The Earth is not flat … I think


I read a story in The Washington Post last week about a man named Mike Hughes who believes that Earth is flat and who tried to leave it in a homemade rocket. The whole event was a miserable failure. I found the fact that Hughes could build rockets, fundamentally understanding the physics involved in that process, and also believe that the Earth is flat, to be incredible. Science is both friend and foe to this guy.

It is indeed quite astounding, that, in 2018, people still believe the Earth is flat. I’m not a scientist, but I thought the Earth being round was settled science.

Not for the Flat Earth Society. This is a website whose entire guiding principle seems to be –and allow me here to adapt and modify a line from “The Royal Tenenbaums” – Well, everyone knows that the earth is round. What our thesis presupposes is … maybe it isn’t?

I initially thought maybe the Flat Earthers were just doing this as a lark, a fun little diversion. You know, just actively spreading pseudoscience, adding to the overabundance of bogus information out there in this “post-fact, post-truth” world. Good times.

But they’re serious. Which is worse. They say things on the site such as, “… Round Earth doctrine is little more than an elaborate hoax,” and they impugn the “liberal round-earth agendas of our ‘top’ universities.” The most recent post I saw urged people to “exercise more caution when approaching online content. Exercise critical thinking,” which is sage advice but devoid of any irony.

Nowhere on the site can you find any credentials, scientific or otherwise, of the people who run it. It’s really just a collection of conspiratorial hot garbage. Unsurprisingly, they also think Elon Musk’s recent SpaceX launch of a Tesla car into space was fake.

Why do people believe crazy things like this? I think it could be that people like having a sense of control over a narrative, that they can solve something that the Kool-Aid-drinking mainstream fools aren’t even aware of. Or maybe it’s just a knee-jerk reaction against common sense. Back in middle school, I used to believe in JFK assassination conspiracy theories because I had recently watched Oliver Stone’s “JFK.” But I grew up. Thinking is supposed to mature and evolve over time.

What can be done? Getting into arguments with people about a conspiracy theory seems like a fool’s errand. Someone who believes in a conspiracy theory probably won’t be placated by anything anyone says or proof shown; the conspiracy just gets deeper.

On the other hand, disabusing people of ignorant beliefs is an admirable and necessary endeavor in these trying times.

But if someone’s on the fence about, say, gravity, and they’re really leaning toward it not existing, maybe it’s not worth engaging with that person. Maybe. I imagine if you chose to, you’d quickly turn into the personification of a quote often attributed to Mark Twain, “Never argue with a fool; onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.”

Now, I’d never go so far as to say ban this talk, censor it or anything of the sort. The Flat Earth Society is, as they say on their page, “…a place for free thinkers and the intellectual exchange of ideas.” That is all well and good and really important for an open society, but in the particular case of flat earthers, exchanging ideas with them just seems like a serious waste of time.

According to The Economist, searches for “flat earth” have more than tripled in the past two years. It could be just a curiosity thing or more in the “Hmm, this is interesting, and I’d like to subscribe to the newsletter” range. Alas, the pessimist in me thinks it’s the latter. The “Flat Earther” movement isn’t going away anytime soon. We’re through the looking glass here, people.