And yet it’s flat! Where do the “flat-Earthers” come from and why is it so difficult to convince them

According to a well-known saying, the Flat Earth Society has supporters all over the globe. Joking aside, this statement is not so far from the truth. According to the results of a public opinion poll conducted in 2018, a sufficient number of people believe that our planet is flat. However, this is not only a problem of the post-Soviet space. Similar figures are typical for the United States. Approximately 2% of Americans firmly believe that the Earth is flat. Another 5% previously believed that it had a spherical shape, but recently began to have doubts about this statement. Tellingly, the percentage of “flat-Earthers” is noticeably higher among the younger generation (the so-called millennials).

What a flat Earth might look like. Source:

At first glance, it all looks like a funny curiosity. After all, we are still talking about a relatively small part of the population. In addition, unlike the same movement of anti-vaccinators or fans of homeopathy, “flat-Earthers” do not seem to pose a threat to themselves and people around them. It is not surprising that many perceive them as a very convenient object for ridicule and banter. There are many groups that parody the organizations of flat Earth supporters. For example, in the vastness of the world wide web, you can find a comic association of believers that our planet actually has the shape of a dinosaur.

But seriously speaking, the movement of “flat-Earthers” can be called one of the most obvious symptoms of the problems of modern society. We live in an era when it is easy to get comprehensive information on almost any issue with just a couple of clicks. It can seem that this makes it almost impossible for any “Flat Earth Society” to exist. But the whole irony of the situation is that it is the achievements in the field of information technology that have largely contributed to its revival and popularization. So it’s time to figure out how the “flat-Earthers” movement has arisen and why believers in a flat Earth stubbornly ignore all the evidence of their wrongness.

Emergence and revival of the “Flat Earth Society”

You had probably heard that in the Middle Ages, almost all people believed that the Earth was flat. And only the circumnavigation of the Magellan expedition proved that in fact our planet had a spherical shape. In fact, this is nothing more than a misconception. Of course, the views of our ancestors on the structure of the Universe, to put it mildly, strongly differed from reality. But not in the case of the shape of the Earth. Even the ancient Greeks convincingly proved that our planet was like a globe. And in the III century BC Eratosthenes conducted his famous experiment, during which he measured the length of the earth’s circumference with a very good accuracy for that time.

Since then, the idea of the round shape of the Earth has dominated in Western science, successfully surviving the collapse of ancient civilizations and the “dark ages”. So where did the statement that in the Middle Ages everyone believed in a flat Earth come from? In fact, it is a hoax invented in the XIX century. Its appearance and spread were actively promoted by fighters against the influence of the Catholic Church. In this way, they tried to show that religious obscurantists always stood in the way of progress and hindered the development of mankind. For example, a book published in 1828 by the American writer Washington Irving contained a very revealing episode in which churchmen tried to dissuade Columbus from his journey, scaring the navigator that he would reach the edge of the Earth and fall down. 

However, the XIX century “gave” us not only this myth, but also an organization of people who really believed in a flat Earth. It is believed that it all started with the English inventor Samuel Rowbotham, who published several works that laid the foundation for the modern “flat universe”. Their essence boiled down to the fact that our planet had the shape of a disk, in the center of which is the Arctic and at the edges was an ice wall, which we called Antarctica. The Sun and Moon are at an altitude of 4800 km above the surface of this disk, and space lies above them.

Samuel Rowbotham. Source:

In 1893, Rowbotham’s followers founded the so-called “Universal Zetetic Society”. Over time, “flat-Earthers” appeared in the United States. There, the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church was engaged in defending their views. 

In 1956, the Universal Zetetic Society was revived under the name “International Flat Earth Society”. Throughout the second half of the XX century, its number did not exceed several thousand people. The adherents of the organization distributed newsletters, leaflets and similar literature, in which they told that our planet was flat, there really were no flights into space, and all this was a conspiracy to hide the “true state of things” from the population. In general, the organization never went beyond a small association of a group of eccentric personalities and few people knew about its existence.

By the end of the XX century, the already small popularity of the society began to decline. It would seem that it was doomed to oblivion. But the Internet changed everything. Social networks and Youtube have become real saviors for the “flat-Earthers”. They gave them the opportunity to freely spread their views and find supporters all over the planet. The media also made a certain contribution. The openly satirical orientation of the materials devoted to the “flat-Earthers” to some extent led to the opposite effect, contributing to the influx of people into their ranks who felt rejected by modern society. 

