Where and Why Did I Go?
On November 9–10, 2017, I attended the first Flat Earth International Conference (FEIC) in Cary, North Carolina. You may wonder why I would do such a thing. Keep in mind that I have written articles on the Answers in Genesis website about the flat-earth phenomenon several times and even blogged about it a couple of times. We even did two Answers News programs (here and here) on the subject this summer. If I am going to critique this movement credibly, I must properly research it. Going to a meeting such as this, hearing directly from leaders in the flat-earth movement, and networking with flat-earthers is a legitimate part of my research.
More than 300 people registered for the conferences, but there were some no-shows. I must admit that I approached this meeting with apprehension. I had no idea how I would be received—I thought I might be viewed as an interloper or spy, and thus be treated with hostility. I would have been happy if I simply could have attended the conference without anyone knowing who or what I was, but I feared some people might recognize me, if not by sight, at least by my name badge. I had planned to avoid conversation with people, something that is difficult for me to do. Immediately after lunch the first day, someone did recognize me. The well-known creationist Joe Taylor also was at the conference. We ended up spending a lot of time together. Joe isn’t a flat-earther, but he does know some prominent people in the flat-earth movement, and he introduced me to a few people. Those introductions helped break the ice, and by the end of the first day, I was very relaxed.
Getting a good night’s sleep helped, for when I awoke the next day, I decided that I was going to be more engaging with people on the second day of the conference. That prepared me for the next person who recognized me, Noel Hadley. Noel approached me at breakfast in the hotel where the conference was held, and I invited him to join me. We talked probably for an hour. Noel had grown up with materials from Answers in Genesis, as well as the Institute for Creation Research, so he was familiar with my work. This also included my criticism of flat-earth, something that he came to embrace in recent years. He expressed astonishment that I was at the conference, so he had to ask why I was there, which I was happy to explain. Our discussion was very pleasant, even though he confessed that he had, in his words, “blasted” me in a blog, as well as in a recent book he had published. I searched on the internet for some of what he had written about me, but I wasn’t offended by what I found. So, relax, Noel. My conversations with most of the other people I met were pleasant as well.
What Did I Learn?
I was a bit disappointed by the content of the conference. I had expected that I would hear and see information about flat-earth that I hadn’t encountered already, but that wasn’t the case. Many of the presentations largely were personal testimonies of how people had come to believe in flat earth. Hence, I didn’t learn much about the flat-earth model that I didn’t already know. However, I did learn much about the flat-earth movement itself. In conversations and in the presentations, I learned how people came to lose jobs, friends, and even family members once they, in their own words, “came out of the closet about flat earth.” Therefore, many of the people in attendance clearly viewed the meeting as a safe refuge where they could meet ostracized people like themselves. This clearly brought joy to many attendees, and I suppose the last thing these people would do would be to castigate someone in their midst who isn’t a flat-earther, provided that person behaved as a guest.
Many of the people in attendance clearly viewed the meeting as a safe refuge where they could meet ostracized people like themselves.
In this vein, it was unfortunate that during one presentation, a person stood up and challenged the speaker. The irony was that the disrupter was a flat-earther but strongly objected to a few things the speaker had said. Interaction between the two went on for far too long. Someone in charge immediately ought to have asked this person to sit down and be quiet. I heard much that I disagreed with at this conference, but this certainly was neither the time nor the place to have such discussion, so I wasn’t even tempted to engage in such an outburst. Except for Joe, in conversations I didn’t attempt to refute any of the flat-earth arguments that were presented, though I was prepared and would have, if anyone had asked. The only time I came close to this was when I approached someone with the intent of offering a suggestion for further research. However, I fear my intent was misunderstood, and the person I spoke to became defensive very quickly. Perhaps it would have gone better if I had approached this person one-on-one rather than in the presence of others. I won’t repeat that mistake again.
