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Why Do Some People Still Believe the Earth is Flat?

Courtesy of Louis Reed, Unsplash

MK writes: “Is it true that there are people who still believe the earth is flat?”

Yes, it is. In fact, the Flat Earth Society has been around since the 1950’s and has claimed anywhere from 100 to several thousand flat-earth believing members in its roughly 75 year history.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, even though we have known that the earth is round since the sixth century, the contrary view that the earth is flat has never really disappeared. Even in contemporary times, people have chosen to believe that the earth really is flat and that the idea of it being round is part of a conspiracy perpetuated by scientists to replace religion with science. The basis for this belief is the fact that in biblical times, people still believed that the earth was flat, therefore it is, and whatever science has determined since that time is to be disregarded.

The Flat Earth Society began as a small fringe group with a man named Samuel Shenton in the 1950’s. It was not until the group came under the leadership of Charles Kenneth Johnson in 1972 that it was transformed from a small group of conspiracy theorists into an organization that boasted thousands of members.

In the obituary that appeared in The New York Times at the time of his death in 2001, Johnson was described as a man who “regarded scientists as witch doctors pulling off a gigantic hoax so as to replace religion with science. He based his own ideas on the Old Testament references to a flat earth and the New Testament saying that Jesus ascended into heaven.”

He published a newsletter that contained answers for all kinds of questions about why we should believe the earth is flat. For example, sunrises and sunsets are just optical illusions. The moon landing was an elaborate hoax that was filmed in a hangar in Arizona. When asked about eclipses of the sun, Johnson told the Times in 1979, “’We really don’t have to go into all that. The Bible tells us the heavens are a mystery.’’

What exactly does a flat earth look like?

According to Rachel Brazil writing for Physics World, flat-earthers have various ideas about what a non-spherical planet looks like.

“Some models propose that the Earth’s edges are surrounded by a wall of ice holding in the oceans. Others suggest our flat planet and its atmosphere are encased in a huge, hemispherical snow globe from which nothing can fall off the edges. To account for night and day, most flat-Earthers think the Sun moves in circles around the North Pole, with its light acting like a spotlight. The most recent ‘US model’, for example, suggests that the Sun and Moon are 50 km in diameter and circle the disc-shaped Earth at a height of 5500 km, with the stars above this on a rotating dome. Many flat-Earthers also reject gravity, with the ‘UK model’ suggesting that the disc is itself accelerating up at 9.8 m/s2 to give the illusion of gravity.”

As ludicrous as it all sounds flat-Earth believers are cropping up in the most unexpected places, such as in 2017 when rapper B.o.B. (Bobby Ray Simmons, Jr.) started a crowd funding campaign to launch a satellite that could be used to prove that our planet is a disc rather than a globe. WWE wrestler A.J. Styles is also a believer, although he keeps this to himself and only shares it in the locker room. Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs and NBA star Kyrie Irving are also believers in a flat earth.

Courtesy of Kajetan Sumila, Unsplash

As is the case for most conspiracy theories, social media sites such as YouTube, have become a hub for flat earth and other conspiracies and they’re having an impact on the population. At least 50 percent of Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory ranging from a belief that George Soros is trying to take over the world to a government plot to orchestrate a switch to fluorescent bulbs because they make people easier to control.

It might be easy to dismiss people who believe in conspiracies such as a flat-Earth as just being uneducated, but researchers say it actually goes much deeper.

“It’s not really an education thing,” says Asheley Landrum, a psychologist from Texas Tech University. “It really is about distrusting authorities and institutions. [It] seems to be based on both a conspiracy mentality and a deeply held belief that looks a lot like religiosity but isn’t necessarily specifically tied to a religion.”

She goes on to say that conspiracy mentality is linked to science denial and a susceptibility to believing deceptive claims on social media. She believes those with a conspiracy mentality have simply lost the ability to judge when to trust and when to be a sceptic. “Their lack of trust in authority includes not just scientists but scientific bodies such as NASA, all of whom (they think) are part of a massive conspiracy to prevent the flat-Earth truth being revealed. “[They] view the world through this really dark filter where [they] assume that all authorities and institutions and corporations are just there to exploit you.”

This could explain why Brazil claims that, “many flat-Earthers are more invested in the idea of a conspiracy than in providing a workable model of a flat Earth.” In other words, they believe in a flat earth, not because there’s evidence of it, but because this is what they want to believe.

As Lee McIntyre, a philosopher at Boston University said, “Flat-Earthers seem to have a very low standard of evidence for what they want to believe, and an impossibly high standard of evidence for what they don’t want to believe.”

If you have a family member who has become involved in the flat-Earth movement, be prepared for an uphill battle when it comes to convincing them these ideas are nonsense.

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