August 25, 2009

Flat Earth

Writing about web page http://www.theflatearthsociety.org/

I was actually planning to write a post about resaurants, but then I discovered this little jewel on the Internet. A forum for people who believe that the Earth is flat! Priorities changed, and suddenly I had something way more urgent to write about.

Now, I know that there are people out there who believe some ridiculous theories. Some believe we never landed on the Moon, some believe that biology is not a science. But believers in a FLAT EARTH?! Oh come on. That's not even controversial, that's just plain stupid. Naturally, I initally suspected that the entire forum might be a hoax. However, after reading the FAQ, and the posts made by regular members, I realised with creeping horror that they were serious.

Q: "Is this site for real?" 

A: This site is real. There are members who seriously believe the Earth is flat. However, there are also members who do not.

I'm not a physicist - never mistake a Mathematician for a Physicist - but I know enough about Newtonian Mechanics and our universe to know that a spherical Earth is the most sensible and elegant solution to the shape of our planet. Not to mention the most... true. There are pictures, there are satelites, and there has been overwhelming scientific and public consensus on this for hundreds of years. I see no reason to question my belief that the Earth is round and I am absolutely positive that you, the reader, feel the same way. So I am speechless that these people nevertheless believe this drivel.

I spent quite a while on the forum. Not because I felt a need to rebut their theory (in my opinion they are lost souls who have reached a level of idiocy that is not worth my time) but because I found it amusing to read about their extremely elaborate and complicated theory which attempts to explain natural phenomena from a Flat Earth perspective. I will give you a summary of their belief system here:

Map of a flat Earth

According to Flat Earth'ers, the Earth is a flat disc at the centre of the Universe, looking as above. It is surrounded by a great impenetrable Ice Wall, that prevents the sea and the atmolayer from falling off. The Sun and the Moon are spotlights that circle the sky overhead, thereby illuminating different parts of the Earth at different times. Sunrises and sunsets are "perspective effects". Lunar eclipses are caused by a third celestial body, the anti-moon, getting between the Sun and the Moon, thereby darkening the moon. Gravity is caused by a Universal Accelerator underneath the Earth. It is unknown how the opposite side of the Earth looks. Also, pilots who fly from, say, South America to New Zealand, are being misguided by their GPS. Other unexplained phenomena usually have something to do with Dark Energy.

That's Flat Earth Theory in a nutshell. For more details, go visit their FAQ. For an even more scientific approach, see Samuel Birley Rowbotham's book on Zetetic Astronomy, Earth Not a Globe.

The whole idea is of course utterly absurd. What I find funny is their obstinacy to make this a consistent theory with no flaws whatsoever. This means that they constantly have to invent new explanations to all the evidence that seems to refute their beloved hypothesis. The thing is, even if they somehow do manage to patch up every anomaly with far-fetched solutions to reach a theory that does not contradict itself, it will be riddled with so many pointless and artifical rules, forces and celestial bodies that it will look like a wobbly shed, next to the beauty of the Round Earth Palace. In short, Flat Earth Theory raises too many new questions. Ever heard of Occam's Razor?

Still, all that got me thinking. The posters at the forum in question seemed very stubborn, and I started wondering how one could possibly make them change their minds. So here's a little challenge for you: What is the simplest way to prove that the Earth is spherical? By "simple" I mean "easy to execute". And I'm talking about proper proof; a picture of a round Earth, for instance, could technically have been photoshopped. Any ideas?


- 19 comments by 2 or more people Not publicly viewable

[Skip to the latest comment]
  1. Mike Willis

    If the Earth is flat then from the highest point on the Earth’s surface (man made or natural), using a suitably powerful telescope you can see all the way to that big wall of ice at edge in any direction. If the Earth is spherical then from the same point, no matter how powerful the telescope, you will never be able to see further than however ever far it is to the horizon in any direction.

    I’m not sure it’s a paper proof of if they have an answer on their website for that, but it seems easy enough to execute.

    Stuff like this fascinates me a way because some of the people who believe it seem otherwise well reasoned and intelligent. For example I know for a fact that there is at least one member of the University academic staff who has given credence to both the idea that the moon landings were faked (the photos don’t look right apparently) and to the idea that the Word Trade Centre towers did not collapse just because someone decided it would be a good idea to fly planes in to them thus sufficiently weakening their structural integrity, but because they were rigged to do so.

    26 Aug 2009, 13:07

  2. Florian Pieront

    The fact that you can put an object into orbit around the earth, and that the same laws describe that object also applies to smaller objects moving around other small objects. Becuse you’d have to make the orbiting object ridiculously small for it to orbit something that’s not ridiculously big, so you could try this by substituting the gravitational pull with a very thin string and then giving the orbitting object the right velocity.

