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Who Started the Flat Earth Conspiracy Theory, How Many Actually Believe This, and What Do They Believe Exactly?

Contrary to popular belief, a decent percentage of the human population has known definitely the Earth was roughly spherical for over two thousand years. Hardly impressive, as noted in our BrainFood Show podcast, bees also use this fact in their own absurdly fascinating navigation and in communicating directions to other bees.

As for humans, we took a little longer to realize this, with Pythagoras (6th century B.C.) generally credited with being the first known person to have suggested a spherical Earth, though the idea didn’t exactly catch on at this point. Aristotle (4th century B.C.) agreed and supported the hypothesis with observations such as that the southern constellations rise higher in the sky when a person travels south. He also noted that during a lunar eclipse the Earth’s shadow is round.  Much more definitively, the 3rd century BC head librarian at the Library of Alexandria, Eratosthenes, built on their ideas and managed to calculate the circumference of the Earth with remarkable accuracy. How? He simply used the knowledge that at noon on the Summer Solstice there was a well in Syene where the sun shown directly down to the bottom, with no shadow. Thus, at noon on Summer Soltice he used a rod to measure the angle of the shadow made in Alexandria and found it to be about 7 degrees or about 1/50th of a circle. With this information, he now just needed to know the exact distance between Syene and Alexandria to get the circumference of the Earth (about 50 times the distance between Syene and Alexandria). He hired a survey crew, known as bematists, to measure the distance, which they found to be about 5,000 stadia. He then concluded the Earth must be about 250,000 stadia around.  Depending on which stadion measurement he was using, his figure was either just 1% too small or 16% too large. Many scholars think it likely that he was using the Egyptian stadion (157.5 m), being in Egypt at the time, which would make his estimate roughly 1% too small.

Moving on to the so called Dark Ages in which Christianity supposedly squashed such outlandish ideas as a spherical Earth, the truth is actually the opposite. In Christian medieval Europe, 7th century Catholic monk and scholar Bede produced an influential treatise that included a discussion of the spherical nature of the world. This work, The Reckoning of Time, was copied and distributed to clerics across the Carolingian empire. Later, in the 1300s, Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy also describes the Earth as a sphere and again nobody seemed to have a problem with this.

The Catholics and later other branches of Christianity weren’t the only religious sects that seemed to have its clergy and scholars almost universally think the world was spherical.  The Islamic world also concurred. As historian Jeffrey Burton Russell sums up,

With extraordinary few exceptions, no educated person in the history of Western Civilization from the third century B.C. onward believed that the Earth was flat.

Beyond the academics of the Western world, even the most empty headed sailor knew the Earth was spherical simply by the fact that ships disappear over the horizon with the bottom first and then the mast the last to be sighted. A similar effect is observed when spotting land from a ship. It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to realize the sea’s surface must curve continually.

Despite this, there really still is a tiny percentage of the populace of the developed world who believe the world is flat.

You might at this point be wondering just how many? While internet comment threads make it seem as if the percentage is large, the reality is probably drastically less. (Comment trolls gonna troll.)

As for some numbers, according to a 2018 poll run by the massive market research firm YouGov, the 8,215 responses which were chosen to have a high probability of accurately representing the wider adult populace, showed,

  • 84% of respondents said they have always believed the world is round
  • 5% stated “I always thought the world is round, but more recently I am skeptical/have doubts”,
  • 2% stated “I always thought the world is flat, but more recently I am skeptical/have doubts”
  • and 2% went with “I have always believed the world is flat”.
  • The remaining 7% stated “Other/not sure”.

While the good people at YouGov certainly know their stuff with respect to getting accurate data that represents the wider populace, we were curious as to what a larger sample of our own audience would reveal, though with the caveat that a general internet poll can sometimes be notoriously inaccurate. But for the curious and for whatever it’s worth, our poll asking more or less the same questions received over 72,000 votes. What were the results? Approximately

  • 96% of respondents stated they “firmly believe the world is round”,
  • 1% went with “I used to firmly believe the world is round, but now have doubts”
  • 1% voted for “I firmly believe the world is flat”
  • 0% stated “I used to firmly believe the world is flat, but now have doubts”
  • 1% noted “I am not sure what I believe on this issue.”

These numbers seem surprisingly reasonable for an online poll when compared to something a little more rigorously implemented like the YouGov poll. While our numbers skew more towards Round Earthers, this is perhaps to be expected given we know definitively that our audience skews towards being much more educated than the general populace.

