Here We Go Again
In late February, yet another professional athlete supposedly came out as believing that the earth is flat. Geno Smith, currently the backup quarterback of the New York Giants, tweeted to his fans on February 24,
I been studying this whole flat earth vs globe thing . . . and I think I may be with Kyrie on this . . . b4 you judge do some HW but what do you guys think?
The Kyrie, of course, is Kyrie Irving, currently playing point guard for the Boston Celtics. Two years ago, when he was playing with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Irving stated in a podcast that he believed the earth was flat. He reiterated his belief in a later interview, and other NBA players and former players, such as Shaquille O’Neal, came to his defense. However, seven months later Irving finally stated that he was joking and that what he had said was merely a social experiment. Shaq, too, said he was joking. Unfortunately, the earlier stories keep getting repeated while the later retractions rarely do. Following Irving’s lead, Smith retracted his story a few hours later with this tweet:
Hey guys I’m glad we had this talk today it was fun lol I know how you all love to debate on Twitter so this was good. . . for the record Earth is a globe we know this. But why not listen to someone else’s beliefs or “truth”
Apparently, this was an experiment or a joke too. Unfortunately, this later tweet won’t get the same attention his earlier tweet did. It’s sad that countless impressionable young people hear the first story but not the second, and so illogically conclude the earth is flat. Sadder still is that Smith professes to be a Christian. This story reinforces the common belief that Christians are foolish. Furthermore, Christians ought not to distinguish between truth and what Smith called “truth.” I wish that people would think through the consequences of these sorts of actions more carefully.
Confusing Flat-Earth with Creation
Such talk doesn’t help our cause here at Answers in Genesis, because long before the flat-earth phenomenon of late, many people already equated belief in biblical creation with belief in flat earth. Of course, there is a huge difference between the two. The most obvious is that evolution is an example of historical science, while the earth’s shape is an example of experimental/observational science. Many evolutionists reject that dichotomy, but just as those who deny the earth is spherical doesn’t change the fact that it is, evolutionists denying there is a difference between historical and operational science doesn’t mean there isn’t.
We don’t have a time machine, so there is no way we can go back into time to see directly if evolution or creation is true. Instead, we use observations about the world as it now exists, such as fossils, to construct ideas about what might have happened in the past. In fact, the usual procedure is to use our theories about the past to interpret facts in the present. This hardly constitutes proof of any theory about the past.
We can do experiments and observations in the world today to determine whether the earth is spherical or flat.
This is very different from a question about the earth’s shape. We can do experiments and observations in the world today to determine whether the earth is spherical or flat. Certainly, astronauts have traveled high enough to see the earth is spherical. Apollo astronauts who went to the moon clearly could see that the earth is a spinning ball. They have provided photographic evidence as well as personal testimonies. But the flat-earthers insist NASA is all fake and that the astronauts are liars. For those who are so distrusting, we can do alternate tests. For instance, during a lunar eclipse we can see that the earth’s shadow is always round, something that only a spherical earth can do regardless of orientation. If there is no temperature inversion, the hull of a departing ship disappears before the rest of the ship. These are just some of the more doable tests. I’ve done them, as well as others.
Categorizing the Errors of Flat-Earth
I’ve given much thought to organizing the many errors that I’ve found in the flat-earth movement into different categories. But now I’ve found that someone already wrote about different kinds of general errors that may work to categorize flat-earth errors. I was recently researching what Roger Bacon (c. 1219/20–c. 1292) thought about the earth’s shape. In Part 4 of his Opus Majus he clearly taught that the earth was a sphere. As a bonus, I learned that in Part 1 of Opus Majus, Bacon discussed four categories of errors that are obstacles to real wisdom and truth:
Following a weak or unreliable authority
The ignorance of others
Concealing one's own ignorance by pretended knowledge
While these categories are a bit different from the direction that I was going, I immediately saw that this works as well. Let me give examples of flat-earth errors that fall under each of these categories.
