There appears to be an increase in the number, or at least the volume level, of people who have fallen into believing the Earth is not a spherical planet but is instead flat like a pancake. Video after video is appearing on YouTube with supposed proof that the earth isn’t round, while celebrities like rapper BoB, UFC fighter Eddie Bravo and YouTube personality Tila Tequila have been in the news recently supporting this view, causing actual scientists like astrophysist Neil deGrasse Tyson to talk about why this nonsense isn’t supported by anything like real world evidence.
As a critical thinker, what fascinates me about this is the psychology of it. The observable and scientific proof that the Earth is a sphere has been known about for literally thousands of years. So where did this idea come from and why would it persist when today we literally have photographic evidence of it and have even sent men to the moon and walked around on its dusty spherical surface and taken pictures of very round planet?
When ancient cultures first envisioned what the big wide world might look like, they modeled it after a flat earth or a dome, surrounded by the firmament of space and resting on the back of a turtle or elephants, who in turn were standing on pillars which went donw into mud and whatever else their imagination could think of to explain infinity. You can find many old descriptions of this, and Flat Earthers for some bizarre reason like to think that the ancients with their limited skill set and knowledge base somehow knew more about how things really are than we do now. As far as we know, the Greeks were the first to start doing the math and figuring out that the Earth was a sphere but no one seems to know exactly who figured it out. After the 5th century BC, though, it was pretty clear to everyone in Greece that the Earth was round. Aristotle was the first to observe that the stars in Egypt were different from the stars in Cyprus and that based on these observations, the curve of the Earth was such that the planet itself wasn’t even that big. He also predicted the existence of the North and South poles with temperate regions in between and a scorching hot equatorial zone. Turns out he was absolutely right.
These Greek ideas spread throughout the civilized world and philosophers, priests and pretty much everyone else accepted them. Of course, the main reason for this is because it’s so easy to prove. In fact, the relatively modern false idea put forth by atheists and writers such as Washington Irving and Andrew Dickson White that the Christians or people of other religions worked against science and discovery is actually not as true as some think. Christian authors such as Basil and Augustine treated the fact the Earth was a sphere as a matter of course and after the 6th century, no cosmographer who expected to be taken seriously put forward the idea the Earth was flat. In fact, in the Islamic world, their mathematicians developed spherical trigonometry so they’d be able to calculate the distance to Mecca from any point on the globe and be able to figure out which direction to pray in. And Abu Rayhan Biruni figured out how to measure the Earth’s circumference using trigonometry from just one location because he didn’t want to have people keep walking across hot, dusty deserts to get two vantage points for measurements. His calculation of the Earth’s circumference ended up only being off by about 16 kilometers. Now throughout history, some of these same cosmographers still placed the Earth at the center of the known universe and that actually leads us into why this goofball idea of a flat Earth crept back into the world in the 1800s.
Samuel Rowbotham, writing under the pseudonym “Parallax” wrote a pamphlet called Zetetic Astronomy in 1849 which said the Earth was a flat plane surrounded by a wall of ice and used poor observational arguments to back up his thesis. Rowbotham was a showman and liked to talk down his opponents in debates, but actual facts were few and far between when it came time for him to prove what he was saying. He was very good at making empty rhetoric sound plausible but he was not a scientist.
After Rowbotham died, Lady Elizabeth Blount founded the Universal Zetetic Society and published The Earth Not a Globe Review, a society magazine. She was a religious zealot and maintained that no one who believed in God could claim that the Earth is a globe. Membership apparently rose to a couple thousand people including William Carpenter, an English printer who eventually emigrated to Boston. He wrote numerous books and pamphlets about flat Earth astronomy, among them “A hundred proofs the Earth is not a Globe” in 1885. Included amongst his reasons is the fact that water is always level, not convex, and therefore the Earth must be flat, as well as the fact that lighthouses are visible from many miles away yet ought to be invisible if the Earth curved as much as scientists said it did. This last is actually kind of funny if you think about it, because if the Earth were truly a flat plane, then no one would need to build lighthouses so tall; a light just above the water level would actually be visible forever if the earth were flat. Carpenter failed to mention this.
The International Flat Earth Society was founded in 1956 by Samuel Shenton in Dover, England. He clearly had a hard time with the concept of intertia and gravity. As a signwriter and aspiring inventor, in the 1920s he came up with the idea of an airship going from place to place by rising above the earth and remaining stationary while the planet spun below it. He soon after discovered Rowbotham’s Zetetic Astronomy and was an immediate convert, falling immediatley into a conspiracy theory that the authorities were concealing the fact that the earth was flat.
