Everyone knows that the Earth is round, or spherical, if you want to get technical. It’s one of the first things you learn in school, and the idea that we’re sitting on a round planet seems like an indisputable fact. But not to everyone.
Rapper B.o.B. and basketball star Kyrie Irving have indicated that they believe that the Earth is flat (B.o.B. even released a diss track aimed at Bill Nye the Science Guy). The Flat Earth Society, which was created to promote a flat Earth hypothesis, continues to gain members.
Why do people believe in flat Earth when there’s so much evidence to the contrary? We decided to look into that question, and while attempting to answer it, we found that “the Earth is flat” isn’t the most absurd claim coming from the Flat Earth theorists. They’ve got a wide range of beliefs that can be charitably described as “unconventional.”
The craziest part is that several of their arguments make sense on the surface…until you really pick them apart. We’ll explain.
1. NASA created fake pictures of the planet to prove the “round Earth” thesis.
The most obvious problem with the flat Earth hypothesis is that we’ve got pictures of the Earth, being round. You might have seen them. They look like this:
Fortunately, the good people at the Flat Earth Society address this minor discrepancy on their website:
“The most commonly accepted explanation…is that the space agencies of the world are involved in a conspiracy faking space travel and exploration. This likely began during the Cold War’s ‘Space Race’, in which the USSR and USA were obsessed with beating each other into space to the point that each faked their accomplishments in an attempt to keep pace with the other’s supposed achievements.”
So, basically, the major space agencies kept ratcheting up the Space Race until someone had to create sophisticated images of the Earth. Hundreds of thousands of pictures, in fact, from every conceivable angle.
Uh, why would they do that? Initially, it was just one-upsmanship between the world’s largest superpowers. We’ll let the Flat Earth Society take it from there:
Since the end of the Cold War, however, the conspiracy is most likely motivated by greed rather than political gains, and using only some of their funding to continue to fake space travel saves a lot of money to embezzle for themselves. You know those billionaire NASA scientists, living lives of luxury with their diamond-encrusted telescopes and Louis Vuitton labcoats.
2. The Earth is surrounded on all sides by a giant wall of ice that holds the oceans back.
No, that’s not from an early draft of A Song of Ice and Fire (hey, Game of Thrones fans!), it’s directly from the Flat Earth Society’s website.
In the flat Earth model, we live on side of the map. We don’t know what’s on the other side, and we can’t circumnavigate the globe, since we’d run into a big wall of ice, and past that point, everything dies. Apparently, the world uses the same lazy level design as the Elder Scrolls video game series.
Of course, if you wanted to scale that giant wall of ice, Flat Earthers would support your efforts. “Beyond the ice wall is a topic of great interest to the Flat Earth Society,” the society’s website reads. “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.”
Okay, this actually does sound like something from A Game of Thrones. We’re starting to dig this idea.
3. Magnets work via radial magnetization.
According to the Flat Earth Society, ring magnets work because they’ve got discs of magnetization; one magnetic pole is at the center, and all of the points at the edge of the magnet make up the other pole. Totally crazy, right? What fools!
Except that in this case, they’re right. Sort of.
When materials are magnetized, they’re sometimes capable of producing their own persistent magnetic fields. This requires a ferromagnetic material, for instance nickel or iron. However, the magnetic field is partially defined by the orientation of a compass needle.
The Flat Earth Society posits that the Earth is just one big radial magnet; therefore, it can create a magnetic field, affecting compasses all over the planet.
That makes sense to us, but we’re hardly physicists. Our experience with magnets involves Insane Clown Posse lyrics and bad refrigerator poetry, so we’re not going to get on our high horse and act smarter than the flat Earth believers.
4. The Earth looks curved from an airplane because airplane windows are curved.
The Flat Earth Society claims that a person can only see the curvature of the Earth—if such curvature existed—from a height of 40,000 feet. Airplanes only climb to a typical height of 36,000 feet, so passengers wouldn’t be able to see the curve.
