What are the factors motivating people to advocate Flat-Earth theories, or that might attract people to believe claims by Flat-Earthers? We divide these into four general categories. [Note: these categories are not mutually exclusive. Flat-Earth proponents could fit into two or more of these categories.]
III.1: Religious fundamentalists
As we have mentioned, belief in a flat Earth requires that one reject every piece of the immense evidence that the Earth is a near-spherical globe. Nowadays, one must assert that every photograph of the Earth taken from a great distance (e.g., satellite photos, photos taken by astronauts, or photos from balloons, detectors in space, or the International Space Station) is fake.
For some religious fundamentalists, acceptance of Flat-Earth claims is accomplished by asserting that all scientists who developed current gravitational theory were Satanists, and that “Earth as a spinning ball” theories are part of a Satanic conspiracy. Fundamentalists can discount Greek philosophers such as Aristotle because they were pagans. But beginning with the Enlightenment, many fundamentalist Christian Flat-Earthers are content to believe that the gravitational theory (with the Earth as a spinning, moving globe), together with every other scientific advance that contradicts Flat-Earth theory, is the result of a conspiracy. The conspirators are variously identified as Satan, Freemasons, Jews, NASA and/or proponents of a New World Order.
Many Flat-Earth arguments are based on the assumption that all statements in the Bible are literally true. This is combined with the conviction that various statements in the Bible refer to a flat and stationary Earth. Below we provide some of these passages, as taken from Samuel Rowbotham’s 1864 book Zetetic Astronomy.
Biblical Citations Used to Justify Flat-Earth Beliefs:
Here are some examples of Biblical references relied upon by fundamentalist Flat-Earthers. These were included in the 1864 book by Samuel Rowbotham (Parallax), Zetetic Astronomy: Earth Not a Globe!, and summarized by Christine Garwood.
(i) The following passage is cited to argue that land and water are considered separate, and it is assumed that these comments refer to a flat Earth and not a globe. Genesis i., 9-10: “And God said, Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear. And God called the dry land Earth, and the gathering together of the waters called The Seas.”
(ii) The following passages are cited to argue that the Earth is a plane that is ‘founded upon the seas;’ thus, Earth is a plane resting upon waters below it. Genesis xliv, 25: “The Almighty shall bless thee with the blessing of Heaven above, and blessings of the deep that lieth under.” Exodus xx, 4: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any likeness of anything in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the waters under the Earth.” Deuteronomy iv, 18: “Take ye, therefore, good heed unto yourselves, and make no similitude of anything on the Earth, or the likeness of anything that is in the waters beneath the Earth.” Deuteronomy xxxiii, 13: “Blessed be his land, for the precious things of heaven, for the dew and for the deep which croucheth beneath.”
(iii) The following passages are cited to demonstrate that the Earth is at rest, and the Sun is in motion with respect to Earth. Psalms xix, 4-6: “In the heavens hath He set a tabernacle for the Sun, which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race. His going forth is from the end of the heaven, and his circuit unto the end of it.” Ecclesiastes i. 5: “The sun also riseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.” Judges v, 31: “Let them that love the Lord be as the sun when he goeth forth in his might.” Joshua x, 13: “The sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day.” 1 Esdras iv, 34: “Great is the earth, high is the heaven, swift is the sun in his course.”
(iv) The foilowing passages are cited to demonstrate that the sun, moon and stars are all different ‘lights.’ This is interpreted to imply that the moon is a type of star, and that the moon produces its own light. Genesis I, 14-16: “And God said let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night … And God made two great lights, the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night.” Psalms cxxxvi 7-9: “O give thanks to Him that made great lights … the sun to rule by day … the moon and stars to rule by night.” Psalms cxlviii, 3: “Praise Him, sun and moon; praise Him all ye stars of light.” Job xxv, 5: “Behold even to the moon, and it shineth not.” Isaiah xxx, 26: “The light of the moon shall be as the light of the sun, and the light of the sun shall be sevenfold.” Isaiah xiii, 10: “The sun shall be darkened in his going forth, and the moon shall not cause her light to shine.”
(v) The following passages are cited to argue that the stars are located in ‘the firmament’ (this is assumed to be a large half-dome over the Earth). The current scientific view is that Earth is one planet in our solar system, which is part of the Milky Way galaxy, and that there are many other galaxies up to billions of light-years away from Earth. Many stars have planets revolving around them, and some of these ‘exoplanets’ may contain forms of life. In addition, stars evolve and have a finite lifetime. These passages are cited to argue that the mainstream view is false, that the radius of the half-dome is not particularly large, and that the purpose of the stars is to provide light for Earth. Genesis I, 16-17. “He made the stars also, and set them in the firmament to give light upon the Earth.” Isaiah xiii, 10: “For the stars of heaven and the constellations thereof shall not give their light.” Joel ii 10: “The sun and the moon shall be dark, and the stars shall withdraw their shining.” Daniel xii 3: “They that turn many to righteousness shall shine as the star for ever and ever.”
