If you’ve finished grade school, then you’ve likely learned about how the Earth is round. The idea that the Earth is spherical has been around since ancient Greece, and it’s been proven several times over with the development of science, particularly space travel. Most of us take this as common knowledge, but there’s a growing subculture on the Internet dedicated to unveiling the so-called “Flat Earth Theory.”
The general gist of the theory is in the name: the Earth is flat. There are minor disputes regarding the exact shape of the Earth, but the most popular theory within the community stipulates that the Earth is a flat disc, with the Arctic Circle in the middle and a wall of ice encompassing the rim. People believe that NASA is responsible for guarding this wall of ice to make sure that people do not wander too close and accidentally fall off the edge. In 1959, the Antarctic Treaty established international codes of conduct regarding the only major body of land without a native human population. This treaty was signed by all major powers, including the United States and the Soviet Union, and, according to flat-earthers, the clause included to limit travel to Antarctica was drafted to prevent people from discovering the truth. Even now, travelling to Antarctica is very difficult and costly, and people who are fortunate enough to go are banned from exploring the area without the accompaniment of a supervisor.
The belief that the Earth is flat is not new, with even the biblical story of Creation alluding to how God created a dome-shaped firmament separating the oceans and the sky and expanded all of his Creation to the “four corners” of the world. The more modern notion of the flat Earth theory likely originates from 19th century English writer Samuel Rowbotham; Rowbotham, who dropped out of school at the age of 9, was convinced that the Earth was flat after going to the Old Bedford River of the Cambridgeshire Fens and seeing that the 9.7 km stretch of water he saw was free from any sort of curvature. Rowbotham’s Bedford Level experiment and his book, Zetetic Astronomy: Earth Not a Globe, remain influential to flat-Earthers to this day.
Much like Rowbotham, contemporary flat-Earthers rely on their senses more than information conveyed by the government or any scientific society. Out of all the scientific institutions, the one flat-Earthers seem to trust the least is NASA, the leading source of space-related information for the general public. Because all pictures of the Earth are composite images, satellites can only capture 3% of the Earth’s surface at a time, and NASA has no choice but to piece together different shots to create the image of Earth from space that we’re so familiar with. Flat-Earthers see these doctored photos as further proof that the government is trying to push a false agenda.
So why and how is the Flat Earth Society gaining so much traction? According to Daryl Bockett, an International Studies professor and avid conspiracy fan at UIC, it’s likely that the conspiracy offers people a sense of comfort and reassurance. “The world is complicated and confusing, and it is just hard to get by from day-to-day for most people,” he says. “Why try to understand what somebody with a Ph.D. is trying to explain about gravity when your high school science background allows you to understand how a flat earth would work? Giving [flat-Earthers] a simple answer to complex problems makes life easier for them, especially if it fits with their instinctual and intuitive understandings.” This appeal to the senses has made an impact on the likes of Shaquille O’Neal, B.o.B., and even George Bernard Shaw, and the sudden spike in membership of the Flat Earth Society has led to an influx of YouTube videos attempting to validate the conspiracy.
With that said, the rise in the number of flat-earthers speaks to a dire need for the reformation of the education system. “If people are only going to high school,” says Professor Bockett, “we need a high school curriculum that emphasizes critical thinking skills and media literacy rather than just rote learning.” Most schools tend to lean towards teaching their students how to memorize facts and prepare for standardized testing rather than actually learn; as a result, we end up with people who are willing to abandon logic and evidence in favor of whatever “theory” they encounter on the Internet. Instead of dismissing young flat-Earthers, we, as students fortunate enough to have received a proper education, need to try to help guide and redirect their investigative spirits to more productive endeavors.