Springs, John spent 18 years working at The Denver Post. Prior to that, he held internships at...