Fundamentalist Christian Flat-Earthers generally agree with the claims by Samuel Rowbotham that “the Earth lay at the center of the universe, was less than six thousand years old, was created in six twenty-four-hour days and was rapidly approaching destruction by fire.” Rowbotham (writing under the pseudonym Parallax) thus concluded that the Earth was a stationary flat disc with the North Pole as its center.
Rowbotham further asserted that mainstream science and religion were mutually contradictory. If one accepted his assertions about Biblical infallibility, together with his interpretation about statements in the Bible, one was bound to agree that the Earth was flat, that it did not rotate about its axis, and that it did not revolve around the Sun.
Rowbotham and his Flat-Earthers are completely at odds with Christians who treat many of these Biblical statements as metaphors. These Christians have no problem accepting the conventional scientific views of cosmology. They find no insuperable difficulty in believing that the universe is over 13 billion years old, or accepting the laws of physics.
An interesting issue is the relationship between the Flat-Earthers and the ‘Young-Earth Creationists’ (YEC). Both fundamentalist groups claim that statements in the Bible are literally true. YEC advocates also argue that the world was created in six days; by counting generations in Genesis, they argue that the universe is roughly 6,000 years old. Thus it might seem at first sight as though the Flat-Earth and YEC communities have a lot in common.
However, there is considerable animosity between the Flat-Earth and Young-Earth Creationist Christian groups. We reviewed the beliefs of the YEC community in an earlier blog post. In order for Young-Earth Creationists to accommodate an extremely short time between a six-day Creation and the present day, it is necessary that geologic changes estimated by the mainstream science community at several billion years instead occurred over a few thousand years.
In order to accomplish this, YEC advocates postulate drastic changes in the laws of nature. Many of these changes are alleged to have occurred at the time of the Great Worldwide Flood (an event that is not recognized by mainstream science). YEC interprets geologic events in terms of “flood geology,” which allegedly allows for incredibly rapid changes. However, the YEC community insist that they accept most of the laws of physics. In particular, they believe in gravity and that the Earth is a spherical planet. They also accept the existence of a solar system, and galaxies in addition to our own Milky Way galaxy.
So the Flat-Earth and YEC communities are at odds, despite the fact that both of these groups contain many fundamentalist Christians. The YEC is scornful of claims by Flat-Earthers. Of course, since both groups claim that the Bible is factually true in all respects, they argue bitterly over interpretations of Biblical texts. Here is a Creationist Web site that argues against Flat-Earth theory.
Flat-Earthers describe their beliefs in their own words. Robbie Davidson is a born-again Christian who organized a 2019 Flat-Earth Conference in Dallas, Texas. Davidson claims that mainstream science represents a Satanic conspiracy. “Let’s just say there is an adversary, … a Satan. … He’s done an incredible job convincing people with the idea that we’re just on a random speck in an infinite universe.” For Davidson, Flat-Earth theory is a way to restore Earth to its God-given place as the fixed and unmoving center of the universe. Davidson also maintains that images of Earth, moon and stars are maintained by the government in a phony environment reminiscent of the movie “The Truman Show.” On the other hand, Davidson is extremely hostile to the Flat Earth Society. He maintains that this group is actually a government-funded organization designed to make Flat-Earthers look foolish. Talk about “the pot calling the kettle black!”
In her article Meet the People Who Believe the World Is Flat, Alexis Kleinman interviews a woman named “Patrice,” who describes herself as a Christian. Patrice found references to Flat Earth on the Internet. “It just kind of dropped into my brain. I felt like the Lord was saying ‘Look at that.’” Upon studying Flat-Earth theory, Patrice concludes “Gravity was not proven, and Isaac Newton and Einstein, all those scientists, were also Freemasons and Satan worshippers.” She further asserts, “The Bible does talk about the four corners of the Earth, so it’s very possible that there are actual four corners to the Earth. I think we’re contained in the dome and that we’re on a disk. The Bible also talks about the Earth being a disk.”
A common theme among Flat-Earthers is that all early 17th century scientists such as Newton, Hooke, Halley et al. were Freemasons. It is alleged that this continues to the present (NASA and the Apollo astronauts are also included as Freemasons). But what about Albert Einstein? Since Einstein was an agnostic Jew, it seemed highly improbable that anyone would ever label him a ‘Freemason.’ I was wrong: when I Googled “Was Einstein a Freemason?” I found a Reddit post with the title “Albert Einstein was another Freemason Celebrity Scientist Who Continued the Heliocentric Hoax With More Sophistry.”
