For reasons passing understanding, rapper B.o.B. launched into a furious tweetstorm on Monday, Jan. 25, arguing forcefully that the Earth is flat (because look at how the horizon looks flat!) and NASA faked the moon landing. Gawker’s summary is as good as any. Neil deGrasse Tyson, astronomer extraordinaire, tried to gently set him straight. But B.o.B. fired back with a diss track that, inter alia, namechecks Holocaust denier David Irving. Holocaust denial comes in as something of a tangent, justifying the claim that Stalin was worse than Hitler and therefore the President wears a yarmulke (or maybe a pickled herring).
B.o.B.’s flat Earthism (like former celebrity Tila Tequila’s) has attracted its share of attention, so here’s some quick background. Flat Earthism is a fairly new concept: by the time anything we’d recognize as science existed, people knew the Earth was round, so there was never a flat Earth consensus. Flat Earthism was basically invented around 1830, by a huckster going by the name of Parallax (not the demonic parasite from DC Comics). According to Christine Garwood’s history of flat Earthism, Parallax (given name: Samuel Rowbotham) was probably just in it for the attention and the money (probably true of B.o.B. and Tila Tequila, too), and may not even have believed the quasi-Biblical claims he advanced. Garwood explains (quoted here):
Evidently an ingenious character, who delighted in controversy and dispute, he could not resist the ultimate challenge of toppling orthodox ideas and a fact so established as the earth’s rotundity…he had seen the passions that scientific and religious topics could evoke and, moreover, the money that people would pay to listen to a feisty debate on these themes.
Similarly, Charles Johnson, who founded the International Flat Earth Research Society of America (what people usually mean when they refer to The Flat Earth Society), shared many of those characteristics. He called himself “a natural sceptic,” and seemed to delight in battling the scientific elites, exposing the secrets that They Don’t Want You To Know. From his shack in the California desert, he could square off against the leading lights of science and government. As B.o.B.’s tweets and rap also imply, Johnson suggested that NASA and other space agencies were joined in a vast conspiracy to hide the evidence of a flat Earth, and had faked the moon landings to perpetuate the hoax. (I’m kinda hoping Mulder’s new conspiracy will rope all of that in along with the rest of the kitchen fixtures.)
To my mind, this still doesn’t quite explain why B.o.B. (or Ms. Tequila) would jump on the flat Earth bandwagon. As I told ThinkProgress, B.o.B. may just be playing the same game Samuel Rowbotham did 185 years ago, stirring up the public to boost sales. Flat Earthism works well for that purpose because it’s not really tied to any ideology, group identity, or economic interest, so it allows someone to stir up controversy without having to serve as a dog whistle. Espousing climate change denial would put B.o.B. in a partisan box, creationism would mark him as a fundamentalist, etc., but flat Earthism just signals some sort of vague, ill-informed anti-intellectualism/anti-elitism, and no one ever went broke selling that to the American public.