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A dive into Zetetic Astronomy: understanding contemporary flat earth beliefs

BySarah Shaw

Feb 17, 2019

Contemporary flat earth beliefs originate from the mid-nineteenth century, coming from Samuel Birley Rowbotham’s book Zetetic Astronomy: Earth not a Globe. This book laid out Rowbotham’s view of the earth as a flat disc with the North Pole as its centre, and an ice wall surrounding the edge. Many connect Rowbotham’s earth structure with some extracts from the Bible which appear to suggest that the earth is flat and stationary in space, including from Revelation 7:1 (“after this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth”) and from Psalm 104:5 (“He set the earth on its foundations; so that it should never be moved”). Though once fringe beliefs, the growth of social media networks, especially Facebook and YouTube, have contributed to the resurgence of the Flat Earth Society since it was resurrected in 2004. These platforms allowing believers to gather, discuss and propagate beliefs.

On a quick peruse of the internet, the number of genuine flat earth pages appears surprising low, as many seem to be created by non-flat earthers. However, there are some distinctly devout believer pages to be found. Yet, even within this real flat earth community, there are many varying views. Discussions between believers can get angry, people disagreeing on topics surrounding the existence of gravity, whether the earth is stationary, and even the shape of the flat earth. Any questioning of views can lead to vicious responses, with one-page moderator, David, warning to avoid posting on flat earth pages as members can get aggressive quickly. Indeed, David has had to make an alternative Facebook profile to moderate discussions as there have been cases of members finding pictures of someone’s friends and family and posting them alongside threatening messages. David further warned that many in the flat earth community can be “willfully ignorant” and indeed, any attempts by ‘ball-lovers’ to use generally accepted science is viewed as government-generated propaganda and consequently dismissed, mocked, or simply deleted.

Flat earth belief appears to come in hand with further conspiracies, such as the recent revelation that one prominent flat earther has denied the Holocaust. This illustrates that though the flat earth community may seem to be simply innocent and misinformed, they actively propagate misinformation and aggression throughout all flat earth groups.

Yet flat earthers are not alone in these arguments. Many who believe that the earth is a sphere join or even create flat earth groups in order to educate or mock flat-earthers. Joel, the admin of a flat earth discussion group, “created the group when another flat earth group banned me for posting science and debunking some of their theories.” He intends his group to allow for both sides of the argument to contribute to a fair discussion, although he does admit that “it usually descends into ad hominem fairly quickly.” Lucas, another admin, agrees that there are “a lot of trolls to be found” who mock all believers. Some pages do actively try to create a balanced debate, but still, end up filled with insulting and aggressive posts by both sides. There is no real space for discussion as posts cycle between attempts to enforce modern scientific beliefs and increasingly determined denial by flat-earthers. The arguments of both sides simply reinforce the prejudices of the other, and any prospect of real discussion is being lost.

One major problem within this cycle is the confusion of who is real and who is fake. Many pages declaring themselves as ‘real’ flat earth discussions are filled with ‘globe-heads’ mocking flat earth beliefs: Lucas estimated that around 95 per cent of flat earth pages are fake. Fake pages can begin to propagate fake information, especially seen when a self-proclaimed official Facebook page posted the society’s acceptance of prominent flat earther Logan Paul’s belief while the society’s website condemned Paul and emphasised that he was not accepted as a member. There is even mistrust as to whether prominent flat earthers truly believe what they are claiming, or if they joined the society for notoriety or money: some question whether Rowbotham himself believed what he wrote, or if his book was intended to earn him money from the curious.

There is undeniably a money-making aspect within the flat earth community. Searching ‘flat earth’ on GoFundMe comes up with over 400 results, most of which involve requests for donations to help fund research. An account has been created to fund ‘Mad Mike Hughes’ and his mission to launch his own rocket into space and personally prove the flat earth theory. He has already made it into the air and safely back to the ground and has now raised almost $8,000 towards his next launch. However, as it stands there is little likelihood of Hughes achieving the height necessary to truly see the shape of the earth any time soon. There has also been a movement spreading across pages to sell flat earth merchandise and leaflets, with another page admin Joel saying that he sees many people set to make money from “selling this to flat-earthers or to people who want to make fun of the flat earth.” In a more disturbing turn, there have been warnings about a major flat earth figure using his influence to gain free accommodation with supporters, manipulate fellow believers into paying for his travel and accommodation fees when meeting at conferences, and there is even a claim that he has tried to recruit flat earthers into a pyramid scheme. It is unsure as to how true these accusations may be and he has not replied to requests for comment, but all page admins and moderators who did respond have agreed that he is widely known as a scammer.

Throughout all flat earth pages, it is clear that the belief system is narrow-minded and unhealthy. The general outside view is that the flat earth community is a form of cult, and indeed it does appear that way: an immigration detention facility worker claimed to have included questions and facts about the flat earth in official interviews, stating that the official nature means that people “can’t walk away.” A teacher also shared her experiences of mentioning flat earth beliefs to her 12 to 14-year-old pupils so that they will question globe beliefs later in life. The flat earth community has become an umbrella under which conspiracies have grown, false information has spread, and scammers have flourished. Reports are spreading through flat earth pages that Facebook will begin to remove pages which propagate flat earth beliefs, and despite the huge backlash against this, it must be asked whether it is truly a bad thing. This is one sure way of ending the spiral of anger and falsehood into which flat earth discussion has fallen and will save many from being drawn into the community only to be taken advantage of.


Image: Orlando Ferguson via Wikimedia Commons

By Sarah Shaw

Features Writer

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