It is the twenty-first century, and some people still believe the Earth is flat. In a 2018 documentary, Mark Sargent, a prominent figure in the Flat Earth Society, stated that, “we are living in a structure, in a planetarium, a terrarium, a Hollywood backlot, like the Truman Show.” The Truman Show was a 1998 film about a man who discovers that every aspect of his life, from childhood to adulthood, was filmed for a television show. His entire life was a carefully manufactured and manipulated narrative carried out by the show’s producer. The connection that Mark Sargent draws between the world of Truman Burbank and the world we live in today is frightening to say the least, but it articulates his perception about the world in which we live and the people that occupy positions of power.
The theory of a flat Earth stems from the ideologies of the prominent nineteenth-century inventor and writer Samuel Rowbotham. Rowbotham wrote and published Zetetic Astronomy: The Earth Not A Globe under the pseudonym Parallax, in which he claims, “the lands we know are surrounded by an infinite wilderness of ice and snow, beyond the Antarctic ocean, bordered by an immense circular ice-cliff. What we call the North Pole is in the center of the earth.” Rowbotham supported his claim in Zetetic Astronomy through a series of experiments that yielded apparently-conclusive data that the Earth is, in fact, flat.
Samuel Rowbotham went on to establish the Zetetic Society and he sent copies of Zetetic Astronomy to its members in New York and England. Rowbotham and his followers gained popularity and momentum in the late nineteenth century through a series of debates about the Earth’s shape. John Hampden, a follower of Rowbotham, made a wager against William Wallace to prove that the Earth was flat. Hampden conducted a test, “three long staves of equal length were placed on the Bedford Canal, another was placed at a distance of three miles, and the third also placed at the same distance. A telescope was employed, through which it was clearly and unmistakably perceived that the center stave was five feet above the line of the telescope, which at once proved that the Earth was not flat, but oval.” This is a testament to the Flat Earthers’ persistence even in the face of facts.
After Rowbotham’s death his followers formed the Universal Zetetic Society. Samuel Shenton’s International Flat Earth Research Society succeeded this group in 1956. Both of these groups included thousands of Rowbotham’s followers, which testified to the power and support of the Flat Earth network.
Flat Earth theories also resurged in popularity in the early twenty-first century, due to the rise of internet discussion fora. The opinions of Flat Earthers are very controversial and as a result they sometimes find themselves isolated from their families, the people closest to them, or the social groups around them. The divisiveness of the Flat Earth theory necessitates the creation of a group or community in which Flat Earthers can express their opinions freely away from judgement. The online Flat Earth Society forum gave Flat Earthers a community in which they could freely express their thoughts. Their online presence also helped them secure a larger and more devoted following filled with a tight-knit group of individuals who wholeheartedly believe that the earth is flat and conduct experiments to prove it.
The Flat Earth Society claims that 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?” They believe that you can conduct tests outside to prove that the Earth is flat in your spare time. These tests make their conspiracy theory more accessible and believable. To conduct this test, anyone can approach a large body of water and hold up a ruler to the horizon: it’s flat all the way across. What pond, lake, or sea have you ever seen where the surface of its water’s curves? This specious experiment and its result makes people more inclined to believe that the Earth is flat.
The society provides fora for fellow flat Earthers to discuss their theories, beliefs, and proof of the existence of a flat Earth. This is a self-proclaimed safe space for “free thinkers and intellectual exchange of ideas.”
The Flat Earth Society cites three explanations for the spread of lies by the government:
- “To Maintain Legitimacy: During the Cold War we faked the moon landing. Shortly after they realized the reason, they could not reach the moon was due to the flatness of the Earth. They were stuck in a lie, and had to continue it or lose legitimacy of our governments. Even today we would still hold onto this lie due to the role that science plays in our ruling government.
- “To hide the truth of the Bible.
- “To Gain Power and Money: By siphoning off the space budgets and denying the world the resources of the Antarctic they gain a considerable amount of power and wealth.”
Flat Earthers’ belief in the Moon Hoax stems from their strong distrust of the government and science. The theory surrounding the Moon Landing is that in the late 1960s and 1970s the United States of America faked landing on the Moon. People who believe in the Moon hoax most commonly point out two facts about the landing: first, that the flag moves as though it is blowing in the wind, and second that the shadows cast behind the astronauts indicate that there is more than one light source. Flat Earthers’ denial of the Moon Landing stems from their strong mistrust towards the government and science. The rejection of the Moon Landing also rejects the nationalist and positive rhetoric that surrounds America’s history as a world-dominating undefeatable superpower. In relation to the Bible, Flat Earthers point to 1 Chronicles 16:30: “He has fixed the earth firm, immovable.” They believe that this assertion supports their claim that the earth is a stationary plane that does not move. Many other Bible verses appear to support the existence of a Flat Earth.
The Flat Earth theory is rooted in a deep mistrust towards a large governing body and the science that is produced and supported by the government. Ultimately, the theory of a flat Earth actively opposes a fundamental belief about the Earth and how millions of people perceive it.