Feuding Over a Flat Earth Is Nothing New

Stuff They Don't Want You To Know - The Flat Earth Update Carousel Image: Frazer Harrison/Alex Remnick/Getty/HowStuffWorks; Video: HowStuffWorks

The Flat Earth Society is somewhere far away, with their candlesticks and compasses. And the bright ship Humana is well on its way with grave determination ... and no destination.

– Bad Religion, "Flat Earth Society"


Did you know that when children are asked to draw a picture of the planet Earth, they often illustrate it as a flat disc? The usual adult interpretation of this is, "Well, of course, children are foolish and naive."

But in 2007, Gavin Nobes and Georgia Panagiotaki published a study in the British Journal of Psychology that showed that adults weren't all that much better at the task. Fewer than half of the adults' drawings of Earth were any more scientific than a 5-year-old's. This isn't because the adults were stupid. No, it's because the task is confusing and challenging. The study's authors concluded that children probably find it even more difficult, regardless of whether they have scientific knowledge of Earth.

Cut to this week and we've got rapper B.o.B and current scientist supreme Neil deGrasse Tyson barking at each other over whether Earth is flat. It started as a flame war on Twitter, not the best medium if you're looking for civilized discourse. 

Then it moved into a rap battle, with each releasing diss tracks against the other. Wednesday night Tyson took to "The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore" to curse at his opponent with a pseudo mike drop.

It's a cute spectacle for us to gawk at, with all their finger-pointing and posturing. But it really isn't anything new. Arguing about a flat Earth has been going on for hundreds of years, each party always accusing the other of acting like a dumb kid. It's so common that even here at HowStuffWorks we've been accused of "endorsing" Flat Earth Theory because of the above Stuff They Don't Want You To Know video we produced in 2010.

Surprisingly, members of the Flat Earth Society — while steadfast about their beliefs — are at least polite about their ongoing debate over the shape of our planet. This civility is just one reason why other flat Earth conspiracy theorists think the Flat Earth Society is a ruse, controlled by the opposition to discredit "genuine flat Earth research." It's more likely that the society gets that they're fighting an uphill battle with those of us with a "round-Earth" background to whom their theory "would appear at first glance to have some glaring holes." (That last bit comes from the society's website.)

Here's their argument in a nutshell: Earth is actually a disc with the North Pole in its center. Antarctica is a massive ice wall that lines the disc's edge. Kind of like "Game of Thrones" but without the Night's Watch. To make this work, the "force known as gravity" either doesn't exist or is far weaker than we commonly think, because the Earth disc is constantly accelerating upward. The reason we don't know this truth is because the world's space agencies are in a conspiracy to fake space exploration. Even photographic evidence is discounted by the society because it can be manipulated and distorted.

The Flat Earth Society's evidence for their claims comes in the form of several experiments designed by Dr. Samuel Birley Rowbotham. What connects it all together is a school of thought called the "Zetetic Method," that relies entirely on the information of our human senses to discern the true nature of the world. This seems to ignore that ancient Greeks concluded the planet was round when they noticed (with their eyes) the hulls of ships moving away would disappear before their masts did.

Unfortunately, there's already a precedent for ignoring the Greek's observations, as Jeffrey Burton Russell pointed out in his 1991 book "Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians." There Russell examines the "Flat Error" myth that Christopher Columbus proved the planet is round and accuses historians of propagating lies about when we actually came to this game-changing conclusion.

The Columbus disinformation campaign was a result of the battle over the theory of evolution between religion and science. Advocates for science claimed that the Greek knowledge of a round Earth was lost during the Middle Ages because of religious dogma, when in fact educated people of that time knew Earth was round. But by portraying them as naive children, it made the church look bad.

Russell pinpoints the Columbus "Flat Error" myth as invading our general culture in a series of books somewhere between 1860 and 1890. Americans took it and ran with it because we really liked the narrative that the rest of the world were just silly children until Columbus found our continent, beginning some kind of modern enlightenment.

So here we are today, still arguing round and round about what shape our planet is, accusing one another of being stupid and immature. But instead of promoting a division between religion, science and nation-states, we're selling the cult of personality.