In May 2018, three men went on the British ITV programme This Morning to explain why they believed the earth was flat. “I think it’s right to be sceptical about alternative views,” said Darren Nesbit, “but what we never are is sceptical about the mainstream view that we’re told since we were children.” He acknowledged that his perspective was not the mainstream one, but he said that, instead of accepting what we are taught in school, we should believe our own senses, which tell us that the earth is flat and stationary.
It’s difficult to know how many people really believe the earth is flat, as many don’t take the question seriously. The most rigorous data we have is from a 2018 YouGov poll of 8,125 American adults, which found that 84% of respondents were firmly committed to a spherical earth and 2% to a flat earth; the remaining 12% had doubts or believed something else: small numbers, but not insignificant ones.
To the overwhelming majority of us, modern flat earthers can come across as either totally uninformed or profoundly ignorant. American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has said that the flat earth movement is evidence that “we live in a country with a failed educational system.” But it seems more likely that such beliefs stem from a pathology of scepticism. While a certain amount of scepticism is healthy, conspiracy theorists and advocates of pseudoscience take scepticism to the extreme. Worse, they can be reflexively sceptical towards any official, scientific or secular sources of information, and at the same time, extremely credulous towards outright crankery.
The Flat Earth Movement
Educated people throughout Europe, the Middle East and western Asia have known for millennia that the earth is round. Around 350 BC, Aristotle cited several proofs of a spherical Earth, such as the change in constellations from north to south, the disappearance of objects over the horizon, and the earth’s curved shadow on the moon during a lunar eclipse.
And yet, since the mid-nineteenth century, there has been a tiny but persistent flat earth movement. It began in 1865, when Samuel Birley Rowbotham, an eccentric English inventor, alternative medicine enthusiast and publicity-seeker, published Zetetic Astronomy: Earth Not a Globe under the pseudonym Parallax. Since childhood, Rowbotham had believed that the earth is flat, and he claimed to have proved it in a series of experiments he performed on a stretch of Norfolk canal called the Bedford Level.
Rowbotham’s world is a disk centred on the North Pole. Antarctica does not exist, but a wall of ice surrounds the earth, preventing the oceans from draining off its edge. The sun and moon are small lights that circle the earth about four thousand miles above its surface. Sunrise, sunset and the disappearance of objects beyond the horizon are optical illusions. And lunar eclipses are caused by an invisible anti-moon drifting in front of the moon. Rowbotham named his theory Zetetic, from the Greek zeteo, meaning to search or examine. Rather than blindly accepting what he called the unproven theories of Copernicus and Newton, he claimed to have figured out the real state of the world from his own experiments. He was, in his mind at least, a true sceptic.
In the years since, the Zetetic movement (as its members call it) has waxed and waned, becoming active under one charismatic leader or another, then falling dormant after that person’s death. (I have written an article on the movement’s history, drawing on Christine Garwood’s terrific 2007 account of it in Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea). The movement became dormant in 2001, after the death of its then-leader, Charles Kenneth Johnson, but revived in the age of the internet, and really took off in 2015. In the summer of 2016, members of the Flat Earth Society UK attempted to recreate Rowbotham’s Bedford Level experiment.
How People Become Flat Earthers
We don’t know how many of those who promote the flat earth idea actually believe it. Some are almost certainly grifters, rehashing Rowbotham’s ideas in the hopes of YouTube views, Patreon dollars, social media followers and the chance to give keynote speeches at flat earth conferences on both sides of the supposedly flat and level Atlantic. Even Rowbotham himself may have been a charlatan. But we know from the testimony of ex-flat earthers that many are completely sincere.
Some flat earthers are biblical literalists.The Bible does not explicitly say that the earth is flat and stationary, but biblical literalists rely on passages that imply this view, which is in line with ancient Hebrew beliefs about the cosmos. For example, the Bible says that “[God has] set the earth on its foundations, so that it should never be moved” (Psalm 104:5); that he has placed the firmament of heaven (Genesis 1:14–17) on pillars (Job 26:11); that he has caused the sun to rise, set and then return to the place where it arose (Ecclesiastes 1:5); that the earth has ends (Isaiah 5:26, Psalms 135:7); and that all the kingdoms of the world can be viewed from the top of a high mountain (Matthew 4:8).
Belief in a flat earth may also appeal to biblical literalists because no naturalistic process could explain such a structure, and thus, they reason, proof of a flat earth would be proof of a divine creator. The 2018 YouGov poll found, unsurprisingly, that flat earthers tended to be far more religious than the average American. And it may be no accident that the modern flat earth movement arose around the time that scientific findings were challenging the accuracy of the Genesis creation account—for example, in Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1833), Robert Chambers’ Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) and, most famously, in Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859).
Only a minority of evangelical Christians have ever believed in a flat earth, but it has been common among some groups, such as the Boers in South Africa in the nineteenth century. Transvaal president Paul Kruger was an outspoken flat earther. In 1907, Wilbur Glenn Voliva, a fundamentalist preacher, gained control of Zion, Illinois, and had the city’s schools teach children that the earth was flat (as part of his plan to create a perfect Christian community). Lady Elizabeth Blount, head of the Universal Zetetic Society from 1893 to 1935, maintained that “the globists [sic] cannot be Christians—nor can Bible Christians be followers of Newton’s philosophy.”
