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Where on Earth Did the Flat Earth Theory Come From?

You’re probably familiar with the concept of flat earth as a model of the world that ancient peoples used to understand their planet. If you sailed to the end of the world, you would most likely fall to your death off the edge like a rolling glass off a table.

Well, you would be half right. Some ancient people did believe this, based on the idea of a heavens belonging to gods above the human world which was, in their view, a flat plane. The ancient Egyptians believed in Ra, the sun god who sailed across the sky over a flat earth every day; in ancient China, they believed that the earth was a flat, square shape with a spherical heaven; and as recently as the early Middle Ages, the Vikings believed their world was a disc surrounded by a body of water (the oceans).

But did you know that the concept of flat earth is not lost to the ages? It did not die with modern technology and science. While it is uncontroversial that the earth is spherical to the vast majority of people, there is an entire community (who call themselves the Flat Earth Society) claiming that the world is flat and many are dedicated to proving that their extraordinary theories are correct.

Founded in 1956 by Samuel Shenton and catapulted into the public eye by the daringly outspoken Charles K. Johnson, the Flat Earth Society has gathered quite a following throughout its history and at its peak, reached 3,500 members. Now, the theory is not just confined to the group but is circulating the web and gathering followers everywhere. A recent study in the USA shows that as many as one in six Americans are not sure they believe the earth is round.

So what do flat-earthers actually believe? According to Conor, a landscaper whose father is a dedicated flat-earth believer, their core beliefs involve the earth being a plane surrounded by the Antarctic ice sheet which keeps people penned in.

Flat-earthers believe that there may be land beyond Antarctica, based on the Antarctic Treaty of 1959. This Treaty was created to stop nations from claiming territories in Antarctica (the only continent in the world without a human population) but it is commonly cited by flat-earthers as evidence that the world ends at the ice sheet and that the government must prevent people from going there. Other evidence used by modern flat-earthers include Bible descriptions of the earth, small-scale laser experiments conducted on small budgets and glitches in NASA video footage (although this has been attributed simply to video compression).

Conor criticises the arguments constructed by the flat-earth community. He describes their tendency to change their argument as “mental gymnastics” and explains that he has found no model of a flat earth that can fully explain all aspects of our celestial system while the spherical earth model can. While Conor acknowledges that flat-earthers do put in their research, he demonstrates the presence of confirmation bias; this is the process of a researcher ignoring views and arguments that go against their own.

Conor’s father posts regularly on social media about flat earth theory, from amusing to serious. Conor explains that his father’s posts lack context (for example, a photograph with a caption and no explanation) and so he sees that they can be easily misinterpreted. Posts created by flat-earthers also appear to use complex language that might make them sound technical but be wary that this doesn’t always make something correct.

The flat-earth theory has been entertained by many influential and intelligent figures, from a scientific background to the military to engineering and more. However, the theory has become a gateway to other conspiracy theories and it has come to be associated with these. People who believe in flat earth also tend to believe that the NASA moon landings were fake (of course, to cover up the fact that the world is flat), that Covid was a hoax and according to Conor’s father, that the government create the weather from within the skies by sending aircraft.

“They claim to be open-minded but they are not.” Says Conor.

Additionally, he points out that different theories from flat-earthers are inconsistent with each other, showing that there is little organisation and communication between these theories.

“Well, who can really know for sure?” the final argument of a flat-earther who had just rejected the concept that the earth is round.

Flat-earthers believe that biblical descriptions of a flat world are correct. It is possible that there may be a religious agenda driving some of the theorists. However, even this is disputable. As early as the ancient Greeks, it has been a fact that the earth is round. Aristotle perceived that you can see the spherical shape of Earth’s atmosphere by watching a ship sail away and observing that only the bottom of the ship shrinks and that the sail remains visible – proof of the curvature of the planet. Christopher Colombus was more worried about having enough provisions to get him around the globe than he was about falling off it. Christians have, for most of the history of their faith, believed in a round earth. By 3,000 BC, the idea of flat earth was debunked.

Where is this theory coming from then? Conor believes that flat-earthers are “lost” and that they “have a mistrust of authority” contributing to misinterpretation. For example, flat-earthers believe that spherical earth is a fabrication of the government to fool the world and blind them to the truth that the world is flat. But why would the government go to all this trouble to fool people? Some believe they use it for their own agenda. Others believe it is linked to other conspiracy theories.

Everyone has the right to freedom of speech and freedom of thought/religion/belief. Nonetheless, when searching for facts, it’s important to check your sources. Examine the evidence thoroughly, because nothing can win an argument like evidence at the end of the day.

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