A Flat Earth?

Matthew Edney

To be clear at the outset:

• I do not subscribe to the flat Earth.

• I will never subscribe to the flat Earth.

• Do not waste your time trying to persuade me to subscribe to the flat Earth.

• I will not answer any questions concerning whether or not the Earth is flat.

flat earth.jpg

My interest in the resurgent belief that the Earth is flat began in September 2015, when a student asked me how he might persuade a flat Earther friend that the Earth is in fact (almost) spherical. In looking for good, simple proofs of the spherical Earth and in trying to find out how flat Earthers explain solar eclipses and hurricanes, I ran into a vast online array of texts and videos that argue for the flat Earth. Each is fascinating and compels attention, like a car wreck.

Arguments for the flat Earth should insult the intelligence of any rational thinker. I know that the Earth is almost spherical because of scientific endeavors carried on for over two thousand years. I do not have some “elite intellectual agenda” that must be sustained, even at the cost of lying about the Earth’s shape, because doing so brings me some big bucks (!) and institutional security. This is not my personal opinion; it is established science, repeatedly validated and affirmed in innumerable ways. To believe that the Earth is flat is an act of personal faith that affirms ludicrous conspiracies (up to and perhaps including the non-existence of Australia), inane interpretations of natural phenomena, and outright mendacity.

I am not interested in rebutting arguments for the flat Earth. Life is too short and my sanity too limited to rebut each and every one of the “proofs” advanced by flat Earth “theorists.” Others have already done so. Nor am I interested in rehashing over two thousand years of science to prove the Earth’s (almost) sphericity.

What I am interested in is the complexities of the flat Earther “movement,” if something so fragmented and dispersed can be called such a thing. The following is a guide to some of the more substantial resources that I’ve encountered as I have tried to understand how and why people deny the Earth’s (almost) sphericity. I will add to this account if I encounter further appropriate pages, should I ever let myself go down the rabbit hole again.

This is therefore only a guide to dealing with the phenomenon of a resurgent belief in the flat Earth:

• a quick guide to the printed literature on the history of flat Earth beliefs,

• some commentary on the communities of flat Earthers, especially as they are distinguished from creationists, and

• a few references to rebuttals of flat Earthers’ arguments, leaving perhaps the best for last.

Print Literature on the History of Flat Earth Beliefs

The basic starting points in peer-reviewed literature are:

Garwood, Christine. Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea. London: Macmillan, 2007.

• a very thorough account of the development and persistence of flat Earth beliefs in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians. New York: Praeger, 1991.

• a detailed study of the utterly mistaken belief that Columbus set out to prove that the earth was spherical, with much on the medieval acceptance of the spherical Earth.

A stalwart of the skeptic community, Robert J. Schadewald (1943–2000), wrote many pieces on flat Earthers; his collection of books, pamphlets, and clippings on pseudo-science—totaling 880 volumes and 56 boxes—is now in the special collections department of UW–Madison’s Memorial Library. (Road trip?) Some of his own essays were transcribed by now emeritus professor of physics at Lockhaven University, Donald E. Simanek, with Schadewald’s permission. These can be accessed via Simanek’s “Bob Schadewald’s Corner”; most of these pieces were reprinted (self-published through Xlibris) by his sister Lois as Worlds of Their Own: A Brief History of Misguided Ideas (2008). In addition to three essays already reproduced by Simanek, this collection includes the essays: “It’s a Small Flat World”; “He Knew Earth is Round, but His Proof Fell Flat”; and “When the Earth Was Flat in Zion.” Finally, Schadewald had a book on the flat Earth movement almost complete at the time of his death. It was lightly edited and self-published by Wendy Schadewald as The Plane Truth (2015); the link is to an open-access online version. It is, however, not as rigorously structured as an academic like me would prefer. Garwood's book is much better and for me the preferred starting point; use Schadewald's work for “color.”

The Flat Earth community

Writing in the Guardian, “Flat-Earthers are back: ‘It’s almost like the beginning of a new religion’” (20 January 2016), Beau Dure usefully traces the schisms in the flat Earth community. Reference might also be made to the Wikipedia page on Modern Flat Earth Societies.

