They tell us we’re living in a post-truth world, whatever that’s supposed to mean. All I know is that there’s a growing number of people who look at the vast store of human knowledge, and reject it. People who hear experts speak on science, politics, medicine, and say “Nope! I saw a YouTube about this, and I know better!”. And there’s no starker demonstration of this than the modern flat-earther.
How does this happen? What makes sane adults, with an education and a job, buy into such nonsense? I spent a few days trying to figure it out by picking a topic (The shape of the Earth) and watching Twitter to see how people talked about it. I found a lively discussion between the crew at Awesome Astronomy and a flat-earther who was helping them see the error of their ways. It was depressing to see how it played out. The Flat-Earther (who I’ll call FE) began by declaring some factoid about the Earth, and the science communicator (who I’ll call SC) would respond with a simple challenge – something like “If that is true, then how do you explain this other thing?”. The FE would then respond in one of several ways but never, NEVER, answered the challenge directly. He (for I assume it to be a he) might accuse the SC of being in the employ of NASA, he might respond with mockery, or accusations of dishonesty, or both (“Kepler was the worst fraud in history and you fell for it LOL”). I stopped following that particular discussion after two days. Amazingly, last I checked, it was still going strong after more than a week. It was clear that FE had no interest at all in evidence – he offered none to support his own position, and wouldn’t respond to requests as simple as “Look out the window and tell me what you see”. Evidence didn’t matter, logic didn’t matter. He’d picked an opinion and he was going to stick with it, come hell or high water. The Earth is flat, and that is that.
Not a new problem
Of course this sort of thing has been going on forever. People have been selling conspiracy theories for decades. The Moon landings never happened. The world is going to end in 2012. Nibiru is a thing. The Government (since they never specify, I’m going to assume they mean Zimbabwe’s) is drugging us with fluoride in tap water and chemtrails in the air, to keep us compliant. Global warming is apparently a hoax. The Illuminati secretly rule the world. The Rothschilds secretly rule the world. The world’s politicians, monarchs and celebrities are actually lizard people who secretly rule the world. The United Nations is actually a One World Government that, you guessed it, secretly rules the world. Big Pharma have a cure for cancer but are withholding it because something. Some guy invented a car engine that runs on water, but Big Oil suppressed it. Aliens are among us, but The Government (if not Zimbabwe, then I guess the Rothschild family, or the illuminati, or the lizards, or I’m so confused now) are keeping it a secret because some half-baked nonsense about thinking that we’re not ready because in THIS theory, they’re trying to look after our mental well-being.
But the latest crop of beliefs, ranging from anti-vax to electromagnetic sensitivity syndrome to the belief in a flat earth, are something of a new low. I can understand why somebody might doubt the official line on something that doesn’t connect to their own lives. I personally have no way of verifying that the Moon landings ever happened, for example: I have never met an Apollo astronaut, and have never handled any of the specimens they brought back to Earth. And even if I had, I’m not a trained geologist, so wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. But I do not understand how somebody could be skeptical about something which is quite easy to verify. Historical mortality records are available to anybody who asks for them, in most countries, so it’s easy to confirm how drastically vaccines have improved human health. And somebody who claims to have headaches whenever they’re at home ever since that new cellphone tower went up should have no trouble noticing that there are towers literally everywhere that they ever go, so that maybe the home headaches have some other cause. And considering that the true shape of the earth was figured out by our ancestors some two thousand six hundred years ago, without the benefit of any modern special equipment, it’s pretty easy to prove that as well.
But they choose not to. They don’t look at the evidence, or allow for any possibility that they might be wrong. And they don’t even bother trying to prove their point when debating it. Instead, they hurl insults, mock those who disagree, and generally act like monkeys in the zoo, flinging dung at their imagined enemies. It’s depressing to see how gleefully they throw away humanity’s greatest advantage, the ability to think and reason, and treat basic objective facts about the world as just another opinion, to be attacked or defended with schoolyard insults and taunts.
What do we do about it?
For all intents and purposes, these people might as well be trolls. Their persistence and stamina, their refusal to engage in any serious conversation, and their immunity to basic fact and logic checks are typical troll characteristics. In fact, for the longest time, I struggled to believe that they were sincere in their beliefs – I felt sure that we were all just the victims of an elaborate prank. I’m still not 100% convinced.