Following a Weak or Unreliable Authority
An example of a weak or unreliable authority would be citing a professional athlete on the earth’s shape. An athlete could give credible advice on topics that they know something about, such as playing their sport or even financial matters, provided they’ve managed to invest some of their income wisely. But most athletes aren’t qualified to discuss cosmology. Many flat-earthers will object that they don’t reference professional athletes, but they can’t deny that many impressionable young people do (and at least one speaker at the Flat Earth International Conference that I recently attended mentioned Kyrie Irving).
But there are other examples of weak authorities that flat-earthers use. A year and a half ago, I exchanged e-mails with a defiant flat-earther for a week or more. He kept stating that the North Star was visible well south of the earth’s equator, something that must be true if the earth is flat. As a professional astronomer, a serious student of the skies for a half-century, and a traveler who has made 10 trips to the Southern Hemisphere, I knew that was nonsense. Since he refused to take my word for it, I kept pressing him for a source on this. He finally referred me to a one-page website that appeared to be the text of a letter to the editor of a long-defunct British newspaper sometime in the 19th century. Though the letter writer’s name was given, I knew nothing and still know nothing about the man. The letter writer offered a second-hand account of another person he named but is otherwise unknown to me as well. Do I really need to comment on the unreliability of this source?
Custom is an interesting type of error. The best example of this is the customary understanding of the history of cosmology vis-à-vis the earth’s shape. From our earliest years, most of us were taught that nearly everyone thought the earth was flat until five centuries ago. Then, somehow Christopher Columbus showed otherwise, and most people since have believed that the earth is a globe. Except now the flat-earthers supposedly have blown the lid off this conspiracy foisted upon us five centuries ago. The flat-earthers generally don’t mention Columbus by name, opting instead to implicate Nicholas Copernicus. Never mind the fact that Copernicus reintroduced heliocentrism, not spherical earth. Pesky detail.
But as I’ve argued elsewhere, belief in the globe didn’t begin five centuries ago, but 25 centuries ago. What caused me to stumble across Bacon’s categories of errors was assembling a timeline of statements or depictions of a spherical earth for the two millennia prior to Copernicus and Columbus. Here’s what I have so far:
Pythagoras (6th century BC)
Plato (4th century BC)
Aristotle (4th century BC)
Aristarchus (3rd century BC)
Eratosthenes (2nd century BC)
Lucretius (1st century BC)
Ptolemy (2nd century)
Isadore of Seville (7th century)
The Venerable Bede (8th century)
Roger Bacon (13th century)
Depiction of the earth in a French Bible (14th century)
This last one is interesting, so I’m sharing it here. This depiction of the creation shows a ball-shaped earth surrounded by the rāqîa‘, with water above the rāqîa‘. Contrast that with the second figure, of obvious modern origin, supposedly showing the cosmology of the Bible and hence the cosmology of the ancient and medieval Christian world. In reality, this modern depiction is a product of the 19th century attempt to discredit Scripture, and it plays a role in the rewriting of history to give us this customary version. Clearly, the customary version of the history of cosmology is wrong.
The Ignorance of Others
As for the ignorance of others, that error is rampant among flat-earth arguments. In my decades of teaching astronomy at the university, I used the question of the earth’s shape as an epistemological exercise. I’d asked my classes what shape the earth was. My students always were unanimous in their belief that the earth was spherical, though with the recent rise of the flat-earth phenomenon, that probably wouldn’t be the case anymore. And nearly every one of my students thought that belief in the earth being spherical dated back about 500 years. I’d then ask them how they knew the earth was spherical. No one seemed to know. Usually, one student would eventually bring up photos taken from satellites or astronauts in orbit. But then I’d point two things out to them. First, there were no satellites before 1957, so if photos from space were the reason we believed the earth to be spherical, people must have started believing that was the earth’s shape a few years after I was born. Second, I’d ask them if photographs could be faked, and they all agreed (you see, I was aware of that possibility long before the flat-earther phenomenon came along). By this time, my students hadn’t a clue how we know the earth is spherical. This set the stage to get across to my students that true education wasn’t a matter of filling their heads with facts, figures, and dates, but rather it was to equip them to think and assimilate information to reach proper conclusions. Too much of our educational system is geared toward rote memorization of what to believe with no regard to why we believe those things to be true.
