Flat Earth Week, Day 7: Water We Going To Do About It?

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All things must come to an end, except for Earth, which does not have ends because it is not flat.  We have reached the final day of Flat Earth week.

And wouldn’t you know it?  I’ve just stumbled across a veritable gold mine of Stupid Bad Flat Earth memes in the form of the Facebook community Flat Earth Matters.  There are enough memes there for a dozen Flat Earth weeks, but alas, I would never write about anything else if I tried to tackle them all.  Perhaps I’ll revisit the topic another time.  Until then, we bid a fond adieu to the looniest of loony conspiracy theories, and what better meme to send us off than this stunning display of Flat Earth “physics”?

Now the obvious answer to this meme is “Yes it does, because gravity.”  But you have to remember that Flat Earthers often don’t believe in gravity.  More specifically, they don’t believe that Earth has gravity, although some of them allow the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars to have gravitational influence because they think that this patches holes in their rapidly sinking model.

I’ll explain how water is able to “stick to a ball spinning 1000 mph”, although I know it won’t convince the average Flat Earther.  That’s okay; this blog has never really been about convincing the other side.  I try to bring logic and evidence to the table while ranting about the stupidity of memes, and the reader may decide for himself or herself whether I have sufficiently made my case.

So let’s start by establishing that Earth does in fact have gravity.  Newton said that anything with mass has a gravitational influence on any other object with mass, and there’s no reason to believe that Earth is any different.  Henry Cavendish showed in 1798 that objects much less massive than Earth have their own gravitational sway, albeit minuscule.

Einstein overhauled Newton’s ideas by showing that gravitation is actually the result of massive bodies curving the fabric of spacetime.  In doing so, Einstein predicted that not only can gravity affect the motion of objects with mass, but it can bend the path of massless light as well.  The famous Eddington experiment of 1919 proved that Einstein was correct.

Although Newton’s and Einstein’s models of gravity vary in important ways, they agree in one important detail: the more massive an object is, the more gravitational influence it wields.  That’s why in the realistic model of the cosmos, the Moon orbits around Earth and Earth orbits around the Sun.

Now the average Flat Earther believes that the Sun and Moon are much smaller – and presumably less massive – than Earth is.  (Well, they’re correct about the Moon, but definitely not about the Sun.)  Let’s pretend that they’re right in both cases.  If the Sun is still massive enough to bend the light from distant stars in exact accordance with Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity (and it is), and if Earth’s mass is much greater than the Sun’s mass (which, according to Flat Earth models, it must be), then surely Earth’s mass is enough to exert a gravitational influence on the objects that rest upon it, right? In fact, Earth’s gravity ought to be enough to squash it into a ball.

Or are Flat Earthers prepared to admit that their model is inconsistent in that it treats Earth as a physically special object, separate from and immune to the laws that govern the heavenly bodies?  No, even the most fact-averse Flat Earther, if he is intellectually honest (he isn’t), must concede that Earth has mass; ergo, it also exerts a gravitational tug.

Earth has gravity, anyway you look at it.  And in the Globe Earth model (i.e. the correct model) Earth is indeed spinning at a seemingly high rate of speed.  However, your speed with respect to the center of Earth diminishes as you move away from the equator.

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The difference in speed between diverse latitudes gives rise to the Coriolis effect, which causes the rotation of tropical storms and ocean currents (but has no effect on the direction your toilet flushes!)  The easily measurable rotation of wind and water currents is just one more piece of evidence that we live on a spinning, ball-shaped Earth.  But we were talking about gravity.

Using Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation (which will do in a pinch, although it is not as complete or exact as General Relativity), we can calculate that gravity exerts a “force” of about 9.8 newtons (about 2.2 pounds-force) on every kilogram of mass near Earth’s surface.  Is that enough force to keep Earth’s water from flying off into space, especially near the equator where it is moving the fastest?  Let’s find out.

The force required to keep something moving in a circular path is called centripetal force.  The faster an object is moving, or the more mass it has, or the tighter the circle you want to keep it moving in, the more force is required.  For example, imagine swinging a bowling ball in a horizontal circle on the end of a chain.  (No, I don’t know where one might find a bowling ball attached to a chain…just go with me on this one.)  It would take more force to swing a 12-pound ball then it would to swing an 8-pound ball.  It would also take more force to keep a ball swinging in a circle  5 feet across, compared to a circle 10 feet across.

