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!
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.