Too much of our educational system is geared toward rote memorization of what to believe with no regard to why we believe those things to be true.
This problem was beautifully illustrated by a couple of hours that I recently spent with a young man in my office. He had encountered flat-earth arguments, and though he was leery of the earth being flat, he couldn’t refute any of them. When he asked his friends and family about these arguments, he got dismissals that believing the earth was flat was stupid. When he pressed for explanations for the arguments he had encountered, none of his friends or family could provide any. This frustrated him. A few minutes into our discussion, he appeared to be pleased that he finally had found someone who had taken the time to investigate the flat-earth movement and hence was prepared to answer his questions. My time with him was a good investment, because I think I satisfied his questions, and I doubt that he’ll fall into the flat-earth rabbit hole. I wish that I could have gotten to others before they had fallen in so deeply that they now have extreme difficulty finding their way out.
The flat-earth movement has preyed upon the ignorance of people. Anyone who is familiar with the appearance of the sky can’t believe that the earth is flat. Unfortunately, very few people have sufficient knowledge of the aspects of the sky. For instance, as the earth rotates, stars appear to spin in circles around the north celestial pole, as this photo that Jim Bonser took at the Ark Encounter last October shows. Flat-earthers often claim that this is possible only on a flat earth, but this is false. Another example is that as one travels north or south, what stars are visible and where they are in the sky changes. Flat-earthers claim that this is a matter of perspective, but that doesn’t work. However, the spherical earth does explain what we see. There is much flat-earth flimflam about the moon, such as the false claim that the moon is a transparent disk that we see stars through. Other false claims concern the causes of both solar and lunar eclipses. Previously, I’ve briefly discussed some false claims about solar eclipses. I hope eventually to discuss the false claims flat-earthers make about lunar eclipses. These examples illustrate how flat-earth arguments take advantage of the ignorance of most people, because most people are ill-equipped to counter them.
Concealing One’s Own Ignorance by Pretended Knowledge
I’ve seen many examples of pretended knowledge among flat-earthers. For instance, in my blog about the Flat Earth International Conference, I briefly described a presentation by a man who claims to be an engineer who made some embarrassingly bad claims, some of which I refuted in detail. I suppose that in the minds of many attendees, the speaker being an engineer qualified him as an expert on the things he discussed. I’ve since heard him in a podcast dismiss my comments, but he gave no specifics or rebuttal.
During the Flat Earth International Conference, I approached another speaker who had done a Bedford Level type experiment in Mobile Bay. My intention was to suggest he repeat the experiment when there was no temperature inversion. That interaction didn’t go too well, because he quickly became very defensive. However, he must have paid more attention to me than I thought because he has since repeated the experiment. In his YouTube video, he mentioned temperature inversion, but he doesn’t seem to understand what a temperature inversion is. He apparently thinks a temperature inversion is when water temperature is greater than air temperature. A temperature inversion occurs when water temperature is less than air temperature. To make matters worse, he misinterpreted the images that he took that day, because they show evidence of a spherical earth, but he interpreted them as evidence that the earth is flat. When I have time, perhaps I’ll write about his more recent experiment (along with his false accusation that I’m a stalker).
I could cite many other examples of all four types of errors. Perhaps in the future I’ll develop my own categories of poor argumentation on the part of flat-earthers, but for now, I’ll settle for Bacon’s categories (I’ve always been a huge fan of bacon!).
I’ve been battling the flat-earth phenomenon for two years. Some people may wonder why I spend time on what appears to them to be nonsense. In the past two years, I’ve found that trying to convince those who are heavily invested in flat earth is a waste of time. However, I don’t address this question for their behalf. Instead, like the young man I recently spent time with, there are many people out there who have encountered some flat-earth arguments and are searching for answers to those arguments. My desire is that they find some of my writings to be helpful. In that spirit, I’ve already registered for the second Flat Earth International Conference this November in Denver. I’m going there to further my research of this movement and perhaps have friendly dialogue with some other attendees. I’m not going there to argue with people.