Using the centripetal force formula, we can show that at the equator, it only takes 0.034 newtons (0.0076 pounds-force) of force to keep a kilogram of water moving in a circle with the same radius as Earth.  But remember, Earth’s gravity provides about 9.8 newtons of force per kilogram of matter, which means that each kilogram of water experiences way more than enough force from gravity to prevent it from flying off into space, even at the equator where it is spinning the fastest.  Q.E.D.

Now you might reasonably ask: if Earth’s rotation is causing me to move at hundreds of miles per hour, why don’t I feel like I’m moving that fast?  The answer to that question is two-fold:

  1. Compared to the size of Earth, even 1000 mph is not a very high speed, and
  2. Everything around you, including the air, is moving with you at the same speed.

See, it’s all relative.  We live on a ball-shaped Earth that spins once a day, moving around the Sun at more than 67,000 miles per hour (30 kilometers per second).  The Sun itself is whizzing through space at hundreds of kilometers per second, depending on which reference frame you choose.  But to us tiny humans held fast to Earth by gravity, none of this is readily apparent.  It’s only when we take the time to study the universe that we see the truth.  Humans have been studying the Universe and our place in it for centuries; its only the Flat Earthers, Creationists, and other reality-denying ideologues who seek to turn back the clock of scientific progress.

Flat Earth Week, Day 6: A Fort of Ignorance

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Oh Lord.

I would say that this meme was created to troll the Flat Earth Society rather than support it, except that this meme comes directly from the Flat Earth Society’s online forum, where it was posted by John Davis, one of the site’s administrators.  If John Davis is a troll, he’s undercover, and he’s in deep.

Charles Hoy Fort is the author of The Book of the Damned, a dense tome that is right up Flat Earthers’ alley.  The first three sentences of Fort’s non-fiction work are:

A PROCESSION of the damned.

By the damned, I mean the excluded.

We shall have a procession of data that Science has excluded.

Fort’s book is all about the stuff that science supposedly ignores because it doesn’t fit into the mainstream.  Damned delves deep into the paranormal and pseudoscience, tackling such varied topics as UFOs, strangely glowing skies and the weird things that fall from them, mysterious locations, fairies, poltergeists, and vanishings.

The quote in question comes from Chapter 3 of Damned.  Although Fort’s writing style is quite difficult to decrypt, his major thrust in this chapter seems to be documenting numerous cases of strangely-colored detritus falling from the sky.  He also laments the fact that science refuses to recognize the extraterrestrial origins of this peculiar precipitation (or even that it exists).

Early in the chapter, and seemingly apropos of nothing, Fort makes two confusing detours, first into Darwinism, then into the shape of Earth.  I’ll not spend much time discussing Fort’s position vis-à-vis Darwinism, except to say that he mischaracterizes it as a tautology in danger of being abandoned by the scientists that once supported it.  (In reality, Darwinism was being strengthened in 1919, when Damned was published, by the developing field of genetics.)

In his second digression, Fort says:

Or that Columbus never proved that the earth is round.

Shadow of the earth on the moon?

No one has ever seen it in its entirety. The earth’s shadow is much larger than the moon. If the periphery of the shadow is curved — but the convex moon — a straight-edged object will cast a curved shadow upon a surface that is convex.

All the other so-called proofs may be taken up in the same way. It was impossible for Columbus to prove that the earth is round. It was not required: only that with a higher seeming of positiveness than that of his opponents, he should attempt. The thing to do, in 1492, was nevertheless to accept that beyond Europe, to the west, were other lands.

I offer for acceptance, as something concordant with the spirit of this first quarter of the 20th century, the expression that beyond this earth are — other lands — from which come things as, from America, float things to Europe.

It was not required for Columbus to prove that Earth is round because everybody in 1492 already knew that Earth is round.  Remember, Erastosthenes not only knew about the shape of Earth, but made a somewhat accurate measurement of its circumference seventeen centuries prior to Columbus’s voyage.  The story that Columbus alone believed in Earth’s rotundity was invented from whole cloth by Washington Irving for his 1828 book A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus.  Irving was a writer of fiction who highly romanticized (and in many cases fabricated) the story of Columbus’s life in order to instill his American audience with nationalist pride.  Unfortunately, Irving’s myth-making talents worked too well: Many people swallowed the Irving story hook, line, and sinker, without a hint of skepticism.

Is Fort parroting the Irving-inspired Columbus myth?  To be honest, it’s hard to tell.  Reading Fort’s prose is similar to learning calculus from somebody with a severe concussion.  For that matter, I’m not even sure what Fort thinks about the shape of Earth.  He does offer a half-hearted explanation for the seemingly curved shadow of Earth as an optical illusion caused by the concave surface of the Moon, but maybe Fort is just playing devil’s advocate.  It’s possible that Fort does not really believe Earth is flat, but enjoys pointing out how it could be flat, if you really wanted to prove that.