Sure enough, that post is yet one more site that supports the pre-Copernican geocentric and stationary Earth model. The author, using the alias “high-priest-of-slack”, presents an extraordinarily confused summary of Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity (much of this is taken from Gerard Hickson’s 1922 book, “Kings Dethroned”, so the confusion may be primarily Hickson’s). He asserts that the bending of light by gravitational masses in Einstein’s general theory of relativity can never be proven nor falsified. Wrong! It can and has been verified. Furthermore, he incorrectly claims that the Michelson-Morley theory proved that the Earth was stationary (in fact, it proved that light had the same velocity in every direction, contradicting the predictions of the “ether” theory). Einstein’s special theory of relativity predicts that light will have the same velocity when measured in any reference frame. This prediction has been confirmed many times, and the “time dilation” predicted by Einstein’s special theory has been observed and measured in countless high-energy physics experiments.
The Reddit author claims that Einstein’s work is a “speculative pseudoscience,” when in fact it revolutionized 20th century physics and led to many confirmed predictions. The source of the author’s claim that Einstein was a Freemason? Presumably the assumption that all scientists who debunk the stationary-Earth and/or Flat-Earth hypotheses must be Freemasons!
Prof. Mark Fonstad of Southwest Texas University carried out experiments demonstrating that Kansas was “flat as a pancake.” Flat-Earthers submit that Fonstad’s measurements are evidence in favor of Flat-Earth theory. Unfortunately for them, Fonstad was using a model of a spherical Earth. What his research showed was that the distance of the Kansas landscape above sea level is rather constant. However, the surfaces that Fonsad was measuring were small sections of a sphere. Fonstad’s analogy to a pancake was deliberately chosen. From a distance, the surface of a pancake may look exceedingly smooth; however, when a pancake is viewed at close range, one sees peaks and valleys, troughs and cuts. One observes precisely analogous features when studying the landscape of Kansas.
III.2: Conspiracy theorists
If you are going to profess belief in a Flat Earth, you must maintain that every photo or video that shows a spherical-shaped Earth is a fake or a mistake. In 1864 Samuel Rowbotham was able to make his flat-Earth claims in a much simpler era, where there was much less evidence of a spherical Earth. However, over the past 150 years, technology has improved enormously, and this has created vast problems for Flat-Earthers. In order to maintain their beliefs, they must expand their ‘conspiracy theories’ to include exponentially more events and more conspirators.
Flat-Earthers dismiss most photos of the Earth’s curvature as technical errors or fakes. Thus, photos of a curved Earth taken from satellites or balloons are ‘explained’ as artifacts of fisheye lenses that distort the shape of objects. They have developed ‘explanations’ for the myriad measurements and phenomena demonstrating that the Earth is a spinning globe. We reviewed some of these explanations in Part II of this series.
Thus, Flat-Earthers maintain that photos of the Earth from satellites, manned rocket flights, and from the International Space Station are fakes. Since NASA has been the agency that funded the manned missions to the Moon and the International Space Station, together with launching many rockets and satellites, the employees of NASA must be agents of these conspiracies.
For many years, various groups have insisted that the Moon voyages and landings were faked; the claim was that instead of sending rockets into space, the entire set of Apollo missions was actually filmed in Hollywood studios, with astronauts cavorting in front of a green screen. Polls show that roughly 6% of Americans believe that the Moon landings were faked. You can find an extremely detailed review of these conspiracy theories here. This article lists and rebuts many conspiracy theories regarding the Moon missions.
However, NASA is only one of over 50 space agencies in countries around the ‘globe,’ as shown in Fig. III.1. Note that some of these agencies, such as the Chinese, are not our allies but are our competitors. Nevertheless, all space agencies develop and operate their space programs using the same mainstream scientific principles. And several space agencies in different countries either tracked the trajectory of the Moon vehicles, or (like space orbiters from India and China, or the American Lunar Reconnaisance Orbiter Camera) have subsequently spotted hardware left on the Moon from the Apollo landings.
Do Flat-Earthers believe that all of these worldwide space agencies are in on the same conspiracy? As Flat-Earth theory appears to be predominantly an American phenomenon, their conspiracy theorists focus almost entirely on NASA. And even here, they focus primarily on the Apollo space missions and Moon landings, since they can join a larger community of astronaut conspiracy theorists. However, I did find a Flat Earth Society Web page where they include all space agencies in their blanket accusations of conspiracy. Note that this Web site also includes claims that the Chinese have ‘faked’ information about space travel.
Flat-Earth conspiracy theorists have their work cut out for them. The sheer number of people involved in these ‘hoaxes’ is exceptionally large (most or all employees of over 50 space agencies around the globe). Also, astrophysicists who do research at large terrestrial or space telescopes and take images of galaxies billions of light-years from Earth must be in on the conspiracy. Images from the Hubble Space Telescope must also be faked. It is wildly improbable that so many people have been involved in these ‘conspiracies,’ yet no one has admitted to participating in a hoax.
