Sunday, September 23, 2007

What if We All Believed the Earth was Flat?

There is a group of several thousand people in the United States who are members of an organization knows as the Flat Earth Society. They believe what the organization’s name suggests, that the earth is not a sphere, but that the surface is actually coin-shaped.

According to flat earthers, the North Pole is at the center of this disk and a high ice-covered mountain range surrounds the disk at its edge. Beyond the edge is just space.

The sun and moon are balls that behave as spotlights located 3,000 miles up. Each is 32 miles in diameter. The stars are just lights that are situated 1,000 miles above the sun and moon. The sun and moon circle the disk of the earth at the equator, which is a circle situated halfway between the north poll and the edge of the earth.

Earthquakes and volcanoes occur because the earth is a very thick disk, much like a cylinder. And the sensation of gravity is caused by a constant acceleration of the earth upward.

This whole idea sounds silly to most rational humans. It could represent the setting of a science fiction story. It might seem logical to a child. It certainly sounded plausible to early humans prior to the invention of flight. But even Eratosthenes, 5,000 years BCE used geometry to prove that the earth was a sphere. And, contrary to popular myth, the sailors on board Christopher Columbus’ ships already knew the earth was not flat.

But the members of the Flat Earth Society are serious. They have answers to all the round-earth “proofs.” Most of their answers, however, involve unproven nonsensical beliefs and government conspiracies.

Okham’s razor is a principle that’s been around since the fourteenth century. It states that the simplest explanation for any phenomenon, and the one that requires the fewest assumptions, is usually the one that is correct. Flat earth reasoning flies in the face of this principle, requiring conspiracies and unknown forces of nature.

Yet people still believe it. Why?

There is no real reason why people would find a need to believe something as tremendously outrageous as a flat earth, except that it started out in the nineteenth century as a way to reconcile everyday observations with one interpretation of the bible. After all, how could Jesus have stood on a high mountaintop while the devil showed him all the kingdoms of the earth unless the earth were flat and coin-shaped? This is but one example of the bible alluding to a flat earth.

Thankfully, the Flat Earth Society is limited to a few thousand crazy zealots who have no political power. And, although they would love to have their so-called theory taught in public schools, their numbers fall far short of what it would take to lobby for it.

But what if their numbers grew to several million? In a hypothetical America where, say, 51 percent of Americans became flat-earth believers, science classes would be in trouble. After all, a majority does not the truth make, even if it happens to be a large majority. Hundreds of years ago, a large majority did believe the earth was flat. But they were wrong.

A recent Gallop poll showed that a slight majority of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form less than 10,000 years ago.

We think of the ancient people who believed the earth to be flat as quaint and naive. In another thousand years, how quaint and naïve will we appear?

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