Earth is (always has been) round, so why have the flat-out wrong become so lively?
By Dan Falk
10 - 13 minutes
Until the 17th century, the Fens—a broad, flat swath of marshland in eastern England—were home only to game-hunters and fishermen. Eventually, though, their value as potential agricultural land became too enticing to ignore, and the Earl of Bedford, along with a number of “gentlemen adventurers,” signed contracts with Charles I to drain the area, beginning in the 1630s. A series of drainage channels were cut, criss-crossing the wetlands of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk. The plan was a qualified success; a vast area was now farmable, though wind-powered pumps were needed to keep the water at bay.
The most notable feature of the Fens is their pancake-like topography. It’s said that if you climb the tower of Ely Cathedral on a clear day, you can make out the silhouette of Peterborough Cathedral, some 30 miles to the northwest. Indeed, one could see even further if it wasn’t for the curvature of the Earth.
Enter one Samuel Birley Rowbotham, a 19th-century inventor and quack doctor who went by the name “Parallax.” Rowbotham believed that the Earth was flat, and that the Fens were the perfect place to prove it. In particular, he set his sights on the Old Bedford River, one of the 17th-century drainage cuts built under the tenure of the Earl of Bedford. The river—it’s really a canal—runs straight as an arrow for some 22 miles, from Earith, Cambridgeshire, to Downham Market, Norfolk, where it meets the River Great Ouse.
If the world were actually round, Rowbotham argued, its curvature should be plain enough to keen-eyed observers who positioned themselves along the length of the canal. In his view, the Earth was actually disk-shaped, with the north pole at its center. The sun, he reasoned, was about 400 miles from London; the stars were no more than 1,000 miles away. (Nor did he believe the Universe was as old as scientists were saying; he was also a young-Earth creationist.)
It’s one thing to believe the world is flat; it is yet another to convince the scientific establishment. One of Rowbotham’s followers, a man named John Hampden, sought out a reputable scientist that he could drag into the debate.
Oddly, that man ended up being Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of natural selection. In 1870, Hampden wrote to Wallace proposing a £500 wager on the shape of the Earth (roughly £60,000 in today’s money). The plan was to carefully measure the curvature of the water’s surface on the Fens—assuming there is any—and settle the matter once and for all. Wallace, much to the chagrin of his fellow scientists, accepted the wager.
Wallace and Hampden met in early March, 1870, at Downham Market, at the northern end of the Old Bedford River, ready to perform the great experiment. A team of assistants erected six-foot-tall poles, with colored markers at the top, at one-mile intervals along a six-mile stretch of the canal, between Downham and the small town of Welney. If the Earth really was curved, the middle markers ought to be raised relative to the end markers by several feet; as Wallace wrote, “with a good telescope curvature will be easily seen if it exists.”
The ancient Greeks knew that the world is round; observing the Earth’s shadow during a lunar eclipse, as Aristotle noted, makes it pretty clear. There were other hints that, whatever shape the Earth might be, it couldn’t be flat: As a sailing ship sails over the horizon, its hull disappears from view first; then its sails, and the top of its mast last of all.
None of this was as compelling as the testimony of those who sailed all the way around; in 1522, Ferdinand Magellan’s crew pulled it off (though Magellan himself didn’t make it; he was killed during a battle in the Philippines). Just two decades later, in 1543, Copernicus published his groundbreaking work On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, arguing that the Earth was just like the other planets; viewed from the right perspective, our whole world was just a little ball floating in space. When Yuri Gagarin orbited the planet in his Vostok spacecraft in 1961, no one was surprised that his voyage took him in a circle. Five and a half years later, the astronauts on board Apollo 8 travelled so far from Earth that our home planet was reduced to a marble suspended in the blackness of space, famously captured in Bill Anders’ “Earthrise” photograph. His fellow astronaut Jim Lovell remarked that, from the distance of the Moon, he had no trouble hiding the Earth behind an outstretched thumb.
