Flat-Earth Movements Gaining Popularity

Emily Hahn

In November, Mike Hughes, a limousine driver from California, made news for announcing his plan to launch himself into the sky in a homemade rocket. His goal was to prove that the Earth is flat. The flight never materialized, but the flat-Earth movement seems to be gaining strength.


The Economist compiled the frequency of Americans searching the words “flat Earth” on Google since 2013. The data revealed that there has been a steady rise, with almost 10 fold increase in searches by 2017.


Some celebrities have unabashedly joined the ranks of round-Earth deniers. The rapper B.o.B. tweeted in 2016, along with a photograph of the horizon, “The cities in the background are approx. 16miles apart…where is the curve? Please explain this.” Astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson responded with numerous scientific explanations, but the resolute rapper would not back away from his assertions. Instead, he launched a crowdfunding campaign to send satellites into orbit to study the shape of the earth.


On a podcast with teammates in February 2017, all-star NBA player and former Duke University student, Kyrie Irving, chimed in on the topic. Irving stated that “The Earth is flat…I’m telling you, it’s right in front of our faces…They lie to us.” Irving also doubted that the earth rotates around the sun, and asserted that individuals should not believe information that has been given to them, but should search for the truth.


Aside from isolated individuals who dare to challenge conventional thinking, organizations and websites have popped up supporting Flat-Earth doctrines. Flat Earth International Conference attracted 500 believers to a meeting in North Carolina in November. The organizers’ goal was to “debunk pseudo-scientific ‘facts’ while presenting the true evidence.” They presented a map of the world as a flat disc, surrounded by an ice wall barrier along the edge (Antarctica) that prevents people from falling off. They believe that government agencies, such as NASA, have produced fake images of the earth from space as a part of a massive conspiracy effort.


Before the development of modern astronomy and physics, a geocentric model (earth being the center of the universe) was widely accepted by most cultures. Without scientific inquiry, the concepts of a spherical earth and gravity were unthinkable. In those times, a flat Earth scenario was the only plausible option.


In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus developed the indisputable heliocentric model by observing the movements of “heavenly bodies.” During the 17th century, Isaac Newton developed the Law of Universal Gravitation and touted that F = GMm/r^2, which explained why people did not fall off into space from the South Pole. For laymen who find it difficult to understand science, they are left to either trust the “elite” scientists or believe in conspiracy theories.


The U.S. Constitution guarantees the freedom of speech and religion, and Americans have the right to believe in whatever they please. Replacing complex scientific theories with simple explanations are appealing to many. Furthermore, distrust in the government and institutions seem to be a popular trend. These forces have helped fuel the development of conspiracy theories.


Flat-Earth conspiracy is largely harmless, except for maybe Mike Hughes, who may eventually die in his “rocket.” But other conspiracy theories are far from innocuous. Anti-vaxxers who falsely believe vaccines cause autism are endangering the health of children. And climate change deniers may be preventing measures to mitigate this global threat.


Unfortunately, “educating” the science deniers more often anger them and strengthen their resolve, rather them converting them.   The current political and social environment seem to have polarized the nation and encouraged people to seek out the narrative that suits their beliefs, rather than listening to opposing views. The solution to this breakdown in productive discourse seems unattainable, and may provoke one to jump into a rocket and fly into space.