What is the weakness of Flat Earthers

Flat-Earther: How the Internet brought about the renaissance of the Earth's disk

Mankind has stepped on the moon, sent robots to Mars and shot two probes out of the solar system. 84 years ago, photos were the first to demonstrate something that has been proven in science for many centuries: we live on a globe. More precisely: on an ellipsoid with a very irregular surface.

In 1935 the "Explorer 2" balloon rose into the stratosphere at an altitude of around 22 kilometers. Photos taken there already clearly show the curvature of the earth. In 1947 NASA (at that time still Naca) shot a V2 rocket captured and converted by the German Wehrmacht over 160 kilometers and provided even clearer photo evidence that the last remaining supporters of the "flat earth" were wrong.

However, some could not be convinced of this. But in the decades that followed, the movement, which ten years later, in 1957, had formally founded as the Flat Earth Society, sank into oblivion. However, thanks to the Internet - and especially the social network - the "flat-earthers" are gaining significant popularity again.

Alarming results

The polling platform Yougov conducted a survey of 8,200 representatively selected adult Americans at the beginning of 2018. The result: only 84 percent are absolutely convinced of the spherical shape of our planet. Five percent assume it is, but have begun to doubt. Two percent again think the world is flat, but are unsure. Two percent, on the other hand, are certain that we live on a pane of glass.

Under "millennials", by which the age group of 18 to 24 year olds was understood, only two thirds (66 percent) are supposed to irrevocably recognize the round earth, whereas among the oldest recorded generation, 55 plus, 94 percent are. However, the survey is criticized by Scientific American, which has discovered discrepancies between the communicated overall result and the partial results. But even taking these deviations into account, one sees the general development there with concern.

A disc with an ice wall

But what does the thesis of flat earther actually look like? The models of the world that are cared for are not always identical. The most popular idea, however, is that mankind lives on a round disk, the center of which is the Arctic. Its outer edge, in turn, consists of the Antarctic and a large ice wall. The sun and moon orbit above them, which are therefore quite small and no further than a few thousand kilometers away from the earth.

This provides a poor explanation of the alternation of day and night, but the model fails even with solar and lunar eclipses. In any case, it can only be sustained with the help of conspiracy theories. The photos of the earth and the curvature of the earth are faked, the reason for the global conspiracy is their usefulness as a diversionary maneuver from other developments, such as new images of Mars. And after all, numerous space agencies and research institutions with thousands and thousands of jobs would be financially interested in the continuation of a big lie. And the edge of the pane is presumably guarded by military troops.

Pseudoscience and Religion

Where the model cannot keep up scientifically with reality, some resort to religion. According to the Yougov poll, a clear majority of flat earth supporters are religious. Again and again there are arguments with quotations from the Bible, which should serve as evidence for the divine design of our living space as a disc.

This "evidence", which is often used by critics of the Flat Earth movement, is by no means unambiguous, even according to experienced Bible connoisseurs. On the contrary, the devout physicist and astronomer Danny Faulkner is even of the opinion that the most important book of Christianity even confirms scientific findings on this question, as he explains in a detailed article on the page "Answer in Genesis".

More traffic thanks to digital networking

But why is a model that has been universally refuted for ages enjoying popularity again? Findings from recent years suggest that it is primarily social networks that contribute to this. In 2004 the Flat Earth Society entered the Internet age with a simple online forum and for the first time offered its followers an efficient platform for global networking, reports author Matt Weber.

In the 1990s, there were around 3,500 registered members, but thanks to global networking, it was now easier to get your message across to the world. Opportunities that became significantly greater with the advent of Facebook and Co. For years, dwell times and clicks were the yardstick of all things for operators and their advertising customers. It has only been relatively recently that the problem of "fake news" and conspiracy theories has appeared to be more aware and action has been taken. Deletion is seldom done, however, and problematic content is often at least reduced in visibility or provided with information on fact checks.

Criticism of Youtube

Youtube is said to have played a particularly important role in the comeback of flat-earers, according to a study by researcher Asheley Landrum from Texas Tech University. Among other things, she asked 30 visitors to two annual meetings of the Flat Earth Society. 29 of them did not believe in the flat earth until they were confronted by the recommendation algorithm - mostly when watching other conspiracy videos - with the thesis that the earth is more like a pizza than a ball.