For what it’s worth, though, the Moon is not concave.  If you need convincing, simply ask any of the surviving Apollo astronauts that landed on its surface and orbited around it.  Of course, if you don’t believe Earth is round, you’re not likely to accept the word of Apollo astronauts.  Is there a way to prove the Moon’s convexity for yourself?

Yes, but it’s difficult.  You need a camera and a lot of patience.  The trick involves taking photographs of the Moon over the course of a month, during which you’ll witness the phenomenon called lunar libration.

See, the Moon’s orbit around Earth is not perfectly circular; it is slightly eccentric.  In other words, as the Moon orbits around Earth, it gets closer to and then further away from our planet.  According to Kepler’s laws of orbital motion (which you probably also dismiss as false if you’re a Flat Earther), an object in an elliptical orbit moves faster when it is closer to its primary, and slower when it is further away.  So as the Moon moves around Earth over the course of a month, it speeds up and slows down.

The Moon is tidally locked with Earth, which means it rotates once on its axis in the same amount of time that it orbits around Earth.  A consequence of tidal locking is that the Moon always keeps the same hemisphere facing Earth.  Well…nearly the same hemisphere.  As the Moon speeds up in its orbit, it moves a little bit faster than its rotation can keep up, and when it does, we see just a little extra sliver of the Moon’s trailing hemisphere.  When the Moon slows down, we see a little extra sliver of its leading hemisphere.  Due to libration, we can actually see about 59 percent of the Moon’s surface over the course of a month, rather than the 50 percent you would expect if libration did not occur.

You can also witness a small amount of libration over the course of a day.  As Earth rotates you beneath the Moon, you see the Moon from slightly different perspectives.  Compare a highly-detailed picture of the Moon taken shortly after moonrise with a picture taken just before moonset, and you might be able to spot the tiny difference.

Even if the Moon were concave, we would be able to distinguish the difference between a round shadow and a curved shadow.  There are many, many concave surfaces on Earth, and artists have spent generations studying the subtle interplay of light and shadow upon various geometries.  If the Moon were concave, we’d have known long ago.  If Earth were flat, we’d have figured it out by now.  Neither premise is true.

Flat Earth Week, Day 5: Ridicule Is The New Evidence

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I’m pretty sure I’ve already mentioned this, but I would like to direct your attention to John Baez’s Crackpot Index, which is, in Baez’s own words, “a simple method for rating potentially revolutionary contributions to physics.”  I have no idea whether Baez had Flat Earthers in mind when he first devised the index in 1992, but we must agree that the flatness of Earth – if it were true – would certainly be revolutionary (but then again, perhaps revolutionary is the exact wrong word to describe Flat Earthers’ model of our planet.)

Anyway, Baez’s Crackpot Index assigns all claims a -5 starting value, then adds points for each attribute of the claim that smacks of crankiness.  The point values range from 1 point (for statements that are widely agreed to be false) to 50 points (for claiming that you have a revolutionary theory but providing no testable predictions).  If a “theory” ends up with a positive score after the points are tallied, then it might be called a crackpot theory.  The more positive the score, the more cracked the pot.

I will leave it as an exercise for the reader to calculate the Crackpot Index for Flat Earthism, but there are three scoring plays on the Index that resonate particularly strongly with this meme.  To wit:

20 points for defending yourself by bringing up (real or imagined) ridicule accorded to your past theories

Any idea, good or bad, that contradicts conventional wisdom will be attacked.  That is one of science’s safeguards.  It is the proponent’s duty – and no one else’s – to defend the idea.  If he comes armed with evidence and sound logic, then eventually his idea will worm its way into the mainstream and become widely accepted.  On the other hand, if he whines about how nobody will take him seriously because he’s challenging the orthodoxy, then his complaint will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Some Flat Earthers make the mistake of thinking that because all new ideas are attacked, and because some new ideas later become accepted truth, then any idea which is attacked must therefore be true (and especially their idea).  That’s like saying that because all babies have trouble shooting 3-pointers, and because some babies grow up to be NBA stars, then all babies will one day grow up to be NBA stars.  When you put it that way, it sounds ridiculous (and it is!) but that’s how crackpots imagine science working.

You cannot whine your way to scientific acceptance, just as you cannot whine your way into the NBA.  You’ve got to put in the work.

