In a day and age where a wealth of scientific knowledge is constantly at our fingertips, one would think that extraordinary beliefs would have been on the decline long ago. However, in recent years more and more individuals have succumbed to these kinds of beliefs. Of all these that have risen in prevalence in the last few years, none stands out more than Flat Earth theory. According to livescience.com, Flat Earth theory is the belief that the Earth, rather than being a sphere, is actually a round, flat disc. The Arctic Circle lies at the center of this disk, and Antarctica is actually a 150-foot wall of ice that surrounds the outer edge. The sun and the moon are, in essence, celestial spotlights that rotate around the Earth, along with an invisible “antimoon” that accounts for lunar eclipses. Flat Earth theory also states that gravity is actually an illusion, and the reason why objects fall is because the Earth is being driven upward by so-called “dark energy” at a rate of 32 feet per second squared. Finally, those who believe in Flat Earth theory also believe that the idea of a round Earth is a conspiracy generated by NASA for some unknown purpose. Sounds like something that would be hard to believe, right? Except that this belief, while still only found in a small minority of people, is actually quite popular. According to People magazine, prominent celebrities such as rapper B.o.B. and NBA player Kyrie Irving are incredibly verbal about their belief in Flat Earth theory, with B.o.B. even going so far as to get into an argument with physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson over it on Twitter. Clearly, Flat Earth theory has taken the world by storm; but what does science have to say about this?
Proponents of Flat Earth theory have presented numerous pieces of “evidence” to explain why their theory is correct over the years. In a YouTube video posted by ODD Reality, they attempt to provide as much evidence for Flat Earth theory as possible, stating “facts” like “water always fills to a level surface” and “science disproving Flat Earth theory just uses workarounds, which isn’t real science”, when all of these are not actually facts at all. The facts that disprove Flat Earth theory, however, are both accurate and bountiful. In an article from popsci.com, they list ten different things that prove the Earth is round. One such fact is that you can’t see certain constellations from different parts of the world, (a fact that was discovered by Aristotle thousands of years ago), which would only be possible if the earth was round. The fact that the higher up you go, the further you can see, also disproves Flat Earth theory. Finally, and arguably most obviously, the fact that we have different time zones would only be possible if the Earth was round, meaning that the Earth being flat is completely impossible. Unlike the evidence that “proves” Flat Earth theory, the evidence that proves the Earth is round is specific, scientifically-backed, and in most cases incredibly obvious.
Despite the overwhelming amount of evidence that discredits Flat Earth theory, many people not only still adhere to this belief but will vehemently defend it as well. It is therefore important to ask the question: where did this belief start, and why has it not only remained prevalent but in fact grown in popularity? From a cognitive point of view, we can find several explanations for this phenomena. According to phys.org, the belief in a Flat Earth was held up until around the 3rd century BC, when it was first postulated that the Earth might be round. Mankind did not have a full grasp on scientific knowledge at this point, and as such they maintained a more egocentric of the world in which they lived. Many would watch their family and friends sail away on boats and disappear over the horizon, only to never return. The only explanation that they could come up with was that the Earth was flat, and these ships had simply fallen off the edge. By the 15th century, this belief largely fell to the wayside as the belief in a round Earth became more widely accepted, but there were those who held onto the old ways due to a psychological concept known as cognitive dissonance. This is a tension that one experiences when they are presented with evidence that contradicts with a previously held belief. Rather than dealing with it, many will ignore it and choose to ignore this new evidence. Others will come up with reasons why they are right after the fact, a process known as post-hoc theorizing. But these cognitive reasons can’t be the only explanation. Other forces must be at work.
The other force is the social aspect. We live in a day and age where everyone is connected through the internet, meaning more and more people have a shared space to spread their beliefs to other like-minded individuals. Not only that, but they are often able to get away with having no factual evidence to back up their beliefs, so long as their conviction is strong enough. According to phys.org, many individuals have begun to actively distrust expert opinion, choosing instead to trust the opinions of prominent figures in mainstream media, regardless of their credentials. This is because these people are often able to craft more interesting ways of telling their opinions than experts, who are restricted by the guidelines of scientific publishing. In an article on livescience.com, they call this phenomena the minority effect: the tendency to believe a minority opinion when the advocates of that opinion stay true to their beliefs. These social forces are powerful ones, and they all contribute to the longevity of this particular belief.
Flat Earth theory is an extraordinary belief that, through psychological forces, has stood this test of time and permeated itself into modern society. Despite the overwhelming evidence disproving the theory, there are many who still hold steadfast to their belief that the earth is flat. This comes from many factors, such as: an effort to reduce cognitive dissonance, the rising trend of distrusting expert opinion, and the minority effect. These things, combined with the age of internet and social media, create a climate that is ripe for a belief like this to take hold. By recognizing these causes, hopefully we can prevent the effects by bettering our education system, and give people the tools they need to evaluate information before they choose to believe it.
Natalie Wolchover and Live Science Staff. (2017, May 30). Are Flat-Earthers Being Serious? Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/24310-flat-earth-belief.html
Reality, O. (2016, August 29). Flat Earth in 5 Minutes ▶️️. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GDKc6X8TXNE
Smarterthanthat. (2016, January 26). 10 easy ways you can tell for yourself that the Earth is not flat. Retrieved from https://www.popsci.com/10-ways-you-can-prove-earth-is-round#page-6
The Short List of Famous People Who Think the Earth Is Flat (Yes, Really). (n.d.). Retrieved from https://people.com/celebrity/flat-earth-celebrities-world-not-round/
Why do some people believe the Earth is flat? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://phys.org/news/2019-01-people-earth-flat.html