The logo of the “Flat Earth Society”. Source: Flat Earth Society

As a result, the organization of “flat-Earthers” was revived for the second time. The new Flat Earth Society has got its own website and pages in social networks. Of course, some joined it for a joke — to get a funny certificate or to troll people on the Internet. Nevertheless, most adherents of the society take this topic quite seriously.

Of course, an important caveat needs to be made here. In different countries, associations of “flat-Earthers” have their own national specifics. For example, in Russia they have a markedly pronounced religious connotation, while in the United States the main role is played by the themes of government conspiracy and general distrust of the authorities.

“Authentic” structure of the world

So how does the Universe work according to the majority of “flat-Earthers”? In general, their ideas have not changed much since the days of Samuel Rowbotham. They believe that the Earth is a disk with a diameter of about 40 thousand km. It is surrounded by an ice wall at the edges. What is beyond this barrier is not known to anyone for certain: not a single person who has tried to overcome it has ever come back. But the “flat-Earthers” hope that one day some brave daredevil will still be able to accomplish this feat and tell us the truth hidden by the authorities. 

The scheme of the flat Earth. Source:

The stars, the Sun and the Moon are above the “Earth disk”. Their movement across the sky leads to a change of seasons. Lunar eclipses are explained by the existence of some kind of “shadow object” (or “anti-moon”), periodically hiding our moon. What about gravity, you ask? Everything is simple. Of course, it doesn’t exist. The presence of gravity is due to the fact that the “earth’s disk” is moving upwards with a constant acceleration of 9.8 m/s². It arises from the influence of mysterious dark energy. However, flat-Earthers are not yet able to explain its nature. It’s funny that in this aspect their “teaching” even slightly intersects with the real picture of the world.

Of course, the images of the Earth from space are a falsification. Everything, of course, was shot in Hollywood. Stanley Kubrick used to do this job, and now James Cameron and Christopher Nolan are taking the rap for him. NASA was created with a single purpose: to hide the truth from the population of the Earth. However, why this is necessary is not entirely clear. The opinions of the “flat-Earthers” about the ultimate goal of this, of course, sinister organization differ. Some believe that grandiose deception is simply required to steal a “lot” of money that is allocated for space. According to another version, space flights still exist, but they are only needed to place American nuclear missiles there, and all scientific research is a fiction. 

But NASA’s role is not limited to faking images. The agency’s insidious employees also manipulate navigation devices on planes and ships, creating a feeling for their passengers as if they are moving around a spherical Earth. And NASA specifically forbade all airliners to climb above the 11 km mark — because then the deception will become obvious. The curvature of the Earth’s surface observed during flights also does not exist. This is an optical illusion caused by the shape of the portholes (of course, they are specially designed by the conspirators to maintain faith in a spherical Earth) and the conformism of people who are not ready to face the truth and therefore blindly believe what is written in school textbooks. 

Russia, China and all other space powers are also involved in conspiracy. Most likely, they are dancing to the tune of puppeteers from NASA. But it is possible that they also have some goals of their own. Naturally, not only governments are involved in the conspiracy, but also many ordinary performers. They’re everywhere. These are aircraft pilots, ship captains, map makers and representatives of many other professions.

But the most paradoxical thing about the teachings of the “flat-Earthers” is that all the other planets of the Solar System have a… spherical shape. This explains their appearance when observed with telescopes, as well as the change of phases of Venus and Mercury. But our Earth is not a planet, and therefore it is flat. How do you like that, Nicolaus Copernicus?

Why is it so difficult to convince the “flat-Earthers”

After all of the above, readers probably have a reasonable question: how is it possible in a sane mind to believe in something so absurd? But the results of various studies and surveys indicate that the majority of “flat-Earthers” consider the described picture of the world to be quite true. 

Another concept of a flat Earth. Source:

Of course, it’s no secret that the scientific literacy of modern society, to put it mildly, is far from ideal. A significant part of the population is afraid of “autism-inducing” vaccinations, abbreviations of GMOs and manages to combine the “lunar conspiracy theory” with faith in aliens who periodically visit the Earth. But it is one thing if we are talking about the denial of evolution. After all, human life is too short for us to notice the appearance of new species. But “flat Earth” sounds like a prolonged and at the same time not the most successful joke. Such a world may be good as a place of action for Terry Pratchett’s novels, but not as the reality in which we live. It would seem that such a worldview should be shattered at the first encounter with scientific facts.