During a Q&A session the afternoon of the second day, one person asked if anyone on the panel answering the questions could explain why creation organizations were not taking a stand on the issue of flat-earth. He specifically mentioned Answers in Genesis and the Institute for Creation Research in this regard, going so far to say that he had written Answers in Genesis in 2013 asking about flat-earth, but claimed he had received no reply. I spoke to this gentleman later. He said that he had received a standard acknowledgement of his enquiry, but there was no follow up. In our defense, I began working at Answers in Genesis in 2013, but I hadn’t noticed the flat-earth movement until early 2016, whereupon I began to raise the alarm, both at Answers in Genesis, as well as at other creation ministries. In 2013, no one at Answers in Genesis was aware that flat-earth was a trending thing, so this man’s enquiry wasn’t passed on to me. Furthermore, since we were not aware of the issue then, we had no ready response as we do now. Obviously, the gentleman asking the question had not checked the Answers in Genesis website recently, for if he had, he probably would have found my articles on flat-earth. By the reaction of the panelists, it was clear that none of them knew how to answer the question, so there wasn’t much of a response.
Unlike some of the attendees and speakers at the conference, none of the panelists readily claim to be Christians, so they would not be familiar with biblical creation or organizations, such as Answers in Genesis, that promote creation. Though word had spread that someone from Answers in Genesis was in the audience and hence probably could answer that question, apparently none of the panelists were aware of that. There were at least two members of earlier panels who did know I was there, and likely would have referred the question to me had they been on that panel. I was concerned that those two people or others in the audience who were aware of my presence might shout that fact out and thus inform everyone that I was there. Again, this wasn’t the time or place, so I was greatly relieved when that didn’t happen. I watched where the man who asked the question sat down. As he was leaving the conference room later, I handed him my business card. We later sat down and spoke. It, too, was a pleasant conversation.
Many of the people in attendance clearly were very excited to be there, for they readily clapped, cheered, offered shouts of affirmation, and even stood at the conclusion of some of the presentations. They certainly were the true believers in flat-earth. But what about the many other people who didn’t display what they thought so easily? Judging by the flat-earth T-shirts many of them were wearing, they probably were just a bit more introverted. However, I suspect there was a large contingent of a second group of people present—those who are tepid in their belief in flat-earth or perhaps investigating it and not sure of what they believe yet. I would represent a third group of people at the conference—those opposed to flat-earth but were there to study the movement. I don’t know if I was the only person in that group. Of course, a fourth group was present—reporters of various types and at least one documentary crew.
Dissension in the Ranks
There was much discussion of the disunity and squabbles within the flat-earth movement. Apparently, there is much metaphysical tension within the movement, with some people being conservative Christians and some Muslims, while others are New Agers. Others deny that they fall into any of those categories, but it isn’t clear what they believe. Nearly every speaker made it clear that there are no flat-earth atheists. One has to admit that a round, flat earth enclosed by a dome is so contrived that such a system could not have a naturalistic origin. Ergo, there must be some agent or agents that created it. This creative agency could be any of a host of possibilities. It could be Allah, a “higher power,” a group of spirits, or some impersonal force. It is very clear from the broad spectrum of religious beliefs among flat-earthers that belief in flat-earth doesn’t necessarily lead to Christianity. Apparently, some who are not Christians within the movement are annoyed by constant references to Scripture by those who are.
Nearly every speaker made it clear that there are no flat-earth atheists.
