Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Will COVID-19 kill off flat Earthism once and for all?
One silver lining of the pandemic: The value of common sense, facts and rational decisions increases.
- The recent rise of flat-Earth theory can be explained by a certain social and political atmosphere.
- The coronavirus crisis may put an end to the flat-Earth model's already waning popularity, which has been trending down since 2017.
- Some have already argued that the coronavirus will sound the death-knell for populism. Perhaps it will prove the last straw for flat Earthism too.
Looks like a snow globe: The world according to Homer.
Image: Public domain
'It is no surprise,' writes The Economist, 'that the industry clobbered hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic is the one responsible for helping spread it to the four corners of the earth.'
Even without further context, you will have guessed the economic sector in question: the airline industry. But if you're of a particular (some would say: peculiar) mindset, another thing will have struck you about that sentence.
The four corners of the earth! Aha! How ever much they try, even the mainstream media can't completely cover up the truth: that our earth is flat, not spherical! And this in a piece about airlines!
That last bit is the icing on the cake, if you're a flat Earther. Airlines are some of the worst offenders against flat Earth truth, what with their assertions that you can fly around the world and go east by winging it west; or north, if only you keep going south long enough.
Let's not begrudge our putative flat Earthers their chuckle. For that third thing stalking the above sentence—the coronavirus—could prove more devastating for their belief system than they may yet surmise.
In the oft-quoted words of Ernest Hemingway, bankruptcies happen in two ways: "Gradually, then suddenly." That also applies to intellectual bankruptcies, and their demise too is speeded up by crises like the current one.
One silver lining of earth-shaking emergencies like these is that they tend to reaffirm the value of common sense, fact-based discourse and rational leadership. Some have already argued that the coronavirus will sound the death-knell for populism. And perhaps it will prove the last straw for flat Earthism too.
What goes up, must come down: the rise and fall of the flat-Earth trend
Image: Google Trends
As this Google Trends graph shows, flat-Earth theory had been growing in popularity since the mid-2010s—one more symptom of the generalized blurring of the line between fact and opinion. But eventually the novelty of taking 'fake news' for real starts wearing off. The popularity of 'flat Earth' as a search term peaked at the end of 2017 and has since been in decline. Two exceptions:
- The spike in March 2019 reflects media attention for a plan by flat Earthers to organize a cruise to Antarctica, which according to them is not a continent centered on the South Pole, but a giant ice wall fencing off the edges of the world. In the 'flat Earth' scenario, circling Antarctica would take more than 60,000 miles, not 14,500 miles, as in the 'Ball Earth' one. That cruise would once and for all prove the 'sun-worshippers' (i.e. proponents of scientific heliocentrism) wrong.
- A smaller spike towards the end of the graph corresponds to news about the death of 'Mad' Mike Hughes, who died this February when his homemade, steam-powered rocket crashed into the Californian desert shortly after take-off. Hughes had wanted to fly high enough above the earth to gather photographic evidence of its 'flatness'.
The cruise was scheduled for this year but may not go ahead as planned, for obvious reasons. But even if it did, and failed, that in itself wouldn't be the end of flat Earthism. Like ufology, its defeats merely enhance its belief in the vastness and intricacy of the conspiracy it seeks to unmask.
Excerpt from Tractatus de Sphaera ('On the sphere of the world'), published in 1230 AD by Johannes de Sacrobosco (a.k.a. John of Holywood), clearly showing the nautical proof for the earth's curvature. Sacrobosco's book was required reading at European universities for the next four centuries.
Image: Public domain
Flat Earthism has been endemic since the dawn of human consciousness. For indeed, our own eyes show us that our immediate surroundings are (relatively) flat. That false certainty was codified in early literature.
- In the Iliad, Homer uses the shield of Achilles as a simile for the world—a circular island under the dome of heaven (see also #288)
- Numerous references in the Bible indicate our world is flat; in Isaiah 11:12, for example, the Lord will "gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth."
But that doesn't mean that flat Earthism has been the default position throughout history, only to be 'defeated' relatively recently by modern science. Even the ancients caught on to the spherical Earth pretty quickly.
- Thousands of years ago, the earliest astronomers figured out that the data they gathered added up to the earth being round instead of flat.
- The ancient Greeks noticed that they could first see the sails and only slightly later the hulls of ships approaching their harbors. And if you're in the ship approaching a harbor, you'll see the top of its lighthouse before you see the land it stands on.
- In the 4th century BC, Aristotle pointed out that lunar eclipses always show a circular Earth shadow, and that stars appear and disappear as we move north or south.
- A century later, Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth to a remarkably accurate degree, using the different lengths of shadows at the same time of day in cities separated by a known north-south distance.
