Lancaster California had the distinction, up until 2001, of being the headquarters of the Flat Earth Society. The organization had started in England and at some point had moved to California. In 1971, a man by the name of Charles K. Johnson had become the president of the organization and it grew from a handful to more than three thousand—though it was unclear how many of those three thousand people were serious about it. Johnson, however, was entirely serious. He was unshakably certain that the earth was flat. He believed it was a disk with the North Pole at the center and a one hundred fifty foot wall of ice all around the outer edge. Meanwhile, the sun and moon were but disks 32 miles in diameter and a mere 3000 miles away; the stars were on a dome another one hundred miles past that. Obviously he believed the moon landings—and for that matter the entire space program—was all a hoax.

In 2001 Charles K. Johnson died. One of my students at the small seminary at which I teach officiated at his funeral. So far as I know, the Flat Earth Society died with him.

Those who hold to beliefs that the overwhelming majority of people know to be false will generally be called crackpots. And believing that the earth is flat is an obvious example of a crackpot belief.

But there is more to being a crackpot than simply believing something strange. There is a world view associated with the problem.

For instance, crackpots tend to enjoy talking about their ideas and beliefs. They will often expand on them at inappropriate moments. They are poor listeners, with little interest in anyone else’s ideas, opinions or experiences. Obviously, those we think of as being boors, the unpleasant individuals that corner us at a party and talk to us without any chance of getting a word in edgewise, convinced of their own brilliance, who regale us with their accomplishments, come close to acting like crackpots, save for their lack of weird beliefs.

Crackpots also tend to overestimate their own knowledge and ability. Of course, this too, can be a part of normal human functioning, most often on display at parties. Crackpots disparage the knowledge and ability of experts—that is, of anyone who would dare disagree with them. That one sees such mental gymnastics in view in political discussions, let alone Mac vs. PC or Ford vs. Chevy arguments, should not lead us to assume that everyone is a crackpot. But it is useful to be aware that such conduct is part of normal crackpot behavior.

Crackpots will often argue that academic training has poisoned the minds of those who disagree with them and that education will stand in the way people discovering the truth. Many crackpots are by nature anti-intellectuals, with an unrelenting hatred of education (unless they find an educated person who agrees with them, in which case that individual’s credentials will be emphasized).

Crackpots are convinced that what they have found to be true is of vital importance. Not unlike advertisers who insist that our lives are hollow and will remain hollow until we obtain the holy elixir—that new soda, fruitcake or automobile whose lack has rendered our lives meaningless.

Crackpots are convinced that there is a conspiracy to suppress the truth that only they, and a small number of like-minded people, know. It is at this point, really, that crackpots part company with all the advertisers, politicians, and boors who more commonly annoy us.

Those who disagree with crackpots will be criticized by the crackpots as either part of the conspiracy that is suppressing the truth, or else blinded by that conspiracy. If you reject the crackpot’s assertions, you are either the enemy or a sheep. They will often refer to those who don’t agree with them as “sheeple.”

It is impossible to disprove the beliefs of crackpots, at least as far as the crackpots are concerned. Any evidence you bring up that would stand against their position is automatically discounted. Why? Because any opposition has its origins in the conspiracy that opposes them. Therefore, information contrary to their point of view cannot be listened to or considered. They refuse to be confused by facts. That you are daring to disagree with them proves that you are part of the conspiracy aligned against them and therefore you are not just wrong, but in fact evil—and therefore not to be heard. Frankly, some day, and hopefully soon, you must be silenced. And your now obvious failure, therefore, to demonstrate that they are wrong, only proves that what they are saying must be true.

I have had the unfortunate privilege on many occasions of finding myself locked into conversations with crackpots. No matter how nice I was, no matter what the questions I asked, the crackpots, whether by email or in person, were unpleasant and would wind up verbally attacking me. No matter what their particular beliefs may be, I’ve found that all crackpots tend to think and act the same way.

My recommendation: when you find yourself trapped with a crackpot, just listen, nod, smile—and escape as soon as possible. Do not otherwise engage him or her: anything you say can and will be used against you.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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