A Crisis of Confidence. Or Why People Believe the Earth is Flat - Hitecher
A Crisis of Confidence. Or Why People Believe the Earth is Flat

A Crisis of Confidence. Or Why People Believe the Earth is Flat

by Pavel Trufanov

A lot of mixed up, and often confusing, knowledge about how our world works is stored in a person's head.

A lot of mixed up, and often confusing, knowledge about how our world works is stored in a person's head.

It seems that Galileo (or was it Giordano Bruno?) said that the Earth revolves around the Sun. And Columbus set sail for India but found himself in America. He did not empirically (empirical = obtained through experience) confirm that the Earth is spherical, as it turns out to be! Today, people don't have to go on a dangerous trip around the world to prove this - we have photos from space, eyewitness testimonies, astronauts, and astronomical data at our service. Finally, there is enough knowledge available to school children about the Age of Discovery (even if you skipped your astronomy lessons)...

So, why do people in the 21st century sometimes have almost medieval delusions? In their lifetime they have seen sheep cloned and people launched into space on rockets. Yes, today we will talk about the so-called flat Earth theory, the scale of which is truly enormous! But before we understand the roots of this phenomenon, let's once again walk in the footsteps of the great ancient astronomers and make sure that our planet is indeed a ball, or rather an ellipsoid.

The Earth is flat - it's obvious!

According to the generally accepted misconception, it was Columbus who became the first "eyewitness" of the Earth's curvature. This does not mean that his contemporaries and colleagues believed that the Earth was flat, but still set off on long sea voyages and risked falling from the edge of the Earth.

Indeed, the idea that the Earth is a flat disk was widespread until the 15th century. But theories that the world might be arranged somewhat differently were expressed long before the Age of Discovery. So, for example, one of the first people who wrote about this idea was the mathematician Pythagoras back in the 6th century BC. And before him, the philosopher Aristotle provided visual evidence, among other things. He showed that during a lunar eclipse the Earth casts a round shadow on the Moon! (which, in fairness, does not mean at all that the Earth is actually a sphere - it can cast such a shadow both as a flat disk and a round sphere.)

For many centuries, the world's greatest minds continued to develop the very unpopular hypotheses that the Earth was spherical. And yet they were certainly in the minority - their ideas were considered marginal, crazy, and sorcerous. It is true that most people lived on a "flat Earth" in their mind until the 15th century, and these people were completely satisfied with this knowledge.

How to calculate the circumference of the Earth while living in ancient Alexandria

Our ancient ancestors simply could not think otherwise. They did not possess our modern technologies, such as the ability to look at the Earth from afar. They also did not have any way of taking accurate measurements. In fact, the curvature of the Earth is not particularly noticeable to an observer on or near it. The horizon line appears flat at first glance. In addition, if you went out into the street at sunset day after day and you only knew about the Moon and the Sun, and no other celestial bodies, you would also decide that the Earth is disk shaped. After all, the daily movements of the Moon and the Sun look as if they move from side to side, while the Earth remains motionless. Moreover, a couple of times a year there is a lunar eclipse. This is when the Earth is positioned between the Moon and the Sun and casts a shadow. The shadow is round and disc-shaped... with this knowledge, and relying solely on observations available to their own eyes (what else could they believe if not their own eyes?), ancient scientists assumed that the edge of the Earth was located just beyond the horizon line. To assume, and even more so to prove, that the Earth is spherical you would need to be at a great distance from it. Such a luxury was not available to our ancestors, of course. They could only guess that the planet was not really a disk.

In ancient times, supporters of the flat Earth theory included the philosophers Leucippus and Democritus. However, in ancient Greece the study of geography and astronomy developed at a fairly rapid pace, so the theory quickly lost support from respected scientists of the time. The greatest role was played, of course, by the ancient Greek astronomer Eratosthenes, who had already discovered that the Earth was spherical in 240 BC and was even able to make the first accurate calculation of its size. During his experiment, Eratosthenes measured the angle between the Sun and the vertical direction of a stick on the summer solstice in Alexandria. Based on the data he obtained and the information that was available about the distance between Alexandria and Syene (where Eratosthenes first received information about the "different" behavior of shadows on the summer solstice), the astronomer could scientifically assume that the Earth was spherical. He also managed to calculate its approximate circumference to be 39,375 km, which is only a difference of 2% from the current measurement - 40,041 km.

However, mankind tends to quickly forget about the "inconvenient" facts of its own history and culture. In the early Middle Ages they started talking about the flat Earth theory once again - now it was the followers of the Antiochian theological tradition. However, by the late Middle Ages geography and astronomy had developed so much that educated people stopped believing that the Earth was flat, and religious leaders stopped opposing them.

However, despite the seemingly obvious fact that the Earth is spherical, which there should not be any doubt at all in the 21st century, there are quite a few followers of this theory living in the modern world. And although the world community of scientists does not take their arguments seriously, the scale of this trend should not be underestimated. You may not even know it but it is highly probable that your colleague or neighbor may be a "flat Earth resident". At the same time, they are not alone in their beliefs - it is difficult to guess the exact number of followers of this theory, but we would not be mistaken to say that they number in the hundreds of thousands all over the world.