The modern flat Earth societies have all very much been personal concerns, in that they have been organized around key individuals and their fortunes (and journals and newsletters) have tended to wax and wane along with the lives and energy of those key persons. Samuel Shenton created the “International Flat Earth Research Society” in 1956, in Dover, Kent. The society waned as Shenton’s health suffered through the 1960s until his death in 1971; at that point, his anointed successor, Ellis Hillman, wound up the society and gave Shenton’s library and papers to the Science Fiction Foundation (founded 1970); the entire SFF Collection is now housed at the University of Liverpool, although there is no mention of Shelton’s papers on the university’s library website.

But just before or after Shenton’s death, he or his widow was contacted by Charles Johnson; Shenton’s widow sent Johnson some parts of Shenton’s collection and archive, and Johnson adopted Shenton’s mantle. Johnson quickly reestablished the “International Flat Earth Research Society” in Lancaster, California. The earliest issue of Johnson’s Flat Earth News appeared in 1976, running through 1994. But a fire destroyed Johnson’s own archive and mailing list, and then Johnson’s failing health ensured that the society was moribund by his own death in 2001.

In the Internet age, new societies have developed around websites. A new society—now officially rather than just colloquially named the Flat Earth Society—was revived in 2004 by Daniel Shenton (no relation). It maintains an impressive website, https://theflatearthsociety.org/, which includes a forum for discussions and a wiki as well. It includes an extensive collection of PDFs of books, pamphlets, newsletters, etc. (including many of Schadewald’s more sympathetic essays).

In 2013, however, dissenters split off to form the Flat Earth Society (same name) but with a new website: https://www.tfes.org. Like that of the other society of the same name, this website has a library of material (much overlap), a forum, and a wiki. In both cases, the forums are intended as sites to debate particular points about flat versus spherical Earth, but I have found them unsatisfactory: each debate seems to quickly devolve into claims that the other side is being disingenuous. Both wikis are really overgrown FAQs.

A further group split off, calling itself the International Flat Earth Research Society, arguing that the existing groups were only fronts (“controlled opposition”) by non-flat Earthers who sought only to make real flat Earthers look silly. The core difference of opinion would seem to be over whether the flat Earth is static or moving. Thus, Alan Burdick, in May 2018, quoted the organizer of the 2017 International Flat Earth conference:

“More people are waking up,” [Robbie Davidson] said. Davidson was careful to note that the conferences are unaffiliated with the Flat Earth Society, which, he said, promotes a model in which Earth is not a stationary plane, with the sun, moon, and stars inside a dome, but a disk flying through space. “They make it look incredibly ridiculous,” he told me recently. “A flying pancake in space is preposterous.”

This further group has apparently had a hard time of things, but seems currently to exist through a forum at http://ifers.123.st/. At the same time, the original founder of IFERS, a yoga instructor, has gone on to create http://www.atlanteanconspiracy.com. This website is offered with a tagline redolent of modern pseudoscience and the nastier conspiracy theories—“Exposing the ‘Global’ Conspiracy from Atlantis to Zion”—and includes much about yoga and spiritual science.

The Internet also enables individuals to collect and present an array of content. Some sites can be large, but they lack the forum and communication components of the societies. They are run as personal testaments not as sites to gather the like-minded. A couple of examples:

The Biblically Flat Earth is an attractive website and “resource center,” complete with a collection of scans of key books and pamphlets. The pull-down menus across the top of the page include “Maps”: a single click takes one to a gallery of azimuthal map projections; click and hold pulls down a menu with just one item on it, specifically Urbano Monte’s 1587 manuscript world map on an azimuthal projection, recently acquired and digitized by David Rumsey, which this site’s creator incorrectly glosses as “Another ancient map, with more land, mythical creatures and a Circling Sun.”

Testing the Globe contains a number of links, but also videos of the author’s attempts to test the Earth’s sphericity.

In this modern age, conferences (or “cons” for short) have proliferated, including those for flat Earthers. I noted the 2017 conference above, and there’s a 2018 follow-up planned in Denver, Colorado. (The cons have very similar websites and seem to be interconnected institutionally, and certainly feature many of the same speakers, but they are each a distinct commercial entity.) The first British conference, in April 2018 in Birmingham, was the subject of analysis of tensions in the power/knowledge dialectic by Harry Dyer, a lecturer in Education at the University of East Anglia: “I watched an entire Flat Earth Convention for my research – here’s what I learnt” (2 May 2018).