Occam’s Razor states that when presented with competing hypotheses that both make the same predictions, one should choose the hypothesis that involves the fewest assumptions. In this case, believing that all of these photographs and images are legitimate involves fewer assumptions than the belief that thousands, possibly millions, of scientists, engineers and administrators from all over the world are falsifying data.
For Flat-Earth conspiracy theorists to reject all of the voluminous evidence demonstrating that the Earth is a spinning globe, they must resort to the belief that this evidence is either misinterpreted or falsified. Here is a semantic argument from the Flat Earth Society (a set of ‘postulates’ and ‘conclusions’) leading to the conclusion that a multitude of different, yet linked, conspiracies are falsifying evidence. It relies on the assumption that Flat-Earthers’ beliefs are obviously true.
P1) If personally unverifiable evidence contradicts an obvious truth then the evidence is fabricated
P2) The FET (Flat Earth Theory) is an obvious truth
P3) There is personally unverifiable evidence that contradicts the FET
C1) The unverifiable evidence that contradicts the FET is fabricated evidence
P4) If there is a large amount of fabricated evidence then there must be a conspiracy to fabricate it
P5) There is a large amount of fabricated evidence (see C1)
C2) There must be a conspiracy to fabricate it.
Searching through Flat-Earth Conspiracy Web sites can rapidly lead down dark and ominous rabbit holes. For example, go to the main Web site of The International Flat Earth Society. You find the expected entries, such as ”NASA Video Fakery” and “The International Space Station Doesn’t Exist!” But if you click on the link “NASA, UN, Freemasonry, Vatican, Jews, Jesuits, NWO,” you immediately are directed to Neo-Nazi sites, sites maintained by anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers, and sites such as “The Masonic Sun-Worshiping Globalist Cult of NASA.”
III.3: “Populist Scientists”
Flat-Earthers refer to themselves as independent observers who refuse to accept mainstream scientific arguments unless they have personally carried out the research. They consider themselves to be descendants of the early scientist Francis Bacon. They are proud to consider themselves independent skeptics, who refuse to accept the claims of the “elitist” scientific community. Many of them claim to have personally undertaken ‘measurements’ that prove the Earth is flat. In Part II of this series, we reviewed and debunked several claims that the Earth is a stationary disc. In this section we will discuss two examples of Flat-Earth ‘experiments’ — the Bedford Level experiments, and photographs of planets. These will demonstrate that Flat-Earth claims are not based on legitimate science – in fact, the ‘science’ carried out and endorsed by Flat-Earthers is the very definition of denial.
III.3.1: The “Bedford Level” Experiments
One of the most straightforward Flat-Earth ‘experiments’ was carried out by the father of the Flat-Earth movement, Samuel Rowbotham (or ‘Parallax,’ his pseudonym). In the mid-1800s, Rowbotham took a telescope in winter to the Old Bedford River in Norfolk, U.K. That river had a long straight section called the Bedford Level, shown in Fig. III.2. Rowbotham lay on the ice with a telescope, and sighted along the river for a distance of about 6 miles.
When Rowbotham aimed his telescope along the river, he claimed to see people skating on the ice 6 miles away. Over this distance, the Earth curves about 24 feet, so Rowbotham concluded that he was able to see these objects because the Earth was not curved but was in fact flat. Rowbotham’s experiments, and other later measurements, are widely touted by Flat-Earthers as “proof” that the Earth is not curved like the surface of a sphere, but flat. This “proof” was included in the 1864 book by Parallax (Rowbotham), Zetetic Astronomy: Earth Not a Globe.
Englishman John Hampden was convinced by the Rowbotham/Parallax book that the Earth was flat. So he offered a wager, between £50 and £500, stating that he “defies all the philosophers, divines and scientific professors in the United Kingdom to prove the rotundity and revolution of the world from Scripture, from reason or from fact. He will acknowledge that he has forfeited his deposit, if his opponent can exhibit, to the satisfaction of any intelligent referee, a convex railway, river, canal or lake.”
Hampden’s offer was taken up by Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer with Charles Darwin of the law of natural selection and the theory of evolution. Wallace had three reasons for accepting Hampden’s wager. First, he consulted with noted geologist Charles Lyell who suggested that Wallace provide proof that the Earth was curved in order to “stop these foolish people.” Second, Wallace’s travels and books were essentially self-funded, and the prize for this wager would help him financially. Finally, Wallace was an experienced surveyor. He knew that Rowbotham’s sighting along the Bedford Level was seriously flawed.
When Rowbotham took a telescope to the Bedford Level, he held it 8 inches from the surface, and sighted along the ice in winter. Wallace knew that when a scope was held that close to the water (or ice), the refraction of light near the water surface would be large. The refracted rays were capable of traveling along a curved path and thus giving the illusion that the (convex) surface was flat.
So in 1870, Wallace proposed re-measuring along the Bedford Level. Hampden accepted the bet and wagered £500 on the outcome. The measurement and its outcome are summarized in Fig. III.3.
