I recently gave an overview of Spooky Geology concepts to my local geological society. I began the presentation by discussing the most absurd idea about the earth that still circulates – that it is a flat disk. People laughed; it’s normal to respond to such a claim with ridicule and marvel at how people can be so stupid. A highly circulated news story in mid-November, 2017 was the story of a “Mad” Mike Hughes who has built his own rocket to journey into the “atmosflat” supposedly to show that there is no curve and to photograph the flat disk. He doesn’t “believe” in science and wants to make a bang in life. He may die in his quest to “prove” his crazy cause. (If he does, I’ll update this post.)
The flat earth idea vies for the most alternative geological idea out there. But the spookiest part about the flat earth is that, according to proponents of it, is that the church, scientists, the government, the media, and private businesses are all conspiring to hide the truth from the rest of civilization – a very heady and horrifying claim. It’s no coincidence that Flat Earther popularity is resurging at this point in American history. I’m afraid it’s political and almost always has been. Therefore, I apologize in advance for this not being a geology-based article, however, it’s important to discuss the basic history of this notorious idea and provide a proper framework to understand the baffling reality that people really believe this stuff.
Entire books have been written on the flat earth idea so it’s difficult and probably pointless to try to summarize it all here. I recommend Christine Garwood’s Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea (2008) from which I learned a lot about why this is almost entirely not an argument about science, but about authority and an independent refusal to take any knowledge for granted. Garwood calls the flat earth history a collection of “misconceptions about a misconception”. And it does get rather difficult to wrap your head around.
The roots of the flat earth idea gained hold in America because of scientific folklore created about Christopher Columbus. Medieval people did not believe the earth was flat. In fact, educated people as far back as the 4th century BC (Aristotle’s time) were well aware of the spherical earth because of observations from ships on the horizon, the shape of the moon and the earth’s shadow upon it, and appearance of the sky at different latitudes. They were clear-headed enough to know that the things on the earth surface were small enough to not notice the curvature and not feel “upside down”. In 1828 the book The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus was published by Washington Irving. It was a popular book that set up the story of Columbus as “The world: she is a-round!” vs “The world: she is flat” (also popularized for people my age by a highly amusing Bugs Bunny cartoon). This was a myth. But it was such a useful and satisfying myth – showing a straight-line progression of knowledge from the “dark days” to the enlightened age – that it became ingrained in our culture.
The first promotional flat earth campaign was that of Samuel Rowbotham in Victorian England who assumed the name “Parallax” and wrote a book called Zetetic Astronomy: Earth is Not a Globe. At this time, science was establishing itself as a professional field and claiming the ground of reliable knowledge, ousting the Bible as the authoritative source. Parallax’s anti-globe efforts were decidedly against elitism and the removal of God from the explanation. He shrewdly made the most out of cheap media and distribution of the time. In this power-play, several leading science figures, including Alfred Russell Wallace, spoke out publicly against the idea. It is striking how that 19th-century hand-wringing about society going to heck over this ridiculous claim was so like what happened in 2016-2017 when musical artist B.o.B. used social media to spread his photos and comments about the flat earth. Astrophysicist Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson challenged B.o.B. on TV and social media. Astronauts also put down the idea in public. All the negative attention did nothing but give the Flat idea (and B.o.B. and some other celebs) more attention. And with attention comes a stream of new adherents who, for various reasons, glom onto to the bandwagon of contrarianism.
In the time of Parallax, the argument was framed as a war between science and religion. This continued with Samuel Shenton who started the International Flat Earth Research Society (IFERS) in 1956. Those who subscribe to zetetic astronomy believe the earth consists of a flat disk with the North pole in the center and the south pole distributed as a wall of ice around the edges where no one can pass.