And just because we were curious about the many, many online trolls who, as stated, it’s our pet hypothesis are actually making it seem like there are a lot more Flat Earthers than there actually are, we did a follow up poll which got 54,000 votes. For whatever it’s worth, in this one, approximately

  • 9% of respondents stated “I believe the world is round, but sometimes say online it’s flat”
  • 2% stated “I believe the world is flat and advocate this position online”
  • The remaining 89% stated “Neither applies to me.”

(And, yes, we know those numbers don’t add up to exactly 100% in either case, but YouTube’s polling system rounds to the whole number, so here we are.)

Those numbers out of the way, this finally brings us to who started the relatively modern Flat Earth movement and how on God’s oblate spheroid Earth this movement is actually growing in an era where nearly all human knowledge is almost literally at everyone’s fingertips?

The genesis of the modern Flat Earth Society started in the mid-19th century thanks to one Samuel Rowbotham of London, England. Dropping out of school at the tender age of 9, Rowbotham would eventually become convinced, or at least claimed he was, that not only was the Earth flat, but that everything we see in the heavens is actually only a few thousand miles from the Earth- stars and all. While his ideas were absurd for an incredible number of reasons, even given the technology and scientific knowledge of his era, what Rowbatham had going for him was he was reportedly incredibly quick on his feet in debates and an extremely charismatic speaker, able to twist the words of even the best academics. It didn’t matter if he was actually right or not, only that he was better at convincing laypeople than the academics he regularly debated, or at least good at creating reasonable doubt. As noted by a contemporary article published in the Leeds Times,

One thing he did demonstrate was that scientific dabblers unused to platform advocacy are unable to cope with a man, a charlatan if you will (but clever and thoroughly up in his theory), thoroughly alive to the weakness of his opponents.

Besides making a small fortune public speaking, he also wrote various works including a book aptly titled Earth Not a Globe. Rowbotham ultimately created the Zetetic Society, which, besides advocating for a flat Earth, also advocated that only facts one could prove themselves could be accepted as true. On the side, Rowbotham also began going by “Dr. Samuel Birley” and making money selling people on cure-alls and life extenders of his own invention, among other such activities.

While by the early 20th century the society he started had gradually faded into even more obscurity than it already was at its peak during Rowbotham’s lifetime, all was not lost. The truth cannot be killed so easily! In 1956 when mankind was on the verge of putting a satellite in orbit, Samuel Shenton of Dover, UK, came across the former works of the Universal Zetetic Society, the successor to Rowbotham’s, and was hooked. He then established the International Flat Earth Research Society (IFERS) which adopted some of the ideas of the Zetetic Society before it, most notably, as you might have guessed from their new name, that the Earth is flat.

Of course, his timing wasn’t exactly ideal given the launch of Sputnik in 1957 which, beyond being in orbit, put out a signal that anyone with a little know-how could track, very clearly demonstrating the spherical nature of the Earth.

This didn’t faze him in the slightest, however. He simply noted that satellites circled over the disc of the world and that, “Would sailing round the Isle of Wight prove that it were spherical? It is just the same for those satellites.”

When pictures of the Earth were taken from space clearly showing the planet’s spherical nature, the man who strongly advocated trusting what you can see with your own eyes stated, “It’s easy to see how a photograph like that could fool the untrained eye.”

When astronauts came back still believing the Earth wasn’t flat, he went with the catch-all explanation for any conspiracy theory when no other suitable explanation can be thought up- “It’s a deception of the public and it isn’t right.”

Despite the giant, roughly spherical mound of evidence staring the members right in the face, including the variety easily confirmed by anyone with a modicum of knowledge in physics, the society did not die completely, though by 1972 had dropped from a peak of about 3,000 members down to around 100 spanning the globe.

That same year Shenton died and Californian Charles Johnson more or less took over the remnants, creating the International Flat Earth Research Society of America. Johnson also advocated that there was a global conspiracy with regards to the very flat Earth, not just today, but spanning millennia. To quote him, this was a conspiracy that “Moses, Columbus, and FDR all fought” against. Beyond that Columbus most definitely thought that the Earth was roughly spherical, simply misjudging its circumference, we’re guessing Moses didn’t have to fight anyone on this one as the Ancient Egyptians firmly believed in the concept of a flat Earth, as did seemingly the Hebrews around the time he supposedly lived.