Wallace placed a telescope on the Welney Bridge over the Bedford Canal, 13 feet 3 inches above the water level. Six miles north, Wallace hung a sheet from the Old Bedford Bridge. The sheet had a black band; the bottom of that band was the same height above the water as Wallace’s telescope. Halfway between the two bridges, Wallace erected a pole with two red discs. The upper disc (B) was also 13 feet 3 inches above the water level, while the lower disc A was four feet below disc B.
If the water was perfectly flat, then if the telescope was aimed at the sheet on the Old Bedford Bridge, the viewer would see disc B along the same line, as shown in Fig. 2. On the other hand, if the water was curved on the surface of a spherical Earth, aiming the scope at the black band would show both discs above the black band, as shown in Fig. 1. The measurement was carried out, and the outcome was as predicted for a curved Earth. So Wallace clearly demonstrated the curvature of the Earth. Over this 6-mile distance, the Earth should have dropped about 24 feet from the level. Wallace measured a 22-foot drop; the discrepancy could be chalked up to refraction effects (much smaller than the refraction observed by Rowbotham, whose telescope was much closer to the water surface), other optical effects, and the accuracy of Wallace’s telescope.
Hampden refused to agree on the measurement, as Wallace’s telescope was not guaranteed to be level (Fig. III.3 shows that there was no need to Wallace’s scope to be level if he sighted from Welney Bridge to a spot at the same height on Old Bedford Bridge, and noted where the discs line up). But Wallace added a level and repeated the experiment, with the same result.
Unfortunately for Wallace, Hampden turned out to be a scoundrel, who claimed that Wallace’s experiment proved the Earth was flat! Both Wallace and Hampden had nominated ‘referees’ to observe the measurement, under the condition that neither of the referees be known to them, that the referees be neutral on this issue, and that they be honest gentlemen. However, Hampden picked as his referee William Carpenter. Not only did Hampden know Carpenter, but Carpenter was a proponent of the flat Earth. Carpenter had written a pamphlet that advocated Flat-Earth theories and that discussed Rowbotham’s earlier Bedford Level experiment; hence, Carpenter was definitely not neutral on this issue.
At this point, Wallace’s referee awarded Wallace the £500 prize for the wager. Hampden was furious at this outcome. He took Wallace to court, and then continued to disparage Wallace in print. Hampden wrote a pamphlet called A Water Level Convex After All? The Bedford Canal Swindle Detected and Exposed. Hampden also called Wallace a ‘pitiful dastard,’ a ‘swindler and impostor,’ a ‘coward and a liar.’ Eventually Wallace took Hampden to court several times. Hampden was imprisoned for short periods of time and was fined; however, to avoid paying the fine, Hampden transferred all his money to his son-in-law and declared himself bankrupt.
These conflicting measurements of the convexity of bodies of water are important, as they clearly show the bias of Flat-Earthers against careful experimental science. The results involve the use of telescopes in sighting along bodies of water. True scientists would endeavor to understand all of the physics and optics issues involved in these measurements; and they would carry out a series of measurements designed to minimize these effects. They would take measurements that would progressively decrease the errors. They would design more sensitive instruments with which to carry out the studies. And they would test their results against the laws of physics that govern the observables.
Flat-Earthers do exactly the opposite of this. They accept the measurement by Rowbotham and the arguments set forth by Hampden and Carpenter; however, they reject the measurement by Wallace! In fact, they claim that Wallace’s measurement suffered from refraction effects! This is the very opposite of responsible scientific practice, and provides a textbook definition of denial. Flat-Earthers seem willing to accept any experiment, no matter how shoddy the methods, so long as the “result” confirms their belief that the Earth is flat. Conversely, they reject more careful and accurate measurements whenever they contradict their foregone conclusions.
We want to add an addendum to this post. Michael “Mad Mike” Hughes was a prominent Flat-Earther; he was also a publicity hound. He built a home-made rocket and in March 2018 reached an altitude of 1,500 feet before he deployed a parachute and returned to Earth. The motive was for him to reach a height sufficient to ‘prove’ whether Earth was flat or round. “I’m gonna build my own rocket right here and see it with my own eyes, what shape this world we live on,” said Hughes. On Feb. 22, 2020 Hughes launched his steam-powered rocket outside Barstow, California. His goal was to reach 5,000 feet. Unfortunately for him, his parachute deployed instantly after launch and fell off the rocket. With nothing to slow his descent, Hughes crashed and died. The stunt was being filmed by the Science Channel. Hughes was certainly misguided, but we are sorry his flight ended in tragedy.
III.3.2: Photos of Planets
As we have mentioned, many Flat-Earthers reject the mainstream explanation for planets in our Solar System (i.e., that they are rocky or gaseous spheroids that revolve around the Sun just like the Earth). Since in their cosmology Earth is not a planet, is not a spheroid, and does not move, then either these other bodies are planets revolving around the Sun while the Earth is stationary, or else the planets are simply “points of light,” as Flat-Earthers describe the stars. In the Flat-Earth cosmology that we review here, the planets are simply “wandering stars,” as they were called in medieval times.