- The Middle Ages have a reputation for obscurantism, yet even then most educated people thought the earth was round.
- Columbus understood this, as he sailed west in his attempt to reach the East.
If flat Earthism lingered on until recent times, it's mainly because of Biblical literalists and other religious fundamentalists. They have fought a losing battle against the wealth of evidence increasing over the centuries, from science itself and—since the start of the space age—from the images and testimonials brought back by satellites and astronauts.
Flat Earthism has taken such a beating that it has become marginalized even within Christian creationism: Why would creationists bother to reject scientific astronomy too when they have trouble enough concentrating on just geology and biology?
The dying movement was 'saved' in recent decades by secular skeptics, who transformed religious dogma into anti-establishment meme. The frame of reference for Latter-Day Flat Earthers is not so much the Revelation as the Conspiracy. Their defense of the flat Earth is motivated by a big, bold rejection of modern life and all its hypocrisies, compromises and disappointments. It's no wonder that many of these modern flat Earthers also tick the box that says 'the Moon landings were faked'.
Gravity doesn't exist?
Orlando Ferguson's map of the square and stationary Earth (1893): "Four hundred passages in the Bible that condemn the Globe Theory, or the Flying Earth, and none sustain it; this map is the Bible map of the world."
Image: Library of Congress – Public domain.
However, even though the mountain of evidence against the flat Earth may be easily dismissed as part of the vast 'globularist' conspiracy, its main problem ultimately is its own internal inconsistency. Maximum points to Elon Musk for neatly summarizing that inconsistency in a simple question: "Why is there no Flat Mars Society?"
If our earth were a disc world, it would not only be uniquely different from easily observable objects in the sky, that uniqueness would also require an explanation beyond that of accepted science. In short, a flat Earth can only be explained by the existence of a divine Creator—or by powerful technology unknown to mankind.
On a flat Earth, many theories and observations that fit with the spherical Earth model no longer make sense. These include:
- The formation and movement of continents
- The existence of tides
- The change of seasons
- The phases of the Moon
- The existence of gravity
Yes, gravity. Flat Earthers who have given their model some thought (emphasis on some), often claim gravity doesn't exist. That's because equal gravitational pull only really makes sense on a globe. Towards the edges of a disc world, gravity would pull at you from an increasing angle instead of straight down. And not just dear old you. Air and water would also be pulled toward the central North Pole, leaving the edges bereft of both.
So, if gravity can't make a flat Earth model work… gravity must be wrong. The flat Earth counter-model: a disc world that is accelerating upward at a rate of 32 feet (9.8 meters) per second squared, giving the illusion of gravity.
Nor can flat Earthers explain why the shortest distance between Australia and South America isn't over the North Pole. Or why people at any edge of the disc see the same stars in the sky—yet those differ from the heavens at the centre of the disc.
Dustbin of geography
Map of the flat Earth, showing the ice wall at its outer limits.
Image: Public domain
These are just few slingshots from the vast and well-stocked arsenal of scientific arguments against the flat Earth model. But most flat Earthers are less interested in arguing with scientists than in cherry-picking half-truths that allow them to claim the title of lone wolves, fighting for truth against a vast network of conspirators.
But here's the thing. Just limiting ourselves to the personnel involved in the space race, that network numbers in the hundreds of thousands and is spread out over various competing countries and organizations. And yet, it has managed to enforce a total omertà for more than half a century.
That's testament to the power of the conspiracy. Yet at the same time, it is too weak to stop flat Earthers from spreading their message. But most importantly: That vast and costly conspiracy, both so successful and unsuccessful, serves no apparent purpose.
Except if that conspiracy is… 'Satanic'. Ultimately reintroducing religious fundamentalism into the belief system, the divine, flat Earth world view is at war with the globular view, which somehow supports the Devil's plan with the world.
Meanwhile, the real world has just received a deadly wake-up call from nature, which it is scrambling to contain. COVID-19 will leave a lasting impression on humankind, not all of it bad: The pandemic has demonstrated that our planet's problems do not stop at national borders, and how ill prepared we are to solve them country by country.
Perhaps this will finally urge us towards an era of truly global cooperation and progress. But at least it should eliminate our patience with fraud, quackery and self-indulgent wrong-headedness, delivering the flat Earth into the dustbin of geography, where it belongs… together with its pre-dustified cousin, the Hollow Earth (#85).
Strange Maps #1017
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- The Universe is Flat – Here's How Astrophysicists Know and Why ... ›
- Flat Earth Society ›
- Reality show about Flat Earthers - Big Think ›
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.
- Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
- The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
- The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
Jet bursting out of a blazar. Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
Cosmic death beams: Understanding gamma ray bursts<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cu2knVEk" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="c6cfd20fdf31c82cb206ade8ce21ba3f"> <div id="botr_cu2knVEk_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cu2knVEk-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Is Bitcoin akin to 'digital gold'?
