Why Do People Believe The Earth Is Flat?

The insidious, anti-science undertones that are growing conspiracy theories across the globe

Danny Kane
Jul 22, 2020 · 5 min read
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A popular depiction of the ‘flat Earth’

You’ll often hear it said that more people believe the Earth is flat today than did in the Middle Ages. In our age of the internet, antibiotics, germ theory and gene splicing, hundreds of thousands of people still believe that the Earth is flat. Why?

What leads people to turn away from scientific fact, into the arms of conspiracy theorists and fringe theories? Why, despite irrefutable evidence to contrary, do some people hold out against facts? Is it because they are the one true guardians of an earth-shattering truth, as they claim, or is there something far more unsettling beneath their beliefs.

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Earth

We have known the Earth was round since at least 240BC. A Greek mathematician named Eratosthenes observed a well at local noon in Syene on the summer solstice, he looked down a well and saw that there was no shadow. In Alexandria, on the same day, the sun was also measured at local noon and found to be at a 7-degree angle. 7 degrees is about 1/50th of a circle (360 degrees). From this one simple measurement, Eratosthenes was able to estimate the Earth’s circumference and prove that it was round.

This was 2260 years ago. Today our ways of estimating are a little more advanced, but even without modern equipment, you can simply observe the curvature of the Earth by watching a ship sail away. The bottom will vanish first, due to the Earth’s curvature. By the 1400s, it was commonly accepted knowledge that the Earth was round.

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The UN logo — many flat earthers believe this is the true depiction of the Earth

There are many people, 6.5 million (2% of the population) in the US alone, however, who challenge over two millennia of science. The exact nature of their belief beyond ‘the Earth is flat’ is unknown to most of us, but the flat Earth model is anything but simplistic.

To start, the day/night cycle is explained by the fact that the sun and moon, both of which are 32 miles (51.5km) in diameter, rotate above the earth on a plane. This plane is 3000 miles (4828km) in the air. The stars are on a similar plane, 3100 miles (4989km) above the Earth and rotate in conjunction with the day/night plane. There is also an invisible ‘anti moon’, a second celestial body that is responsible for the phases of the moon as it moves across it.

Gravity is a controversial concept within the community, but it’s generally accepted that we are not held to Earth by gravity, but rather Earth is accelerating upwards at 32ft per second squared. The underside of the Earth is unknown. Lastly, the Antarctic continent stretches around the exterior of the disk, stopping us all from falling off. Interestingly, they also appear to believe that Earth is the only flat planet, with the Flat Earth Society tweeting in response to Elon Musk: “Mars has been observed to be round.”

All photos of a round Earth are faked, all GPS aims to confuse pilots into thinking they’re flying around a globe. The reasoning for the propagation of the ‘fake’ round Earth theory is said to be financially motivated. It’s cheaper for Governments and the uber-rich to keep us all in denial and fake a space programme, rather than actually venturing out into the stars.

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Earth from space, with it’s curvature clearly visible

It’s easy to dismiss flat earthers as a fringe group clinging to ideas that even their Middle Ages counterparts would’ve laughed off. But dismissing them is dangerous because it ignores a larger problem — the rising tides of populism and anti-science.

Samuel Birley Rowbotham, one of the first flat earther revivalists in the late 1800s, wrote a pamphlet entitled ‘Zetetic Astronomy: Earth Not a Globe’, publishing it under the pseudonym Parallax. In it, he outlines many of the early flat Earth beliefs and also demonstrates the method of enquiry that would come to be named after the pamphlet — the zetetic method.

‘Zetetic’ is a Greek word which means ‘proceeding by enquiring’. Unlike other scientific methods, the zetetic method relies on sensory-based observations. For example, ‘I observe the Earth to be flat, therefore it is flat.’ It also borrows from René Descartes, ‘Cartesian doubt’, which essentially is the philosophical notion the world outside of yourself is prone to uncertainty.

Human beings are by nature prone to misjudge things. Our memories deceive us, our senses lie to us, and even our bodies appear different to us than they are. For a simple example of this, look no further than your nose, which although you can always see, is permanently ‘edited’ out of your vision by your brain.

What the majority of us today accept as ‘the scientific method’ evolved because humans are so inconsistent. To prove something is truly scientific, it needs to be proved beyond all shadow of a doubt and constantly tested against new data. The zetetic method is the antithesis of this.

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The Flammarion Engraving (artist unknown) — a traveller bows his head where heaven and earth intersect

People believe in conspiracy theories for a variety of reason but for the most part, it comes down to one thing — mistrust of the mainstream. The same forces that have inspired thousands to turn away from science and toward what was once a fringe theory, are the same forces that fuelling the continuing rise of populism.

Flat earthers often distrust experts, the mainstream media and find echo chambers within online communities. A small vocal group can take over these spaces and greatly amplify their voice. This is known broadly as a ‘minority influence’. Platforms like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, further widen the divide, their algorithms separating the ‘believers’ from the ‘non-believers’. The leaders of these movements, those that utilise these platforms, are often charismatic, inviting storytellers welcoming in those disaffected by the mainstream.

Flat earthers may seem innocuous. A fringe group advocating something that is clearly false. While it would be easy to disregard them, we shouldn’t, because the movement is growing, just as the anti-vaxxers, anti-mask, and fake news movements are. These fringe groups, centred around popularism and distrust of the mainstream, are slowly themselves becoming the mainstream.

The political shifts across the globe in recent years demonstrated the power that populism and those ‘sick of experts’ could have. Today, anti-vaxxers and flat earthers remain on the outside, but if populism continues to dominate politics, anti-science and conspiracy theories could become the new standard for what we teach our children, setting even something as simple as the way we view our world back nearly 2 millennia.

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Danny Kane

Written by

Food fan, writer and history nerd. Sometimes I combine the three and write about them here :)

Science and Philosophy

Medium’s center for scientifically-informed content.

Danny Kane

Written by

Food fan, writer and history nerd. Sometimes I combine the three and write about them here :)

Science and Philosophy

Medium’s center for scientifically-informed content.

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