Since many Flat-Earthers consider themselves maverick, skeptical scientists who perform their own experiments, they are fond of pointing cameras at the heavens and recording their results. Flat-Earthers are extremely fond of the Nikon Coolpix P900 camera. For a compact camera, it has an enormous “Zoom” range. Thus, they can point their cameras at planets and snap some photos. In the figure below, the right-hand photo is a decent telescope shot of a phase of Venus. The left-hand photo shows the same planet, at the same time, taken with a Nikon P900 camera.
Obviously, the two photos look totally different. Some Flat-Earthers have claimed that their own Nikon photos represent the “actual” Venus – it is circular, and appears to consist of light regions mixed with cloudy streaks. “This is the true Venus!” report the Flat-Earthers. “We have proved that the photo at right is a fake created by NASA. In reality, Venus is more like a ‘point of light’ as we maintain!”
Unfortunately, the Flat-Earthers have made a simple error. They set their Nikon on ‘Autofocus’ to obtain the picture at left. As is well known, the Nikon with strong Zoom has difficulty auto-focusing a tiny bright spot on an all-black background. As a result, you get the out-of-focus picture at left. If you turn off Autofocus and manually focus the camera, you can obtain a photo of Venus that looks like the real thing. This is yet another example where Flat-Earthers make no attempt to behave like ‘real’ scientists. As long as they obtain the results that they desire, they are willing to tolerate elementary mistakes in their “scientific” measurements. They seem to have no interest in actually improving their “experiments,” lest they obtain the mainstream science results!
Flat-Earthers also use their Nikon P900 cameras to take photographs of planets such as Jupiter and Saturn. A decent telescope will easily show some of the many moons orbiting Jupiter, and will show the rings of Saturn; however, Flat-Earthers obtain similar unfocused circular blobs of both planets. This enables them to maintain their claims that the planets are simply “points of light,” with no distinctive features.
Flat-Earthers go to great lengths to “explain away” results that are opposite to their fixed ideas. In Part II we reviewed a few of the wacky “explanations” concocted by Flat-Earthers to account for results that contradict their belief in a flat and stationary Earth.
Some of the Flat-Earth advocates may be ‘trolls;’ that is, they claim to espouse Flat-Earth views, but in reality they don’t believe what they advocate. We know of at least one Flat-Earth group that qualifies as trolls.
The Flat Earth Society of Canada (FESC) was formed in 1970 by a group of humanities professors and their literary friends. They were drinking buddies in Nova Scotia, and the formation of FESC took place during one of their get-togethers. One of the initial organizers, poet Alden Nowlan, nominated philosophy professor Leo Ferrari as the “Chairman of the Executive” of this organization.
Eventually, the group established a “Flat Earth Society Museum” on Fogo Island, an island offshore of Newfoundland and Labrador. The group maintained that Brimstone Head, a gigantic rock on the northwest shore of the island, was one of the Four Corners of the Earth.
The FESC operated with tongue firmly in cheek. In a letter to a colleague, Nowlan remarked “Leo [Ferrari] would be good at doing something like that. Sometimes I suspect that he really and truly believes the world is flat.” They state that their group was established as “a Controlled Opposition Organization to Silence Shenton and Johnson’s International Flat Earth Research Society (IFERS)” (Shenton and Johnson were leaders of a rival, and apparently quite serious, Flat-Earth group).
The FESC maintained that their group was formed “to combat the fallacious deification of the sphere which … has thwarted Western thought.” They also claimed to be “asserting unequivocally that all science … is essentially sacramental and therefore, all reality, as man verbalizes it, is ultimately metaphysical.” Leo Ferrari claimed that FESC needed to present themselves as serious, since “You can ruin your own joke by laughing at it.” The group continued for approximately 15 years.
While the Flat Earth Society of Canada was light-hearted and comedic, other Flat-Earth Web trolls may have more sinister aspirations. It is difficult to determine the factors leading people to make Flat-Earth claims, so we try not to attribute motives to various Flat-Earthers. However, some of the claims for a flat Earth appear to be made in bad faith.
In recent years, a few prominent professional basketball players made statements that seemed to identify them as Flat-Earthers. In February 2017, Kyrie Irving claimed to reporters that he believed the Earth was flat. “I do research on both sides. I’m not against anyone who thinks the Earth is round. I’m not against anyone that thinks it’s flat. I just love hearing the debate.”
Later, under considerable pressure from the media, Irving claimed that his statements were merely an “exploitation tactic.” He said the reaction proved his point, whatever that was. Here is his precise statement on Boston CBS radio. “It merely spun your world … into a frenzy and proved exactly what I thought it would do in terms of how all this works. It created a division, or, literally stand up there and let all these people throw tomatoes at me, or have somebody think I’m somehow a different intellectual person because I believe that the Earth is flat and you think the Earth is round. It created exactly that … When I do something, I know my intent. And it proved what I thought it would.”
