What drives the ‘Flat Earth’ belief?


When I was a young boy in Sri Lanka, there was a Jesuit priest-in-training named Basil, a friend of the parents of a friend of mine, who liked to argue with us that the Earth was flat. We of course believed that it was round but as anyone who has argued with a flat-Earther knows, they have quite an array of arguments that they can drop on you to counter your objections and it is a good example of how almost any proposition can be defended if one is allowed to make ad hoc assumptions. We suspected that Basil did not really believe what he was saying but was using the formidable argumentative skills that Jesuits learn to mess with our young minds and show how hard it is to defend even what seem to be obvious truths.

There is quite an active Flat-Earth group around the globe and they hold conventions and the like and again one is moved to wonder if they are just indulging in harmless fun, like those who attend Star Trek conventions, or whether they are true believers. It seems like the latter is the case. Harry T. Dyer attended a convention in the UK and found that this group likes science but are mistrustful of scientists, which seems a little paradoxical, and this divergence is an example of a recurring issue with the internet, that it exposes people to a much wider array of information than they had before without a concomitant enhanced ability to differentiate between good and bad sources.

While flat earthers seem to trust and support scientific methods, what they don’t trust is scientists, and the established relationships between “power” and “knowledge”.

Multiple competing models were suggested throughout the weekend, including “classic” flat earth, domes, ice walls, diamonds, puddles with multiple worlds inside, and even the earth as the inside of a giant cosmic egg. The level of discussion however often did not revolve around the models on offer, but on broader issues of attitudes towards existing structures of knowledge, and the institutions that supported and presented these models.

This was something of a reoccurring theme throughout the weekend, and was especially apparent when four flat earthers debated three physics PhD students. A particular point of contention occurred when one of the physicists pleaded with the audience to avoid trusting YouTube and bloggers. The audience and the panel of flat earthers took exception to this, noting that “now we’ve got the internet and mass communication … we’re not reliant on what the mainstream are telling us in newspapers, we can decide for ourselves”. It was readily apparent that the flat earthers were keen to separate knowledge from scientific institutions.

Alan Burdick attended a recent similar convention in the US and reported on what he found. It should not surprise anyone that they have developed a comprehensive set of responses to the most common arguments given for a round Earth. (You can read more responses at the FAQ page of the Flat Earth Society.) They seem to also have a lot of overlap with the many conspiracy theories floating around, such as Pizzagate, Sandy Hook, the mass shootings in Las Vegas, Paris, and Orlando, and that “[o]ne attractive aspect of the flat-Earth theory, it seemed, was that it served nicely as an umbrella for all the other coverups. “It’s the mother of all conspiracies,” more than one person told me.”

I was a little surprised to learn that there is a religious element to their beliefs. Burdick spoke with Robbie Davidson, the organizer of the conference.

He described the modern flat-Earth community as a confluence of three strains of thought. “There’s the conspiratorial,” he said. “It’s like, ‘That’s kind of weird with the moon landing. Maybe I’ll look into it. What else could they be lying about?’ ” The second is “the scientific-minded,” people who “just want to go out and do the experiments.” The third, Davidson said, “is the spiritual—people that want to say, ‘Wait a minute, what would happen if I took the Bible literally?’ ” In style and substance, the flat-Earth movement is a close cousin of creationism. At the end of the conference, Davidson would be screening his new documentary, “Scientism Exposed 2,” which dismisses dinosaurs, evolution, gravitational waves, and a spherical Earth as part of a broad agenda “to hide the true creator of Creation,” according to the trailer.

To believe in a flat Earth is to belong not only to a human community but to sit, once again, at the center of the cosmos. The standard facts of astronomy are emotionally untenable—a planet spinning at a thousand miles per hour, a mote in a galaxy of unimaginable scale, itself a mote in the vast and expanding universe. “That, to me, is a huge problem,” Campanella said. “You are a created individual. This is a created place. It’s not an accident; it’s not an explosion in space; it’s not random molecules joining together.”

You, we, are special. “It’s like God is patting me on the shoulder, saying, ‘You deserve this!’ ” a man from New Orleans told me. He was a trucker, the son of a former newscaster, and an occasional musician. As we were talking, an older man in a wheelchair approached and, in a drawl, introduced himself and asked if we were Christians. He brought up the notion of infinite space and the lack of a creator. “How can people live with that?” he asked.

At the conference, several speakers made reference to “shills” within the community, people purporting to espouse the theory but who in fact belong to some deep-state counterintelligence program aimed at making the movement seem laughable. In 2016, Dubay, of the “200 Proofs” video, called out Sargent, Campanella, and other figures as “suspected controlled opposition shills,” and last year in a radio interview he called the November conference a “shill-fest.” Even the flat-Earth bureaucracy is suspect. At the end of the conference’s second day, a panelist mentioned a plan to set up a nonprofit to carry on the work. This brought a rebuke from a woman in the audience. “You had me up until I heard the gentleman say, ‘The reason we had to scramble to get the 501(c)(3),’ ” she said. “In my research, I found out that’s a Luciferian contract.”