If we weigh the problems with such a view versus the evidence of a spherical earth, there is no rational comparison. The disk idea fails immediately since no real-world observations match up to this projection. Yet proponents employ the rhetoric of science and common science. They claim to be using their own experiences in empirical observations and experiments to dispute the mainstream view of earth. Examining these behaviors, we learn a lesson in observation – even the most basic of facts are hard to prove universally. In the famous Bedford Level experiment of 1870 instigated by Parallax and conducted by zealot and serial harasser John Hampden in a wager against Wallace, a series of fixed poles representing water level were viewed through a telescope to determine if the water surface was curved. In a nutshell, scientists would view the data as conclusive as showing curvature while the flat-earthers would look through the same telescope and conclude evidence for flatness. The hubris with which flat earthers conclude their knowledge trumps the preponderance of evidence continues to the present day.
Shenton held himself as a seeker of truth (like today’s “truthers“). As the space program took off during his lifetime, he had a more difficult job arguing his case and had to resort to invoking non-falsifiable conspiracies about the government and scientists covering up the truth. It was less costly to manufacture the data and visuals than to actually do what they say they had done. This conspiracy grew ever larger from then on, fed by distrust of the government, populism, and an anti-intellectual sentiment in American politics and culture.
Many flat-earthers see the issue as a dichotomy of good vs evil. The Bible and human common sense are good, while big government, elite scientists, and money-hungry corporations are bad. When beliefs are not based on objective factual conclusions but are based on ideology or worldview, no amount of facts or reasoning is likely to change that belief. And, in order to accept a flat earth, you must also accept that the earth does not spin or orbit the sun and that gravity isn’t real.
A subset of Christians reject evolution but only a tiny portion of overtly religious people reject spherical earth. The two beliefs should not be conflated because the rejection of them does not apply across the religious spectrum. Charles Johnson, who took over the IFERS from Shenton after he died, contended that Christianity must be in cahoots with science because they heretically did not accept the flat earth and thus must have had a hand in the concocted laws of gravity and motion. The IFERS died with Johnson. But the Flat Earth Society resurrected in 2004 under Daniel Shenton (ironic name, not related to Samuel) taking advantage of the conspiracy culture raging via the internet. They accepted B.o.B. for membership.
I would be remiss to omit the philosophical, satirical, don’t-take-things-too-serious view of some who actively promoted the flat earth idea. The Flat Earth Society of Canada was such a group, rejecting blind belief in scientific authority and human reliance on technology we can’t even understand. Their splendid motto, “We’re on the level,” represented a stand against the numbing of human sensibility by technology. This was in 1970. The tone of the FES of Canada was lost on most people of the time who assumed they were literalists.
Early November 2017 saw the first International Flat Earth convention take place in North Carolina, an event Johnson had wished for. The people there see the round earth as a symbol of lies and destruction, “Satan’s great lie” and a NASA-manufactured show. The themes of the conference were about the deception of mainstream science and government. They reject the media, officials and anything that pushes against their own disturbingly hostile worldview. Calling them stupid, making fun of, or arguing with them is not going to work to pry them away from this view but will only entrench them deeper. They relish being different and controversial. They feel privileged and “in the know” by rejecting the path that the rest of the world follows. There’s no use in lamenting about society’s low science literacy. You can throw all the facts and figures around you wish. Believers won’t budge and will likely have a rebuttal that will sound pretty good to bystanders listening to the debate. If you give them attention, they relish the opportunity to expound on their passionate views – more people will listen to THEM, not you. So if we want to combat such destructive and backward views spreading across the world, what can we do?
Speak out positively. People want to believe in things that matter to them, so make science and nature something to believe in. Show its beauty and wonder. Promote the usefulness of this knowledge for the benefit of humanity.
Don’t ridicule or pass along news stories on social media, just aim to understand the deeper cultural and psychological things going on. Be kind to others with different beliefs because their journey and their environment are likely very inconsistent with your own.
We can’t usually turn people around but we can point them in more productive direction. It’s they who have to decide to take the trip – around the world or off the edge.
References and more —
For Some, the earth is still flat
33 – Flat Earth
145 – Modern Flat Earth Thought, Part 1
149 – Modern Flat Earth Thought, Part 2 (U.N. Flag and Airplane Flights)
152 – Modern Flat Earth Thought, Part 3 (Young-Earth Creationists Debunking Flat Earth)