Now, some commercial jets such as the Concorde can climb to 45,000 feet, and newer 737s can climb to 41,000 feet. Additionally, some military planes can fly as high as 85,000 feet. When a person looks out one of those windows, the Earth’s curve is clear. How does the hypothesis account for that discrepancy?
Well, duh, the airplane windows are curved. Curved glass always shows a curved image! That’s why people with glasses are always walking into walls.
Now, conventional science would tell you that you can see the curvature of the Earth from much lower than 40,000 feet. Flat Earthers deny that, but why? Well…
5. The curvature of the Earth’s horizon occurs due to errors in human perception.
The horizon seems like pretty indisputable proof of a curved Earth. The higher you ascend, the farther the horizon seems to go; eventually, though, the land ends, and you can’t see any further. This is due to the curvature of the Earth. Note that seeing the horizon is not the same as actually seeing the curvature itself, but it is irrefutable proof that such a curve exists.
The common flat Earth explanation is that errors in human perception are to blame. Cold air is denser than hot air, and the higher you are, the colder the air; rays of light bend as they move from cold air to warm air, creating the illusion of a horizon.
This was one of the things that fooled our ancestors into believing the Earth is round, one Flat Earth Society member writes on the website’s forum. “The so called [sic] ‘fact’ really shook the religious world because it was against what was believed so far. Then, when the scientists realized they were wrong, they just decided to play along with the whole scam because if they revealed their mistake, religion would get back its power and they would lose the eternal battle.”
So scientists have been lying for about 500 years, just to save face.
6. Gravity doesn’t exist.
Or at least it only “exists in a greatly diminished form than is commonly taught.”
The Flat Earth Society’s FAQ page explains that the planet is constantly accelerating at the rate of gravity’s acceleration (9.8 m/s squared, which you’d know if you hadn’t spent physics class trying to see how many pencils you could force up your nose).
“This constant acceleration causes what you think of as gravity,” the site explains.
To be fair to the Flat Earth Society, scientists still have a lot of questions about how gravity works. We’re still not really sure what it is, fundamentally, and many scientists would agree that it’s not as powerful as members of the general public might expect. It’s the weakest fundamental force, and tiny magnets easily overcome the planet’s gravity (note: this is a gross oversimplication by an internet writer, so talk to a real physicist if you’re really interested in this topic).
We do know that gravity exists, thanks in part to recent discoveries of gravitational waves, but we can’t really fault the Flat Earth Society for treating the force of gravity as a heady concept. Gravity certainly isn’t simple.
So, given the compelling (and not-so-compelling) evidence, can we conclude that Flat Earthers make some good points?
No, of course not. There’s more than just a scientific consensus that the Earth is round; there’s an overwhelming amount of proof, and simple experiments can show, without a shadow of a doubt, that we’re standing on a spherical planet. Period.
We’ll let Bill Nye explain it, since Bill Nye is better at explaining everything.
Of course, you could also just look at a picture of the planet, take a ride on an airplane, talk to someone who navigates for a living, or take a boat trip to confirm that there’s not a giant wall of ice holding back the White Walkers. There’s simply no compelling argument that the Earth is flat, even if some Flat Earther claims seem reasonable at first glance.
But don’t assume that Flat Earth beliefs are inherently dumb, crazy, or even unreasonable. Flat Earth believers are simply working backwards from a conclusion. That’s how conspiracy theories work—or, rather, why they don’t work.
Here’s the mind-blowing part: you’re probably doing the same, since you’ve been taught that the Earth is spherical. You’ve probably never questioned why you believe that fact, because you trust the scientific consensus, and that’s fine—just don’t get into the habit of automatically dismissing anyone who doesn’t do the same. Flat Earth believers are right to point out that just over a century ago, scientists rejected the idea that bacteria cause disease; the scientific consensus isn’t always right.
At a certain point, we all make indefensible cognitive leaps. Some of those leaps are just farther than others (much, much farther, in this case). To have a truly scientific mind, you can’t start out rejecting or ridiculing any hypothesis. You need to do the research, perform experiments, and draw conclusions from evidence.
Then, when you’ve done that, you can go ahead and ridicule. Because really, the Flat Earth Theory is pretty silly.