See also Alan Burdick’s “Looking for Life on a Flat Earth,” in the New Yorker (30 May 2018), which begins with an attempt to launch a human in a homemade rocket far enough to see the supposed disk of the earth and so disprove NASA, airlines, and everyone else who has engaged in an epic, centuries-long conspiracy to obscure the fact of the flat earth—a conspiracy in which both sides in the Cold War participated, I should add, despite profound ideological differences on almost every other topic under the Sun—and then continues with the November 2017 conference, etcetera, to again wonder about the mindset of flat Earthers in our post-truth world.

It seems that there is also a flat Earth museum on Fogo Island, Newfoundland. It has a FaceBook page. Road (and ferry) trip, anyone?

Creationism vs the flat Earth

One does not have to be committed to Biblical literalism to think that the Earth is flat, but a commitment to the literal truth of the Bible underpins the main works in support of the flat Earth. The nineteenth-century assertions of a flat Earth were grounded in a Biblical literalism and rejection of modern life (and evolution, etc.) by certain Protestants. (This also relates to interpretations of the Qur’an.)

Flat Earth beliefs thus cause a certain problem for other Biblical literalists—notably the creationists—who accept that the Earth is indeed spherical, or at least curved. One compromise between the two positions is Orlando Ferguson’s “Map of the Square and Stationary Earth” (1893) in which a curved Earth rises from a depression in an otherwise flat and stationary square. An alternative perspective has been to argue that flat Earth theories were specifically created to appeal to Christian fundamentalists so as to discredit them and therefore their skepticism of Darwinian evolution (as argued in 2008 in the Journal of Creation).

More recently, a researcher and author for Answers in Genesis has sought to distance creationism from flat Earth theory. Dr. Danny R. Faulkner holds a PhD in Astronomy from Indiana University (1989) and has written a number of blog posts on flat Earthers on the AiG website. The summary of what seems to be his first blog on the subject, “Is the Earth Flat?” (24 May 2016), states:

Popular today due to Internet videos, the idea of a flat earth lacks both biblical and scientific support and shows a faulty understanding of history. Flat-earth arguments are generally a misrepresentation or misinterpretation of the evidence. Both science and the Bible confirm beyond doubt the earth is a sphere.

In November 2017, Dr. Faulkner attended a conference of flat Earthers: “What I Learned at the First Flat Earth International Conference” (17 November 2017). He admits his disappointment:

I had expected that I would hear and see information about flat-earth that I hadn’t encountered already, but that wasn’t the case. Many of the presentations largely were personal testimonies of how people had come to believe in flat earth. Hence, I didn’t learn much about the flat-earth model that I didn’t already know. However, I did learn much about the flat-earth movement itself. In conversations and in the presentations, I learned how people came to lose jobs, friends, and even family members once they, in their own words, “came out of the closet about flat earth.” Therefore, many of the people in attendance clearly viewed the meeting as a safe refuge where they could meet ostracized people like themselves.

When presenters did make arguments, Dr. Faulkner found them weak and readily refutable. (My irony meter has swung all the way to 11, but Dr. Faulkner’s seems stuck at 0.)

[24 Jun 2019: Dr. Faulkner has further elaborated about both the theological and critical faculties of flat Earthers in a further post, “Reflections on the Flat-Earth Movement” (22 June 2019), in which he promises a forthcoming book; more particularly, he offers 20 sociological observations about flat Earthers.]

Conspiratorial Tendencies

While the original flat Earth societies were undeniably driven by a concern for Biblical literalism, a concern that does seem to underpin the proliferation of the online videos that purport to “prove” the flat Earth, I must agree with Skeptoid (27 November 2012) that the resurgence is also driven by the same sociological morass that supports conspiracy theories generally. The idea that the Moon landings were faked was first proposed in 1976; only in 1980 did Charles Johnson argue that they were faked to hide the reality of the flat Earth, and since then great conspiracies involving NASA, Soviet and European space agencies, etcetera etcetera, have been par for the course for flat Earthers. In “What Flat Earth Memes Tell Us about Conspiracy Theories” (30 June 2017), Michael Rothschild explained the schisms among flat Earthers in terms of their adherence to religious beliefs or general social paranoia:

While the official Flat Earth Society is devoted almost entirely to backstopping flat earth beliefs by way of the Bible, the numerous other flat Earth Facebook groups like “Flat Earth Society,” “Official Flat Earth and Globe Discussion” and “Flat Earth - No Trolls,” are just as likely to spend their time pushing random memes, general conspiracy theories, and blanket questioning of accepted scientific principles as they are to discuss whether the Earth is flat or round.