The case, in other words, has been closed for some time.
And yet, a survey conducted last spring found that a solid 16 percent of Americans aren’t sure of the Earth’s shape—with flat-Earth support running highest among millennials and those with lower incomes. The doubters have a smattering of celebrities and self-promoters on their side, from rapper B.o.B. and NBA basketball star Kyrie Irving to amateur rocketeer Mike Hughes, who last year launched himself about 1,875 feet into the air in a homemade rocket and parachuted back to Earth.
The modern flat Earth movement is a peculiar mix of seemingly-harmless fun and, perhaps, something darker. Presumably, some flat Earthers are just in it for the “clicks” and “likes”; as writer Thomas Beller suggested recently in the New Yorker, it’s possible that flat-Earth-ism is, for some, “a bit of droll performance art.” But Michael Marshall, who attended a recent flat Earth conference in Birmingham, UK, found that the majority of attendees were sincere. Writing in the Guardian, Marshall described the event as “a raucous departure from scientific norms where people are free to believe literally anything.” The notion of an egg-shaped Universe was put forward, as was a rather creative “Pac Man” theory of the Universe, in which those who disappear off to one side of space might reappear from the other.
And yet, to describe flat Earthers as anti-science is an oversimplification. One gets the impression that they’re not against science as such; it’s just that they’re deeply skeptical of mainstream science, and overly enthusiastic about their own fringy alternatives. Many of them believe in “research”—so long as it is their own. And, of course, the Internet is king. For better or for worse, the Internet gave everyone a “voice”—flat Earthers included.
Here one finds a parallel to the Rowbotham case from a century and a half ago: Rowbotham was able to spread his ideas thanks to his popular public lectures and, especially, Victorians’ easy access to cheap pamphlets and books (and a highly literate population). Every fringe theorist needs an amplifier; Rowbotham had the penny press, and today’s mavericks have the Web. Social media, in particular, has empowered the voiceless millions. In the universe of Facebook and Twitter, no opinion is so outlandish that it is immune from being picked up and spread around; if anything, outlandishness is rewarded.
Listing image by NASA / Bill Anders
In his eye-opening 2018 documentary Behind the Curve (now on Netflix), filmmaker Daniel J. Clark takes viewers deep inside the world of the flat Earthers. The film’s two “stars” are prominent American flat Earth proponents Mark Sargent and Patricia Steere, who seem to genuinely believe what they tell their fans on the Internet. Steere is a hard-core conspiracy theorist who often refers to “the powers that should not be”—though without ever saying exactly who wields these powers. (Somehow she can spot absurdity in other people’s world-views when she sees it; at one point she mocks an online commenter who suggests that she must be a covert government operative, because her name ends with c-i-a.) In the film’s saddest scene, Sargent praises the parents of a young child for bringing him to a flat Earth convention; he congratulates them on their open-mindedness. (At the screening I attended, in Toronto, one audience member waved a banner declaring, “The Earth is flat—Research it.”)
At first glance, it’s unclear what the appeal of such hard-core non-conformity is; to state openly that one believes the world is flat is to welcome ridicule and, presumably, to trim one’s list of friends. The answer, perhaps, involves the state of modern science—and the kind of universe that science has given us. For many, the cerebral offerings of modern physics—like relativity and quantum mechanics, for starters—are utterly detached from everyday experience. The Higgs boson, gravitational waves, and string theory have a certain “wow” factor, but they are also wholly unrelatable. No wonder some people yearn for a simpler time, a simpler kind of science. As Lizzie Wade put it recently in the Atlantic: “It’s not rolling balls and falling apples anymore; it’s quantum states and curved spacetime.”