It is tempting to link the flat-Earthers to the broader zeitgeist, where people are distrustful of existing structures and in reaction to it have veered into an extreme form of skepticism that starts with a belief structure that is appealing to them for whatever reason and then proceeds to reject any knowledge that contradicts it.

Some time ago Bertrand Russell said that while skepticism is a valuable trait, this kind of ‘heroic skepticism’ that rejects pretty much everything that experts in a field say is not productive. He suggested an alternative model of skepticism.

I am prepared to admit the ordinary beliefs of common sense, in practice if not in theory. I am prepared to admit any well-established result of science, not as certainly true, but as sufficiently probable to afford a basis for rational action. If it is announced that there is to be an eclipse of the moon on such-and-such a date, I think it worthwhile to look and see whether it is taking place.

There are matters about which those who have investigated them are agreed; the dates of eclipses may serve as an illustration. There are other matters about which experts are not agreed. Even when the experts all agree, they may well be mistaken. Einstein’s view as to the magnitude of the deflection of light by gravitation would have been rejected by all experts twenty years ago, yet it proved to be right. Nevertheless the opinion of experts, when it is unanimous, must be accepted by non-experts as more likely to be right than the opposite opinion. The scepticism that I advocate amounts only to this: (1) that when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain; (2) that when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and (3) that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgment. [My emphasis-MS]

These propositions may seem mild, yet, if accepted, they would absolutely revolutionise human life. (Sceptical Essays 1928, p. 2,3)

It seems like we are further away now from Russell’s prescription than in his time.

Comments

  1. says

    I’ve been watching far more flat earth videos and rebuttals than I should, and I’m reminded of something one of the CWRU med school instructors said. He said that belief in vast conspiracies is one of the signs of schizophrenia. So now when I watch these videos (or parts of them) I keep that in mind, and it really makes sense.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    … when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgment.

    Such agnosticism, or any tolerance of ambiguity, seems practically impossible to most conspiracists – even flipping completely to (whichever) “other side” comes easier.

  3. Quirky says

    “Einstein’s view as to the magnitude of the deflection of light by gravitation…”
    .
    Mano, I don’t know why this highlight was included by Russel, or what exactly he was considering this “deflection” as pertaining to? Was the context of this in some address to flat earthers?

    I don’t believe in the flat earth, but I have out of curiosity looked at some of the claims as well as the necessary curvature per mile that a sphere the size of the earth would actually exhibit, if determined mathematically..
    .
    However the minuscule
    ascertainable amount of light deflection resulting from “the magnitude of the deflection of light by gravitation” theory per mile would in no way account for the ability to see many miles further over water than what the mathematically determined curvature per mile would exhibit if the water in fact continually curves at that mathematical rate.
    ..
    I think this is the crux of what keeps the flat earth issue alive in the minds of so many. The question I continue to hear, is “where’s the curvature”.
    .
    I am certainly not smart enough to address what appears to many flat earthers as a physics dilemma. Maybe with your experience you can help.

  4. sonofrojblake says

    I don’t know why this highlight was included by Russel, or what exactly he was considering this “deflection” as pertaining to?

    You have to bear in mind Russell was speaking when relativity was a relatively (!) recently proposed theory. One of its propositions was that gravity wells would bend light. Physics experts of earlier decades would have scoffed at this. Russell is using it only as an example of a time when the body of academia (“experts”) were definitively wrong.

    My own view is that flat-earthery is a home for cranks, now that many of the previous homes have been demolished. Another cartoon:
    https://xkcd.com/1235/

  5. Matt G says

    Quirky, you are confusing the warping of spacetime by the sun (predicted by Einstein and later experimentally verified) with the horizon effect caused by Earth’s curvature.

  6. says

    Mano,

    I’ve had a handful of students in recent years who vehemently argue for a flat earth. I stopped trying to dissuade them, but encourage them to look up Eratosthenes.

    On a personal note, I came “this close” to having a personal observation of the Earth’s shape in 1979 when plans for my ship to repeat its historic 1965 circumnavigation of the Earth were ruined by the taking of our embassy in Tehran. Instead of continuing our journey east we spent 93 days sailing a 10 by 10 mile box in the Gulf of Oman.

    Jeff

  7. Mano Singham says

    Quirky @#4,

    To follow up on the comments of sonofrojblake @#5 and Matt G @#6, Russell wrote those words in 1928, so twenty years ago for him would have been 1908. Einstein proposed his theory that gravity warps the nature of space-time in 1915 and the experimental measurement of that followed a few years later and was considered a magnificent vindication of his theory and made newspaper headlines around the world. You may be interested in watching the documentary that I linked to a few weeks ago about how Einstein arrived at this idea.