40 points for comparing those who argue against your ideas to Nazis, stormtroopers, or brownshirts.

I don’t know which regime the armed men in this meme belong to, but they seem quite upset with the fellow in the middle, the ersatz Flat Earther.  This seems to be a favorite paranoid fantasy of Flat Earthers and crackpots in general:  Not only does the scientific establishment ridicule their ideas and refuse to take them seriously, but the orthodox scientists are actively gunning for them.  Of course, the scientific community does no such thing.  They would be quite happy to ignore Flat Earthers, except that some Flat Earthers have an insatiable need for attention.

40 points for claiming that the “scientific establishment” is engaged in a “conspiracy” to prevent your work from gaining its well-deserved fame, or suchlike.

That’s a big check for Flat Earthers.

Now let’s be clear about one thing: Baez was probably only halfway serious when he created the Crackpot Index, but the Index is rooted in reality.  Baez included these plays in the Index because this is how real crackpots behave.  They present an idea that is thoroughly outlandish, without evidential support, then wallow in paranoid self-pity when the scientific establishment predictably refuses to take them seriously.  That’s exactly the opposite of how a real scientist behaves.  A real scientist would know that all of her claims require evidence.  She would understand that the more controversial her claims are, the more evidence they require.  She would not dream of asking the scientific community to accept her ideas sans evidence.  She would work tirelessly to procure that evidence, then evaluate and re-evaluate the evidence before presenting it for judgement.  And if the community found that her logic was flawed or her evidence was lacking, she would either change her hypothesis accordingly, or redouble her efforts to gather additional evidence.  At no point would she claim that members of the scientific community are hidebound reactionaries (+20 points) who serve only to defend the orthodoxy (+20 points).

Flat Earthers might want to be treated with the same respect as career scientists, but they refuse to play by the same rules as career scientists.  Like it or not, the rules exist to protect a process that is still the best method ever devised for learning about the natural world.  When Flat Earthers are ready to come to the table with real evidence for their claims, the scientists will be ready to listen to them.  However, as long as they are armed only with cynicism and a general distrust of scientific authority, they would do well to knock it off with the persecution complex.

Flat Earth Week, Day 4: George Bernard Shaw Knows This Meme Is Stupid

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Oh snap!  Irish playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw really stuck it to the Globe Earthers, didn’t he?  Actually, no.

This is indeed a quote by Shaw, taken from the introduction to his 1924 play Saint Joan, about the French heroine Joan of Arc.  It is also an egregious example of cherry-picking.  If the meme’s author had included just one more sentence from Shaw’s introduction, the meme would have ended like this:

I must not, by the way, be taken as implying that the earth is flat, or that all or any of our amazing credulities are delusions or impostures.

Ouch.  Context matters, doesn’t it?  The Flat Earth Society has inadvertently damaged its own argument by its incautious selection of supporting quotes.  Perhaps they should stick to quoting B.o.B. lyrics (Warning: NSFW language) where they will no doubt find more staunch support.

George Bernard Shaw was not a Flat Earther.  He also did not believe that any of the amazing revelations of modern science were false.  He was making a point that the evidence for many of science’s pronouncements lies beyond the scope of the average human senses.  Science routinely bombards us with things that run contrary to our everyday experiences, yet nevertheless asks that we believe them because…science!

In one sense, I agree with Shaw.  As science marches into new territory, and as the discoveries of science become more fantastical and contrary to common sense, it simultaneously becomes more difficult for a layperson to follow the analytical pathways that led to these discoveries.  We accept that atoms are real, but how many people can say why we believe that?  We believe that the Sun is about 150,000,000 kilometers away, but who among us has directly measured it?  And how many people can explain with clarity and succinctness how any of this knowledge was generated in the first place?

Despite the past and present efforts of science popularizers like Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Brian Cox, to name just a few, there remains a frustrating but unavoidable veil of opacity around much of the scientific process, at least from the public’s perspective.  I can almost understand how this frustration leads people to cynicism, and how cynicism grows into a willingness to accept ideas that are wrong, but which appeal to the senses…ideas like Flat Earthism.

On the other hand, the shape of Earth is not something you need a particle accelerator or a gene sequencer to observe.  A couple of times each year, Earth obligingly casts its shadow on the face of the Moon – a shadow that is always round.  We know that this shadow comes from Earth because lunar eclipses never happen except when the Sun, Earth, and Moon are all in a straight line.  If the round shadow that darkens the Moon’s face during an eclipse is not cast by Earth, then what causes it?

