REFLECTING UPON SOME STRIKING 2018 SURVEY findings, Skeptics Guide to the Universe host Steven Novella wrote that he was "stunned that there are seemingly average people walking around today with the firm belief that the world is actually flat." That astonishing fact does indeed cry out for explanation. He wanted to know, "What Drives the Flat-Earthers?" (1)
That's an interesting question--and a complicated one. I've spent a fair bit of time reviewing the history of Flat Earth claims for Junior Skeptic and various other articles. (2) Reviewing the literature is a good first step. If we want to grapple with claims, it helps to know what those claims are and how they have developed over time. However, this may not answer the "Yes, but why?!" question. As one reader challenged me:I was hoping to see something about why there are people who invest so much in it that they form a Flat Earth Society.... Something else is going on. Finding that something else was what I hoped the writer would do, but he didn't give me that.
I conceded this point:Yes. Explaining what people say and asking whether they are correct are the easy tasks; finding out what's really going on is harder.
Much of my work involves straightforward description and assessment. However, I'm intensely interested in that harder question. I want to understand weird beliefs.
With that in mind, I'd like to try to expand upon Novella's preliminary thoughts. I think that digging deeper might help to expose some of the root systems from which paranormal, pseudoscientific, and fringe claims grow.
Who Are These People?
When 8215 U.S. adults were asked "Do you believe that the world is round or flat?" in a February 2018 YouGov survey, only 84 percent of respondents felt certain that the world is round. Five percent had doubts, two percent affirmed a flat Earth, and seven percent weren't sure. (3) (There is reason for some caution about the
YouGov survey. Scientific American blog contributors Craig A. Foster and Glenn Branch were unable to reconcile discrepancies between the reported results and data supplied by the pollster. (4)) This and other surveys support the idea that around one or two percent of Americans and Britons believe in a Flat Earth. (5)
This suggests that several million Americans believe in a Flat Earth. Tens of millions more are open to the idea or unsure what to believe. It's been widely reported that YouTube and social media are propelling Flat Earth beliefs to new heights of popularity (or at least visibility). Twentieth century Flat Earth advocates were generally lonely figures who struggled to attract any serious consideration for their ideas. Today, there is a growing, thriving Flat Earth community.
These Flat Earthers comprise a broad cross-section of people, "all of them unfailingly earnest and lovely" in the experience of The New Yorker's Alan Burdick. (6) I recommend the 2018 documentary Behind the Curve to humanize this oddly familiar community. The film reveals Flat Earthers as generally...
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