The danger of the Flat Earth theory

By: matthew ross&
April 14 2023

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The danger of the Flat Earth theory

The Flat Earth is a myth with myths of its own. For one, Christopher Columbus did not set out to prove the Earth was round, as some have been taught. Others believe that acceptance of a flat Earth was universal in ancient times, yet the educated in classical Greece knew we lived on a globe. However, the most significant myth surrounding the modern Flat Earth movement is that it is a harmless, if eccentric, belief. In reality, it is a worldview that damages the ability to process knowledge and evaluate sources.

Flat Earthers are not a monolith but generally reject the notion of a globe-shaped Earth in favor of a flat plane. Most Flat Earthers accept a style of 2D map that resembles the Azimuthal Equidistant projection, where it appears that continents extend outward from the central North Pole and Antarctica surrounds a flat-plane Earth as an "ice wall." Some claim a dome covers the Flat Earth, often called "The Firmament." Others believe that beyond the "ice wall," the land goes on forever. Essentially, Flat Earth belief combines extreme institutional distrust, direct realism, conspiracy theorizing, and religious faith. It is part of a growing movement of science denial, which includes more pressing concerns such as climate change denial and anti-vaccine sentiment.

The Flat Earth movement, born in the 1800s, shares connections to biblical literalism, in similar ways to Young Earth Creationism, and was a reaction to the evolving scientific understanding of heliocentrism in the 16th-17th centuries. Some religious thinkers concluded that heliocentrism threatened belief in God. Today, the acceptance of heliocentrism and the globe-shaped Earth is common in people of all faiths, with Flat Earthers representing an extreme minority viewpoint.

Flat Earthers are not stupid, just wrong

Flat Earthers are often dismissed as being uneducated or unintelligent. While many of us do not understand the complex mathematics and physics that comprise the scientific understanding of the world, most still accept the Earth is a globe. Many Flat Earthers consider themselves scientists uncovering the reality that “experts” want to hide. Nonetheless, they are a punchline in mainstream society; indeed, "Flat Earth Society" is synonymous with crankery.

In her book Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea, Christine Garwood cautions against dismissing or mocking Flat Earthers. According to Garwood, the psychological and religious motivations behind the belief are more interesting than merely a lack of intelligence. She writes that 19th-century Flat Earthers were competent people who “shared … an eccentric standard for the assessment of evidence” and a drive to spread their “highly unorthodox” beliefs. They vowed to protect biblical literalism, undermine institutional scientific authority, and "defend…the rights of the general public to make their own knowledge about the natural world." We hear this today through conspiracy theorists encouraging audiences to "do your own research" and promoting the individual's right to their own personal truths based on intuition or non-mainstream sources. 

Vital to the Flat Earther’s worldview is the preference for their observations of the natural world. “Direct realism” is the idea that we perceive the world the way it is: if it looks like we live on a flat plane, we can trust our senses. Flat Earthers reject authorities that claim natural phenomena are often more complex than our raw senses can perceive. As Logically.AI’s Junior OSINT Analyst Laura Vitelli writes, "this dismissal of unintuitive complexity and the appeal to sense perception makes Flat Earthers so challenging to argue with." How can you convince someone that what they are looking at is not the whole truth?

The Failures of Flat Earth

Flat Earth proofs can be superficially convincing. First and foremost, the Earth does not appear to be curved. If you pour water on a globe, it falls to the ground rather than sticking to the surface. However, since the world is not flat, the conclusions Flat Earthers reach in their experiments are universally misinterpreted, misunderstood, or wrong. Twice in Netflix's Behind the Curve, believers succeed at proving the Earth's spheroid shape yet insist that it must be flat. This is confirmation bias, the tendency to accept evidence that conforms to our worldview and reject information that contradicts it. 

Flat Earthers have their conclusions already, and any evidence they are wrong is dismissed, often by claiming traditional science is untrustworthy. Flat Earth is more than a scientific proposition; it is a worldview, a community, and a crusade, which Garwood points out was as true in the 19th century as it is today. With such intense emotional investment behind it, the drive to believe it is powerful. Add the support of a devoted community, and there is little incentive to doubt the belief.

Like other conspiracy theorists, Flat Earthers frequently engage in "decoding," finding patterns where none exist. They interpret symbols, words, or phrases and discuss their theories among themselves. For example, some Flat Earthers believe the United Nations logo is evidence that the Earth is flat and the world elite knows it. Some Flat Earthers who dislike influencer Patricia Steere cite the last three letters of her name, "cia," as evidence that she works for the CIA. In many conspiracy theories, the evil elite cannot stop themselves from leaving clues for others to uncover, which means that conspiracy theorists are right to play detective and reach their fantastic conclusions, and coincidences do not exist. The multiple meanings of words can also cause confusion. In Flat Earth ideology, the word "firmament" usually means the dome above the flat plane of the Earth. 

