The internet is a strange place, with few corners stranger than the one where people legitimately believe that the Earth is flat, and that the vast majority of humans have been trapped by an enormous conspiracy to keep us from the truth.
From this perspective, the world is flat because it appears to be so. There are no pictures at the edge of the flat Earth because it is encircled by the great icy mass of Antarctica, which is guarded by NASA. Those photos of Earth from space are doctored and released by NASA in a grand conspiracy to keep the planet’s most basic secret.
Flat Earthers are victims of a very powerful confirmation bias, which allows them to mentally discard data that doesn’t fit a pre-existing worldview. But being stuck in a certain way of thinking is quite different from not thinking at all, and flat-Earthers do a great deal of mental gymnastics to prop up their untenable theory. They are constantly searching for new evidence — something to point to and say, “See, I was right.” They’re wrong, but they’re not crazy.
Lately, the flat-Earthers have latched on to a particular idea that is gaining traction in the community: You’ve been lied to about the position of the sun in the sky; It cannot be 93 million miles away, for it is no higher than the clouds; I have proof.
Let’s review the evidence.
The sun sets among, not beyond, the clouds
Take a video of a sunset on a partially cloudy day and you just might glimpse this phenomenon. There are clearly some clouds in front of the sun, darkening parts of its surface. But there are also fainter clouds that seem farther away — they pop out on either side of the sun as if they were running along behind it.
It’s not hard for a round-Earther to understand the optical illusion here — that a camera’s sensor is not subtle enough to “see” a faint cloud in front of a very bright sun. But if your worldview imagines the sun as a sort of spotlight tracing circles around a flat plane, it’s easier to trust that it’s Big Science, and not your eyes, that fool you.
Pilots above the clouds are higher than the sun
Here’s another head-scratcher — pilots capture video of themselves flying above a sea of clouds with sunlight streaming up from below. If you’re already primed to the idea that the sun is quite low in the sky, it’s possible to interpret that the sun is almost directly below the plane in these shots, between it and the Earth.
Of course, pilots can fly above the sun in a globe-Earth model, too. They are not farther from Earth than the sun, but above it in terms of their relative position. If you imagine the planes flying directly on top of a spherical world, and the sun setting over the horizon, of course the sun is lower than the pilots and the clouds below them. The bright clouds below the plane are not an indication of how close the sun is, but how powerful its rays are, and how good a job clouds do at reflecting and scattering that light.
Planes can fly clean through the sun
Here’s a good example where new evidence has flat-Earthers digging in their heels on their perceptions of the world when they should instead be starting to ask if camera lenses and eyes can sometimes play tricks on you. Last year a YouTuber named Shahzwar Bugti captured what he said appeared to show a plane flying right through the sun — entering one side and popping out the other in a burst of solar spray. It’s a trick of the light, like the clouds that appear to be behind the sun, and yet it attracted over a million views and a great deal of discussion.
“Looks fake, but my mind is open for the real thing,” writes one commenter. Just try to tell a flat-Earther that they are closed-minded. It is you who is not open-minded enough, they will argue. And don’t bother bringing up ships coming over the horizon, time zones, and the shadow of the Earth on the moon. Your eyes are tricking you, they’ll say, without a hint of intended irony.