    Difficult to execute, but you can try to think of the practicalities if you like!

    I found your blog by accident while surfing around on people’s facebook profiles, makes for a lot of interesting reading!

    26 Aug 2009, 22:41

  3. Florian Pieront

    Or build a plane that travels at the same speed at which the earth turns and observe how the sun stays in the same place in the sky. Hopefully, the orbit of the earth around the sun won’t have any noticeable effect on that

    26 Aug 2009, 22:44

  4. @ Mike: Apart from the “get to the highest point on Earth” bit, yeah that’s sounds doable. I guess any high point would also work pretty well, but you’d have to make sure you’re not looking towards an actual mountain range. Apart from that it’s seems pretty watertight, so I don’t know what they would answer. Maybe they’ll say that you can’t see the ice wall due to fog in the air… To be honest, there probably is some kind of limit to how far you can see through air. Maybe I should ask them for fun, and see what they say – unless you want to go ahead and do it ;).

    @ Florian: Long time no see! Glad to hear you’ve found my blog, hope you’ve enjoyed the read so far!
    The problems with experiments that involve orbiting, is that most Flat Earth’ers don’t believe that things can be put into orbit, due to the flat nature of the Earth. Satelites are nothing but a lie made up by a worldwide conspiracy. Talk about crazy. I like your other one, though, especially since I think planes like that already exists (supersonic aircrafts?). The challenge would be to convince the Flat Earth’er that you were indeed travelling in a straight line, and not just in a circle that followed the sun’s circular movements above the Earth.
    By the way, I’ve bought ‘The Doors of Perception’ by Alduous Huxley (you told me about it once), although I haven’t got round to reading it yet.

    26 Aug 2009, 23:51

  5. Florian Pieront

    The trouble with any attempted proof is that this doesn’t really seem to be an actual scientific theory… e.g. the only testable content they seem to have come up with is “WELL IT’S FLAT WHEN YOU LOOK AT IT DUH”. It’s like trying to disprove psychoanalysis or marxism, which doesn’t really work (these are just the two obvious examples). I think their counter-argument would always be something similar to Déscartes and his assumption of a malevolent god whose hobby it is to trick you, except that here, they want you to take it as actual fact.

    The other problem with this is that, unlike other theories that have been proven wrong or innacurate in the past and replaced by better theories, this one was already proven wrong a loooong time ago, so we’re dealing with a bunch of people who’ve set themselves apart from scientific consensus on purpose. Usually, theories that don’t work jsut accumulate complications over time, until they become waaaay too complicated and someone decides to come up with something better. Which is what seems to be happening here, but I don’t think that’s going to stop them (after all, they’ve got Dark Energy to explain everything :D).

    I enjoy coming up with solutions though… if you take the period of rotation of the earth to be 24 hours exactly, you end up with a surface speed of about 463 m/s, so that’s about Mach 1.35, easily reachable by a plane! If someone sat in there, set off at lunchtime and travelled west at a constant 463 m/s, he/she wouldn’t see the sun move an inch.

    27 Aug 2009, 10:59

  6. Sue

    I do believe in the possibility of a flat Earth. I don’t like the idea that it is like a dish though. And I don’t own a GPS either, so I don’t believe I’ll be misguided when I go from South America to New Zealand. If the Earth is round, they say it’s about 25 thousand miles in circumference. That is substantial.

    27 Aug 2009, 21:58

  7. Sarah Marshall

    I had a quick look around on the internet just now and I found a few interesting parts of this: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/7540427.stm

    BBC news even did a piece on this topic:
    “Mr Davis, a 25-year-old computer scientist originally from Canada… “the Earth is flat and horizontally infinite – it stretches horizontally forever”.

    “And it is at least 9,000 kilometres deep”, he adds. ””

    “James McIntyre, a British-based moderator of a Flat Earth Society discussion website… “Obviously it isn’t perfectly flat thanks to geological phenomena like hills and valleys. It is around 24,900 miles in diameter.” “

    Perhaps the telescope will not satisfy them at all seemingly as they cannot make up their minds the distance between the ice walls.

    In any case enjoy reading that one ^^

    28 Aug 2009, 00:11

  8. I’d like to hear the explanation for the network of satellites that are set up both physically and electronically to communicate around a spherical earth. Or are we supposed to believe that there are thousands of people in on the “it’s really a flat earth” conspiracy?
    Having said that, I’m not sure how many of these people are actually that willfully ignorant and how many of them are just seeing if they can get away with it.