Another tension comes from different versions of flat-earth models believed within the movement. Still other divisions stem from differences that are best described as personality conflicts. This might be the best explanation of why Eric Dubay wasn’t on the program. Dubay probably had more influence than anyone in getting the flat-earth movement going a few years ago, but his influence has waned. One early speaker at the conference acknowledged Dubay’s absence, but he also made it clear that invitations had been extended for Dubay to speak from the very beginning of planning the conference two years ago, but Dubay demurred. Demur probably is too tame a term, for according to this speaker, Dubay has denounced the Flat Earth International Conference as a shill. The speaker also said that some people who had registered for the conference decided not to come, because of various complaints. These complaints included accusations that some who promote flat-earth aren’t serious, but promote it as a prank, while other promoters of flat-earth primarily are motivated by profit
“500 Years in the Making”
A theme I saw at this conference was “500 Years in the Making.” I asked a few people what that meant. Being Christian, they surmised it was a reference to the Protestant Reformation, since that event was touched off in 1517, exactly 500 years ago. They viewed the flat-earth movement as calling the church to return to the authority of Scripture, which, they think, teaches the earth is flat. However, as I previously mentioned, many flat-earthers are not Christian, and it is unlikely that non-Christian flat-earthers would see the slogan this way. In his welcoming remarks, the principle organizer of the conference, Robbie Davidson, who happens to be Christian, mentioned this slogan. His view was just as Martin Luther defied the Roman Catholic Church, flat earthers are starting a new reformation to challenge the current dogma.
However, I think there is something else to this slogan. It may be an allusion to the faux history of the understanding of the earth’s shape that so many people believe. Most of us grew up being told that nearly everyone thought the earth was flat until the time of Christopher Columbus five centuries ago. According to this myth, there was a paradigm shift at that time from believing the earth was flat to believing the earth was spherical. As I have pointed out before, this notion is false, because belief in a spherical earth has been prevalent in the West for more than two millennia. Furthermore, contrary to common misconception, neither the Bible nor the church have taught that the earth is flat. The fact is, no one in the church claimed the earth was flat until the 19th century. This alternate history is prevalent in the flat-earth community. For instance, this article clearly states this false history. Flat-earthers tend to convolve this false history with the true history of the paradigm shift that did occur four centuries ago, when most people in the West abandoned the geocentric theory for the heliocentric theory. However, the shape of the earth and whether it moves are two (in most cases) unrelated questions. While I don’t recall any speakers explicitly mixing the two, I got the impression that this was the misunderstanding of some of the speakers.
Some Specific Criticisms
Just before lunch on Friday, two prominent flat-earth advocates, Bob Knodel and Jeran Campanella announced the launch of the website fecore.org. They promised this website would offer rigorous tests to show the flat earth model is true. What they shared did not bode well for this endeavor. Most of what they had to say was of a mocking nature, asking how things could be within the conventional understanding of the world. Knodel took the lead, speaking of the preponderance of evidence for the flat earth. He began with the conventional claim that the sun is 865,000 miles across and 93 million miles from the earth, a light travel distance of eight minutes, yet the sun only looks the size of a Frisbee. Right away, there is a problem here—what does it mean to look like the size of a Frisbee? Is the Frisbee a few inches from one’s face, or is it a hundred yards away? But the answer to the question of how the sun can look (presumably) so small is found in the figures that Knodel gave. If one divides 865,000 by 93 million, the sun would appear 0.0093 radians across. Multiplying by 57.3 to convert this to degrees, one gets 0.53 degrees, the angular diameter of the sun. If a Frisbee is nine inches across, at 80 feet it would have the same angular size of the sun. Therefore, there is no problem.