- In October, PayPal announced that it would begin allowing users to buy, sell, and hold cryptocurrencies.
- Other major fintech companies—Square, Fidelity, SoFi—have also recently begun investing heavily in cryptocurrencies.
- While prices are volatile, many investors believe cryptocurrencies are a relatively safe bet because blockchain technology will prove itself over the long term.
Presentation slide from Sanja Kon's presentation on the evolution of money at 2020 Web Summit
Credit: Sanja Kon<p>The move came shortly after the payments company Square invested $50 million into Bitcoin, and after Fidelity announced that it was opening a Bitcoin fund into which qualified purchasers could invest <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-08-26/fidelity-launches-inaugural-bitcoin-fund-for-wealthy-investors" target="_blank">(minimum investment: $100,000)</a>. Together, this institutional backing might have something to do with Bitcoin's recent surge back to near its 2017 price peak of $19,783. (Bitcoin is listed at 19,384.30 as of Dec. 3.)<br></p>
Presentation slide from Sanja Kon's presentation on the evolution of money at 2020 Web Summit
Credit: Sanja Kon<p>But more importantly, it suggests cryptocurrencies might soon have the opportunity to prove themselves in real-world use cases. After all, skeptics have long doubted the ability of cryptocurrencies to go mainstream as a form of everyday payment. But people seem increasingly comfortable with digital payment systems.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The entire world is going to come into digital first," Schulman said at Web Summit, adding that PayPal's services already go hand-in-hand with cryptocurrencies. "As we thought about it, digital wallets are a natural complement to digital currencies. We've got over 360 million digital wallets and we need to embrace cryptocurrencies."</p><p>Sanja Kon, vice president of global partnerships at the cryptocurrency payments processor company UTRUST, also spoke at Web Summit about the increasing adoption of digital payments:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Physical cash is becoming more and more obsolete. And the next step in the evolution is digital currency."</p><p>Kon noted some of the inherent advantages of cryptocurrencies, namely ownership. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"For many people, this is really the main benefit of cryptocurrency: Users owning cryptocurrencies are able to control how they spend their money without dealing with any intermediary authority like a bank or a government, for example," Kon said, adding that there are no bank fees associated with cryptocurrencies, and that international transaction fees are significantly lower than wire transfers of fiat currency.</p><p>Kon said cryptocurrencies have unique growth opportunities in areas where people aren't integrated into modern banking systems:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"With cryptocurrencies and blockchain, with the use of just a smartphone and access to internet, Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies can be available to populations of people and users without access to the traditional banking system."</p>
Bitcoin as 'digital gold'<p>Still, it could take years for people to start using cryptocurrencies for everyday purchases on a large scale. Despite this, many cryptocurrency advocates see digital currencies, particularly Bitcoin, as a way to store value—digital gold, essentially.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"I don't think Bitcoin is going to be used as a transactional currency anytime in the next five years," billionaire investor Mike Novogratz recently told <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-10-23/novogratz-says-bitcoin-is-digital-gold-not-a-currency-for-now?srnd=markets-vp" target="_blank">Bloomberg</a>. "Bitcoin is being used as a store of value. [...] "Bitcoin as a gold, as digital gold, is just going to keep going higher. More and more people are going to want it as some portion of their portfolio."</p><p>There are obvious parallels between gold and Bitcoin: Both are mined, do not degrade over time, are finite in supply, and aren't directly tied to the value of fiat currency, making them <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-gold-inflation/gold-as-an-inflation-hedge-well-sort-of-idUSKCN1GD516" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">relatively invulnerable to inflation</a>. The obvious objection is that the price of Bitcoin, and cryptocurrencies in general, is far more volatile than gold.</p><p>But for investors who believe the inherent value of cryptocurrency technology will prove itself over the long term, these price fluctuations are just bumps on the long road to the future of currency. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It's no longer a debate if crypto is a thing, if Bitcoin is an asset, if the blockchain is going to be part of the financial infrastructure," Novogratz said. "It's not if, it's when, and so every single company has to have a plan now."</p>
Singapore has approved the sale of a lab-grown meat product in an effort to secure its food supplies against disease and climate change.