But YouTube videos are hard to make. A typical hour-long video might take a week for a dedicated individual to put together, once you allow for scripting, recording, editing, the creation of visual effects and so on. So to put out the thousands upon thousands of new Flat Earth videos that appear every week must be consuming all the spare time of an awful lot of people. Why go to all that effort, if they aren’t sincere in their beliefs?
So how to engage them? Honestly, if you’re hoping to change their minds and persuade them that the scientific consensus of the past two thousand six hundred years is in fact correct, then you’re in for disappointment. Don’t bother. You cannot debate somebody who will not debate. You cannot persuade somebody who actively refuses to think about your message. When you wrestle a pig, all you get is muddy.
Does this mean that we shouldn’t talk to them at all? Well… no. Because while there’s little to no hope of ever getting through to a hardline flat-earther, the world is full of people who enjoy conspiracy theories simply for the fun of “knowing” something that everybody else doesn’t. These people aren’t particularly passionate about the shape of the Earth, or uncovering NASA’s evil conspiracies, but merely want to know the truth (even if they’re skeptical about what they think of as mainstream beliefs). These people are not arguing, but they are watching from the sidelines, and maybe repeating the best lines to their friends over a beer, or around the water cooler. These are your audience, and we need to engage with them.
But in moderation! As much as I admire the Awesome Astronomy crowd for their persistence, I don’t know that most of us could survive such long arguments with our sanity intact!
Some arguments to use against a flat-earther
So now we can get practical. You’re on Twitter, or Facebook, or maybe you’re just scrolling through the comments at the end of an interesting astronomy article, and somebody comments that “Buzz Aldrin is a filthy liar, he never went to Antarctica because it’s just a wall around the edge of the Earth”. You reply, and suddenly you’re stuck trying to convince some random on the Internet about something that every 1st-grade child knows: The Earth is, roughly, shaped like a ball, and not like a pizza.
So where do we start? We’ve covered this before in an earlier article, but the info in there isn’t much help when arguing with a flat-earther. The ideas are too big to communicate in a rapid-fire online argument, and they’re just complicated enough that the person you’re explaining to needs to actually put in a bit of thought to try to understand them. That’s just too much to ask. So instead, ask them these simple questions about things that can’t possibly be true on a flat earth:
In a Lunar Eclipse, why is the shape of the Earth’s shadow always round, no matter where the Moon is in the sky?
This is how the ancients figured out the true shape of the Earth. The noticed that lunar eclipses only ever happen when the Sun and Moon are exactly opposite each other in the sky. It didn’t take a genius to figure that the dark shadow passing over the Moon’s surface must be that of the Earth’s. They also noticed that this shadow is always, ALWAYS, circular, no matter where in the sky the Moon happened to be at the time. The only way this can be true is if the Earth is spherical. You can test this yourself: Shine a light against a wall and hold a variety of objects in the way to cast shadows. If you find a shape that isn’t spherical that casts circular shadows no matter how you hold it, then congratulations for disproving geometry!
Why do we have Time Zones?
Around the time of the invention of the railroad, people noticed that it’s not always the same time everywhere at once. Set your watch to Noon at the exact moment when the Sun is highest in the sky, travel a few hundred kilometers, and suddenly your Noon time is off by a few minutes. This made scheduling long-distance train routes impossible, so standardised time zones were invented, which did not rely on the position of the Sun as seen locally. On a spherical Earth, this is obviously going to happen, but how do you explain it on a flat Earth?
Actually, there are a few possible explanations for this one. If your flat-earther comes up with one, congratulations for finding one prepared to think his way around a problem instead of just sticking his fingers in his ears and shouting till you go away. However, that answer will probably not work for many of the other questions in this list, which is a problem for the flat-earther. If you need three different theories to explain your world, depending on which part of the world you’re looking at, and all of those theories contradict each other, then your theories are wrong.
Why are the Sun and the Moon always the same size in the sky?
Typical Flat Earth models include a tiny Sun and Moon that orbit the world. The Sun rises in the East, passes overhead, descends in the West and then passes beneath the Earth so that it can rise again the next morning. If this is true, then the distance from you to the Sun will vary, according to time of day and your location. Somebody in the far East would see the Sun at its closest (and therefore hottest and largest) in the early morning, getting progressively cooler and smaller throughout the day. Somebody to the far West would see the opposite – small cool Sun in the morning, big hot Sun in the afternoon. And somebody in the middle should see a big hot Sun at midday, with a small cold Sun at sunrise and sunset.