As I mentioned yesterday, anybody with binoculars and a beach may watch ships coming and going over the horizon.  When a ship sails past the horizon, it always disappears bottom first.  The top part of the ship is always the last part to disappear.  Ships approaching the coast always appear in the opposite order: top first, then the hull becomes visible as the ship gets closer.

Knowing the shape of Earth does not require specialized technology, which is why people discovered that Earth was a sphere a long, long, long time before they discovered, say, gravitational waves.  When you listen to a Flat Earther’s arguments, you are not hearing the dismantling of thousands of years of Globe Earth dogma; you are hearing a person attempting to disguise his frustration with the fact that nature stubbornly refuses to conform to the information his short-sighted senses are providing for him.

Flat Earth Week, Day 3: Grading On A Curve

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Before we discuss the implication of this meme, I’d like to say that there’s something about the top image that seems a bit…off, and I’m not talking about the flatness of the horizon.  To be honest, I don’t know what it is, but some aspect of the size and texture of the clouds in that image seems incongruent with the altitude from which the photograph was apparently taken.  Now I’m not an expert in photography or meteorology, and the top image could be completely legit.  It just rubs me as wrong in a way I can’t quite put my finger on.  If any readers have the same impression that I have, and if they can do a better job of saying what’s odd about the image, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Anyway, Earth is a spheroid, but it’s a really big spheroid.  The diameter of Earth, which was first calculated with surprising accuracy by Erastosthenes more than 22 centuries ago, is about 12,742 kilometers (7,917.5 miles).  Compared to the size of Earth, we humans are pretty puny.  Small wonder, then, that the curvature of this enormous ball is not visible to us on the ground.

At what altitude should the curvature of Earth become apparent?  Actually, that question does not have a simple answer, as it depends on many complex factors.  Some people claim to have seen the curvature of Earth from the tops of tall mountains, although optics experts dismiss this as wishful thinking.  Photographs showing the same are probably the result of barrel distortions, which can happen when the camera is aimed above or below the horizon.

But just as Globe Earthers are susceptible to perception errors when claiming that they see the curvature from a low altitude, Flat Earthers are also susceptible to errors of reasoning when they claim that no curvature is visible from any altitude.  It is theoretically possible, albeit difficult, to detect the curvature from a commercial airliner at 35,000 feet (10.67 kilometers). Complicating the issue is the fact that the horizon is seldom free from obscuring haze or clouds, and even if it is clear, you need a fairly wide field of view to appreciate the subtle curvature.  Commercial airline windows simply do not provide a wide enough vista for passengers to perceive Earth’s curvature, which is why most people who have flown in commercial airliners do not remember having seen the curve, if they were looking for it at all.

David K Lynch wrote an excellent short paper in 2008 titled Visually discerning the curvature of the Earth (PDF).  It is well worth the few minutes it takes to read it, as Lynch, perhaps without meaning to, answers many Flat Earthers’ complaints about why the curvature of Earth is not apparent in situations where they think it should be.

According to most high-altitude pilots, the curvature of Earth’s horizon becomes obvious at an altitude of about 50,000 feet (15.24 kilometers) and is prominent by the time you reach 60,000 feet (18.29 kilometers).  That is well above the height of any mountain, but still within the range of humanity’s highest flying aircraft, to say nothing of our spaceships.  (Oh right, the spaceships are all lies!)  To put it another way, many, many people have had the opportunity to witness Earth’s curved horizon since the dawn of manned flight.  No pilot or passenger who has been sufficiently high enough to see the obviousness of Earth’s curvature has returned to the ground convinced that Earth is flat.

Still, Flat Earthers love to provide photographs and videos, purportedly taken from high-altitude weather balloons, showing a perfectly flat horizon. The irony of this tactic is that if you show them a photo which clearly does depict the curvature of Earth, they dismiss it out of hand as being a fake (in the case of satellite photography) or as the result of lens distortions.  How peculiar is it that phony evidence gate seems to swing in only one direction?

Some Flat Earthers claim that they could be convinced if they were personally taken to an altitude from which Earth’s curvature is evident.  That isn’t likely to happen (a fact which Flat Earthers must be aware of).  The Concorde, the only commercial airliner which routinely soared to altitudes from which Earth’s curvature was unassailable, is gone, and all other aircraft that routinely cruise those lofty skyways are scientific or military aircraft.  And unless a certain Flat Earther is also the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, he isn’t likely to purchase a spaceship ticket anytime soon.  It looks like we are doomed to hear Flat Earthers’ perpetual chant – Show me the curvature! – for the foreseeable future.