Approve for your dining pleasure<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="dd3f57f8baf14e654812d30a309d1f17"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/307gysA18_E?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><a href="https://www.ju.st/en-us" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Eat Just</a>, a company that produces animal-alternative food products, announced the news earlier this week. In what the company is calling a world first, Singapore has given it permission for a small-scale commercial launch of their GOOD Meat brand product line. For the initial run, the cultured chicken meat will be sold as an ingredient in "chicken bites."</p><p>"Singapore has long been a leader in innovation of all kinds, from information technology to biologics to now leading the world in building a healthier, safer food system. I'm sure that our regulatory approval for cultured meat will be the first of many in Singapore and in countries around the globe," Josh Tetrick, co-founder and CEO of Eat Just, <a href="https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20201201006251/en/Eat-Just-Granted-World%E2%80%99s-First-Regulatory-Approval-for-Cultured-Meat" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">said in a release</a>.</p><p>According to the release, Eat Just underwent an extensive safety review by the Singapore Food Agency. It provided officials "details on the purity, identity and stability of chicken cells during the manufacturing process, as well as a detailed description of the manufacturing process which demonstrated that harvested cultured chicken met quality controls and a rigorous food safety monitoring system." It also demonstrated the consistency of its production by running more than 20 cycles in its 1,200-liter bioreactors.</p><p>While Eat Just did not offer details on its propriety process, it likely follows <a href="https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24032080-400-accelerating-the-cultured-meat-revolution/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">one similar to other lab-grown meats</a>. It starts with muscle cell samples drawn from a living animal. Technicians then isolate stem cells from the sample and culture them <em>in vitro</em>. These cultured stem cells are then placed in a bioreactor, essentially a fermenter for fleshy cells. The bioreactor contains scaffolding materials to keep the growing tissue from falling apart as well as a growth material—the sugars, salts, and other nutrients the tissue needs to grow. As the cells grow, they begin to differentiate into the muscle, fat, and other cells of meat tissue. Once grown, the tissues are formed into a meat product to be shipped to restaurants and supermarkets.</p>
An abattoir abatement?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg2Mjg5OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyODg1NDI3N30.AYmFJfWQbPjK-o1IatyFHL-OLjcfXBMmQKYyvz4oT3s/img.jpg?width=980" id="8a82d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="93f824fe4c6f397ab2b65e4665847e71" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A graph showing the number of animals slaughtered in the United States per year from 1961–2018.
Credit: Our World in Data<p>Singapore's approval is an important step in support for clean meats—so-called because they don't require animal slaughter and would likely leave a reduced carbon footprint—but hurdles remain before widespread adoption is possible.</p><p>The most glaring is the price. The first lab-grown hamburger was eaten in London in 2013. <a href="https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-23576143" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">It cost roughly $330,000</a>. As with any new technology, investment, iteration, and improved manufacturing will see the price drop substantially and quickly. For comparison, Eat Just's chicken will be priced equivalent to premium chicken.</p><p>Other hurdles include up-scaling production, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-00373-w" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the need for further research</a>, and developing techniques to reliably produce in-demand meats such as fish and beef. Finally, not all countries may be as receptive as Singapore. Countries with large, entrenched meat industries may protect this legacy industry through a protracted and difficult regulatory process. Though, the meat industry itself is investing in lab-grown meat. Tyson Foods, for example, has <a href="https://euromeatnews.com/Article-Tyson-Foods-announces-investment-in-clean-meat/697" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">invested in the food-tech startup Memphis Meats</a>, the company that debuted the world's first beef meatball.</p><p>"I would imagine what will happen is the U.S., Western Europe and others will see what Singapore has been able to do, the rigours of the framework that they put together. And I would imagine that they will try to use it as a template to put their own framework together," <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-eat-just-singapore/singapore-approves-sale-of-lab-grown-meat-in-world-first-idUSKBN28C06Z" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tetrick told Reuter's during an interview</a>.</p><p>Regardless of the challenges, the demand for meat substitutes is present and growing. In 2020, plant-based substitutes like Beyond Meat and Impossible foods <a href="https://bigthink.com/coronavirus/plant-based-meat" target="_self">gained a significant foothold in supermarkets</a> as meat-packing factories became coronavirus hotspots. The looming threat of climate change has also turned people away from meat as animal products. Livestock production is environmentally taxing and leaves <a href="http://css.umich.edu/factsheets/carbon-footprint-factsheet" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a much larger carbon footprint</a> than grain and vegetable production. </p><p>Then there's the moral concern of animal cruelty. In 2018 alone, 302 million cows, 656 million turkeys, 1.48 billion pigs, and a gob-smacking 68 billion chickens were <a href="https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/animals-slaughtered-for-meat" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">slaughtered for meat worldwide</a>. And those figures do not include chickens killed in dairy or egg production.</p><p>If brought to scale and widely available, clean meats could become serious competitors to traditional meat. <a href="https://bigthink.com/technology-innovation/meat-alternatives" target="_self">One report has even predicted</a> that 60 percent of the meat people eat by 2040 won't come from slaughtered animals. It could be just the thing for people looking for a meat substitute but who find tofurkey as distasteful as, well tofurkey.</p>