So what exactly do the world’s governments and countless scientists and high school physics students throughout human history have to gain by convincing people the world is spherical instead of flat? Well, Johnson advocated that this is a tool used by scientists to get rid of religion. Of course, as noted, Christian scholars throughout history on the whole advocated for the very spherical Earth and we’re not aware of any major religious denomination the world over today that goes with the flat Earth model, so no apparent conflict… But, hey, we guess Eratosthenes must have really had it in for those Ancient Egyptian and Greek gods…

In any event, despite Johnson’s less than compelling arguments, over time this new society actually gained followers up to a peak of about 3,500 members under his leadership. Disaster struck, however, when a fire at headquarters destroyed some of the records of membership in 1997. Ultimately Johnson himself passed away in 2001 and the society was temporarily just as dead.

All was not lost, however, as there is no medium greater than the Internet at giving humans ability to discover the truth in anything for themselves… if we weren’t all so lazy and our monkey brains not so chock full of cognitive biases.

And so it was that in 2004, one Daniel Shenton created a discussion forum home for the mostly dead Flat Earth Society and by 2009 a new wiki website was created in its place, with the society slowly growing from there to apparently around 500 members to date. There are also many Flat Earth pages and channels on sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube sometimes exceeding 100K members or subscribers of a given page, channel, or profile, for whatever that’s worth.

In the latest incarnation of the society, as with their forebears, the modern group strongly advocates for only accepting that which you can see with your own eyes and prove with your own efforts. As they note on their website,

The simplest is by relying on ones own senses to discern the true nature of the world around us. The world looks flat, the bottoms of clouds are flat, the movement of the Sun; these are all examples of your senses telling you that we do not live on a spherical heliocentric world. This is using what’s called an empirical approach, or an approach that relies on information from your senses. Alternatively, when using Descartes’ method of Cartesian doubt to skeptically view the world around us, one quickly finds that the notion of a spherical world is the theory which has the burden of proof and not flat earth theory.

As for the model of the Earth they go with, while there is some dissension among the ranks over exact details, the current belief advocated by the Flat Earth Society is that the the Earth is disc shaped. The North Pole lies at the center of this disc and there is an ice wall surrounding the outer most parts of the Earth that keeps the oceans contained. This wall is nearly impossible to reach owing to the fact that NASA is closely guarding it, ensuring no one ever gets close enough to see it for themselves. NASA also is extremely active in generating satellite photos of the Earth and generating other data all meant to keep people believing in a spherical Earth. Seemingly the Google Earth team must be in on it too, clearly abandoning the company’s long held unofficial mantra of “Don’t be evil.”

As evidence of this conspiracy and how far reaching it is, they also point out on their website that the United Nations emblem strongly resembles the Flat Earth Society’s view of what the Earth actually looks like.

(We guess clearly showing the logo design team, led by industrial designer Oliver Lincoln Lundquist, in 1945, didn’t get the memo that the true shape of the Earth was supposed to be a secret. You had one job Lundquist!!!

To be fair, however, when his team designed it, it was originally just supposed to be used on the badges at the United Nations Charter signing conference, so only for people who already knew the Earth was flat… Fun fact, Lundquist did, however, make up for the screw up by later designing the classic blue and white Q-tip box.)

In any event, you might at this point be wondering how the Flat Earth Society believes commercial airlines and ships the world over continue to seemingly travel in one direction and manage to circle the globe. Well, this is because these ships and planes are literally circling. They state, “circumnavigation is performed by moving in a great circle around the North Pole.”

As for how the ship and plane captains don’t seem to be aware of this, in modern times it’s because GPS devices and autopilots are designed in software to simply make it seem like the craft is circling a globe and not continually turning slightly. Of course, it’s not clear how they account for people tricking themselves when navigating before or without GPS, which has only been ubiquitous for a couple decades or so. (See: Who Invented GPS and How Does It Work?)

There’s also the fact that fuel burn on these ships and airplanes are carefully calculated, particularly important for planes where weight and balance is always an essential consideration if one doesn’t want to die a fiery death. Thus, if they were really traveling in the way the Flat Earthers claim, the fuel requirements would be different, sometimes vastly so. (No surprise here that Big Oil must be involved…)

As for, you know, the whole day and night thing, this is explained on their website “The sun moves in circles around the North Pole. When it is over your head, it’s day. When it’s not, it’s night. The light of the sun is confined to a limited area and its light acts like a spotlight upon the earth… The apparent effect of the sun rising and setting is…a perspective effect.”

