Fighting flat-Earth theory

Physicists will find it shocking, but there are plenty of people around the world who genuinely believe the Earth is flat. Rachel Brazil explores why such views are increasingly taking hold and how the physics community should best respond

Physicists will scoff at these ideas, but the worrying thing is that they are spreading rapidly and gaining proponents outside America too. “While they may not be as many [in Europe], they are as loud as their colleagues in the US,” says Jan Slegr, a physicist from the University of Hradec Králové in the Czech Republic, who in 2018 co-authored a paper outlining ways for teachers and others to confront outlandish flat-Earth ideas with physics ( Phys. Educ. 53 045014).

Physicists will scoff at these ideas, but the worrying thing is that they are spreading rapidly and gaining proponents outside America too. “While they may not be as many [in Europe], they are as loud as their colleagues in the US,” says Jan Slegr, a physicist from the University of Hradec Králové in the Czech Republic, who in 2018 co-authored a paper outlining ways for teachers and others to confront outlandish flat-Earth ideas with physics ( Phys. Educ. 53 045014).

It would be easy to dismiss flat-Earthers as simply being misguided due to a lack of education. While there are indications that those susceptible to such views have low levels of scientific literacy, Landrum at Texas Tech says that flat-Earthers aren’t necessarily people who don’t believe in science. “It’s not really an education thing,” she says. “It really is about distrusting authorities and institutions. [It] seems to be based on both a conspiracy mentality and a deeply held belief that looks a lot like religiosity but isn’t necessarily specifically tied to a religion”.

I think that @physicists need to be more involved,” he says. “There’s really no excuse for us to just sit back and laugh at them. Because while we’re laughing, they are recruiting people to believe these crazy things.”

Why distant skyscrapers are visible despite the curvature of the Earth

Fata morgana of Chicago
(© Sam Cornwell, 2008)

This photo was taken from Mount Baldy in Indiana Dunes National Park on the south-east coast of Lake Michigan, roughly 60 km across the water from the city of Chicago, which lies on the opposite bank. At that distance, Chicago’s skyline should not be visible as the curvature of the Earth takes it beyond the horizon. The fact that the buildings are visible is in fact simply a mirage. Mirages are usually created when a cold, dense layer of air sits above a layer of warmer, less dense air, for example when the Sun beats down on a black road on a hot summer’s day. The warm ground heats the bottom few centimetres of air, refracting sunlight up to your eyes to create an “inferior mirage”. But if a layer of warm air sits above your line of sight, with a cool layer beneath, you get a “superior mirage”. Light bends down towards the denser air, but because our eyes assume the light has travelled in a straight line, the object appears higher than it is. The effect also explains why a far-off ship can be seen even though it might have dipped below the horizon. It can even make distant boats appear to float in the air.

Figure 1 diagram
(CC-BY-SA / Ludovica Lorenzelli, DensityDesign Research Lab)

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This quote from the article is right on point:

Landrum agrees the underlying problem is one of trust rather than physics. “We really should figure out as a scientific community, and as a society as a whole, how we can start building back trust in our organizations and institutions.” And she feels we need to do this face-to-face. “I don’t mean go yell at them on Twitter – that’s not engaging.” It’s also vital, she says, for scientists not to patronize flat-Earthers but to take questions seriously. That may seem like an excruciatingly painful process, but a necessary one, for people to gain trust in science as an institution again.

How do you resolve the basic epistemological problem? Scientists can’t deal with flat-earthers or YECs on the evidence those folks consider probative, i.e. biblical exegesis. If God said it, I believe it, and that settles it, then science and data are irrelevant.

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Most flat eartherism has nothing to do with the Bible…

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I don’t actually know. But the main interest here would be the applicability of whatever tactics you would use to convince flat earthers to YECs, right?

Sorry for the asinine first comment.
There are a couple of videos on youtube that would be good for me to link to if ok. One is of a physics teacher specifically addressing one flat earther to help him understand why he is wrong, it is done in a respectful way. This video caused the flat earther to abandon his beliefs.
The second video is an interview with this non former flat-earther and is quite insightful as to his mentality when holding his beliefs, and why he was persuaded to change his mind

It may, or may not have “nothing to do with the Bible” (and I would appreciate a citation for that claim), but it clearly has something to do with religion:

That is not at all clear. Look at the data there:

Compare that to the figure you’d expect for young earth creationism. There certainly is a religious version of flat-earthism, but there is also a non-religious version. That is not true of YEC.

The article has some more interesting information:

Just 66% of millennials firmly believe that the earth is round

Those who believe the Earth is flat vary in the exact theories, but whether they believe in science or religious literature as the basis for their claims, a new YouGov study reveals that 2% of Americans resolutely say the earth is flat.

Flat earthers find traction in their beliefs among a younger generation of Americans. Young millennials, ages 18 to 24, are likelier than any other age group to say they believe the Earth is flat (4%).

Notice that this age group is more likely to be a None. There is good reason to think flat-earthism is associated with conspiratorial thinking and a general distrust of institutions.

These results, regardless, need to be taken with a grain of salt, as they are based a self selected group.

I do kind of disagree with that. From an outsider perspective, it seems like there’s three main overlapping camps of flat-earthers: there’s the New Age Woo people (Eric Dubay and friends), the extreme biblical literalists (Nathan Thompson and friends), and just the general conspiracy theorists (Mark Sargent and friends), so it does seem like the bible at least influences a relatively large number of flat-earthers.

That being said, there’s no high-profile Christian denominations (that I know of) that endorse the flat-earth conspiracies. I generally try to be respectful in my interactions with all pseudoscience believers because building walls is far less productive in changing minds than building bridges, but I’d say I’m much more sympathetic for creationists. I can relate to and understand the social pressures and frankly brainwashing some people are put through to be YEC. Imo, flat-eartherism is ultimately rooted in conspiratorial mindsets.