Flat Earth Week, Day 2: Flat Out Wrong

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It’s interesting – and a bit infuriating – how many conspiracy theories paste the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as one of their biggest, baddest bogeymen, especially considering that (A) NASA is one of the most transparent government agencies in existence, with a huge public outreach mission, and (B) NASA is not the only gatekeeper to information concerning the cosmos.  In other words, even if NASA knew that Earth was flat but wanted to keep it a secret, they wouldn’t be able to.  There are simply too many other people who are in a position to blow the whistle.

An article published in the Independent last month underscores the difficulty of keeping big secrets over long periods of time.  According to the article, Dr David Grimes at the University of Oxford developed a formula showing that the more people know about a sophisticated conspiracy, the more quickly it will be exposed.  Although the article focused mainly on Moon Landing deniers, Dr Grimes’s conclusions are presumably still valid when it comes to Flat Earth conspiracy theories.

Think about this: there are literally thousands – if not millions – of photographs of Earth taken from outer space.  In fact, there have been satellites launched with the express purpose of taking pictures of Earth.  NASA is just one organization responsible for launching and monitoring these spacecraft.  The European Space Agency (ESA) and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) have also launched a fair number of satellites capable of taking pictures of Earth.  Here are a few of the beautiful shots of our homeworld as seen by their spaceborne eyes.

ESA’s Rosetta captured this true-color image of Earth during its November 2007 swing-by on the way to its cometary rendezvous.

JAXA’s lunar orbiter KAGUYA watched Earth “rising” behind the Moon’s horizon.  About 40 seconds have elapsed from the first frame to the last frame.

Notice anything about these images?  For starters, neither image was captured by NASA.  Also, the shape of Earth in both images is decidedly round.

Of course, dedicated Flat Earthers will not be deterred by such evidence; after all, these images could easily have been faked.  That’s the problem with Flat Earthers – nay, with conspiracy theorists of any stripe.  There is no evidence so compelling as to shake them from their convictions, which renders their convictions meaningless.

But even if we had never placed a camera in outer space and turned it back toward Earth, this meme would still be bunk.  There are many ways to know that Earth is round, even without photographic evidence.  For example, Earth always casts a round shadow on the Moon during a lunar eclipse.  Furthermore, ships sailing over the horizon disappear bottom first.  Here’s video evidence for those that have never witnessed this phenomenon firsthand:

There are several cuts in the video because the sailboat is moving quite slowly and it would take more than an hour to show the entire process.  However, if you’ve got a lot of time to spare, the uncut version can be found here.

Still not convinced?  If you’re a Flat Earther, then of course you’re not.  You have your own brand of “logic” that doesn’t mesh well with the logic used by everybody else.  Here’s one more piece of evidence – although I could go on – that refutes the notion of a Flat Earth.  If you take a trip from the extreme northern latitudes to the extreme southern latitudes, you will see an entirely different set of stars and constellations in the night sky.  The Globe Earth model explains this phenomenon perfectly.  If people are stuck to the surface of a globe, then people in opposite hemispheres each have their own set of stars that are never visible to people living in the opposite hemisphere, owing to the fact that they would be perpetually below the horizon.  For example, the North Star, Polaris, is never visible to anybody south of the equator, just as the bright star Canopus is never visible to people north of 37º north latitude.

Of course Flat Earthers have an “answer” for this as well; in fact, they go so far as to claim the shifting constellations as a point in their column.  (This is a frustrating tactic commonly employed by Creationists as well.)  According to the Flat Earth Wiki, the apparent shift in constellations as one travels southward from the North Pole (or, in the Flat Earth model, outward from the center) is caused by nothing more than perspective.  You see, in the Flat Earth model, the stars are not light years away.  Instead, they are merely thousands of miles above our heads.  The pole star is directly overhead when one stands in the center of the disc Earth, and as one moves outward, it shifts downward toward the vanishing point.  When you have moved sufficiently far from the central point of the disc, Polaris sinks and vanishes into the haze of the horizon.  Meanwhile, stars that are further outward “rise” and become more prominent as you position yourself beneath them.  Isn’t that neat?