As a religious zealot and man of obviously poor education, Shenton soon invented his own cosmology based on his interpretatin of Genesis which survives to this day as the base assertion of the Flat Earth Society: The earth is flat with the north pole smack dab in the center and the continents extending outwards just like they appears on the logo for the United Nations, ending in a circular wall of ice which surrounds the whole lot. The sun is only 32 miles in diameter 3,000 miles above the earth, like a big flashlight moving over a table and lighting up only parts of the Earth at any one time. Shenton toured and lectured until his health deteriorated and he died in 1969. The space race had begun during his late life and his response to it is noteworthy: “modern astronomy and space flights were insults to God and divine punishment for humankind’s arrogance was a mere matter of time.” Well, fifty years later, we have yet to experience any of God’s wrath for daring to explore space.
The Flat Earth Society carried on under Charles K. Johnson and its membership rose to around 3,000 members until he passed in 2001. Unfortunately, in 2004 it was resuscitated by Daniel Shenton (no relation to Samuel) and there is a poorly put together website where you can puruse their literature and interviews. But there really isn’t much need to do that because these people are quite delusional.
The evidence of the earth being a sphere is so easy to see, you don’t even need scientific measuring devices, knowledge about calculus or geometry or a surveyor’s transit or mariner’s sextant, although the mere fact that a transit and a sextant work are proofs all by themselves that we are living on a globe, not a pancake. For example, the shadow that Earth casts on the moon during the moon’s regular cycle and especially during lunar eclipses is one obvious way to see the Earth’s spherical shadow. This was first observed by Aristotle over a millenia ago. Another is simply watching the sun and moon rise and set over the horizon, or observing objects at great distances slowly disappear over the horizon a bit at a time due to the fact they are going out of our line of sight and down a curved sphere. Then there are the different constellations viewable from the various hemispheres and the rotation of the stars in the night sky reversing depending on if you are in the north or south hemisphere. On a flat earth, they wouldn’t do that. The movement of the stars would be constant no matter where you stood.
Then there is simply the matter of putting two sticks in the ground some distance apart and seeing how the shadows they cast throughout the day are of varying lengths, explainable easily by a spherical earth whereas if the Earth were flat, the shadows would not act that way. In fact, this was the method that old Era-tos-thenes used to first calculate the circumference of the Earth back in 200 BC.
When you add a telescope into the mix, you can then start observing distances here on Earth more accurately and can easily see how objects gradually disappear below the horizon. But more importantly, you can also see up into the heavens and observe other planets with their moons and see how they are quite round and rotate just like spheres would as they circle the sun. And with a powerful enough telescope, you can see the moons that orbit those planets and see how they turn round and round because they are spheres.
Then there is the fact that we have timezones. As the sun moves round the earth, people see it at different times because of the spherical nature of our planet. On a flat plane, even if the sun were just a giant spotlight in the sky shining down on different parts of the plane at different times, you’d still be able to look up and see the giant spotlight. It would be impossible to hide that spotlight anywhere on the flat plane of earth. Because the Earth is a sphere, the sun literally disappears beyond our line of sight.
Then we have gravity. It’s an invisible force and it takes some actual understanding of principles like mass, center of gravity, weight distribution and other concepts which are clearly beyond the understanding of Flat Earthers. Perhaps the funniest thing I have heard from Flat Earthers who claim to be science-minded and critical thinkers, is that gravity doesn’t exist at all, objects simply fall. That’s it. That’s their explanation for why we don’t fly off this supposed flat pancake called Earth. They strain to explain gravity by using electromagnetism, density and pressure but none of these really work because that’s not how science works.
The sheer volume of all of this evidence, and I’ve only listed a few of the more easily observable proofs for Earth’s globularity, is overwhelming. Asserting the Earth is not a sphere is like saying Australia is not a real place or that the heart that beats in our chest is actually just a little speaker installed in our body when we are young to control our energy level and movements and give the government the ability to kill us with a small electric shock when we get out of line. That’s why heart disease is the number one killer in America, you see. Too many people are finding out the truth about Big Brother and have to be done away with.
As ridiculous as that sounds, it’s the logic of a Flat Earther. So how is that with all this easily observable evidence, a small number of these people think this way? Both original and modern believers in this idea appear to mostly think the Earth is flat for one or two reasons: (1) like the founders of the Flat Earth Society, they believe that the Bible should be interpreted to say the Earth is flat because they want the Earth to be the center of the universe and therefore a special and magical place which God has blessed as his creation; and (2) they believe that all the world governments, scientific institutions, aerospace industry and thousands of other spheres of activity encompassing millions of conspirators are colluding to hide the truth from the rest of the world for reasons of power and control. The first is simply a delusional belief while the second is actually a level of paranoia which I personally think is indicative of a mental illness.