    This does not have anything to do with the curvature of the Earth, however. The flat Earth people claim that on a clear day we can see further than the curvature of the Earth would predict.

  8. Mano Singham says

    Jeff @#7,

    But while you traveled in that square region, you did not notice any curvature of the Earth, right? So there you are. QED!

  9. Jenora Feuer says

    Any deflection of light in purely terrestrial matters is to do with atmospheric refraction rather than the many-orders-of-magnitude smaller gravitation.

    (When looking things up for a sunrise/sunset time calculator, I remember reading that the times of sunrise and sunset have to be adjusted by a few minutes to correct for the sunlight curving slightly when passing through the increasing density of the atmosphere; that effect, of course, is at its greatest when the sun’s light is coming in at a tangent and thus it is passing at a very shallow angle through the layers of air.)

    Part of what’s so annoying about Flat Earth theories is that there are so many of them, many incompatible, and the only ones that can actually explain everything are the ones that are essentially co-ordinate transformation systems that are entirely indistinguishable from a (nearly) spherical Earth. But you’ll still get people doing a Gish Gallop of explaining things by jumping through incompatible systems, despite the fact that issue 1 may be explained by Flat Earth theory #1, and issue 2 may be explained by Flat Earth theory #2, but theories #1 and #2 can’t both be true at the same time.

    You can sort of understand how people might believe we didn’t land anybody on the Moon, but Flat Earth is just so out there, and so many things would have to be wrong… it’s like the only way to get there is to start from the assumption that everybody (except maybe your in-crowd) is lying to you.

  10. Rob Grigjanis says

    sonofrojblake @5:

    One of its propositions was that gravity wells would bend light. Physics experts of earlier decades would have scoffed at this.

    It was long known, before Einstein, that gravity would bend light if one assumes light is corpuscular (as Newton did). The deflection is exactly 1/2 that predicted by Einstein. Laplace even predicted black holes around the end of the 18th century.

  11. Pierce R. Butler says

    In Poul Anderson’s The Game of Empire, he (iirc) postulates a planet with just slightly higher gravity than Earth’s, and states that the consequent change in atmospheric diffraction produces an effect that bends light over the horizon, such that a person traveling on a level plain sees a virtually infinite landscape all around her.

    Anderson didn’t provide the math, and I couldn’t have followed it if he had, but this thread strikes me as a perfect opportunity to ask whether this vividly-described scenario has any possible scientific validity. Wotcha say, physicists?

  12. Mano Singham says

    I don’t think it works. The amount of bending of light by the atmosphere is entirely due to the refractive index of the atmosphere. Increasing gravity by a slight amount is not going to change the refractive index by much. Furthermore, the bending is due to the change in the refractive index between the atmosphere and empty space. If the light stays within the atmosphere, then no refraction will take place since the refractive index will be constant along its path.

    There may be some slight bending due to the density of the atmosphere varying with the height above the Earth but that too would be a very small effect.

  13. Rob Grigjanis says

    Pierce R. Butler @12: As Mano said, the situation you’re describing isn’t refraction. If you’re standing on the surface of a sphere and seeing something on the far side of the sphere, it’s not refraction that’s bending the light, but gravity. Your eyes are at the radius of the body’s photon sphere. At best, you’re standing on the surface of a neutron star. Not recommended for a healthy and happy life.

    Also, Germany is out of the World Cup.

  14. Pierce R. Butler says

    Mano Singham @ # 13 & Rob Grigjanis @ # 14 – Ahh, shucks.

    I had visions of mirages across hemispheres and other amusing apparitions.

  15. Owlmirror says

    The linked essay from the New Yorker includes:

    Flat-Earth logic is by turns mesmerizing and maddening. There is no gravity, nothing to restrain it, but as a theory it explains fewer phenomena than the theory it seeks to supplant. In the corridor, I met a documentary filmmaker—there were several milling around at the conference—who had been following the flat-Earth community for months. His face bore a look of despair. “If you’re going to dismiss everything as a hoax, you’d better have something clear to replace it,” he said, his voice rising toward apoplexy. “If you tell me your car isn’t blue and I ask you, ‘Well, what color is your car?,’ don’t fucking tell me, ‘I don’t know, but it’s not blue.’ What color is your fucking car?!”

    One might think that if someone genuinely believes that Princess Diana was deliberately murdered, they would rate the competing and incompatible theory that Princess Diana staged her own death as being less likely than the standard explanation that she died in an unfortunate accident, and vice versa. Yet the opposite appears to be how conspiracists actually think.


