While the flat-earth theory is new in intensity, it is old in practice. In fact, there are many people to blame. Consider this the definitive list.
2018 saw an International Flat Earth Conference, and with it, the irony of its members flying around the world in order to attend it. However, a modern punchline the movement strictly is not, as the theory of a flat earth is something we’ve had to deal with for eons.
First off, there’s a great deal of misinformation out there about what people believed in times gone by. For example, the idea that the earth was flat is a much more recent phenomenon than you might think. Ancient Greek thinkers such as Pythagoras established that the earth was round way back in the sixth century BCE and Ptolemy’s reference work Geographia, written in the second century CE, deemed a round earth the only logical conclusion based on the astronomical observations of scholars over the centuries. Ptolemy also addressed projection problems – the difficulties associated with representing the globe on paper – and he also came up with the concepts of latitude and longitude. When his work was translated into Latin in the fifteenth century, it became an essential reference for scholars, astronomers, geographers and explorers.
It’s true that very ancient cultures had no conception of a round earth, but the reality is that the earth as a sphere hasn’t been in doubt since at least the time of Pythagoras. Even stories about people in the Middle Ages believing in a flat earth are inaccurate. There may have been the occasional adherent to the theory, but very few educated people believed the earth was flat.
One wonders why the notion garnered so much traction in the nineteenth century, traction that’s continued to our own time. You’ve no doubt heard the stories about Christopher Columbus being warned not to try to find the New World because he’d fall off the edge of the earth and that would be the end of him, but this is a myth. The fact is that Columbus was well acquainted with Ptolemy’s work and often referred to it on his voyage.
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In 1828, Washington Irving (1783-1859), the American writer best known for his stories Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow published A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, which purports to be a biography but is in fact historical fiction, Irving having taken more than a few liberties with the material that was available to him. It was Irving who wrote that it was thanks to Columbus’s voyages that scientists first realised the earth wasn’t flat. He wrote that the church had vehemently argued against sponsoring Columbus’s voyages, saying it would be throwing money away because his ships and men would be lost when they fell off the edge. But according to historian Jeffrey Burton Russell, before the 1830s there was no one who believed the earth was flat. Irving’s fiction was so compelling however, that other writers took what he wrote as truth, and within a few decades it was accepted as common knowledge that Columbus had disproved the church’s assertion that the earth was flat. Myth had become fact. Your classic fake news.
What is surprising is that even today there are still people who are convinced the Irving-created story about Columbus is true and that the Middle Ages was a time of utter scientific, philosophical and geographical ignorance (which it wasn’t). But what perhaps is more unexpected is that there are still dedicated flat earthers in our midst.
Since Irving’s time, flat earthers have taken certain biblical references to support their contention that the earth is flat. How can there be “four corners of the earth” or “ends of the earth” if the earth is a sphere? They’re clearly a very literal bunch, comprehension of idiomatic expression having passed them by.
A Flat Earth Society was established in 1956 by Englishman Samuel Shenton who maintained that the earth was a flat circle with the North Pole at its centre and the South Pole ringing its edge. It’s this icy barrier that apparently prevents us falling off the edge. Shenton appears to have been driven by religious zealotry as much as anything and denounced early space exploration as an abomination against God.
Flat earthers urge us to rely on our own senses rather than blindly listen to the finest minds from science and technology. Empirical evidence – verified by personal observation rather than scientific theory or logic – is used to support their theories.
Other societies soon sprang up across the (flat) world, announcing that scientists were and are trying to keep us in the dark – that the earth as a sphere is a massive conspiracy, that organisations like NASA have brainwashed us into believing the earth is round, and they do this using sophisticated computer-generated images. They say that evidence disproving their way of thinking is nothing but a series of confidence tricks, one of which is that there aren’t really any true “astronauts”; rather these men and women are actors. They agree that rockets get launched into space but flat earthers maintain that these carry no human cargo because they would be incinerated on lift-off.
Flat earthers urge us to rely on our own senses rather than blindly listen to the finest minds from science and technology.
Empirical evidence – evidence verified by personal observation rather than relying on scientific theory or logic – is used to support their theories. For example, because we always see the horizon as straight, it follows that the earth is flat. They say that the fact that curvature can be seen from great heights is due to curved windows and curved photographic lenses; day and night occur as the sun moves around the North Pole. Believers also maintain that gravity is a hoax. How, they ask, can gravity keep everybody and everything grounded – including oceans – if it’s still possible for birds to fly?
There is, of course, no changing the views of such people. In spite of the overwhelming evidence of science’s greatest thinkers over the millennia, the wealth of information we have gathered over recent centuries, and first-hand reports from astronauts, satellites and spacecraft, there will always be a core group of nay-sayers. Everyone’s entitled to their own beliefs, but seriously believing in a flat earth simply beggars belief. Oh Washington Irving, what a monster you created.