Science writer Margaret Wertheim spent three decades studying the ideas of “outsider scientists,” all of them working beyond the perimeter of mainstream academic science—and all of them very eager to show where the latter had gone astray. Her findings inform her 2011 book, Physics on the Fringe; the book’s central character is a maverick scientist named Jim Carter, who has developed a vast array of fringe theories. “What motivates Jim and other fringe theorizers is precisely that they don’t feel at home in this world,” Wertheim writes. “On the contrary, they feel alienated by the accounts of reality they read about in science magazines and books. For these people, the equations of theoretical physics seem like not a symphony, but a cacophony.”
This feels plausible enough. It’s easier to wrap our heads around a small world than an enormous one, and it’s certainly easier to feel that we matter in such a world. But flat Earthism requires more than this. It also demands a deep distrust of the scientific establishment, and of authority in general. For its adherents, mainstream science isn’t just wrong; rather, it’s part of a vast, malicious conspiracy. To be a flat Earther is to believe that governments and the media are not to be trusted, while a small number of podcasts and YouTube videos dare to tell it like it is. (Marshall, in his Guardian article, noted that the majority of attendees at the Birmingham event joined the flat Earth bandwagon because of YouTube.) The link to conspiratorial thinking makes sense; after all, you’d need a conspiracy to explain the overwhelming dominance of the mainstream message, and the suppression of the “truth.” This gives it a certain kinship, perhaps, with creationism, climate change denial, and the anti-vaccine movement.
Of these, creationism is perhaps the most closely allied movement (and certainly the oldest). Burdick, in his New Yorker piece, describes flat-Earthism and creationism as “close cousins”—Rowbotham, as mentioned, was a creationist—and some who reject modern science surely do so in response to science’s alleged godlessness (think Richard Dawkins). Where there’s a God, there is some possibility of seeing humanity as “special”; where there are only atoms and the void, alas, our specialness is in jeopardy. At some level, perhaps, we abhor the vast, dark cosmos described by modern science, a Universe in which all of humankind amounts to much less than a drop in the ocean. Sargent, the prominent flat Earther, has echoed this sentiment. “They want you to think you’re insignificant, a speck on the Earth, a cosmic mistake,” he told an interviewer. “The flat Earth says you are special, we are special, there is a creator, this isn’t some accident.” The more extreme flat Earth sites attempt to link NASA with Satanism.
The science behind the rejection of science is still in its infancy, though much work on conspiratorial thinking has been done since the time of the Kennedy assassination (when such theories spiked noticeably). The political scientist Michael Barkun lists three key factors behind the appeal of conspiratorial thinking: First, such theories make sense of an otherwise confusing world. Second—in keeping with what Wertheim observed—they offer simplicity and especially moral clarity, dividing the world sharply into good and evil, right and wrong. Finally, they allow the believer to identify as part of a privileged, enlightened minority, as champions of reason amid the unenlightened, brainwashed masses. (This was surely as true in Rowbotham’s time as it is now; had the word “sheeple” been in vogue in Victorian England, I imagine he’d have embraced it.) “Confirmation bias”—the tendency to absorb evidence that appears to support one’s position, and dismiss evidence that doesn’t—almost certainly plays a role; as does the Dunning-Kruger effect, in which people who know rather little about a subject come to believe that they’re extraordinarily well informed. (Both phenomena get a nod from the experts in Clark’s documentary.)
Something—it is not clear what—sparked a renewed, more vigorous pushback against science, and authority more generally, around the middle of the current decade. (Here fingers are typically pointed at Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, at least as symptoms of some deeper societal malaise; for what it’s worth, the popularity of flat Earth YouTube videos appears to rise sharply a few years earlier.) The anti-expert age is now in full swing. As Anne Applebaum succinctly put it in the Washington Post, “We live in an age that denigrates knowledge, dislikes expertise and demonizes experts.” In his book The Death of Expertise, Tom Nichols adds: “Americans have reached a point where ignorance—at least regarding what is generally considered established knowledge in public policy—is seen as an actual virtue.” How and why this came to pass, and what can be done about it, is presently the subject of intense debate and a great deal of hand-wringing. As Daniel Sarewitz put it in the Guardian, with just a touch of irony, “experts have begun to study why experts don’t get more respect.”
