The Flat Earth Society has been in the news a surprising amount recently. Firstly because of the first ever Flat Earth International Conference which took place in Raleigh North Carolina earlier this month and attracted over 400 attendees (with tickets ranging from $109 to $249).
Secondly, because of Californian native, Mike Hughes announcing plans to launch himself into space in a homemade rocket in order to prove the earth is flat.
In light of these recent stories, it’s worth having a closer look at The Flat Earth movement, trying to get an idea of what exactly they propose, what evidence they have to back up their beliefs, and what factors have contributed to the movements surprising popularity.
Although existing since the 19th century, the movement has picked up a following again in the age of social media, which has proven to be very effective for connecting like-minded individuals and providing a platform for fringe groups.
One of the core beliefs of the Flat Earth Society is that first-hand lived experience trumps “conventional wisdom” and “scientific data”. The Earth appears to ME to be flat, therefore, the earth IS flat. This is the flat-earthers version of the Scientific Method known as the Zetetic Method , which bases conclusions on observation as opposed to proving or disproving initial conclusions.
Another facet of the modern flat Earth movement is the belief that NASA - which some Flat Earth truthers joke stands for “Never A Straight Answer” - and the world's governments, shadow or otherwise, are covering up the fact that the world is flat for financial reasons.
Here, the theory gets particularly vague, but the general belief seems to be that it’s more lucrative to fake a space program than it is to actually go into space. By continuing to endorse the Globe Earth theory, world leaders can all get a cut of NASA’s profits - It’s worth mentioning here that NASA’s funding for 2018 amounts to a mere 19.1 billion dollars. Less than 0.5 precent of the US federal budget.
Like many conspiracy theorist communities, The Flat Earth movement is dogged by infighting and disagreements over the fundamental facts. As a result there are currently at least three websites - tfes.org, theflatearthsociety.org, and enclosedworld.com - and countless Facebook groups vying to cement their status as the official online space of the movement.
These websites feature news relevant to the flat Earth movement. Currently on the homepage of tfes.org is an article denouncing some pro-flat earth graffiti which appeared in a national park in Erie Pennsylvania , and a post celebrating a mention of the Flat Earth Theory on Yahoo News - although lamenting that the article “exhibits the usual pro-RE bias”.
The homepage also contains a link to a Kickstarter campaign for, FLAT. A comic book and card game which - “follows one man’s journey to incredible powers as he becomes the first superhero of his kind and unlocks knowledge not meant for the faint hearted! “.
The cover of issue one also dares to ask the question “Is knowledge truth?”.
Ideas that would be considered outlandish anywhere else are common sense here.
The moon landings were faked, space travel is impossible, pilots are being lied to by their GPS’s, etc. One thread, which began as an attempt to explain how lunar eclipses can be explained with the flat Earth theory eventually concluded that there must be two moons - or at very least, a moon and an invisible “anti-moon”.
Another thread, trying to explain how gravity would be possible if the earth is flat, suggested gravity is not real, but that the earth is constantly being propelled upwards, by “dark energy”, at a speed of about 32 feet per second.
Unsurprisingly, debates here can become particularly heated. Attempts to reason are usually shot down quickly and anyone who subscribes to the traditional scientific viewpoint is dismissed as being brainwashed. Even people whose first-hand experiences contradict the flat-earthers beliefs, such as sailors, astronomers and astronauts are either misinformed, or worse, disinformation agents on the government’s payroll.
Another reason for the movement’s recent surge in popularity could have to do with a number of celebrities who have recently come out to endorse the theory. Most notable is rapper B.o.B who’s 2016 single ‘Flatline’ is a diss-track to astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson, with whom the rapper had been involved in a flat Earth related Twitter feud the previous year.
The song’s lyrics liken B.o.B to Malcolm X, name checks a number of prominent flat Earth truthers including David Irving and Dr Richard Sauder, and references a number of other controversial conspiracy theories including “Lizard People” and holocaust denial.
Myspace celebrity, Tila Tequila - who believes she was killed in 2012 and is actually a robot or clone of her former self, also subscribes to the Flat Earth Theory. Using her twitter account to highlight some of the inconsistencies in the Globe Earth Theory, she has asked
“Why are all the buildings in NYC standing straight up? If earth was round then some of the buildings would have a slight tilt. #FlatEarth”
She also goes on to ask - “If earth was a spinning globe & the sun is supposedly 150 million light years away then how come the Sun rays beam straight down? #FlatEarth”
Probably the most famous figure to get behind the movement is Dr Shaquille O’Neal. Earlier this year, the pro basketball Hall-of-Famer shared his views on the theory on an episode of 'The Big Podcast With Shaq'
“It’s true. The Earth is flat. The Earth is flat. Yeah, it is. Yes, it is….
So, listen, I drive from coast to coast, and this shit is flat to me. I’m just saying. I drive from Florida to California all the time, and it’s flat to me. I do not go up and down at a 360-degree angle, and all that stuff about gravity, have you looked outside Atlanta lately and seen all these buildings? You mean to tell me that China is under us? China is under us? It’s not. The world is flat.”
However, after the podcasts release, Shaq was quick to distance himself from the movement, clarifying that he had been joking. This has not stopped his endorsement of the flat Earth theory from being featured on the homepage of tfes.org.
Although the Flat Earth Truthers may appear to be harmless, it is worrying that in 2017 a movement like this can have such a dedicated following.
media has proven to be a very effective tool for gathering like-minded individuals with fringe beliefs and radicalising them within their echo chambers.
It’s hard to imagine Flat Earth Truthers being as big a threat as climate-change deniers or anti-vaxxers, but as part of a wider trend of anti-intellectualism and casting doubt on science and experts, subscribing instead to “their own” scientific method, they are contributing to the climate of “post-truth” and “alternative facts” where important concepts like truth and reality no longer have the same universality they once did.
In the case of Flat Earthers, the consequences may appear to be relatively small. On a larger scale however, we can already see how this is becoming a serious issue.