One of the most popular clips, which appeared to be convincing enough, is a nearly two-hour video in which 200 alleged pieces of evidence for the earth disk are presented. These, too, only superficially mix logical observations with pseudoscience, conspiracies and religion. It provided seemingly plausible answers to questions such as: "Why can't you see the curvature of the earth on the horizon with the naked eye when you stand on the beach?"

The algorithm makes it easy to get lost in it because it keeps showing more and more videos of this kind to people who are already susceptible to conspiracy theories, summarizes Landrum. As a media consumer, one should always be critical of the content presented, but a certain balance is necessary - i.e. references to videos that contradict the Flat Earth thesis.

Conspiracies seldom come alone

But the movement is not a pure US phenomenon. In the German-speaking area, too, communities have formed that have groups with several thousand members on Facebook. These isolate themselves, probably due to the many malicious comments from proponents of the real globe. One of the largest requires applicants to answer three questions to determine their beliefs. Only after checking by an administrator do you get insight and the opportunity to participate.

What has been shown in the discovered groups and also corresponds to Landrum's observations: Where the disc of the earth is taken at face value, other conspiracy theories flourish - ranging from chemtrails to world conspiracies, sometimes with extreme right-wing connotations.

The international Flat Earth Society tries to present itself as an organization to the outside world as serious and to be purely interested in scientific knowledge. While one does not accept this with regard to the proven spherical shape of the earth, one recognizes at least the man-made climate change.

From "Astro Toni" ...

The scene has long had its heroes and influencers, even if their international fame is comparatively small. A Swiss Youtuber named "Astro Toni" regularly lets himself out in a propagandistic manner about "globe rats" or "intelligence migrants with a gravitational background" who suppress the "flat earth lions".

In doing so, he is already resorting to obviously misleading methods, such as randomly selected images of the earth, which he "analyzes" with the online tool Fotoforensics. His results, which are based on both ignorance of the tool and the peculiarities of compressed image formats, he describes as "forensic" evidence and suggests NASA, for example, "serious fraud" - for example in the most recently published recordings that show the event horizon of a black hole.

Its content currently reaches 6,500 subscribers and sometimes over 10,000 clicks per video. Much more than three years ago, when he primarily uploaded comedy clips and musical recordings on his channel.

... up to "Mad Mike" Hughes

The best-known person of the American flat-earther, on the other hand, is probably Mike Hughes, commonly known as "Mad Mike". The professional limousine driver made headlines with his self-made rockets. After his first test flight in 2014, he wanted to raise money online for a new project in 2016, but could hardly earn any money. When he then publicly admitted to believing in the flat earth, the funding worked.

The "Rocket Man" had announced that it wanted to develop several rockets with the ultimate goal of one day leaving the earth's atmosphere behind. Hughes describes it as a research project with the aim of clarifying the shape of the earth. After several shifts and a false start, he reached a height of 572 meters above the Mojave Desert with his second rocket in March 2018, where he was slightly injured during the hard landing.

Another start was scheduled for last April, but the date has now been postponed indefinitely. Hughes is toying with the idea of ‚Äč‚Äčtaking off from Antarctica next time. An expedition of flat-earth supporters is supposed to lead there, hoping to find the icy edge of the earth. With this one also wants to confirm that one cannot fall down from the same edge, since there is supposed to be a kind of dome above the earth disk, which also houses the sun, moon and stars.

The sphere is easy to prove

The next few years will show whether the measures taken by Facebook and Youtube, with which the flat earth and other conspiracy theories are to be contained, will work. For the moment, the movement seems to be enjoying increasing popularity.

There are very simple ways to convince yourself of the globe without shooting yourself dozens of kilometers into the air with a self-made rocket. Popular Science lists some simple experiments, the results of which prove the roundness of the planet and show the weaknesses of the Discworld thesis.

There will always be conspiracy theories

Despite clear evidence, the supporters of the flat earth will not be completely extinct in 1,000 years, believes Michio Kaku, co-author of string theory, an explanatory model for the elementary components of our world. In his view, people have always been prone to superstition, Bigthink quotes him. This can only be countered with scientific thinking, a technique that is actually unnatural for us and which we first have to acquire. (Georg Pichler, June 16, 2019)

Update, June 24th: The term "theory" has been replaced with "thesis" with regard to the earth disk, since this is the correct name for assumptions for which tangible points of assumption are missing.