On Flat Earth and Other Falsehoods: Why People Believe the Flat Earth Theory

by Mary Liv Licardo

Art by Prince Soriano for Hiraya Zine.

The Confusing Theory

You’re scrolling through your social media feed when you see it — a social media group for flat-earthers or people who believe the Earth is flat. Keep scrolling, and you’ll find hundreds of other conspiracy theories on vaccines, the moon landing, and other science fiction-like stories built on the foundation of a single article found online.

If you’re reading this article, chances are that you probably believe that our planet is as round as it can get, and just like us, you’re puzzled at the sheer number of people who truly believe that the Earth is flat. And why wouldn’t you be confused? There are thousands of years worth of studies proving that the Earth is round. You probably learned in elementary school that the exact shape of the earth is an oblate spheroid, and all about the expeditions that proved the roundness of the Earth. You might even understand the gravity and know why we don’t feel the Earth’s movement.

But despite all the evidence, why do people still believe in a flat earth?

You might be thinking that the idea of a flat earth is an archaic theory from ancient times when people didn’t have advanced tools to observe the shape of the Earth. Contrary to popular assumption, the flat-earth theory is actually a relatively new concept, something that’s only been around for the last hundred years or so, and it has just seen a resurgence in the last twenty years with the rise of social media. Since 205 BC, Greek scientists have been observing and conducting experiments on the idea of a globe-shaped Earth, and over the years, the world just came into an agreement that the earth was definitely round.

That was, until the mid-1800s.

Around this time, science research was starting to become a lot more advanced, with new discoveries in the field of Physics, Anatomy, and Biology. Scientists were pioneering new tools, techniques, and theorems to advance their research. But as science became increasingly complex, people were starting to feel uncomfortable with the increasingly new methods that came into play.

The Rise of Parallax

Enter Samuel Birley Rowbotham, a so-called scientist who decided to bring up the idea of a flat earth. Under the pseudonym Parallax, Rowbotham authored a book on the Flat Earth Theory after conducting the infamous Bedford Level Experiment.

In the summer of 1838, Rowbotham stood in the middle of a nearly perfectly straight canal in Cambridgeshire, on a quest to prove that the Earth really was flat. The Old Bedford River stretched out for almost ten kilometers and was ideal for the experiment Rowbotham had in mind.

Parallax believed that if the Earth really were round, the curvature of the Earth should cause objects to disappear from the horizon after several miles since they would be moving downwards. To test this hypothesis, he set up a telescope just above the surface of the water and a boat with a 1-meter flag on it. According to him, the flag should appear lower than it started, as it traveled through the canal.

The Old Bedford River. Photo by Wikimedia Commons.

The boat drove through the canal, and as it reached the end, Rowbotham was ecstatic to see that the flag was still in sight. To him, this proved the curvature of the Earth was false, and he set out to write a book about his findings.

This experiment sparked a new wave of pseudoscience wherein scientists, mathematicians, and researchers would simplify scientific experiments based on just personal observations. Their goal was to bring science back to the days of simple observation and conclusion, where you could easily conduct an experiment with simple tools, such as a telescope and a boat, observe what you saw, and draw conclusions from it. He called this simplified science technique and all the conclusions he drew from it as zetetic astronomy.

The Bedford Level Experiment Photo by Alex York via Pilot Scholars.

Was Parallax right?

When you first see Parallax’s experiment, you might be thinking — what is happening here? Is he right? If his calculations were correct, why did the boat not disappear from the horizon?

For one thing, a lot of important factors are missing in Rowbotham’s experiment, such as light diffraction and air densities, and you’ll find enough videos, websites, and articles online showing how these factors are used to properly explain why the boat didn’t disappear from the horizon. In fact, a recreation of the experiment performed in 1870 showed that the setup actually validated the consistent curvature of the Earth, after atmospheric diffraction was taken into account. However, despite the fact that his experiment and findings have been debunked a countless number of times, hundreds of thousands of people are clearly still buying into the idea of a flat earth.