As murky as the causes of science denialism may be, its effects are clear enough. These are not victimless movements. Climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers have the power to cause real harm. (Earlier this year, the World Health Organization listed the anti-vax movement among the ten greatest global health risks for 2019.) And more dangerous ideas may lurk nearby. In his New Yorker story, Burdick describes a flat Earth conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he slips outside the main auditorium to peruse the booksellers’ tables. He finds a woman selling Rowbotham’s 19th-century flat-Earth book “alongside books about Revelations and New Testament apocrypha.” He writes: “The vendor, a friendly woman who looked to be in her late sixties, offered her thoughts on Earth’s flatness and the enshrouding secrecy; I moved on when she got to ‘the Jews’.” Burdick also notes that a prominent flat Earth YouTuber, Eric Dubay, is a Holocaust denier.
Not every fringe movement begins with antisemitism, but many seem to end there. In his 1997 book Why People Believe Weird Things, Michael Shermer notes “striking parallels” between Holocaust denial and other fringe movements, and lists a number of ideological patterns common to all such belief systems; other scholars have argued that all fringe movements, up to and including neo-Nazism, rest on the same kind of distorted, conspiratorial thinking. (Indeed, the 3,000-year history of antisemitism can be read as three millennia of yielding to humankind’s darkest conspiratorial urges.)
Conspiracy theories offer simple solutions to complex problems—but we embrace these alleged solutions, and other simplified world-views, at our peril. It would be “simple” to believe that immigrants cause crime, that Islam fuels terrorism, that Jews control the banks and the media, or that guns make us safer. But to embrace these falsehoods is to turn away from—to declare oneself uninterested in—the complexity of the real world. And as for science—well, we are certainly free to ignore quantum mechanics and relativity if it makes us feel good to do so (lasers and GPS technology be damned). But modern science is not going away, and no amount of wishful (or squishful) thinking will make the Earth any less round.
The Bedford Level Experiment, as historians now refer to it, did not go well. Peering at the row of marker-poles through a telescope set up at Welney, it was hard to judge which marker was which, let alone discern the shape of a line running through them. The participants squabbled as bemused locals looked on. A few days later, the experiment was repeated with better equipment. Finally, a referee declared that Wallace had prevailed, and the Earth was round—but Hampden refused to concede, grumbling that Wallace had cheated; he eventually took him to court. (It went further downhill from there, with Hampden threatening to kill Wallace. The whole sordid affair is described in detail in Christine Garwood’s 2008 book, Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea.)
In the end, it was all rather farcical; Wallace’s colleagues chided him for wasting his time “proving” what everyone already knew, and the flat Earthers simply dug their heels in and became even more adamant in their distrust of science and scientists—a reaction that will sound familiar to anyone who’s tried to steer a flat Earther, anti-vaxxer, climate denier, or creationist toward a more scientific world-view.
Today, suburban-style homes encroach on the canal; recreational boaters can be spotted moving slowly along its calm waters in canoes and kayaks. In Welney, the Lamb and Flag pub has a series of historic photos on its walls commemorating the town’s connection to the world of speed skating, a sport that peaked in the Fens in the 19th century. James Smart, a three-time Great Britain skating champion, was apparently a local hero. Other artwork pays homage to the region’s bountiful fish and waterfowl. There is no mention of Samuel Rowbotham or the shape of the Earth.
I wonder if today’s flat Earth videos will survive on YouTube until 2168—a date that lies as far in the future as the Bedford Level Experiment lies in the past. Perhaps the fringiest of fringe ideas will have faded into history, as Rowbotham has. And yet, our yearning for simplicity may very well live on.
Dan Falk (@danfalk) is a science journalist based in Toronto. His books include The Science of Shakespeare and In Search of Time.