People who believe in a flat Earth put faith in a strange internet conspiracy. Let’s delve into their unusual beliefs and reasons.
Out of the numerous conspiracy theories buzzing around the web, the flat Earth concept is undeniably the oddest. Even the ancient Greeks had the Earth’s shape (and its circumference) figured out way back in the third century B.C.
Yet, a peculiar society that came to life in the 1950s, set on the idea that Earth is flat, has sparked a contemporary group of flat Earth believers. They insist that our planet is more like a flat disk than a sphere, and argue that any proofs of a round Earth, like space photographs, are nothing but an intricate trick played by multiple governments. Their understanding of how this flat Earth operates varies, as they spin complex new physics theories and imaginative versions of the solar system to justify their beliefs.
It’s a mystery just how many flat Earth followers exist. Smithsonian Magazine reveals that the Flat Earth Society, born in 1956, once had a strong 3,500 members. Nowadays, the society holds claim to over 500 members. However, not all believers align with the Flat Earth Society. A CNN report from 2019 states that some attendees of the Flat Earth International Conference in Dallas that year saw the organization as a government-backed scheme to tarnish the reputation of flat Earthers. Reacting to this, the Flat Earth Society assured CNN, “We are not a government-controlled body. We’re an organization of Flat Earth theorists that long predates most of the FEIC newcomers to the scene.”
WHO ARE THE PEOPLE BEHIND THE FLAT-EARTH THEORY?
Flat-Earth believers aren’t all cut from the same cloth. As the split between the Flat Earth Society and Flat Earth International Conference shows, they’re a varied bunch. Daniel Shenton, a Brit living in Hong Kong, currently heads the Flat Earth Society. Meanwhile, Robbie Davidson, a Canadian who plans the yearly Flat Earth International Conferences, backs a Biblical viewpoint and stands against what he labels “scientism.”
In 2017, Public Policy Polling took a national survey and discovered that only 1% of Americans think the Earth is flat. An extra 6% said they weren’t quite sure. There wasn’t much difference in belief when looked at through the lens of politics, with the slight variations among Trump, Clinton, and third-party voters all sitting within the survey’s 3.2% margin of error.
A piece in the Colorado Sun in 2018 about a Denver flat Earth convention found that many participants also believed in a bundle of other conspiracy theories. For example, they held that all politicians are merely actors and dark, influential forces rule the world.
Occasionally, famous faces give flat-earthers a lift. Case in point, on January 25, 2016, rapper-singer Bobby Ray Simmons Jr. (also known as B.o.B) launched a song named “Flatline.” He took a jab at astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson in the song, following a Twitter spat over the Earth’s roundness. B.o.B stands firm that the Earth is flat. Just a day before, he tweeted, “No matter how high you climb… the horizon always meets your eye… sorry, guys… I didn’t want to believe it either.” In 2018, NBA star Kyrie Irving had to say sorry after stirring up a media storm by musing over a flat Earth on a 2017 podcast.
FLAT EARTH DIAGRAM
The top flat-earther theory suggests that the Earth is a disk with the Arctic Circle at its core and Antarctica, a towering wall of ice about 150-feet-high (45 meters), surrounding the edge. They argue that NASA folks guard this icy barrier to stop folks from climbing over and tumbling off the disk. (Flat-Earth conspiracy theorist Nathan Thompson showed his NASA skepticism when he approached a man he thought worked for NASA at a Starbucks in mid-May 2017. In a YouTube video of the encounter, Thompson, the founder of the Official Flat Earth and Globe Discussion page, yelled out his “proof” that the Earth is flat, pointing to a drowning astronaut as his evidence, and calling NASA a “lying.”)
Also, they suggest, Earth’s gravity is just make-believe. Things don’t fall down; rather, the Earth-disk speeds up at 32 feet per second squared (9.8 meters per second squared), powered by a spooky force named dark energy. At present, flat-earthers can’t agree on whether Einstein’s theory of relativity allows the Earth to keep speeding up without eventually outpacing the speed of light. (It seems Einstein’s rules still apply in this alternative reality.)
Regarding what’s under the Earth-disk, that’s a mystery, but many flat-earthers guess it’s made of “rocks.”
It’s crucial to mention that all the above ideas spark lots of debate even among flat Earth believers. “None of us think we’re a pancake zooming through space,” Davidson told CNN in a 2019 article. At the Flat Earth International Conferences, it’s more common to believe that space doesn’t exist at all, and the Earth-disk is stationary, he shared. One 2018 FEIC speaker even proposed that the Earth isn’t a sphere or a disk, but a diamond, as reported by The Guardian.
WHAT DO FLAT-EARTHERS THINK ABOUT THE MOON?
Flat Earth views on the moon are diverse. Some believe that while the Earth is flat, the moon and sun are spheres, according to a report by Live Science’s sister site Space.com. In this solar system model, the Earth’s day-night cycle is explained by proposing the sun and moon are 32-mile-wide (51 kilometers) spheres circling 3,000 miles (4,828 km) above the Earth-plane. (They believe stars move in a plane 3,100 miles up.) Acting like spotlights, these heavenly bodies light up different parts of the planet over 24 hours. Flat-earthers also believe in an unseen “anti-moon” that hides the moon during lunar eclipses.
YouTube hosts videos suggesting the moon’s transparency based on shadow patterns in lunar photos, implying it’s merely a light source. One speaker at the 2018 conference, as seen by a Guardian reporter, even suggested the moon could be a projection.
WHAT’S THE ZETETIC METHOD ABOUT?