But it gets worse. Knodel brought up the North Star, or Polaris. He said that astronomers claim the diameter of Polaris is 46 times that of the sun, but is 433 light years away. He converted that distance to 27 million times that of the sun’s distance from the earth. He then intoned that it was ridiculous to ask us to believe that Polaris would even be visible if it were that far from earth. Let’s put some numbers to this claim. Astronomers use magnitudes to express brightness of stars and other astronomical objects. The equation that relates the difference in two magnitudes, m1 and m2, is
where l1 and l2 are the intensities of the two sources. The apparent magnitude of the sun is -26.7, while Polaris is 2.0 magnitude. Therefore, the difference in apparent magnitude between the sun and Polaris is 28.7. Using Knodel’s numbers, what kind of difference in magnitude do I compute? A star’s intensity is directly proportional to the fourth power of the star’s temperature and the square of the star’s radius. The sun’s spectral type is G2, while Polaris is F7. This makes Polaris slightly cooler than the sun. As an approximation, we can assume they have the same temperature. Light decreases with the inverse square of the distance, so to compare Polaris to the sun, we must square the diameter of Polaris (46 times that of the sun) and divide by the square of the distance (27 million times the distance from the sun):
That is, with these numbers, I would expect Polaris to appear only 2.9 x 10-12 as bright as the sun. Putting that as the ratio l2/l1 in the equation above, I get a difference of magnitude of 28.8, pretty much what I predicted. Putting in the correct values of the temperature, size, and distance (Knodel used close, but apparently out-of-date values), one probably could get an exact match to the predicted value above. The point is, despite what Knodel said, there absolutely is no difficulty in seeing Polaris given the very numbers that Knodel used. I could let this go, but Knodel claims to be an engineer. Most engineers I know are very quick to do the sort of numerical analysis that I just did, so I find it appalling that Knodel failed to do this. One could object that Knodel isn’t an astronomer. However, none of the information nor the equations I used above are big secrets held among astronomers—all of it is readily available at many sources, such as Wikipedia.
Or consider Knodel’s discussion of the lunar crater Aristarchus. He correctly stated its diameter as 25 miles, and then asked how the eye could see Aristarchus if the moon is 250,000 miles away. Dividing 25 by 250,000, I find the angular diameter of Aristarchus is 0.0001 radians, or a little less than 0.006 degrees, or a third of an arcminute, or 20 arcseconds. Since the eye at best can see approximately one arcminute, Aristarchus is too small to see with the unaided eye. But I don’t know what Knodel’s point was, because I’m not aware of anyone who claims they can see Aristarchus with the eye alone. However, even with a small telescope, one can resolve something only 20 arcseconds across. Again, there is no problem here as Knodel claimed.
Why didn’t anyone see the moon approach and then retreat from the sun that day?
Knodel said that he watched the total solar eclipse this past August, but he didn’t see the moon move in and block the sun or move away afterward, so it must have been something else that blocked the sun during the eclipse. This is a common claim made by flat-earthers, but they never seem to identify what that something else might be. I find that fundamental lack of curiosity amazing. My friend David Rives, took this very long exposure photograph (see below) during the total solar eclipse, grossly overexposing the solar corona, but showing the dim light of the moon illuminated by earthshine. Many lunar features easily are identified on the moon, demonstrating that the moon was indeed in front of the sun during totality. Why didn’t anyone see the moon approach and then retreat from the sun that day? When in its new phase, the moon is not bright and is located in the same general direction of the very bright sun. Consequently, the moon is not visible for 2–3 days, centered on the new moon every month. Anyone who has ever spent time seriously watching the moon’s changing phases would know this. Obviously, Knodel has not done due diligence on this.
I could go on, for the rest of this presentation was the same. Everything Knodel said in this presentation is easy to refute. I’m amazed at how many people have been pulled in by such weak arguments.
I could offer a few suggestions to the organizers for future meetings. As I previously mentioned, I didn’t learn anything new about flat-earth, though I learned much about the flat-earth movement. That was acceptable for most attendees, because, as I also previously mentioned, many of them were looking for a refuge. However, future meetings ought to move beyond that basic level.
There was no printed program. When I asked about that, I was told it was because the program had been fluid, with many changes. Indeed, the first presentation on Friday morning didn’t take place. What I thought was the first presentation starting 20 minutes late was the second presentation starting quite early. There wasn’t even an oral announcement of a program change. Almost none of the presentations started on time, because none of the presenters finished on time. I suggest in future conferences there be printed schedules that you pick up at registration and that the speakers be held to the allotted time to keep the meeting on schedule.
Oh, and any hecklers or disruptive people ought to be silenced immediately. It not ought to be the responsibility of speakers to take care of this.
Despite my apprehension in going to the first Flat Earth International Conference, I had a good time, and I look forward to going to the second meeting next year in Denver. Perhaps by then I can directly engage more of the flat-earth supporters.