    28 Aug 2009, 11:51

  9. @ Florian: If you start anywhere not on the equator, and you keep going west, you won’t be going in a straight line. A straight line (or “Great Circle”) would cross the equator twice, so you’d have to correct your course regularly to keep pointing west. This could be a way for the Flat Earth’er to argue that you’re in fact going around in a circle, following the sun. Also, I’m starting to suspect that with all the hassle of finding a supersonic jet and a pilot willing to perform a scientific experiment, it might be just as easy to just fly straight over the South Pole with a robust aircraft.

    @ Sue: Did you know that the meridional circumference of the Earth used to be exactly 40.000 km, due to the definition of the metre?

    @ Sarah: Lovely article! On the website they do indeed state that there are various Flat Earth Theories. The ‘infinite plane’ sounds like the most appealing one to me, albeit also the most unrealistic.

    @ Gavin: They say there are no satellites orbiting the Earth. The networks are based on ground-placed antennae. Also, some of them believe that “satellites” are sometimes sent up in space to do whatever sattelites do, before falling down again. Then they send up another one, and so on.

    28 Aug 2009, 14:15

  10. Jim

    The flat Earth people don’t really believe that the Earth is flat. It’s an elaborate hoax, and you have fallen for it.

    The irony is quite delicious. People think they are foolish for holding those beliefs, when in fact it is the people who believe the hoax who are foolish.

    30 Aug 2009, 00:24

  11. Anden15

    I have nothing to add to what’s been already said. I’m going to become a spaceman now, so I can either disprove this theory and have really cool experiences at the same time, or get paid a whole lot of money for keeping quiet, so I won’t have to work anymore.
    I’d also like to commend Sue on her answer. It’s some time since I laughed that much.
    The ending comment killed me xD.
    Who are you, Sue?

    30 Aug 2009, 23:22

  12. Jim – That depends on your definition of foolish. Who’s put more time, effort and energy into this whole thing?
    Alexander, or people like him, coming across this thing and scoffing at it briefly isn’t indicative of the ‘foolishness of people’. That’s mainly because this sort of idea is not so far removed from other ideas (cough creationism cough anti-evolutionists cough) that are demonstrably false with only a few minutes thought.
    Whether or not these people are giggling into their cocacola is irrelevant. There are people who think this is true. It may not be these people specifically, but they are out there. Some even have religious text backing them up.

    30 Aug 2009, 23:23

  13. Jim – read the book on Zetetic Astronomy I linked to. This guy has dedicated an entire book to his belief system. Odds are he really believes this, and so does his followers.

    31 Aug 2009, 15:46

  14. Amrita

    It’s completely unreal to believe that Earth is flat.
    To Know more about it i also logged on to theflatearthsociety.org
    The Forum is excellent. I really liked the questions asked there.

    12 Sep 2009, 07:17

  15. batterie 12v

    That is cool looking!

    BTW, there are those of us who do not believe that the theory of evolution is a sound one who do know that the earth is round.

    12 Sep 2009, 11:26

  16. BDP S360

    Is it just me or does this situation echo the god/no god argument that has been around for centuries. Forget Newtonian Physics, some anthropological research in to these people could be interesting!

    14 Sep 2009, 10:01

  17. Lot of strange groups out there: Those don’t believe that people never landed on the moon; That the Earth is the centre of the Universe; That the World would end on 09-09-2009 (sorry it didn’t), etc.

    18 Sep 2009, 02:12

  18. There may be similarities between the theory of Creationism and that of a Flat Earth. But batterie is right, there is no immediate link between doubting evolution and believing in a Flat Earth.

    @ Dilip: My new goal in life is to convince myself that every single Conspiracy Theory is true. But apparently I only have three years left to learn them all!

    And thank you all for reading!

    18 Sep 2009, 11:02

  19. “may be similarities between the theory of Creationism and that of a Flat Earth” – True, although of course it’s likely that any group of people living in an area of the world where they can see the horizon/sea (I don’t think that we can tar tribes in the Amazon with the same brush) will have had the same idea, at least to start with. The problem with Biblical Creationism and the flat earth is that the book says things like “four corners of the earth” and speaks of a tree so tall that One may see the ends of the Earth from the top. Other similar things are also said, these are not isolated.
    So when One is hell-bent on taking the words literally (which even moderately educated people know is a pretty bad idea) One has to conclude that god’s infallible word is telling us that the earth is flat.
    Isn’t it odd, though, that most Bible-ers can ignore such problems in the light of modern day evidence (and I include Eratosthenes and his remarkably precise calculation in the word ‘modern’) because the majority of them know they haven’t got a leg to stand on, but can still spout forth rubbish about the story of the ark, and the garden of Eden. And evolution.
    So we might conclude that give it a couple of thousand years, or if we’re lucky a few hundred, and the rest of them might shut up about the ‘divine’ science god has given them in the bible and quietly agree that this god chap apparently didn’t know what he was talking about in the majority of cases.

    21 Sep 2009, 08:50


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