Flat Earth Society

The Flat Earth Society is an organization that was originally created in England and was later revived in the United States. Their members believe the idea that the Earth is flat. The following is a summary of their beliefs:

  • The Earth is a flat disk about 40,000 kilometers in diameter.
  • The Sun and the Moon revolve above the Earth.
  • Gravity does not exist at all.
  • There is no South Pole either, and what we call Antarctica is just an ice wall around our world. What is behind the wall is unknown; the very attempt to hide this fact of the surface of the Earth is a way that the powerful forces in this world prevent mere mortals from finding out this secret. The reasons are unknown. Should we be afraid of what is beyond the edge of the Earth, or is something truly beautiful being hidden from us? Perhaps the White Walkers live there? Or, on the contrary, is there a paradise that only a few dedicated members of the world government have access to?
  • Any evidence to the contrary is fictitious and photographs from space are a hoax. NASA is the main supplier of these lies. By editing these images and working for the government, they are directly subordinate to a group of invisible puppeteers, the true world leaders (Freemasons or Rothschilds).

The history of the flat Earth movement began in the 19th century when the English inventor Samuel Rowbotham wrote a book in which he outlined his idea of the order of the world. He began to engage in active agitation, eventually becoming one of the founders of the society. Later, his teachings were adopted by the American evangelical preacher John Alexander Dowie, who in 1895 founded the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church where he also promoted the idea of a flat Earth. Wilbur Glenn Voliva took over as head of the church after Dowie died. He also continued to preach the idea of a flat Earth until he died in 1942.

The Universal Zetetic Society was also organized in the 19th century. It was later revived in the USA after the death of Samuel Rowbotham and renamed the International Flat Earth Society. In 1971, Charles Johnson was appointed as the president of the society. The number of followers of the society grew significantly under his "reign" due to more active propaganda activities. Proponents of the theory handed out leaflets and other topical literature where they actively rejected the landing of a man on the moon because they claimed it was impossible. They called the "Apollo 11" flight a Hollywood hoax.

The activist and president of the society died in 2001. Afterwards, the campaigning activity temporarily decreased. But modern problems require modern solutions: recently, the propaganda of the flat Earth theory entered a new era after receiving a rather unexpected tool - YouTube!

This may sound like a bad joke but, alas, most of the modern flat Earth theory supporters who communicated with scientists from Texas Tech University admitted that they became experts in the theory after watching videos on YouTube. Moreover, and this may be of some concern, the overwhelming majority of them began to watch the videos in order to laugh at the ridiculous theory and no less ridiculous evidence. And after a couple of days, weeks, or months these same people got so carried away by what they saw that they gradually began to believe in a flat Earth, and then completely found themselves among the ranks of followers of this theory.

If you look at the statistics, you can see that in three years (from 2015 to 2018) the number of videos for the query "flat Earth" grew from 50 thousand to several million. The most popular videos on this topic on YouTube are made, of course, by the Flat Earth Society which has adapted well to modern conditions and is trying to keep up with the times. Much of the credit goes to the current leader of the flat-earthers - Mark Sargent, an American, whose videos have already had more than 20 million views in total.

From a relatively small group of people, the society has now turned into a rather serious organization. The unification of people who believe in a flat Earth today is showing more and more signs of a subculture. They have their own welcome gestures and expressions — they greet each other by saying "Stay flat" with an arm bent horizontally parallel to the chest. They organize large-scale international conferences, do experiments, have their own channels of communication, do advertising, have celebrities (their own internal and others from the real world), and even have dating sites (because you need to build a family with your own kind!). Finally, in 2018 the documentary film about the Flat Earth Society - "Behind the Curve" was released, most of which is devoted to the stories of ordinary people who are adherents to the theory.

However, if you think that "flat Earth" is a kind of diagnosis in Western and American society, you are wrong. Yes, the Russian media rarely write about a flat Earth, but this does not mean that the widespread denial that our planet is a sphere has bypassed the Russians. According to VTsIOM (Russian Public Opinion Research Center), 3% of Russians in 2018 believed in a flat Earth. Not so many? Maybe. However, 3% is about 4.5 million people...

Flat Earth Theory: Causes and Effects

It should be noted that we are not talking about a lack of education or a low level of intelligence of "flat-Earthers". The point is rather that people find it easier to believe in a mythologized picture of the world. Yes, at school we were provided with evidence. But did we really understand it or did we just take it for a fact? It is difficult to understand the scientific picture of the world, but it is easy to believe in myths. They are clearer and more understandable and they also find some truly ancient response in the souls of people. It is not for nothing that the theory of a flat Earth formed the basis of many mythologies, as well as the religious beliefs of the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Buddhists, and Scandinavians. In Buddhism, for example, Jambudwipa which is translated as "The Land of People", is depicted as a huge flat disc surrounded by water. In the center is Mount Meru - the summit of the world, which the Sun, the Moon and the stars revolve around and the mountain slopes are continents.