How exactly the light from the Sun only works as a spotlight isn’t clear. It’s also not clear how the phases of the Moon and lunar and solar eclipses work given this spotlight model and given they believe the Sun is always above the Earth…

Moving on- as for the many people who claim to be able to see the curvature of the Earth when on high altitude commercial flights, well, the Flat Earth Society, who advocated trusting your own senses over what anyone tells you. tells these people, to quote, “Quite simply you cannot… the windows on commercial aircraft are small and heavily curved. Even if they flew high enough for a person to see curvature, it would still not be visible to passengers.”

As for the issue of someone with even a half way decent telescope being able to see the spherical nature of other planets in the solar system, including them spinning away, the Flat Earth Society claims,

Planets are orbiting astronomical objects. The Earth is not a planet by definition, as it sits at the center of our solar system above which the planets and the Sun revolve. The earths uniqueness, fundamental differences and centrality makes any comparison to other nearby celestial bodies insufficient – Like comparing basketballs to the court on which they bounce.

As for how gravity works in the flat Earth model, it turns out that, “The earth is constantly accelerating up at a rate of 32 feet per second squared (or 9.8 meters per second squared). This constant acceleration causes what you think of as gravity. Imagine sitting in a car that never stops speeding up. You will be forever pushed into your seat. The earth works much the same way. It is constantly accelerating upwards being pushed by a universal accelerator (UA) known as dark energy or aetheric wind.”

You may have spotted a problem with this explanation given the whole issue of eventually exceeding the speed of light. In fact, if constant acceleration at 9.8 meters per second squared, it would only take about a year for the Earth to reach the speed of light.

Well, they’ve got you covered, explaining: “Due to special relativity, this is not the case. At this point, many readers will question the validity of any answer which uses advanced, intimidating-sounding physics terms to explain a position. However, it is true. The relevant equation is v/c = tanh (at/c). One will find that in this equation, tanh(at/c) can never exceed or equal 1. This means that velocity can never reach the speed of light, regardless of how long one accelerates for and the rate of the acceleration.”

Anyway, as to what lies below the Earth, this is heavily disputed among Flat Earthers. But it doesn’t really matter as you can’t get there anyway. You see, to quote Flat Earther Robbie Davidson in an interview with Forbes,  “We don’t believe anything can fall off the edge, because a big portion of the flat earth community believes that we’re in a dome, like a snow globe. So the sun, moon and stars are all inside. It’s very high but all contained inside. So there’s no way to actually fall off of the earth.”

Given it only takes a modicum of effort to disprove pretty much everything said on their website and prove definitively for one’s self that the Earth is roughly spherical without needing to trust any scientist or government, you might think the Flat Earthers just aren’t trying. Well, you’re kind of right, but there are exceptions! Case in point- limo driver Mike Hughes who managed to raise about $ 8,000 thanks to a Flat Earth fundraiser. Why? To build a rocket to reach the heavens with to once and for all prove the Earth was flat.

Reportedly the final hilariously fitting steam powered rocket and launch platform cost around $ 20,000 and took about ten years to build. With it, Hughes managed to achieve an altitude of almost 1,900 feet, which while kind of impressive for an amateur built home made rocket that could carry a human, was nonetheless not able to achieve his objective of getting him to space.

If only it was possible to build more powerful rockets… Or if there existed a balloon designed to be able to soar into the heavens with some sort of device on board that could capture and store what it sees through an eye like apparatus… Or, stick with us here people, if a human going along for the ride was a requirement to show NASA hadn’t tampered with this futuristic visual capture device, some sort of bird-like machine that could carry humans above 1,900 feet…

On that note, for a mere $ 12,000-$ 16,000 Hughes could have purchase a charter flight ticket to not only take him higher than altitudes of 1,900 feet, but also take him to Antarctica to see the massive ice wall for himself. Or if the Flat Earth society wanted to pool together their resources, for prices from $ 25,000-$ 70,000 they could charter a flight to the South Pole itself.  Though, a thing they don’t tell you on the vacation package brochure is that while you can go visit the South Pole, NASA subjects everyone that does to severe mental retraining to ensure all memories of the ice wall have been erased and replaced with pleasant, but very wall free, recollections.

All joking and head scratching aside, it’s always important to note that many of the core psychological quirks that see Flat Earthers intractably convinced the Earth is flat in the face of all evidence to the contrary exist in all of us. Monkey brain gonna monkey. We further all have many beliefs we firmly cling to just as tenuously supported by our level of knowledge on a subject, though thankfully for most of us the absurdity isn’t quite so easy to spot, allowing us to safely continue to think of ourselves as superior to mere mortals with alternate ideas…

In the end, we all firmly believe many things that aren’t true at all and no amount of evidence could ever convince any of us to change our minds on some of these things. Food for thought.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:

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