Understanding the core tenets of the flat-Earth hypothesis
The Flat Earth theory has gained a surprising amount of traction in recent years, thanks largely to YouTube. What exactly do Flat Earthers believe?
In 1492, Columbus set sail for the New World based on the assumption that Earth was round. Why not? After all, according to historian Jeffrey Burton Russell, “no educated person in the history of Western Civilization from the third century B.C. onward believed that the Earth was flat."
But nearly 500 years later, an American man was planning a voyage based on the exact opposite assumption. Mike Hughes, a 61-year-old limo driver, was going to launch himself into space to prove that Earth is flat. Mechanical complications and the federal government shot that idea down, however. (For now at least.)
Hughes isn't alone in his theory. Thousands of people — from musicians to football players — believe Earth is flat, and that the world's elite are duping citizens around (across?) the globe with a “globularist" conspiracy.
How is that possible?
Many cultures in world history conceptualized the physical world in ways that didn't include a spherical Earth. The ancient Chinese believed Earth to be a flat square, and that only the heavens were spherical. In multiple Indian models of the physical world, Earth was comprised of four continents surrounding a mountain. And the ancient Norse peoples pictured Earth as a disc floating in the middle of a sea inhabited by a giant serpent.
These ideas, however, were first challenged as early as 2,500 years ago. In the 4th century BC, Aristotle provided some of the first evidence showing that Earth was round: ships disappear hull first when sailing over the horizon, Earth casts a round shadow on the moon during lunar eclipses, and different constellations are visible at different latitudes.
Aristotle's evidence would be corroborated and elaborated upon extensively over the following millennia. But it seems that nothing — not even GPS technology or manned space flights — can convince some people that Earth is round.
In the modern era, the Flat Earth movement started in 1956 with a young British man named Samuel Shenton. Inspired by an 1881 book titled Zetetic Astronomy: Earth Not a Globe, Shenton founded the Flat Earth Society. A year later the Soviets launched Sputnik 1., rendering the plausibility of his theory questionable, to say the least. Shenton died believing Earth was flat. The next leader, Charles K. Johnson, passed away in 2001, leaving the dwindling organization with just 3,500 members. Then the Internet breathed new life into this ancient worldview.
So what exactly do modern Flat Earthers believe? There isn't one exclusive Flat Earth model, but the Flat Earth Society's website provides a general outline on what seems to be the community's consensus.
The World Is Disc-Shaped
According to Flat Earthers, the world is a disc with edges beyond which no one knows what exists.
"The earth is surrounded on all sides by an ice wall that holds the oceans back. This ice wall is what explorers have named Antarctica," reads the Flat Earth Society's FAQ. "Beyond the ice wall is a topic of great interest to the Flat Earth Society. To our knowledge, no one has been very far past the ice wall and returned to tell of their journey. What we do know is that it encircles the earth and serves to hold in our oceans and helps protect us from whatever lies beyond."
Some believe an infinite plane lies beyond the wall. Some believe you'd fall into outer space if you crossed it, which seems to be a tough feat — estimates vary, but the average proposed height of the wall seems to be something like 150 feet.
The Moon and the Sun are the Same Size
Flat Earthers believe the moon and the sun are the same size — a relatively tiny 32 miles in diameter — and that they orbit around the North Pole.
Gravity Doesn't Exist
Our understanding of gravity largely depends on Earth being a spherical object — that explains why objects maintain essentially the same weight across the globe. But Flat Earthers disagree: "Objects simply fall," reads the society's website. Flat Earthers have a few theories as to why objects fall, but they seem pretty confident that the common conception of gravity isn't the ticket: "What is certain is sphere earth gravity is not tenable in any way shape or form."
The Moon Landing Was Faked and Astronauts Are Lying
The U.S. was so caught up in the Space Race, Flat Earthers claim, that it faked the moon landing and only later discovered that Earth was indeed flat. The government then decided to perpetuate this lie, for a multitude of reasons. As for the astronauts in the space shuttles?
"Most Flat Earthers think Astronauts have been bribed or coerced into their testimonies," the Flat Earth Society's website reads. "Some believe they have been fooled or are mistaken."
Easy Ways To Prove Earth Is Round
Want to find out for yourself that Earth is round without launching yourself into space on a homemade rocket? One of the coolest and cheapest ways is to attach a camera onto a high-altitude balloon and let it rise until the curvature of the planet is visible to the naked eye.
You can also observe the constellations from different parts of the world. You'll soon notice that different stars are visible from different vantage points, as Aristotle pointed out in the 4th century BC. This implies that Earth is round — that or all of the stars in the universe are orbiting around Earth at a fixed speed.
If all else fails, take a note from Aristotle and go to the harbor — you'll notice that ships disappear hull first.
Political activism may get people invested in politics, and affect urgently needed change, but it comes at the expense of tolerance and healthy democratic norms.