Prominent Flat Earther Mark Sargent notes that Wernher von Braun, the German scientist who helped develop the U.S. space program, included Psalms 19:1 on his gravestone as evidence of a Flat Earth "deathbed confession" proving the dome. Firmament is also a poetic word for the sky. With confirmation bias, words always mean what you want them to mean.

The Difficulty of Fact-Checking Flat Earth

There are books, articles, websites, and videos that debunk Flat Earth arguments, and while some Flat Earthers have renounced their former views, traditional fact-checking is challenging. 

Dr. John Cook of the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences, an expert in science denial, told Logically Facts, "fact-checking Flat Earthers is difficult because once a person goes down the rabbit hole of conspiratorial thinking, they are distrustful of any evidence that contradicts their conspiracy theory." Relying on traditional scientific methods, arguments, and experts will be dismissed by Flat Earthers, who will instead cite their own "research," no matter how inaccurate or fantastical.  

Another problem with fact-checking Flat Earth theory is that it is ultimately about humanity's place in the universe in a philosophical or religious sense. "You're not alone," claims Mark Sargent in Behind the Curve, "you are the center of the universe." Flat Earthers believe that the globe Earth model reflects a reality where we humans are not the "center of the universe," and so it must be a lie created to hide this fact. This is a religious argument about what it means to be human and is not a question science can answer. In the Flat Earth view, science is engaged in a psychological and spiritual conspiracy against humankind, with the planet's shape being the key to convincing us we are insignificant.

The Necessity of Conspiracy Theory

Not all conspiracy theorists are Flat Earthers, but every Flat Earther is a conspiracy theorist. Only a conspiracy theory can explain why scientists hide the truth about the shape of the Earth. But what about all those photos and videos from space and testimonies of astronauts? All faked, according to Flat Earthers, who claim NASA's budget is mainly spent on CGI to maintain the illusion. The most common explanation for the alleged cover-up is that NASA uses the globe Earth to hide the existence of God, the specialness of human beings, or both; the supposed agenda is to make us feel unimportant and easier to control. Sargent says as much at a conference featured in Behind the Curve. Addressing mainstream scientists, he says, "you've taken what should have been simple observations and twisted them to suit your needs and make us feel small. We're not small and we're not an accident." 

If hiding God is NASA's plan, they are arguably doing a poor job, as religious belief is projected to rise globally. There is no evidence that acceptance of the globe Earth is significantly correlated with rejecting religion; its reality is so established that the vast majority of the religious and non-religious alike take it for granted.

If the Earth is Flat, Then Everything is a Lie

Like many bad ideas, the Flat Earth theory will never die. A worldview that puts humanity at its center in a good versus evil battle for the truth against scientific authorities is attractive. What makes Flat Earth destructive is how accepting it warps the ability to process information. If we believe that the Earth is flat, then everything we have been taught must be a lie, and no expert can be trusted. Dr. Stephan Lewandowsky of the University of Bristol echoes this: "'Flat earth' beliefs are not just a carnival curiosity but may have adverse consequences when supporters of such esoteric beliefs are becoming politically sufficiently powerful to insist on their views being given an equal footing in, for example, high school curricula." 

Dr. Lewandowsky told Logically Facts that this way of thinking "opens the door to an 'anything goes'" approach to gaining knowledge, "which effectively hands over the keys to civilization to those who scream the loudest and kick the hardest because there is no longer any possibility to adjudicate between competing positions in any other way." 

A Flat Earther is not a skeptic open to possibilities but a denialist who has made up their mind, and conspiracy theorizing is the only way to explain their disagreement with the rest of the world. The shape of the Earth becomes the Biggest of Big Lies. It lends itself to the notion that nothing you can believe from a mainstream source can be trusted. This increases trust in alternative narratives or theories because they are not mainstream, including uglier ones like white supremacy or antisemitism

As Dr. Hannalore Gerling-Dunsmore says in Behind the Curve, "If you have a growing section of the population that doesn't know how to think critically and doesn't know how to evaluate expert resources, they're going to be easy to manipulate." Contrary to their self-perception as clear-sighted investigators looking for truth, Flat Earth belief leads many in the community into deeper rabbit holes of unreality, as far away from the truth as it gets.

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