Flat-earthers might seem tough to convince using typical scientific proof, and there’s a good reason: they subscribe to a thinking pattern known as the “Zetetic Method.” A 19th-century flat-earther developed this Zetetic Method as an alternative to the regular scientific method, where what you see and feel takes center stage.
“Broadly, the method places a lot of emphasis on reconciling empiricism and rationalism, and making logical deductions based on empirical data,” the Flat Earth Society’s vice president, an Irishman named Michael Wilmore, shared with Live Science in 2017.
In Zetetic astronomy, if the Earth feels flat, then it must be flat; the anti-moon, the NASA hoax, and all the rest are just ways to make that possible.
These details make the flat-earth theory seem so weirdly complex that it sounds like a tall tale, but many of its backers genuinely think it’s a better take on astronomy than what textbooks teach. In a nutshell, they’re not pulling our leg.
“The question of belief and sincerity is one that comes up a lot,” Wilmore said. “If I had to guess, I would probably say that at least some of our members see the Flat Earth Society and Flat Earth Theory as a kind of epistemological exercise, whether as a critique of the scientific method or as a kind of ‘solipsism for beginners.’ There are also probably some who thought the certificate would be kind of funny to have on their wall. That being said, I know many members personally, and I am fully convinced of their belief.”
Wilmore includes himself among the true believers. “My own convictions are a result of philosophical introspection and a considerable body of data that I have personally observed, and which I am still compiling,” he explained.
Wilmore and the society’s president, Shenton, both believe the proof for global warming is solid, even though a lot of this proof comes from satellite data collected by NASA, the mastermind of the “round Earth conspiracy.” They also agree with evolution and most other common science ideas. This is different from Davidson, who rejects other scientific theories and findings, like evolution, that go against a literal reading of the Bible.
HOW CAN WE BE SURE THE EARTH ISN’T FLAT?
Despite what flat-earthers might argue, there’s a heap of proof that our Earth is round. A quick way to confirm this is by looking at NASA’s image library, loaded with pictures of our curved Earth, snapped from the International Space Station. If NASA is fooling us all, they’re really sticking to their story!
Don’t trust NASA? Well, the Russians, Japanese, and Chinese space agencies have also been busy taking photos of our round planet.
For those flat-earthers who believe that all these countries have put their political differences aside just to uphold the “round Earth hoax”, there are ways to see the Earth’s roundness with your own eyes. A simple method is to watch ships sail away at a harbor. As a ship moves over the horizon, you’ll notice the ship’s base disappears first, then slowly the mast.
You can also learn from the ancient Greeks. Those smart old thinkers figured out that the Earth was round based on a few observations. One, the stars look different in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres: from different sides of the Earth, you’re clearly gazing at different parts of space. Two, during lunar eclipses, the Earth casts a curved shadow on the moon.
Even without fancy tools, the Greeks figured out how to estimate the Earth’s circumference using just a stick and sunlight. By measuring the angle of a shadow cast by the sun at the same time in two cities a known distance apart, the philosopher Eratosthenes calculated that the Earth’s circumference was somewhere between 24,000 and about 29,000 miles (it’s actually 24,900 miles). This difference in the sun’s angle across various parts of the Earth itself shows we’re all living on a globe.
THE MINDSET BEHIND CONSPIRACY THEORIES
As unbelievable as their beliefs may seem, it doesn’t shock the experts. Karen Douglas, a psychologist from the University of Kent in the United Kingdom who studies conspiracy theories, explains that the convictions of flat-earthers align with those of other conspiracy theorists she has investigated.
“It seems to me that these people do generally believe that the Earth is flat. I’m not seeing anything that sounds as if they’re just putting that idea out there for any other reason,” Douglas explained to Live Science.
Douglas, a professor of social psychology, specializes in understanding the psychology behind conspiracy theories. She highlights a common thread among all conspiracy theories—they provide an alternative explanation for important events or issues and propose that someone is hiding the “true” version of events. “One of the major points of appeal is that they explain a big event but often without going into details,” she said. “A lot of the power lies in the fact that they are vague.”
The unwavering confidence displayed by conspiracy theorists gives their narratives a special allure. Flat-earthers, in particular, demonstrate more certainty about the Earth’s flatness than most people have about its roundness (perhaps because the majority of us feel there’s nothing to prove). “If you’re faced with a minority viewpoint that is put forth in an intelligent, seemingly well-informed way, and when the proponents don’t deviate from these strong opinions they have, they can be very influential. We call that minority influence,” Douglas said.
In a study conducted by political scientists Eric Oliver and Tom Wood from the University of Chicago, it was discovered that around half of Americans embrace at least one conspiracy theory, ranging from beliefs about 9/11 being an inside job to the JFK conspiracy. Oliver explained that many people are willing to entertain ideas that directly contradict mainstream narratives. He attributes this conspiratorial belief to a human inclination known as magical thinking—the tendency to perceive hidden forces at work.
Eric Oliver, a professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, specializes in studying American politics, public opinion, political psychology, local politics, racial attitudes, and self-knowledge. He has authored several books, including his latest work, Enchanted America: How Intuition and Reason Divide Our Politics (The University of Chicago Press, 2018). Additionally, he has contributed numerous articles to various journals.
However, flat-earthers don’t quite fit into this typical profile. While most conspiracy theorists embrace multiple fringe theories, often contradicting one another, flat-earthers solely focus on the shape of the Earth. “If they were like other conspiracy theorists, they should be exhibiting a tendency toward a lot of magical thinking, such as believing in UFOs, ESP, ghosts the Devil, or other unseen, intentional forces,” Oliver wrote in an email. “It doesn’t sound like they do, which makes them very anomalous relative to most Americans who believe in conspiracy theories.”