Thinking Like a Zetetic
The Zetetic flat earthers who are not concerned with the Bible seem to have a different—perhaps more psychologically interesting—motivation: to be free of the constraints of the official line, to find a hidden and suppressed truth, and thus to discover fundamental knowledge of the world that almost no one else shares.
Zetetic flat earthers are often initially inspired by seeing something that they can’t explain. For example, when a person is standing at ground level, it is impossible to see anything 53 miles away, because it would be beyond the horizon. But under the right atmospheric conditions, it can seem possible to see the skyline of Chicago from the far shore of Lake Michigan, 53 miles away. Atmospheric refraction can cause light to bend, creating an illusion of objects visible beyond the horizon. This phenomenon also explains why you can sometimes see a ship appearing to float in the air on a hot day, and how Samuel Rowbotham got the impression that he was able to see six miles down a canal in his Bedford Level experiment.
Nevertheless, someone who is extremely sceptical of official explanations and strongly attracted to secret or forbidden knowledge will find it easy to brush aside scientific explanations like this as mere handwaving. Extreme scepticism towards official sources has been a theme in the Zetetic movement from the start. The late twentieth-century American Zetetic leader Charles Kenneth Johnson described himself as a “natural sceptic” who was “plagued or blessed or whatever you want to call it with having a critical mind.” He was convinced from early childhood that the earth was flat, and his teachers were unable to persuade him otherwise. “They put out this globe, and then started the propaganda on it,” he reflects, remembering a primary school geography lesson in Texas in the early 1930s. “I didn’t accept it from the start. You can see the thing is false! It’s quite obvious.” Johnson stuck doggedly to his belief into adulthood, at which point he discovered Rowbotham’s Zetetic Astronomy, which provided an explanation that he could accept. He then entered into a correspondence with the leading flat earthers of his day, such as Wilbur Glen Voliva in the US and Samuel Shenton in the UK, which led him to become firmly entrenched in the Zetetic worldview. In 1972, he became president of the International Flat Earth Research Society (IFERS) and a global leader of the flat earth movement.
Many flat earthers have also embraced other conspiracy theories and pseudoscientific beliefs. For example, Rowbotham promoted unproven phosphorous-based medicine as a cure for a slew of ailments, from anxiety to impotence, while Lady Blount believed that wearing magnetic corsets would “energise the blood.” And today, the Brazilian jiujitsu champion Eddie Bravo is both a flat earther and a 9/11 truther, while the high profile British flat earther Dave Murphy promotes the health benefits of drinking his own urine.
Former flat earthers also describe being attracted to conspiracy theories and to the exciting feeling of having special, secret knowledge. For example, one of them said, in a June 2020 YouTube interview with SciManDan (an anti-flat-earth YouTuber) that he had always been “the bog-standard moon landing denier,” and that, before becoming a flat-earther, he had speculated that the earth was much bigger than official sources allowed and that the world’s governments were hiding secret continents. He also acknowledged that being a flat earther had given him “a feeling of importance.”
Another man—who abandoned the flat-earth community in May 2021 and who was interviewed by SciManDan—described himself as having “an addictive personality” and related how, after he had watched a couple of flat earth videos, he had gone down to the beach, found that the horizon looked further away than he thought it should be, and became hooked. He said that believing the earth was flat was like binge-watching a TV show that didn’t end, and that, in retrospect, he felt he had been in a cult: “I was in a bubble, I was in my own little world with my own group of friends, and everybody [outside] was against me, everybody was telling me lies.”
There’s no indication in these interviews that either man was drawn to the flat earth movement because he was stupid or uneducated—they both come across as intelligent and otherwise well informed. Rather, it seems they simply became convinced that the truth was out there, and that someone was keeping it from them.
What We Can Learn from the Flat Earth Movement
It may be tempting to treat the flat earth movement as a joke. But it isn’t harmless. It has broken up families, has led at least one adherent to his death, and can be a gateway to believing in more dangerous conspiracy theories. The difference between a flat earther and a person who thinks the world’s governments deliberately engineered the COVID-19 pandemic is one of degree rather than kind.
It can be discouraging to realise that being confronted with facts doesn’t tend to change people’s beliefs—and that there are people who can’t even be persuaded that the earth is round. Can we hope to change the beliefs of people who have fallen for much subtler crank theories, which may be more dangerous? There is some reason to hope: for example, both of the former flat earthers interviewed by SciManDan had abandoned their crank beliefs. One of them noted that he had always had doubts, and that those doubts deepened after he saw the curvature in a compressed photo of the horizon. Several weeks after he abandoned the flat earth model, he also abandoned his rejection of the theory of evolution and his belief that the moon landings were faked. The other man noted that he had begun to lose interest and drifted away from the community, and that he then saw a photo of Blackpool Tower against the snow-covered peaks of the Lake District, which convinced him that the earth was spherical.
Thus, clear, accurate information played a role in bringing both men around. And yet both, by their own accounts, needed to be in the right frame of mind first. When people are deeply involved in a fringe community, they can be entirely unpersuadable. What does this mean for the rest of us? That it’s important to strike a balance—to hold onto our healthy scepticism, while recognising that experts often do actually know better than we do.