Flattening Will Get You Nowhere

In 2005, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman published The World Is Flat. The cover illustration shows two circa-eighteenth century sailing ships, one dropping off the Earth’s sharp edge and one about to do so, sort of like going over the Mother of All Niagara Falls. The depiction was meant to be metaphorical, since Friedman was writing about how globalization has “flattened” the world in terms of commerce, putting all players on a more level field.

There was a time, of course, when we earthlings did think our home was a flat plane or disk. (No word, though, if scientists and philosophers imagined it to be held up by four giant elephants balancing on the back of a gianter space-going turtle, as Terry Pratchett did in his Discworld series.) The flat-tering views of Earth saw our world wafer floating on some unexplained body of water. This thinking prevailed until Pythagoras and Aristotle came along. Part of their spherical-planet realization likely came from noting that a ship reaching the horizon, seen from a distance, didn’t disappear instantly, i.e., fall off the edge. Instead it slowly “sank” out of sight, just as the setting sun does.

So, obviously we’re beyond all that flat-earth nonsense now, right? Wrong. Witness this September 27 Forbes article: “Rapper B.o.B. Just Started a GoFundMe to Prove Earth Is Flat.” “This is not a joke,” writes author Trevor Nace, “at least it doesn’t appear to be one.” Per Nace, the rapper “plans to raise money to launch satellites so he can finally prove the Earth is flat to all of us.” These vehicles must have some special technology to disapprove the planetarspherocity that all the other satellites already up there seem to show us. Nace writes that those ascribing to geographical flatness “believe the Earth is a disk with a sort of dome over it containing our atmosphere.” As “proof” of this, B.o.B. tweeted a picture showing the skylines of two cities on the horizon, saying “the cities in the background are approx. 16 miles apart…where is the curve? please explain this.” Neil deGrasse Tyson promptly did, but I’m guessing B.o.B. is ignoring Neil’s comment.

B.o.B is not out there on this own. Flat-earth believers, indeed societies, are more prevalent than one would ever imagine. Take the not-so-creatively named Flat Earth Society, for example. (I think FES [“fez”] should return to its former and much more mysteriobscure title of the Universal Zetetic Society.) Interestingly, the first question on the FES FAQ page is “Are you serious?” Answer…predictably: Yes. Here’s a summary of the evidence they offer for being anticurvophiles:

There are several readily apparent proofs of the planets flatness. The horizon always rises to meet eye level — which is impossible on a ball earth. The surfaces of bodies of water has been shown to be level. If the Earth was a Globe, this would not be the case. There is no visible curvature to the horizon even from airplanes. We don’t even have a full shot of the Earth rotating from space! One almost has to ask — is there any real evidence the Earth is a Globe?

The FESers go on to state that all astronauts were fooled, misled, bribed, or coerced into misstating the Earth’s shape. The moon landings were fake, naturally. And all this nonsense about Earth as a ball comes from the infamous, insidious Planar Conspiracy, put forth with bad intent and a desire for ill-gotten gains like robbing Antarctica of its natural resources. Topping that, all the satellites orbiting the earth are pseudolites or stratolites (high-altitude aircraft). And finally (I love this one), “Gravity as a theory is false. Objects simply fall.”

I admit here a twinge of envy at the FESers’ ability to concoct and adopt a simple world view. I also admit that this view is easy to scofficize. I should keep an open mind about this. I should learn more about it, as we are or should be taught, to gain an informed perspective. Maybe I will start with Chapter 2 from Sir Patrick Moore’s book Can You Speak Venusian?, titled “Better and Flatter Earths.” Who knows? I might be won over. After all, how you can argue with a line like “those who believe the world to be shaped like a pancake are among the most attractive of the really Independent Thinkers.”

Image: The Flammarion engraving (1888) depicts a traveler who arrives at the edge of a flat Earth and sticks his head through the firmament. Public domain.

(Published originally on RatBlurt™, October 5, 2017.)