One major problem: there is also a south celestial pole.  Although there is no star currently positioned prominently near the south celestial pole, there still exists a point in the southern skies around which all southern stars seem to revolve on a nightly basis.  This wouldn’t happen on a Flat Earth.  On a Flat Earth, the farther south you went (meaning, the closer you got to the Antarctic ice wall), the further removed you would be from the center of the sky’s rotation.  As you brushed against the shores of Antarctica, all the stars would seem to zip by overhead, moving much faster than their more northern counterparts, since they are much further from the center of rotation.  This is exactly the opposite of what we observe.  In the far southern hemisphere, the stars high above seem to trace smaller and smaller circles as they get closer to the south celestial pole.  Only at the equator do the overhead stars seem to have the fastest nightly velocities with respect to the ground.  Try as they might, Flat Earthers cannot fit the facts of the night sky into their model…because their model is wrong.

There is one question that remains to be answered, and it is perhaps the most vexing: assuming that Earth really is flat and the space agencies of the world know it, why the cover-up?  What do the world’s governments stand to gain by pretending?  With other loony conspiracy theories (the 9/11 “truth” movement or the Moon landing hoax conspiracy, e.g.), the theorists have at least presented somewhat compelling reasons for the conspiracy (even though they’re still wrong).  But it’s very hard to imagine what the shadowy New World Order would gain by having everybody believe in a round Earth.

No doubt the religiously-motivated Flat Earthers believe that the “Globe Earth myth” is a lie invented by Satan to draw people away from God’s saving truth.  We saw a bit of that sentiment yesterday.  Others may simply believe that the whole-world government (Flat Earthers are typically big into that kind of idea) intends to keep people as docile as possible by keeping them as ignorant as possible.  If they can cultivate an entire species of people who overwhelmingly believe a lie, what other horrible things can they convince us to believe?

In many cases, the why of the Flat Earth conspiracy theory seems to simply be ignored.  Some Flat Earthers contend that because Earth looks flat from their perspective, it must be flat, and that any statement to the contrary is a lie.  How sad it must be to live in a world limited only to one perspective.

Flat Earth Week, Day 1: Flat Out Stupid

I realize I’m probably giving it far more attention than it deserves, but I have decided to dedicate an entire Stupid Bad™ week to the mother of all conspiracy theories: Flat Earthism.  Strap in, kids!

FlatEarth2

I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right: This is low-hanging fruit.

Still, it bears discussing, because the Flat Earth belief system (I refuse to call it a theory) has recently enjoyed a sudden resurgence of attention thanks to the Twitter ramblings of Atlanta-based rapper B.o.B. and former celebrity (or so I’ve been told) Tila Tequila (Warning: NSFW language).  Now you might think it unworthy of your time to pay much attention to the ill-informed tirades of a couple of limelight seekers, but here’s the thing: Flat Earthism is not just embraced by those desperately clinging to relevance.  You’ve heard of the Flat Earth Society, often invoked as a proxy for someone who holds really, really ludicrous beliefs?  Well, they’re real, and by all accounts, they’re serious.

Before we go any further, let’s say something that ought not need to be said: Earth is not flat.  Earth is a sphere, or an oblate spheroid if you’re pedantic.  There are so many lines of evidence converging on this singular conclusion that to deny the roundness of Earth smacks of outright contrarianism and willful ignorance.

There are several different forms of Flat Earthism, and it’s beyond my means or desire to compare them all.  Suffice it to say that the defining characteristic of all Flat Earth belief systems is that our planet is not a planet at all, but a more-or-less flat disk, with minor variations in flatness where we experience hills, valleys, and suchlike.

Dedicated Flat Earthers have answers (not good answers, but answers nonetheless) for every objection that might be raised by a Globe Earther – by which I mean somebody reasonable and correct.  The most prevalent version of Flat Earthism holds that Earth is a circular disc, with the North Pole in the center and Antarctica around the rim.  Acoording to this model, Antarctica is an ice wall that holds all of Earth’s water in place.

But wait, you might reasonably ask: Wouldn’t gravity cause an object as big as Flat Earth to automatically crush into a sphere?  Gravity doesn’t exist, they say, or at least, it doesn’t exist on Earth (although gravitation apparently does exist among the Moon, planets, and stars, which raises even more questions).  What we perceive as gravity is actually the result of Earth accelerating through space at about 9.8 m/s².  That in itself is not as crazy as it sounds: Einstein showed that an accelerating reference frame is totally indistinguishable from a stationary reference frame in which there is a constant gravitational pull.  Flat Earthers, however, have yet to explain what force could possibly cause an object as large as Earth to accelerate perpetually.  Even in a Flat Earth model, mass and inertia are still real things that must be overcome in order to make something accelerate.

Furthermore, why does gravity vary with altitude, if Earth is simply a disc accelerating through space?  Apparently the weak gravitation of the Moon, Sun, and stars partially negates the effect of the acceleration-induced pseudo-gravity we experience while standing on Earth’s surface.  Yeah, I don’t know how that’s supposed to work either.  But it makes perfect sense to a Flat Earther.