The question then is simple: Why don’t we see this? Why is the Sun always the same size in the sky? Why do we actually see the Sun behaving the way it would if it was hundreds of times larger than the Earth and hundreds of millions of kilometers away?
Take a look out of the Window. Is it day or night where you are?
Simple one this, and it hearkens back to the Timezone question above. If the Earth is truly flat, then the entire Earth should be in daylight or darkness at the same time. There should never be anybody on Earth who can see the Stars while somebody else can see the Sun. And in this age of instant communication around the globe (sorry, I meant to say “around the Disk”…) this is very easy to test. Find a friend in one of your contacts directories (Facebook, Skype, Twitter, anything!) who is on the other side of the world from you. Call them and start a video chat. Ask them to point their camera out the window (so that you know they’re not lying to protect the “Globalist Conspiracy”). Does it look like it’s the same time of day or night as your own view, from your own window?
Have you ever looked through a telescope?
This is a little more abstract, but it was the telescope that showed Galileo that the Earth is not the centre of all motion in the Universe. He saw moons orbiting Jupiter, he saw imperfections on the surface of the Sun, he saw mountains and valleys and craters on the Moon, proving it to be an actual little world and not just a small light passing through our skies. His telescope was smaller and weaker than a typical pair of modern binoculars. Look up and see with your own eyes. No special training or talent required.
Have you ever watched a ship sail towards the horizon?
Any child, when challenged to prove that the Earth is round, will ask this question: Why, when a ship sails away from port into open sea, does it disappear in stages (hull, then sails, then flag in the old days, hull then superstructure then radio mast in modern times). Flat-earthers have various contradictory ways of wangling around this one. Sometimes they claim that it’s simply a lie that you see these stages, other times they modify the explanation for mirages to explain how the light bends and different parts of the ship become hidden. Just keep pressing for details, get them to commit to a theory, and then move on to the next question:
Have you ever climbed a mountain or flown in an aeroplane?
In the town where I grew up, there was a tall mountain called “World’s View”, with a lookout spot where you can park your car to look out over the city. Now from the ground, you can see less than 10km, but when you get to the top of that hill, you can see closer to 50km – entire neighbouring towns become visible.
If you go even higher, in an aeroplane or helicopter, you can see further still. Clearly, the distance you can see depends on your height above ground level. Atmospheric haze doesn’t set the limit, unless it’s a particularly hazy day. Mystery refractive effects, as might have been offered for the previous question, suddenly vanish. How does this actually work, if we’re not on a curved surface?
How do you think Satellite TV works?
Flat-earthers maintain that the various space programs are all part of the conspiracy. Photographs of the Earth taken by astronauts are faked, because rockets cannot go up into space and orbit the Earth because gravity doesn’t exist.
I know. But I swear, I’ve seen these claims made with all sincerity. And my word do they sound angry when they say it. But if this is true, then how do they explain satellite TV? What are those highly directional satellite dishes pointing at, so high in the sky? If the dishes themselves are just another trick, part of the conspiracy, then where does the signal come from, given how sensitively they have to be pointed in the exact right direction?
Why do things fall?
Believers in a spherical Earth, including every single educated human on Earth for the past two thousand six hundred years, have had to explain the problem of what keeps us from falling off into space. Newton’s great discovery was that the mystery force that pulls us towards the centre of the Earth is the same one that keeps the planets in their orbits, by pulling them towards the Sun. That solved a thousands year old mystery. But flat-earthers like to claim that this is all a big fat lie, that gravity doesn’t exist, that things fall because that’s what things do.
Which is delightful. “Why is it hot today? Because it’s hot!”, “Why is the sky blue? Because skies are blue?”
I’m sure that’s fine if your idea of proof is “I think it’s true, and my mind is NEVER wrong”, but sane people can tell when a question is being answered with itself. If they can’t give answers, it’s because they don’t have them. And given that the answers we’ve got have been tested and probed for centuries by very bright people, all desperate to make a name for themselves by being the first one smart enough to debunk the old theories, we’ve set a pretty high standard for what makes “proof”.
A final word for any flat-earthers who are reading this: Just because YOU don’t understand something doesn’t make it wrong. It just means that you don’t understand it
Since this article was originally posted, it’s done quite well on social media. So well, in fact, that I decided to use it as a script for a segment in the very first episode of the Urban Astronomer Podcast! You can listen to it here: Podcast: Seven earth-like planets