Are Flat-Earthers Being Serious?

Members of the Flat Earth Society claim to believe the Earth is flat. Walking around on the planet’s surface, it looks and feels flat, so they deem all evidence to the contrary, such as satellite photos of Earth as a sphere, to be fabrications of a “round Earth conspiracy” orchestrated by NASA and other government agencies.

The belief that the Earth is flat has been described as the ultimate conspiracy theory. According to the Flat Earth Society’s leadership, its ranks have grown by 200 people (mostly Americans and Britons) per year since 2009. Judging by the exhaustive effort flat-earthers have invested in fleshing out the theory on their website, as well as the staunch defenses of their views they offer in media interviews and on Twitter, it would seem that these peoplegenuinely believe the Earth is flat.

But in the 21st century, can they be serious? And if so, how is this psychologically possible?

Through a flat-earther’s eyes

First, a brief tour of the worldview of a flat-earther: While writing off buckets of concrete evidence that Earth is spherical, they readily accept a laundry list of propositions that some would call ludicrous. The leading flat-earther theory holds that Earth is a disc with the Arctic Circle in the center and Antarctica, a 150-foot-tall wall of ice, around the rim. NASA employees, they say, guard this ice wall to prevent people from climbing over and falling off the disc. (In keeping with their skepticism of NASA, known flat-earther conspiracy theorist Nathan Thompson recently approached a man he said was a NASA employee in a Starbucks in mid-May 2017. In a YouTube video of the exchange, Thompson, founder of the Official Flat Earth and Globe Discussion page, shouted that he had proof the Earth is flat — apparently saying an astronaut drowning was that proof — and that NASA is “lying.”)

Earth’s day and night cycle is explained by positing that the sun and moon are spheres measuring 32 miles (51 kilometers) that move in circles 3,000 miles (4,828 km) above the plane of the Earth. (Stars, they say, move in a plane 3,100 miles up.) Like spotlights, these celestial spheres illuminate different portions of the planet in a 24-hour cycle. Flat-earthers believe there must also be an invisible “antimoon” that obscures the moon during lunar eclipses.

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