And if earlier the theory became the basis for mythology about how the world is structured, now it is often reflected in culture - literature, cinema, and especially in fantasy. The series of books of the same name by Terry Pratchett is dedicated to the events in Discworld. The heroes of Clive Lewis from the series "The Chronicles of Narnia" travel to the ends of the Earth. So do the characters in the third film of "Pirates of the Caribbean" where there is an entrance to the underworld beyond the end of the Earth. Initially, J.R.R. Tolkien created Arda as a flat world. Rudyard Kipling also wrote about a flat world.

It is interesting that quite often in works of art “flat Earth” becomes a metaphor of militant ignorance. After all, you can laugh as much as you like at the fact that people once seriously believed that the Earth stood on whales, elephants, or turtles. But how is the theory of a disk located in an incomprehensible space and surrounded by a wall of ice so fundamentally different from turtles?

More than meets the eye

The significant increase in the number of supporters of the flat Earth theory that we have seen recently, in fact, exposes one rather serious problem. The flip side of this problem is, for example, the likelihood of massive deadly epidemics due to the denial of the necessity of vaccinations. How is this related? After the overwhelming increase in the availability of information in the 20th century, and all of the knowledge that the Internet promised us, humanity has come to find itself in a completely opposite situation. Information has become too available and it has become extremely difficult to weed out the truth among it.

Moreover, any person can now become a source of information. If he has status, fame, or followers they will believe him no matter how stupid he sounds. And it is highly likely that his supporters will not only spread their "knowledge" further, but also defend him and his ideas in every possible way from those who refuse to take his empty words at face value.

Humanity is experiencing a massive crisis of mistrust and is beginning to doubt what was previously thought of as impossible to doubt. The obsessive search for conspiracies, lies, and deception is explained by the high level of distrust of any facts against the backdrop of a multitude of fake news. Resisting the generally accepted ideas, people begin to form their own societies with their own truth. The Flat Earth Society is a prime example of what is called denialism, or people's tendency to deny accepted scientific facts or discoveries. There can be many reasons for denialism, from a way to find balance in the world ("we close our eyes to some facts so that others fit into the big picture") to a way to deal with fear (as, for example, in the case of denying the need to get vaccinated).

On the other hand, we are also talking about the denial of authority. Today, only representatives of the older generations tend to believe in traditional sources of information that were not subject to doubts before. Is it really true that you can trust newspapers, television, scientific institutions, scientists, and politicians if by doing one search on Google one idea is conveyed quite convincingly: you cannot trust anyone. Because everyone's goal is to make a profit and to deceive the population. Interesting statistics from 2018 were compiled by VtsIOM: 59% of Russians believe that scientists are hiding the truth from people...

Is it any wonder then, with all of the evidence available to us, that people who are living in the 21st century continue to join the ranks of flat-Earth advocates? Unfortunately, it isn't surprising because such a skew of consciousness is a direct symptom of what is happening now with information. Thanks to, and sometimes in spite of, its availability. No wonder the arguments of flat-earthers are based on reliable data and real scientific discoveries. Even though they are taken out of context, used selectively, and mixed with conspiracy theories.

In this case, arguing with a supporter of this or that theory is completely useless. The party defending its faith will demand new evidence and refuse to acknowledge what has already been put forth. Or to have some third powerful force that affects the mass consciousness intervene in the dispute.

All that remains is to empower people to believe what they want to believe, as long as it does not break the law. For example, you can watch how the famous American rapper B.o.B. (Bobby Ray Simmons) found no visual evidence that the Earth was spherical in 2016 and gets into an argument with astronauts and physicists. He then collected funds for the construction of his own satellite to prove the truth.

Or, for example, follow the experiments of the flat-earther, under the pseudonym D. Marble, who took a spirit level with him on a plane in 2017. His idea was simple: if the plane flies around the planet in an arc, and not across a flat surface, the spirit level's readings should change. The American, of course, did not notice any changes in the instrument's readings and considered this to be direct evidence that the Earth is flat.


More recently, it was reported that flat Earth followers planned to fly into space to prove their theory but the experiment failed for unknown reasons. Internet users made jokes and suggested that the Flat Earth Society swim to the edge of the planet instead. The joke was not appreciated but, on the contrary, was taken seriously. At a recent conference of the society some flat-earthers announced that they are planning to go on a cruise on a cruise ship for what they say is "the most ambitious and daring adventure in history", or simply sail to the ends of the Earth.

Having learned about such grandiose plans, The Guardian interviewed Henk Keijer who was the captain of a sea-going vessel and spent more than 23 years of his life at sea. Keijer commented on the upcoming voyage quite concise and succinctly:

“I have not encountered one sea captain who believes the Earth is flat.”

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