Well, that statement certainly demonstrated Mr. Irving’s inability to explain his motives, or what he believes. Although Irving has apologized for the furor created by his remarks, I have not seen any statements from Irving that he actually believes the world is flat. It would be interesting to know what “research” he carried out that shows the world is flat. The Commissioner of the NBA, Adam Silver, who like Kyrie Irving attended Duke University, said “Kyrie and I went to the same college. He may have taken some different courses.” Irving’s remarks were initially supported by former basketball player Shaquille O’Neal, who co-starred in the movie Uncle Drew with Irving. However, when asked about his possible belief in Flat-Earth theory, O’Neal said “I was just playing.”
Currently, the Web is full of outrageous claims and theories. In some cases, people who post these statements know that they are false, or seem uninterested in whether they are true. Some trolls, especially on certain sectors of the Web, appear to be trying to cause chaos, by sowing doubt about the truth of various claims. The motive may be simply malicious, or else those who initiate these claims are attempting to undermine the established order.
The theory of gravity is a sufficiently important aspect of physics that creating doubts about its veracity would undermine our understanding of the universe and cosmological models. We discussed this in Part I of this series. The Big Bang Scenario (BBS) describes the evolution of the universe since the time of the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago. General relativity is a central and indispensable feature of the BBS. So creating doubts about gravity (and removing galaxies, our understanding of the origin and evolution of stars, and our model for the Solar System) would lead some gullible listeners to question astronomy. It would more generally make people suspicious of claims by mainstream scientists, by portraying them as elite groups who push dubious claims.
In summary, a study of Flat-Earth theory and its adherents is rather depressing. The claims made by Flat-Earthers are outrageous. They have essentially no scientific merit, which explains why no mainstream scientists vouch for them. Flat-Earth advocates like to portray themselves as brave and stubborn skeptics who insist on doing their own experiments. However, their approach is totally unscientific. Rather than carrying out reproducible measurements and publishing their results in reputable journals, they perform shoddy tests that suffer from obvious errors.
Flat-Earthers accept any measurement, no matter how flawed, as long as it seems to justify their prejudices. When they obtain results consistent with a spherical Earth, they will concoct far-fetched ‘explanations’ to discard those results. The godfather of the modern Flat Earth movement was British author and debater Samuel Birley Rowbotham, who wrote using the pseudonym Parallax. Even 150 years after the publication of Zetetic Astronomy, Flat-Earthers today repeat many of the long-debunked claims of Parallax.
A reading of the book Zetetic Astronomy by Parallax reveals that the author had a deep misunderstanding of science in general and astronomy in particular. Today we have abundant scientific evidence that the central arguments of Parallax are totally wrong. We have photos of the Earth from satellites, from telescopes in space, from the Apollo astronaut missions, and from the International Space Station. Laser gyroscopes can measure the daily rotation of the Earth about its axis. Unmanned missions provide us with detailed information about the planets and their satellites (e.g., Jupiter has at least 67 moons and Saturn has at least 62). We have now discovered at least 4,000 ‘exoplanets,’ planets orbiting distant stars.
Furthermore, the Big Bang Scenario or BBS provides us with a detailed history of the evolution of the universe since the Big Bang. Einstein’s law of general relativity is the organizing principle in the BBS. We have identified millions of galaxies, each containing billions of stars. We find that all distant galaxies are moving away from us with a recessional velocity proportional to their distance (this is a distinctive ‘signature’ of the Big Bang). To be sure, cosmology today contains significant unanswered questions. It now appears that there are two major sources of mass-energy in the universe that have yet to be understood: a form of matter called dark matter, that seems to be about five times as prevalent as ordinary matter; and dark energy, which manifests itself as a repulsive force driving galaxies away from one another.
But it seems ludicrous to abandon all of our understanding of the universe in favor of a “theory” where the Earth is a flat and stationary disc, where Antarctica ceases to exist but is replaced by a giant “ice wall” surrounding the disc, where the stars are confined to a “celestial sphere” of radius 4,000 miles that rotates daily about the Earth, and where the Sun and Moon have equal sizes and are only 3,000 miles above Earth.
In Flat-Earth theory, even the Solar System disappears. Other planets are once again regarded as “points of light,” as they were in medieval times (in this picture the Earth is not a planet, it’s a disc). There are also no galaxies – the Milky Way is simply a collection of points of light on the celestial sphere, as are distant galaxies. This fantastic caricature of astronomy is supported by the flimsiest and most contradictory of arguments.