Rothschild further found that flat Earth commentators tend to be strongly anti-Semitic. But also the critics, too. Conspiratorial and anti-Semitic tendencies are evident in claims that the entire flat Earth movement is a “psychological operation” (“psy-op”):

The Flat Earth fad is a “conspiracy theory” designed to distract, divide and discredit those who understand modern society has been enslaved by the Judeo Masonic (Satanic) conspiracy. It creates cognitive dissonance, and makes us question all our assumptions, especially those which are True. (Henry Makow, 3 February 2016)

[14 Oct 2018: It has become common, it seems, to present flat Earth theorists as motivated strictly by conspiracy. A CBS news report—prompted, I think, by the release of the film, First Man, a biopic of the life and career of Neil Armstrong—quoted the attribution by a “national security expert” of the belief as strictly a function of anti-intellectual “snobbery” and a collapse of both authority and education. As quoted in a secondary report at DailyKos, which includes the requisite video,

But national security expert Tom Nichols told CBS News that the Flat Earth trend is part of a bigger problem. "People have lost faith in experts," he said. "We've developed a kind of reverse snobbery that says, if you have a great deal of education, if you're at a well-known institution, by definition, you must be a liar."

"Younger people will say, 'The internet is a big library,'" he continued. "That's wrong. The internet is a big dumpster. There's no guarantee that anything you find on it is true."]

I’m going to stop here, because this way madness lies … follow such lines of reasoning and all truth and certainty just evaporates.

[1 Sep 2019: a study by scholars at the LSE argues that belief in FE among Filipinos is conspiratorially motivated and religiously based. Interestingly, their social media groupings have incubated a variety of “fake news” with a markedly right-wing political bias.]

Rebuttals of flat Earth theories

In case anyone is still interested. At least one book has been published to rebut the “proofs” of the flat Earthers:

Brooks, Gordon S. The Earth Is Not Flat. n.p.: n.p., 2016. ** a self-published analysis of, and rejoinder to, the flat Earth phenomenon; the associated website has some good explanation of tests to prove the sphericity of the earth: http://embracetheball.blogspot.com/.

Given that the resurgence of flat Earthers seems to have been driven by YouTube videos (many with high production values), the rebuttal of the “proofs” advanced has also been a YouTube phenomenon. I like a short series by VoysovReason:

Proving the Earth is not Flat - Part 1 - The Horizon (11 June 2016)

Proving the Earth is not Flat - Part 2 - The Stars (18 July 2016)

Proving the Earth is not Flat - Part 3 - The Moon (8 October 2016)

Proving the Earth is not Flat - Part 4 - Easy Experiments (4 March 2017)

See also the commentaries at https://flatearthinsanity.blogspot.com/.

My favorite debunking of flat Earth theory is by Vsauce: Is Earth Actually Flat (4 December 2014). It includes a wonderful simulation by Yeti Graphics of how gravity would work on a disk-shaped Earth. Very cool! Of course, to sustain a flat Earth, many flat Earthers dispute even that there is a natural force of gravity … and are then led into paroxysms of stupidity to account for gravity and its effects (such as the trajectories of artillery shells).

Update 5 July 2018: An anti-flat earth "flat earth" map

A new chronoscope—i.e., a map illuminated so as to show the constantly changing areas of day and night—has been published online. The chronogeoscope is particularly remarkable for its azimuthal equidistant projection centered on the south pole, so Antarctica is tiny (comparatively) and placed in the middle of the map. This projection was made because, seen "from below," the earth moves in a clockwise direction:

A screen capture of the Chronogeoscope, 5 July 2018

A screen capture of the Chronogeoscope, 5 July 2018

I am amused by this projection, as it seems to replicate the world image sustained by the flat Earthers, but does so from an entirely new perspective.

I should add that if one centers an equidistant, equalarea, or conformal (stereographic) projection on Hawaii, then Africa becomes a great landmass surrounding the entire earth!

Update 3 Sep 2018

I love this French cartoonist who occasionally translates his work into English. Here's his wonderfully different take on the flat earth (31 Aug).