How Ridiculous Ideas Gain Traction. We're Looking at You, Flat Earth

4 min

The spherical shape of Earth is what we like to call around here “settled science.” But nowadays, pit even a 2,500-year-old truism against the evangelism of Internet algorithms, and you got yourself an actual “debate,” no matter how inane.

Apollo Earth photo
The Apollo 17 crew caught this breathtaking view of Earth as they were traveling to the moon on Dec. 7, 1972. It's the first time astronauts were able to photograph the South polar ice cap. Nearly the entire coastline of Africa is clearly visible, along with the Arabian Peninsula. (NASA)

We’re speaking of what appears to be the disturbing trend of people thinking the surface of the world is flat.

No, really -- this is a thing. For example, last month the third annual Flat Earth International Conference convened in Dallas; the rapper B.o.B once started a GoFundMe campaign as part of a quest to gather ungatherable evidence for the idea; and basketball star Kyrie Irving has found himself having to apologize for publicizing the view on Twitter. A 2018 YouGov survey found that 16% of 8,215 American adults queried had various levels of doubt about the true shape of the Earth.

At this point, it’s probably fair to ask: When is American society going to hit epistemological bottom?

Perhaps the first step in answering that question is understanding why a belief like flat Earth can flourish, at least among certain groups of willing adherents. To that end, we talked to Asheley Landrum, assistant professor of science communication at Texas Tech University, who has been studying the movement, if you want to call it that. We asked her, well,  just what in the round world is going on here? 

Here are some of the key points from Landrum’s answers, edited for length and clarity. 

YouTube as Flat Earth Gateway

One of the things we found is that many people with this belief discovered flat Earth through YouTube.   

One of our research participants told us he started off by watching videos that were suggested to him on YouTube because of his interest in conspiracy theories. He started looking into conspiracy theories about the Illuminati and Sandy Hook, and the whole time he was watching he kept being suggested flat Earth videos by the algorithm.

He said he was going to watch one of the videos with the intention of discrediting it, but by the end he accepted that Earth is not round.

This was very true for many of the people we talked to; they start by watching a series of conspiracy videos and then they're introduced to this idea of a flat Earth. They choose not to watch it, but the more it's suggested, the more compelled they are. By the time they view it, they're ready to kind of accept that information.

Loving the Science, Not the Scientists

Artist's conception of Earth with a flat surfac
Artist's conception of Earth with a flat surface. (David Roberts/iStock)

Many of the people we interviewed do love science. They talk about how much they respect the process of science; they just don't trust scientists. Scientists are seen as elite authorities who just make fun of them when they have legitimate questions to ask.

One person posed a question about motion that I think many individuals would not know the answer to: "If I can feel motion when I'm in a moving car, how come I wouldn't be able to feel motion if I'm on a planet that's hurtling through space?" To that person, that is evidence the planet is motionless. A physicist would be able to explain it, but if all that the scientist or media personality or opinion leader does is dismiss them for asking "stupid questions," then of course they're going to further distrust scientists.

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Religious Belief Doesn't Predict Flat Earth Stance

We recently wrote a paper on who is susceptible to flat Earth videos on YouTube. The number one characteristic that makes people more susceptible is their conspiracy ideation; how much they see conspiracies and accept that conspiracies are true. 

Many of the flat-earthers we spoke to at the conference told us that one of the reasons they believe in a flat Earth is that they think the Bible should be interpreted literally, and they would quote passages they said were explaining how Earth is actually flat. But in our research study, the intensity with which someone holds religious beliefs or the importance of religion in their daily lives was actually not predictive of being open to flat Earth views. 

Scientific Knowledge Protects Against Distorted Thinking

Among people who had stronger conspiracy beliefs, the more science knowledge they had, the less likely they were to believe that Earth was flat or to believe that these videos were presenting good arguments. So scientific knowledge was protective in the conspiracy community against accepting these flat Earth beliefs.

One of the things I thought was so compelling about the flat Earth documentary last year was that the flat earthers designed really fantastic experiments, and of course, they found that the experiments didn't support the flat Earth worldview. They were upset because they felt like they did something wrong.

Trump and Flat Earth

We definitely have heard from the flat-earthers that they like Donald Trump, but many of them said that they don't even bother voting. In some cases, they'll express very liberal views, and in others, very conservative, so it really is a phenomenon that is across the political spectrum.

They like Donald Trump because, to them, he represents somebody who is not part of the political elite coming into that political office. They see Donald Trump as a disruptor as opposed to just another establishment Republican.

How Widespread Is This?

Well, there aren't, at least as far as we can tell, a very large percentage of people who currently believe Earth is flat, but it is very difficult for us to know. Most of what we know about how many people in the U.S. or abroad believe in flat Earth is based on survey data, but many people who hold conspiracy beliefs and are suspicious of universities and government officials aren't going to respond to phone surveys. 

When Trust Erodes

What belief in flat Earth tells us is how bad it can be when we start to truly distrust other people. We do live in a society that relies on a division of cognitive labor. We talk about this concept of elite, but it's not that there are people who are elite and people who aren't, it's that each of us has our own domain that we are the expert in. I have to take my car to mechanics to have them tell me what's wrong with it because I have no idea how to do that. My area of expertise is in something completely different.

Everybody has their own area of expertise and their own part to play in society. If we don't rely on each other, we have this large burden of knowledge that we have to carry around with us, and it's just not possible for us to be able to do everything. So that's really the danger that Flat Earth represents: It's what happens when we stop trusting each other and doubt those areas of expertise.

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