The Earth is flat, you fools!

There’s a curious story on the BBC website which highlights the fact that, despite the ready availability of pictures like this:


There are still people out there who think that the world looks more like this*:


To be fair, not everyone agrees about the turtle and elephants. In fact, in the classic conspiracy theorist/maverick manner, the two ‘zeteticists’ interviewed were really only in agreement about the non-sphericity of the Earth – John Davis thinks that it is a 9000 km thick slab of infinite extent, whereas James McIntyre believes it to be a disc 24,900 miles in diameter.
Out of curiosity, I clicked through to the Flat Earth Society forum, which James McIntyre moderates. Here are some highlights from their FAQ.

Q: “Why do the all the world Governments say the Earth is round?”

A: It’s a conspiracy

Q: “What about NASA? Don’t they have photos to prove that the Earth is round?”

A: NASA is part of the conspiracy too. The photos are faked.

Q: “What is the motive behind this conspiracy?”

A: The motive is unknown although it is probably money

Q: “If you’re not sure about the motive, why do you say there is a conspiracy?”

A: Well it’s quite simple really; if the earth is in fact flat, then the governments must be lying when they say it isn’t.

Q: “How are the world governments organized enough to carry out this conspiracy?”

A: They only appear to be disorganized to make the conspiracy seem implausible.

Q: Why hasn’t this site been shut down by the government?

A: Doing so would prove that the government is hiding something.

Q: “What’s underneath the Earth?” aka “What’s on the bottom?” aka “What’s on the other side?”

A: This is unknown. Some believe it to be just rocks, others believe the Earth rests on the back of four elephants and a turtle.

Reading that, I find it difficult to quell my nagging parody sense. However, the real reason for my browsing was to see what the flat-earth explanation for ships disappearing over the horizon was. Obviously, any coherent theory would have to explain this easily observable phenomenon, which is commonly ascribed to the curvature of the Earth’s surface. And, indeed, there is at least one thread devoted to this question. Not to answering it, mind; one person points to a book written in 1881 (which, as far as I can understand, tries to write it off as a trick of perspective, although quite why the the bottom of a not-particularly-tall object is being visually compressed so much more than its top is rather obscure) but other than that there is merely lots of hand-waving about how all us ‘globalists’ are only seeing what we’ve been brainwashed to see.
The BBC article concludes with an interesting discussion with Christine Garwood, a historian who has written what could be a rather interesting book:

Perhaps one of the most surprising things in Garwood’s book is her revelation that flat earth theory is a relatively modern phenomenon.

Ms Garwood says it is an “historic fallacy” that everyone from ancient times to the Dark Ages believed the earth to be flat, and were only disabused of this “mad idea” once Christopher Columbus successfully sailed to America without “falling off the edge of the world”…

…Theories about the earth being flat really came to the fore in 19th Century England. With the rise and rise of scientific rationalism, which seemed to undermine Biblical authority, some Christian thinkers decided to launch an attack on established science.

Is it just me, or does this sound rather…familiar?
*One of the inspirations for this article is apparently a new Microsoft advert which compares all of the people who are not buying Windows Vista to flat-earthers. Which just goes to show that there are still uncharted depths of self-delusion to explore, even for the nuttiest of us.

Categories: antiscience, bloggery

Comments (12)

  1. DrA says:

    If I recall the story correctly, even elephants on the back of a space swimming sea turtle was testable. They lowered capsules over the edge at places where rocks interrupted the edge’s waterfall to glimpse, actually observe, the elephants. Even this is better science than the FES.

  2. Karen says:

    *One of the inspirations for this article is apparently a new Microsoft advert which compares all of the people who are not buying Windows Vista to flat-earthers.
    Count me among the flat-earthers, then. I kind of like the idea of the elephants and turtle. Being a geologist, perhaps I should investigate the relationship between elephant movement and plate tectonics.

  3. SimonG says:

    I love this quote from one of the flat-Earthers.

    Many use the term ‘flat-earther’ as a term of abuse, and with connotations that imply blind faith, ignorance or even anti-intellectualism.

    No kidding.

  4. Bryan says:

    classic! But you gotta admit, the turtle is cute. Though I am confused why half of the “earth” is in shadow when the sun is up (at least I assume that is the sun, above the turtle’s head, spinning faithfully AROUND the earth). If the earth was flat, then it would be the same time everywhere (i.e. no need for time-zones).
    Never ask a flat earther about time-zones or jet-lag I guess.
    I have to agree with Chris about calling Poe’s Law on this one

  5. Jez Rowan says:

    Upon reading more of the FAQ on the website it’s interesting that the denials of science don’t simply end at the shape of the Earth:
    * “The sun and moon, each 32 miles in diameter”
    * “The stars are about as far as San Francisco is from Boston. (3100 miles).”
    * “FE assumes that the Earth does not generate a gravitational field.”
    There’s also some interesting attempted explanations on why we have a magnetic field, and someone claims that the earth has no core. Thought that might interest some of you in the geology community.
    However my favourite find on the website has to be a section in the forums where someone ha attempted to model what a flat earth would look like :
    After many sane people try and use science to explain why the model is hopelessly flawed one rather insightful person makes the following observation (bear in mind that as Chris points out in the main article Flat Earthers don’t believe in satellites or those pesky pictures they take):
    “Hmmm… I wonder how you got to render that picture… Oh wait a minute, from the pictures we get from our satellites”
    Strangely no one takes the time to reply to this point…

  6. BrianR says:

    aah … I hadn’t thought about FlatEarthers in a while … good stuff

  7. Lab Lemming says:

    On the other hand, has belief in a round Earth ever scored you a BBC interview?

  8. Jez Rowan says:

    Are you trying to suggest that scoring a BBC interview is some kind of honour?
    …You should ask Chris about that 😉

  9. Silver Fox says:

    Bryan – thanks for the introduction to Poe’s Law.
    As for turtles and elephants, I’ve always liked a native American explanation I heard once. When asked about what was under the giant turtle that the earth (flat or round) rested on, one woman said, “It’s turtles all the way down!”
    I like the turtles-all-the-way-down idea. Perhaps it’s testable by dropping a rock climber (turtle climber) over the edge, giving that person a cell phone with a very good range to report back with as (s)he slowly descends, counting turtles to infinity. 😉

  10. clay says:

    This all sounds like it is straight out of Terry Pratchets, The Colour of Magic. Where they do in fact send a group of astrobiologists over the edge of the disk to observe the turtle, though unfortunately the cable snaps before they are able to determine the sex of the turtle. Thus requiring the a second mission to be undertaken.
    An other of these cooky theories, that while having been around for a while is gaining a little traction again in the non-geological world, is the Expanding Earth Hypothesis (they like to call it a theory).
    They have gone to exhaustive efforts to support their hypothesis though fail to account for some very basic understandings in geology and physics. Enjoy and have a laugh.

  11. Chris Rowan says:

    Thanks for the links, clay. The expanding earth theory, championed by people such as S. Warren Carey, did actually get some serious consideration back in the 40s and 50s, as an attempt to explain ‘continental drift’ prior to the development of plate tectonics. It’s a nice example of science donating a theory to cranks once they’ve finished with it.

  12. themadlolscientist, FCD says:

    Discworld FTW!