It’s undeniable that Parallax’s experiment is incorrect, and it’s definitely missing a lot of variables. But even in the mid-1800s, until today, his research or book wasn’t about being right or wrong.

It was about making people feel understood.

A Tightly-Knit Community

Let’s go back to your social media feed and look a little closer. You’ll find hundreds of thousands of people in one of those groups supporting the Flat Earth Theory. The same goes for social media groups for anti-vaxxers, or moon landing theorists, or just about any popular pseudoscience group. Thanks to the power of the internet, people are able to easily find others who believe in a common thing, no matter how weird or wacky, allowing them to bond and form a community out of just one belief.

Hundreds gather in the second annual Flat Earth International Conference held in Denver, Colorado last 2018. Photos via Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post

All of a sudden, it’s not just about scientific theories or whether or not Parallax conducted his experiment properly. You have a group of people who explain a concept to you in a way that you can easily understand. Compared to the grueling research oral defenses or tedious literature reviews you’d need to make in the typical academic world, you’re welcomed into a community that actually makes you feel understood.

Take an even closer look at these groups and their sources, and you’ll notice that they don’t think so differently from scientists. If you think about it, why are we expected to accept spoon-fed theorems as the immediate truth? The inquisitiveness in trying to understand how certain concepts came to be are the marks of scientists — something they actually don’t seem to lack. Scroll down the feed, and read their other questions or ideas for experiments to conduct to prove the Earth’s flatness. In such an informal, laid-back setting that is so vastly different from the stiff, academic community, it’s almost easy to understand why people gravitate towards false facts — not because they might be stupid, but because they found something else: a community.

And once you understand that there’s something more to the science, it’s even easier to figure out why they won’t leave despite the number of videos that have debunked the Flat Earth Theory, or the glaringly missing factors in their scientific research. In fact, they likely won’t leave because of all the people attacking their community as a whole, causing them to band together even more tightly.

Maybe, in the back of their head, these theorists know that they might be wrong. But why can’t they just cope with the truth of science just like everybody else?

The Tower

Science is scary because it’s complex. If you’ve cowered at the thought of your math test or procrastinated your Physics homework because you didn’t know where to begin, you know that for a fact. So if you were presented with facts that were simple and easy to understand, you’d probably be able to digest them better than some confusing chemical equation you’d have to hunt for in a thousand-page textbook.

If you were in the mid-1800s, in a period of time when topics like the atom or the Doppler effect were being discussed, you would probably have a hard time wrapping your head around these ideas. I mean, why would I need to believe that everything is made of tiny circles, and why would I need to know how these tiny circles create more tiny circles?

It is this alienation to something that used to be so easy to understand that drives people to beliefs that make them feel understood.

They say that science is like a tower, with each new theorem or concept building upon each other. To understand more complicated, higher theorems, you would need to inspect, observe, and learn each brick below it.

It is a long and difficult process to climb this tower of knowledge.

So why would you burden yourself when there’s an idea right there, a single brick, that is so much easier to comprehend?

‘Anti-vaxxers’ express a similar distrust to science, just like flat-earthers. Photos via The Telegraph (left) and Reuters/David ‘Dee’ Delgado (right)

People believe in conspiracy theories such as the Flat Earth, not because they’re stupid, but because it makes them feel understood. Science is always presented as being complicated and confusing, and in the process, we isolate people who might feel like they aren’t good enough to figure it out. These flat- earthers are people whose minds are more scientific than what you might think. With their self-created research experiments and their rejection of the norm, it’s actually not impossible to believe that these people are potential scientists, had they been led the right way. Theorists are the scientists that could’ve been — people we left behind just from the lack of good science education or communication. And if our job as science communicators is to make facts easy to understand, we have greatly forgotten the more important part — making people feel understood.

So, why do people believe in a flat earth? Maybe it’s because science didn’t believe in them first.

An artistic depiction of a flat Earth. Image by Shutterstock via The Conversation.

#ARCHIVES: This article was previously published in Hiraya Zine Volume 1, Issue 2: Science for Society last September 2020. Download the zine for free here.

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