I don’t want to pretend that there is some one-size-fits-all answer for every Flat Earther and I’m actually not saying that they are all crazy, but I do want to talk about the lack of critical thinking amongst Flat Earthers, who ironically label themselves as deep critical thinkers who have hit upon a hidden truth which the rest of us are too ignorant, too conceited or too brainwashed to be able to see for ourselves.
There are some important principles in critical thinking which I would like to go over here which Flat Earthers can help us to see. They get it horribly wrong on each one of these points, but maybe we can all learn something from this too.
(1) Neil deGrasse Tyson said about critical thinking and Flat Earthers in particular: “One of the challenges is knowing enough to think you’re right but not knowing enough to know you’re wrong.” Now more than ever with information flying fast and free across the internet, easily accessible and digestible in small, easy-to-chew pieces, people can make the mistake of reading a few sound bytes and think the are walking away with the full story.
Experts are experts because they have spent years studying their disciplines. Anyone who excels in their field only does so because they have put in the necessary time to study it fully and practice for hours, days, weeks or even years so they become fully proficient. This is true of scientists, athletes and professionals in any field. It’s not just a symptom of our current age that we think too much on too little information, but it seems more pronounced now than ever before. In a way, this is surprising because never in our world’s history have we had such unfettered access to so much of the world’s repositories of information. It’s actually easy for anyone to get a full immersion in almost any professional field without having to ever leave their home. But human nature being what it is and our modern age being so focused on getting things done now now now, most of us don’t take the time to really dig in and make sure we know what we are talking about. Our confirmation bias demands that we only find whatever facts or opinions match up with our own and we easily ignore anything that doesn’t. This isn’t how good science or critical thinking works.
(2) Then there is the Dunning-Kruger effect, which Flat Earthers are particularly good at demonstrating. This cognitive bias basically states that the more incompetent a person is, the less able they will be to recognize their own lack of skill or inadequacy and the less able they will be to gauge skill in others. They will only be able to recognize and acknowledge their lack of skill after being exposed to formal training in that skill. Basically it’s a problem in self-awareness. Incompetent people overestimate their competence while truly competent people across all fields have a better idea of what they know and don’t know and are willing to acknowledge their own weaknesses.
It is incumbent, absolutely vital actually, that anyone who wants to think of themselves as critical thinkers understand the Dunning-Kruger effect and how it applies to them because believe me, no one is immune to this. We all like to have solid, positive ideas about what we know and what we can do, but it doesn’t help you or anyone else if you are overestimating your abilities or knowledge simply out of conceit or ego. True greatness in any field starts with a recognition as a beginner that you really don’t know much of anything and then proceeding to learn as much as you can.
(3) Critical thinking is about challenging your beliefs and ideas by being willing to look at information which contradicts those beliefs. However, in challenging things, common sense is important and you don’t need to take it too far. As Professor Walter Kotschnig of Smith College said: “Let us keep our minds open by all means, as long as that means keeping our sense of perspective and seeking an understanding of the forces which mould the world. But don’t keep your minds so open that your brains fall out! There are still things in this world which are true and things which are false; acts which are right and acts which are wrong…”
One of the logical fallacies that can be easily misunderstood is called “argument from authority” or “appeal to authority.” There is nothing wrong with taking information from a person who is a recognized expert in their field; if we did not do this and relied only on what we could directly observe or experience for information, then we would be pretty lost since most of us don’t understand the intricacies and mechanics of most everything around us. We rely on people who do know to tell us how to fix our car, what medicines to take to deal with our illnesses or to educate our children.
We fall down when we turn to non-experts or people who may be experts in one field, but are not experts in the one they are talking about. For example, physicists are not good people to get advice from on dealing with disease and actors are not authorities on almost every product they are paid to endorse whether its cars, footwear or personal health. Anyone can talk about anything they want, of course, and even a broken clock is right twice a day, but a good critical thinker considers the source of the information he is receiving and has to weigh the likelihood that it may not be good information to the degree the source is not an expert.
If Flat Earthers would just take these three principles to heart, they would not be Flat Earthers and the Flat Earth Society would disappear overnight. But beyond just those people, we can all learn something from these principles to improve the quality of our life and those we care about. We can take the time to acknowledge when we don’t know something and simply call a spade a spade. We can take the time to dig in and find out more about what we don’t know so that we can become truly expert in things which interest us. Before challenging the status quo or taking on the system, make sure you first understand why the status quo is the way it is. Make sure you really understand the systems your challenging. It may look like it’s going to be a waste of time or take too long, but actually you’ll save yourself a lot of misery and headaches by just doing it right the first time.
I hope this was of some help. Thank you for watching.