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No @swamidass – I would suggest you need to take a closer look at this data.

It shows the three categories other than “very religious” have considerably lower (2/3 to 1/2) levels for Flat earth than for the general population, but “very religious” is over two and a half times the general population level.

That is a clear difference. And this data clearly supports my contention that it “has something to do with religion” (please note I only said “something”, not everything).

Yes, but contrast this with the low (17%) “Not religious at all” level among Flat Earthers. This means we cannot make the easy assumption that Flat Earthers are Millennial Nones.

Also, Millennials may be twice as likely (2%->4%) to be Flat Earth, but “very religious” are two and a half times (20%->52%) likely – meaning that the religious effect is still more prominent than the youth effect.

I would further note that you have not provided a citation for your unsubstantiated “most flat eartherism has nothing to do with the Bible” claim. I ask this because, although I have not found any demographic data on this point, I have come across considerable anecdotal reports of people citing the Bible in support of their Flat Earth beliefs.

Addendum:

I would tend to agree with this, but would suggest that this does not necessarilly disassociate Flat Earth from religious belief, as at least a significant minority of religious people may have similar thinking and distrust.

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Chill out. Seriously.

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It does seem that he made his point, though. Doesn’t it?

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I don’t know any flat-earth enthusiasts. But if I did, I’d ask them about antipodal geology, antipodal volcanism and antipodal earthquakes, as well as continental drift and the marsupial migration through a green continent of Antarctica.

References:
Research finds quakes can systematically trigger other ones on opposite side of Earth

“A tremblor is most likely to induce another quake within 30 degrees of the original quake’s antipode – the point directly opposite it on the other side of the globe.”

Triggering of the largest Deccan eruptions by the Chicxulub impact

“It is therefore reasonable to hypothesize that the Chicxulub impact might have triggered the enormous Poladpur, Ambenali, and Mahabaleshwar (Wai Subgroup) lava flows, which together may account for >70% of the Deccan Traps main-stage eruptions. This hypothesis is consistent with independent stratigraphic, geochronologic, geochemical, and tectonic constraints, which combine to indicate that at approximately Chicxulub/Cretaceous-Paleogene time, a huge pulse of mantle plume–derived magma passed through the crust with little interaction and erupted to form the most extensive and voluminous lava flows known on Earth.”

Videos debunking ice-wall Antarctica:

Eons: When Antarctica Was Green
youtu.be/cC4WiBCoVeo

Eons: How South America Made the Marsupials
youtu.be/l5doyrUWFbE

SciShow: How Did You Get Here?! #3 Range Splitting
youtu.be/WC2WAzeglEk?t=237

As to the question of “why are some persuaded by flat earth?,” this may be more complicated. One group may just be really gullible and want a cause to rebel against society. Another group though may be using it as an escape from being crippled with psychological pain, finding relief in their mental dungeon. (A reference to your other book “How Deep Is Your Dungeon?”.)

I don’t think that all flat-earth beliefs can be linked to the Bible, but I do think you’re right on the target by identifying the problem as an epistemological one. That’s where the connection to religion is, in my opinion. I’d argue that a kind of ad-hoc epistemology is commonly taught to fundamentalist Christians as a way of safeguarding dogmas and protecting a community’s authorities. This kind of conditioning within certain types of faith communities creates the perfect environment for new and bizarre beliefs to flourish. The psychological system is already primed, all that needs to happen is for an individual to come under the sway of an authority who encourages the belief.

As Joshua pointed out, most flat eartherism doesn’t seem to originate from theology or the Bible. Instead, it seems like a recent import. If we are to judge by the reaction of the origins organizations in the past few years, it seems like they are responding to a growing and invasive flat-earth belief within the YEC community.

I don’t know what the answer is, exactly. It took me 10 years to shed my own YEC brainwashing, and to see how credulous it made me about all sorts of claims. For me, it took a complete deconstruction. If that’s the only real solution, it’s going to be an uphill battle.

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I can say from personal experience that certainty, even ludicrously unfounded certainty, is extremely comforting. There is certainly relief in a mental dungeon. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t messed with that tree of knowledge at all. Ignorance really is a kind of bliss. It makes it difficult to combat.

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It should be remembered that YEC itself is a comparatively recent import, from Seventh Day Adventism.

Yup, I’ve had a strange journey out of Seventh-day Adventism over the years. The prominent role of SDA George McCready Price in the 1920s seems to have kicked off a lot of this stuff. Weirdly, I and most in the church were not aware of this history. In fact, the SDA church’s creation organization, Geoscience Research Institute, has basically retreated from the origins scene entirely, and now seems to focus its activities on the members in the pews rather than the scientific community.

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It could be argued that a general belief in a young Earth, Noah’s flood, and separately created species has been around much longer. What was specific to SDA and George McReady Price is scientific creationism which was picked up later by Henry Morris.

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I wonder if there’s a historical progression here: first fight and try to suppress science, then give in to science, then ape (so to speak) science to gain its prestige while rejecting its conclusions.

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I would emphatically disagree. Old Earth ‘scientific’ creationism outside SDA already existed before Morris. The main example I know of is Harry Rimmer (and his ‘Science Research Bureau, Incorporated’) who was a prominent creationist in the first half of the 20th Century. Additionally, the leadership of the ASA supported Progressive Creationism around the middle of the 20th Century, before throwing their weight behind Theistic Evolution.

Prominent Old Earth Creationists of that era (through to more modern times) included William Jennings Bryan, William Bell Riley, C. I. Scofield, Jimmy Swaggart, and I think Pat Robertson may (still) be one too.

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