But with the “flat-Earthers” nothing of the kind happens. In this regard, an episode from the 2018 documentary “Beyond the curve” is very indicative. In it, two “flat-Earthers” conduct an experiment that should prove that the Earth is flat. But, they don’t work out. Having received a negative result, they discuss with bewilderment what went wrong. Of course, pseudo-researchers deny the simplest explanation (their ideas about the structure of the world are wrong) and begin to come up with confusing versions that allow them to pull the outcome of the experiment to what they believe. 

Such a phenomenon has a fairly simple basis. The belief in a flat Earth is not much different from any other conspiracy theory. And for all supporters of such theories, the following is characteristic. The more scientific facts, arguments and explanations you present to them, the more it reinforces the belief in the existence of a conspiracy. Even the most irrefutable evidence is either simply ignored or distorted in such a way that they can be written into an already existing picture, complementing and strengthening it. 

It’s all about a number of features of our psyche. The human brain is designed in such a way that it always tends to look for patterns and coincidences everywhere. That’s its nature. And when it finds them (regardless of whether they exist in reality or not) and builds the appropriate logical chain, it is extremely difficult to convince a person otherwise. Another important reason for the popularity of conspiracy theories is that they have a certain therapeutic effect. After all, when you are one of the few who knows the truth hidden from society, it allows you to raise your own self-esteem. 

All of the above is also true in relation to “flat-Earthers”. It is also worth mentioning about the psychological aspect. Flat Earth supporters are a separate group of people with common interests, within which they are comfortable communicating. Therefore, the collision with the evidence of their wrongness puts them before a difficult choice: public recognition of the fallacy of their views is likely to lead to the loss of friends and social ties. Not many people are ready to do this. It is much easier and more comfortable to simply dismiss inconvenient facts.

Another important feature of the organizations of “flat-Earthers” is that, rejecting evidence of the spherical shape of the Earth, they are trying to develop their own alternative science. For example, in 2017, a proponent of the flat Earth theory under the pseudonym D.Marble took a construction level with him on a flight. After landing, he stated that he measured the angle of inclination of the aircraft and found no deviations. This means that the Earth is flat.

Well-known in certain circles, rapper B.o.b a couple of years ago got into an online altercation with Neil deGrasse Tyson about the shape of our planet. Then he even announced the beginning of fundraising for an independent satellite, which should prove to everyone that the Earth was flat. And according to the results of the conference of “flat-Earthers” held at the end of last year, it was announced that in 2020 it would send an expedition to the ice wall at the edge of the Earth. Unfortunately, the authors of the project have kept silent about how exactly they are going to get to it: since all maps and the GPS system are controlled by the conspirators, and they cannot be relied on. However, there is a suspicion that after a while they will declare that: the coronavirus pandemic was specially organized by NASA to accommodate their expeditions. 

It is also worth remembering engineer Mike Hughes. He was engaged in the creation of homemade rockets. In 2015, he declared himself a supporter of the Flat Earth Society, after which he began raising funds for a new steam-powered rocket. According to Hughes, it would allow him to personally check the shape of the planet. In March 2019, the engineer rose on his apparatus to a height of 570 m. However, there were problems during landing and Hughes was injured. But he promised that this would not force him to abandon further flights.

Mike Hughes. Source:

Mike Hughes kept his word. On February 23, 2020, he took to the air again on his rocket. This time, its parachute came off, necessary to ensure a soft landing. The tester died on the spot. Now, it is difficult to say for sure; was he really a “flat-Earthers”, or did he just use this topic as a successful information guide to attract attention to himself and raise funds for the construction of rockets. But, whatever the truth, this case proves that belief in a flat Earth can be as harmless as it seems at first glance.

Of course, in the future, we are unlikely to face an explosive increase in the number of “flat-Earthers”. Nevertheless, their views are too marginal even by the standards of other pseudoscientific theories. At the same time, given the current trends, it is not to be expected that the pendulum will swing in the opposite direction and the Flat Earth Society will suddenly announce its dissolution. Social networks, which have long turned into a tool of separation, and the current cultural paradigm with its post-truth, denial of all authorities and disbelief in “official” science, will ensure the emergence of new generations of “flat-Earthers” for a long time. They will still continue their Sisyphean work, trying to expose a worldwide conspiracy and putting their alternative experiments.

In conclusion, it is worth saying that if you think carefully, you can come to the following conclusion. Most of all, the fact that our Earth is not really flat should be regretted… by NASA. After all, if our world were really a disk, the power and influence of this organization could only be envied. The almighty NASA would certainly be able to fulfill a long-standing dream and send people from a flat Earth to a spherical Mars. However, this is already a story for some Pratchett.

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