Belief in a flat Earth is becoming fashionable. Scientists and other guardians of common sense are bemoaning this irrational development, yet we’d be better off seeing it as a very useful indication of deeper societal problems.
The Earth is flat. Okay, so the best available evidence indicates that it actually isn’t, but the belief that our planet is a flat disc rather than an oblate spheroid has been steadily growing more popular in recent years. According to Google Trends data, searches for “flat Earth” as a topic have risen significantly since 2014. Meanwhile, a YouGov poll from 2018 suggested that only 66 percent and 76 percent of 18-24 and 25-34 year-olds “firmly believe” that the planet is round, indicating that this belief is becoming more common with younger American generations.
And to make matters seem even worse, Brazil hosted a flat Earth conference last Saturday in Sao Paulo. In fact, this wasn’t even the first flat Earth conference to have taken place internationally, with last year’s gatherings in Birmingham, UK, Denver, Colorado and Edmonton, Alberta suggesting that flat Earthism is becoming quite the cultural phenomenon.
Unsurprisingly, many figures in the world of science and journalism have despaired at this growth, with dozens of articles being published in recent months ridiculing the flat Earth belief system and mocking harebrained attempts to ‘prove’ its theories. However, while much of the commentary has focused on how shameful and dangerous it must be for humanity that flat Earthism is gaining traction, it needs to be said that it’s emergence is actually a positive development for science, and for society more generally.
Really? Yes, because just as symptoms of an illness are useful for letting you know that you have an infection, so too is the rise of flat Earthism useful for indicating that both science and modern-day society are suffering from their own kinds of illnesses.
What are these illnesses? To begin with, the growth in flat Earthism runs largely in tandem with a general decrease in trust in figures of authority and experts, from politicians and bankers to journalists and scientists. As indicated by the annual Edelman Trust Barometer, trust in major ‘institutions’ such as the media and government has reached new lows over the past few years, particularly in the United States.
People are increasingly unwilling to believe that governments, journalists and even scientists have the public’s best interests at heart. To a large extent, this unwillingness stems from the financial crisis of 2008 and a growing political discontentment among ordinary people in many countries. Remember how millennials are more likely to doubt the roundness of the Earth than previous generations: in America, this same demographic earns around 20 percent less than baby boomers did at the same stage of life.
It’s likely that increased disenchantment has fed not only into the rise of populism, but also into the rise of support for conspiracy theories such as flat Earthism, which defy the (political and scientific) establishment and serve to reassure advocates that they’re giving the finger to authority.
Aside from social disaffection, much of the problem should also be pinned on a lack of education and a failure in the communication of science.
For example, a July survey from the polling company Datafohla found that the seven percent of Brazillians who believe the Earth is flat are much likelier to have dropped out of high school, indicating that greater investment and inclusion in education is needed to reverse the flat Earth trend.
At the same time, numerous commentators have observed that science communication ought to become less condescending and more sympathetic to the general public, while also working proactively to explain why certain beliefs are justified and others aren’t. If nothing else, scientists should rise to the challenge of the flat Earth theory and use it as a perfect opportunity to propagate scientific principles and methods. Indeed, many flat Earth proponents ironically have an almost pathological fixation on scientific methods and observable facts, so the scientific community should work to tap into their seeming respect for objectivity.
Another underlying source of flat Earthism is social isolation, with almost half of Americans feeling lonely and members of Generation Z more likely to feel isolated (recall that they’re also more likely to doubt the roundness of the Earth). Loneliness is a stubbornly prevalent condition in our consumerist, materialistic society of overwork and inequality, and it would seem that part of the attraction of the flat Earth movement is in fact the sense of community it provides, via online forums and now international conferences.
And lastly, there’s the misinformation spread by social media, with YouTube in particular being blamed for the increased popularity of flat Earth thinking. On the one hand, social media has become a useful scapegoat for the more fundamental issues giving rise to flat Earthism. But on the other, it’s clear that social media makes it easier for controversial (if unfounded or completely false) ideas to flourish. Consequently, flat Earthism reveals that social networking companies do really need to find robust yet proportionate ways of limiting the spread of misinformation.
In itself, the flat Earth theory is largely harmless, since it’s held by a minority of people and doesn’t affect how, for instance, practising scientists and engineers build boats, airplanes, etc. Yet the social malaise underlying it is harmful, and it’s on this that scientists, governments and society more generally should be focusing attention.
As such, rather than being ridiculed and scorned, flat Earthers should really be thanked for pointing us towards a better world.
By Simon Chandler, a London-based journalist focusing on politics and technology