    Dead and Alive
    Beliefs in Contradictory Conspiracy Theories

    Conspiracy theories can form a monological belief system: A self-sustaining worldview comprised of a network of mutually supportive beliefs. The present research shows that even mutually incompatible conspiracy theories are positively correlated in endorsement. In Study 1 (n = 137), the more participants believed that Princess Diana faked her own death, the more they believed that she was murdered. In Study 2 (n = 102), the more participants believed that Osama Bin Laden was already dead when U.S. special forces raided his compound in Pakistan, the more they believed he is still alive. Hierarchical regression models showed that mutually incompatible conspiracy theories are positively associated because both are associated with the view that the authorities are engaged in a cover-up (Study 2). The monological nature of conspiracy belief appears to be driven not by conspiracy theories directly supporting one another but by broader beliefs supporting conspiracy theories in general.

    (PDF)

  16. Acolyte of Sagan says

    I still chuckle whenever I’m reminded of the tweet sent out by the Flat Earth Society, hitting back at claims that there is only a very small number of people who believe in the flat Earth ‘theory’.
    It read ‘The Flat Earth Society has members from all over the globe.’
    The first response simply said ‘Read that again, slowly.’

  17. Owlmirror says

    In Isaac Asimov’s excellent essay, The Relativity of Wrong, he mentions a mathematical point that might be useful for arguing with those who had not quite gone full conspiracist on the topic.

    To put it another way, on a flat surface, curvature is 0 per mile everywhere. On the earth’s spherical surface, curvature is 0.000126 per mile everywhere (or 8 inches per mile). On the earth’s oblate spheroidal surface, the curvature varies from 7.973 inches to the mile to 8.027 inches to the mile.

    So when a Flat Earther says that a lake looks flat all the way across, or something like that, the question to ask is “Are you absolutely certain that you can tell the difference between a line that is perfectly flat, and one that curves so shallowly that a mile away it is only eight inches lower than an actual perfectly flat line?”

    Of course, it’s quickly obvious that Flat Earthers are so dishonest and/or confused that their cosmological system contradicts actual observations. The FAQ linked to above states: “The sun simply illuminates only a portion of the earth at a time. This also explains timezones as we can then see the path of the Sun, a circle above the flat earth.”

    So according to their own model, the sun never sets; it just hovers in a circle above the flat disk of the Earth. The actual sun does actually (appear to) set. And how does the non-setting sun illuminate only a portion of the earth at a time? Is there a lampshade covering it or something?

    Another point that occurs to me is the apparent motion of the stars — in the northern hemisphere, they appear to rise and set around Polaris; in the southern hemisphere, they appear to rise and set around a point that the Southern Cross points to (the southern pole star, Sigma Octantis, is barely visible to the naked eye). At the equator, they appear to rise and set across from the east to the west across the top of the sky.

    Now, the stars should never be visible on Flat Earth at all, because the sun is constantly hovering over the disc of the Earth. But if the sun were occasionally covered by the Giant Lampshade of Night, the stars that appear should only appear to rotate around the north pole, even in Antarctica, since there is no south pole or actual equator.

    Finally, one might discuss the distances between extreme points of the Flat Earth. According to Flat Earth, if one wants to go from South America to Australia, the shortest distance is following the diameter of the disk over the central North Pole. On Roundworld, one can either take a great circle route over the south pole, or follow a line of latitude around, and either will always be shorter than a route that goes over the north pole.

    I don’t suppose a Flat Earther would be willing to wager money as to which route is actually shorter, with charted jets taking each route or something . . .

  18. Quirky says

    Mano @ #8, you wrote,
    “The flat Earth people claim that on a clear day we can see further than the curvature of the Earth would predict.”
    .
    1) Is this “claim” verifiable?
    2) If the claim is true, then what is the physical explanation for a phenomena which appears to contradict the mathematical limitations of sight?
    .
    Flat Earthers utilize a Rule of Thumb curvature formula as follows: 8″ per mile squared. This formula is extremely close but a significant error begins to accumulate after about 20 degrees of surface (approx. 1383 miles). Also this Rule is based upon the latitudal diameter and curvature of the earth at the equator. The error is more pronounced at even shorter distances the further from the equator one is located.
    .
    A more exact formula for determining curvature at any given latitudal diameter is as follows:
    Radius (1-cos (distance / circumference X 360 degrees).
    One must of course know the diameter of the earth at the particular latitude for which they seek to determine curvature.
    .
    This formula appears to correctly plot curvature for any selected mileage of earth surface. It is interesting to note that the closer to either pole of the sphere one is located, the curvature per mile increases significantly.
    .
    Taking these things into consideration I refer you once again to the above 2 questions. Utilizing present day technology, If you were seeking to develop a simple repeatable experiment to determine actual curvature at any given location on any chosen day what would you suggest?
    .
    I think that such an experiment would ultimately put the “Flat Earth Belief” to rest once and for all.

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