Truth decayWhy do some people believe the Earth is flat?

By Anders Furze

Published 6 May 2019

Why, despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, is the flat-Earth movement gaining traction in the twenty-first century? One expert says that, in part, it is due to a general shift toward populism and a distrust in the views of experts and the mainstream media. There is an “increasing distrust in what we once considered to be the gatekeepers of knowledge – like academics, scientific agencies, or the government,” she says. In this kind of environment, “it becomes really easy for once-fringe views to gain traction.”

If you type “flat Earth” into Google, you’d be joining a group of people that have helped to triple the search term over the last couple of years. In fact, a recent YouGov poll found that only around two-thirds of Americans aged between 18 and 24 believe that the Earth is round.

Although the idea the Earth is flat has been scientifically discredited, there seems to be a growing belief in the conspiracy theory.

And it’s getting more traction than some of the other conspiracies out there, like chemtrails (which proposes that a plane’s long-lasting condensation trail is actually made up of chemical or biological agent).

Interest in most of these other far-fetched theories remains stable but the flat-Earth movement is growing, particularly in America. And it has some high-profile supporters.

From basketball players to musicians, rappers to TV hosts, a number of celebrities are jumping on the flat Earth bandwagon.

So what’s causing a renewed interest in something that’s been scientifically disproven for the past two thousand years or more? What does it say about social media? And how did we actually establish that the world is round in the first place?

Rounding the world
Once upon a time, it made sense for people to believe that the Earth was flat, says University of Melbourne cartographer Chandra Jayasuriya. Ships would sail off toward the horizon and often never return, and those people left behind didn’t really have access to information outside of their communities.

“Their view was egocentric and geocentric. They lived in a village that was the center of their existence,’’ she says. “The further away from the village they travelled, the more hostile the environment became.”

Greek philosophers established that the Earth was round as far back as the third century BC, but it wasn’t until the 15th century that it became commonly accepted.