So what kind of person is the typical Flat Earther?  Based on this meme, you might think that modern Flat Earthers are also Biblical literalists.  That’s rarely the case, though: in fact, Daniel Shenton, President of the most recent incarnation of the Flat Earth Society, accepts the reality of evolution and human-caused climate change – ideas that are typically anathema to religious fundies.  One Flat Earther even claims that evolution proves that Earth is flat, if you can imagine such a thing.

Creationist groups jubilantly point this out to their detractors: “See?  Flat Earthers believe in evolution and global warming as well!  If Flat Earthers are so wrong about the shape of Earth, then maybe they’re wrong about the other stuff too!”  Creationists are also quick to claim that Flat Earthism was not prevalent during the Church’s glory days in the Middle Ages, and that only a small but vocal minority of Church officials rejected the idea of a globe Earth.

In any case, this meme’s author apparently did not get the message about Creationists eschewing Flat Earthism.  In his literal interpretation of scripture, Earth is unmoving, which means he must reject other Flat Earthers’ ideas vis-à-vis constant acceleration.  This guy is marching to the beat of his own ignorant drum, and I say good for him.  Don’t let anybody else tell you how to be nuts, anonymous meme maker!

Since this guy’s diatribe is likely to ignite a firestorm of controversy among the Bible Believers, let’s tackle this question next: What is the Bible’s official position regarding the shape of Earth and its motion through the cosmos?

ChristianAnswers.net claims that Bible writers did not literally believe in a flat Earth, and that any scripture which seems to point to the idea of a flat Earth is simply the “language of appearance” (a curious position for a Biblical literalist to take).  As evidence, they point to a few key scriptures in which Bible writers seem to indicate that they understood at least a little bit about Earth’s shape and its place in the Universe:

Isaiah 40:22 (KJV): It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in:

According to Bible-believing Globe Earthers: the Hebrew translation of the word circle can also mean sphere (although that might be wrong, according to the Institute for Biblical & Scientific Studies), which means that, at best, there’s a 50/50 chance that this passage speaks of a spherical Earth.  And hey, a 50/50 chance is all a Biblical apologist needs to press on!

Job 26:7 (KJV): He stretcheth out the north over the empty place, and hangeth the earth upon nothing.

See?  It says so right there!  Earth is just floating in space, not resting on the backs of turtles or what have you.

But there’s also this:

Matthew 4:8 (KJV): Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them;

The “him” referred to in this passage is Jesus Christ.  Are we to assume that Matthew is using the “language of appearance” when he claims that there is a mountain tall enough to see all the kingdoms of Earth?  If Earth is a globe (and it is), then there is no way you can view all of its kingdoms, even from the tallest mountain.  The highest point on Earth is the top of Mount Everest, which, at 8,848 meters above sea level, gives you a view of about 340 kilometers (211 miles) in any direction that isn’t obscured by another mountain.  The largest authoritative jurisdictions in the time of Jesus were the Roman Empire ringing the Mediterranean Sea, the Parthian Empire centered on modern-day Iran, and the Han Dynasty in China.  These three empires, along with other autonomous regions, formed a continuous chain of dominance from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, nearly 12,000 kilometers (7400 miles) long.  If Mount Everest were dropped smack in the middle of the Roman Empire during the first century C.E., not only would you not be able to see all the kingdoms of the world, but you wouldn’t even be able to see all of the Empire.  Unless you believe Earth is flat.

So…either Matthew was speaking metaphorically or making a gross exaggeration, or he truly believed that Earth was flat and that all of its kingdoms were visible from a sufficiently tall mountain.  All of these possibilities are embarrassing for Biblical literalists and Creationists trying to distance themselves from Flat Earthism.

And so is this meme.

The bottom line is this: it doesn’t matter whether a Flat Earther is a Creationist or one who accepts the well-supported theory of evolution by natural selection; in either case he is wrong about Earth’s shape.  No matter what his motivations or arguments are, he is wrong, and demonstrably so.  People have known for thousands of years that Earth is round; it’s one of the oldest established truths in all of modern science.  To claim otherwise in 2016 is to be willfully ignorant and proud of it.


In observation of Poe’s law, which says that parodies of extremist views are easily mistakable for sincere expression of said views, I realize that this meme might be a parody.  In fact, I sort of hope that is the case, for the author’s sake.  Parody or not, however, it is still representative of very wrong ideas that some people seem to genuinely believe.