By Jackson Howarth, Freelance Writer, British Science Festival 

At this year’s British Science Festival, most attendees, despite our varying degrees of interest in science, will probably hold at least some scientific beliefs in common — take for example, the idea that the Earth is round.

There is, however, a group that would disagree. Around the globe, a Flat-Earth movement is emerging. One of many 'Flat Earth Discussion’ Facebook groups I joined a year ago now boasts 50,000 members. Some are undoubtedly curious 'globeheads' like me, but judging by the number of pro Flat-Earth posts and comments, the Flat-Earthers are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.

After the initial shock at the group’s size, I became fascinated by the beliefs themselves: why are many agreed-upon scientific truths so casually dismissed? The movement has reached consensus around (pardon the pun) the Earth’s shape, but believe that Earth does not orbit the Sun, and that Gravity, the Moon landings, and indeed all images of the globe are also lies. Some daring Flat-Earthers attempt even more complicated theories. I have seen numerous hypotheses, mathematical calculations, and attempted experiments (often using spirit levels, or phone cameras out of plane windows). Some explain gravity as our disk rising through space at 10m/s², others draw diagrams of the Sun and Moon orbiting above our planet, and there are even attempts to unite Flat-Earth cosmology with quantum physics.

The Flat-Earthers therefore occupy a strange place within the BSA's ‘expert, engaged, interested, uninterested’, audience model. On one hand, they are actively science critical, partially questioning or blaming scientists, despite a lack of consensus about scientists’ motivations. However, the group are simultaneously engaged with some experimental and theoretical aspects of science, questioning and analysing to challenge the existing scientific community.

I asked Kris De Meyer, a neuroscientist, about this phenomenon, and he replied: "in groups like this, this behavior is not unusual. Having science’s authority on your side is very useful - everybody wants a slice of the science pie."

Kris is interested in how people form beliefs that seem illogical from an outsider's perspective and is taking part in a panel discussion at the British Science Festival called: ‘When Beliefs Become Facts’.

When I asked Kris whether it might be possible to redirect this unconventional interest into more traditional scientific engagement. He seemed cautious. "If a belief system is entrenched it becomes extremely difficult to change people’s minds. Once certain, we forget the possibility that we might be wrong." He added that ridiculing the movement’s members may polarise the conversation and drive Flat-Earthers further away.

Instead, Kris seemed more positive about engaging Flat-Earthers, and learning about why they adopt these belief systems. "Psychologically, we don't completely understand how views like Flat-Earth become entrenched, but the processes are complicated and influenced by a variety of different and often personal factors." Nevertheless, Kris explains one way you can help is "by making people aware of how easy it to drive ourselves to certainty", which is his aim in Brighton.

I asked whether another possible factor - and solution, might concern a lack of scientific education, and asked whether believing in a Flat-Earth could be explained as a result of misplaced critical thinking. Kris provisionally agreed, but argued that there was more to it than this. Besides misplaced critical thinking, in order to disregard a thousand years of scientific knowledge, someone would have be disconnected from science, and should take-time to get to know science, and scientists personally. More imposed ‘top-down’ scientific education, and the presentation of science as a list of set facts, might actually encourage an ‘us vs them’ attitude and feed the Flat-Earth fire.

Kris therefore argued that scientific education was needed in a wider sense. If more people had positive experiences with science and were more familiar with its processes, they might feel less tempted to push it aside. Kris, for example, stressed the benefits of meeting scientists in person: "We are very good at second guessing other people’s motivations. When we don’t know why people are doing something, or social brains will jump in with explanations." He explained that if you are familiar with a scientist’s interests, when you look at a Flat-Earth Facebook group, "you will have a little inoculation to stop you from going down that path."

With this in mind, the British Science Festival takes on a new importance. The various events across Brighton this September provide the perfect opportunity for anyone to personally experience the wonders of science through a variety of different mediums, and to meet scientists like Kris personally. Relatively recently, the BSA committed itself to a mission that focuses not simply on creating scientific experts, but on using science to benefit all areas of society and to make people feel empowered about getting involved in and challenging science. The British Science Festival is an fantastic example of this policy in action, encouraging a two way conversation between experts and people from all walks of life and belief systems.

Kris De Meyer is a neuroscientist, currently working at the Department of Neuroimaging at King’s Institute for Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience. You can meet him at the British Science Festival, at our event, ‘When Beliefs Become Fact’. He will be taking part in a panel discussion, joined by film Director Sheila Marshall and BBC science presenter Kat Arney,  following a screening ‘Right Between Your Ears’ - a film he helped produce, on Wed 6 September, 14.30 – 16.30, in the Auditorium at the Attenborough Centre at the University of Sussex.

All tickets are FREE, but booking is essential.