Let’s cut right to the chase: How the hell are flat-Earthers still a thing? How did we get to a point in today’s society where a rapper without a hit in years can light up social media with a screed about how Earth is a completely flat plane, then bait a preeminent science celebrity into a bizarre rap beef?
Okay, that’s perhaps a bit harsh, especially given the fact that the stakes are so low. Flat-Earthers aren’t dead, but there’s 2,000 years of science riding on this. Nevertheless, it’s excruciatingly aggravating to see a slew of celebrities coming out and unabashedly declaring their belief in the flatness of the world. Come on, Kyrie Irving — your team is the reigning NBA champs! Your antics are starting to get Neil deGrasse Tyson riled up again!
The problem will, unfortunately, be a persistent one. Nearly every ancient civilization mythologized their perception of the world as a mass of flat land floating on the ocean.
Thank the ancient Greeks for kicking off the spherical Earth gospel — first in 600 B.C. from Pythagoras, then 500 B.C. via Parmenides. By 330 B.C., the most influential philosopher of Western civilization, Aristotle, came out as a “round-Earther.”
By 200 B.C., Ptolemy had drafted an atlas of the globe using latitude and longitude lines. Pliny the Elder, a pal of Roman emperor Vespasian in the first century, used his influence to push for greater round Earth acceptance among the empire’s populace. It would still be more than a dozen centuries before the Copernican revolution succeeded in demonstrating the Earth is not the center of the universe, but this meant the Church — a central figure in the early days of science — supported the idea of a round Earth.
Up to this point, no one had traveled the earth to prove its roundness. European debate, in particular, centered about the existence of the antipodes — the opposite poles of the globe — and whether those portions of the world had landmasses.
As astronomy became a more robust science, more evidence began to accumulate to suggest the world was round. Europe and the Islamic world alike seem to have reached this same conclusion at approximately the same time; the Jesuits, already revered for their mastery of science and technology, helped spread both Christianity and round worldness to the rest of the world.
As the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould once quipped, “There never was a period of ‘flat Earth darkness’ among scholars … Greek knowledge of sphericity never faded, and all major medieval scholars accepted the Earth’s roundness as an established fact of cosmology.”
There’s a pervasive notion that Protestant religions espoused a belief in a flat Earth in the 17th century as a way to spur some beef against Catholic teachings (which was ironically peripherally supported by atheists and agnostics), driven by the writings of John William Draper, Andrew Dickson White, and Washington Irving. But there’s no real evidence to support this.
Instead, the reason the flat-Earther movement became, well, a movement, seems to stem instead from the ideological conflict brought about by the Darwinian evolution. Historian Jeffrey Burton Russell, who has written extensively about flat-Eartherism, says the myth reached its peak between 1870 and 1920, when evolution was hotly debated.
Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution did not just upend biology — it pit the scientific world against the religious world. Each side seemed to be openly hostile towards each other. Russell suggests this conflict led many who rejected evolution to begin actively dabbling in other dubious ideas that ran counter to mainstream science, including flat-Eartherism.
Apart from a few straggling school districts in southern and midwestern America, evolution is a generally accepted fact. Nevertheless, flat-Earthers are here, emboldened by the power of the internet inundate the rest of us with more of this garbage.
It isn’t too hard to see why some people might have (poorly-argued) suspicions that the Earth is flat. Flat-Earthers are wrong, but they’re not actually crazy. Belief in a flat Earth is tied to the same reasons people believe in conspiracy theories: It’s less about uncovering “the truth,” and more about trying to find control. It’s an empowering feeling to think you might understand something better than the rest of the world does, and that the vast majority of civilization is marred by a foolish, sheep-like tendency to just accept what others tell them.
The internet has unfortunately provided a validation platform to modern-day flat-Earthers. These people use to be ostracized for railing against the intelligentsia and academia. But the internet hosts websites and forums dedicated to preaching the batshit science of a flat Earth, insisting they are correct, that the truth will set them free.
Flat-Earthers, of course, are exposed to same scientific data (hell, even the same pictures from space that show the curvature of the planet) as the rest of us. But if you’re a skeptic about what most people accept to be true, you’re also likely to denounce the evidence those ideas are built from.
Of course, not all is lost. Conspiracy theorists can change their minds! It’s all a matter of fostering critical thinking skills in order to combat the kind of casual connections people are prone to make (e.g. “The world must be flat because it looks flat where from where I’m standing.”).
Perhaps the only thing that may actually satisfy all parties in this debate is to send Flat-Earthers over the edge of the world. It would be a hell of a way to prove scientists of the last couple millennia wrong, right?