Flat-Earth Theory is worth studying, if only as a manifestation of abnormal psychology. Its adherents meet regularly in conferences, where they assemble a motley crew of fundamentalist Christians and dark-Web conspiracy theorists. Fortunately, various groups have taken it upon themselves to expose the mis-statements and errors of Flat-Earthers. We particularly recommend the Web site Debunking Flat Earth Misconceptions – they are very thorough, and their message is summarized in easy-to-digest graphics. We used the Debunking Flat Earth Misconceptions graphics to summarize the case against Flat-Earth theorists, so that you won’t have to waste time refuting their arguments.
Erik Frenz, 7 Ways to Prove the Earth is Round, CrossTalk
Alan Burdick, Looking for Life on a Flat Earth, The New Yorker, May 30, 2018
Flat Earth Wiki, Flat Earth: Frequently Asked Questions
Wikipedia, Modern Flat-Earth Societies
Natalie Wolchover, Are Flat-Earthers Being Serious?
Dana Hunter, A Woeful Wager: How a Founder of Modern Biology Got Suckered by Flat-Earthers, Scientific American, Jan 12, 2015.
Kaitlyn Tiffany, The Verge: If a Scientific Conspiracy Theory is Funny, That Doesn’t Mean It’s a Joke
Adi Renaldi, Vice.com: 10 Questions You Always Wanted to Ask a Flat Earth Conspiracy Theorist,
Sam Kriss, The Atlantic.com: Flat-Earthers Have a Wild New Theory About Forests,
Aaron Earlywine, Sports Illustrated Mar 28, 2017: Why Athletes Are Drawn To The Flat-Earth Theory,
Beau Dure, The Guardian, Jan 20, 2016: Flat-Earthers Are Back: “It’s Almost Like the Beginning of a New Religion”,
Alexis Kleinman, Mic Aug 9, 2016: Meet The People Who Believe the Earth is Flat,
Debunking Flat Earth Misconceptions This is a fairly extensive explanation of hundreds of the errors of Flat-Earthers. They have done all the work for me!
Damien Gildea, Explorer’s Web.com: Crossing Antarctica: How the Confusion Began and Where do We Go From Here?
Christine Garwood, Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea, Thomas Dunne Books, London 2008.
David Wardlaw Scott, Terra Firma: The Earth Not a Planet, Proved From Scripture, Reason, and Fact; Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton & Kent, 1901.
Marshall Hall, Earth Is Not Moving, self-published, 1991:
Samuel Rowbotham, Zetetic Astronomy: Earth Not a Globe, Simpkin, Marshall & Co, 1864.
Gerrard Hickson, Kings Dethroned, Hicksonia Publishing Co, 1922.
Dr. Lisle, Is The Earth Really Round? A Christian claims that the Bible says the Earth is round. Biblical apologetics, but good anti-Flat-Earth arguments.
Jos Leys, Flat-Earth Nonsense. He produces several videos that show convincingly that Flat-Earth arguments make no sense.
Kelly Weill, The Daily Beast; Denver, 2018: Inside the Flat-Earth Conference, where the World’s Oldest Conspiracy Theory is Hot Again
John Hampden, The Bedford Canal Swindle Detected & Exposed. Alfred Bull, London, 1870.
W. Carpenter, Water Not Convex: The Earth Not a Globe! Demonstrated by Alfred Russel Wallace on the 5th March 1870, self-published, 1871.
W. Carpenter, One Hundred Proofs That the Earth is not a Globe, self-published, 1885.
E.A.M. Blount, editor: Earth Not a Globe Review, vols 3-6, 1895.
Eric Dubay, 200 Proofs Earth is Not a Spinning Ball, self-published, 2015.
Ella Morton, A 19th Century Map of our ‘Square and Stationary’ Earth, Atlas Obscura.com, 2016.
Walter Bisins, Flat Earth Dome Model, Apr 2018. Bisins produces a “dome model” where the Sun, Moon and stars are fixed on the surface of a semi-circular dome and the Earth is flat with the diameter of the dome. He examines what can be explained and what cannot with his model.
Jason Steffen, Round Earth Clues: How Science Proves That Our World is a Globe. Steffen is assistant professor of Physics & Astronomy at UNLV.
CNN Wire Nov. 17, 2019: The Flat-Earth Conspiracy Community Continues to Grow Despite Science,
N. Beverini et al., High-Accuracy Ring Laser Gyroscopes: Earth Rotation Rate and Relativistic Effects, Journal of Physics, Conference Series 723, 012061 (2016).
Flat Earth Lunacy Web site:
200 Proofs That Eric Dubay is a Liar and an Idiot
The International Flat Earth Society:
The International Flat Earth Society: The Flat Moon Over the Flat Earth
Neil deGrasse Tyson Says Earth is Pear-Shaped:
John Flamsteed, Atlas Coelestis, London, 1729.
Bob Knodel, “Globebusters” Web site.
Camille Flammarion, L’Atmosphere: Meteorologie Populaire (Paris, 1888)