Flat Earth conspiracy theorists on the rise

Local News

DOUGLAS COUNTY, Ill. (WCIA) — You may think it sounds crazy, but in 2017, thousands, if not millions of people still believe the world is flat.

Scientists say that’s a symptom of a bigger problem. The number of people who believe the earth is flat is actually growing. Scientists might have an idea of why that is, and it’s worth talking about.

Geological survey data shows Douglas county is the flattest county in Illinois, which is the second-flattest state in the whole country. On a clear day, it seems like you can see forever.

But you can’t.

Through the eyes of a person with an average height, the horizon is about three miles away. The higher you are, the farther you can see, but you’ll never be able to see the entire world due to its spherical shape.


But don’t try telling that to a Flat Earth conspiracy theorist.

Leslie Looney is the chair of the U of I’s astronomy department. “I’m very qualified to say the earth is round,” he says.  

He’s also qualified to be concerned anyone would think otherwise.

“The ideas spiked recently,” he says, “There’s the idea that water must be flat. There’s the idea that when you drive from California to Florida, or whatever, you don’t see or feel a curvature of the earth.”

And that’s why Looney says we’ve got a problem.

“For some reason, people are against science lately,” he says, “And that’s beginning to show with illiterate ideas about Flat Earth.”

More than 100,000 people follow The Flat Earth Society on Facebook. Over the last three years, Google searches for “Flat Earth” have, at points, spiked to 1000% more than what used to be normal.  People in the United States are leading the way with the most searches. But don’t take Google’s word for it. You can follow the trend online.

 “We have NASA, orbiting around the planet,” says Looney, “We have GPS working to tell us exactly where we are, which requires it to be round. It’s very upsetting for a professor of Astronomy to have people think still, in today’s world, that it’s flat.”

So how do people rationalize this?

The Flat Earth Society’s website has an FAQ page. The first questions is “Are you serious?” The answer is “Yes,” and they say the proof is “readily apparent”. NASA is said to be a fraudulent organization bent on siphoning your tax dollars. They claim the moon landing didn’t happen.

“It’s almost like a logic virus,” says Greg Whitlock, who directs Parkland College’s Philosophy program, and teaches logic classes. He says the conspiracy catalyst is something you probably already spend too much time on.

“Social media sets up an atmosphere almost like a global culture of irrationality where you’re only listening to and talking to people who have the same belief,” says Whitlock.

“It really is these recent rappers and basketball players making comments on Twitter, and it’s part of this mood that science is wrong or bad,” says Looney.

Both professors agree the root issue is science denial: people in large numbers asserting alternate truths, even if their argument falls flat.

Flatter than Douglas county.

“It just takes some clear thinking about these things in a scientific way, and leaving emotions out of it,” says Looney.

The biggest concern with the Flat Earth movement is how fast it’s gaining steam. Scientists are worried it could become a political issue, like climate change, vaccination, or evolution.



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