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?

Creative Commons

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.

A still from the film "We Became Fragments" by Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller, part of the Global Oneness Project library.

Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Stories are at the heart of learning, writes Cleary Vaughan-Lee, Executive Director for the Global Oneness Project. They have always challenged us to think beyond ourselves, expanding our experience and revealing deep truths.
  • Vaughan-Lee explains 6 ways that storytelling can foster empathy and deliver powerful learning experiences.
  • Global Oneness Project is a free library of stories—containing short documentaries, photo essays, and essays—that each contain a companion lesson plan and learning activities for students so they can expand their experience of the world.
Keep reading Show less

Four philosophers who realized they were completely wrong about things

Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?

Sartre and Wittgenstein realize they were mistaken. (Getty Images)
Culture & Religion

Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways. 

Keep reading Show less

The history of using the Insurrection Act against Americans

Numerous U.S. Presidents invoked the Insurrection Act to to quell race and labor riots.

The army during riots in Washington, DC, after the assassination of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., April 1968.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • U.S. Presidents have invoked the Insurrection Act on numerous occasions.
  • The controversial law gives the President some power to bring in troops to police the American people.
  • The Act has been used mainly to restore order following race and labor riots.
Keep reading Show less

Experts are already predicting an 'active' 2020 hurricane season

It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

Image source: Shashank Sahay/unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

Scroll down to load more…