Recently I met two people who, independently from each other, told me that the Earth is flat. Having grown up in a western country with quite a bit of “education”, I was startled to hear that there still exist people who “believe” that the Earth is not a sphere! However, trying to keep an open mind, I gave it some thoughts and observations. In my University studies in Geography, I cannot remember that we ever questioned or discussed the fact that the Earth might be something else than a round globe. The Spherical Earth seemed so self-evident, why should we ever question it? I started with myself. How can I know, out of my own experience, that the Earth really is a sphere?
Hypothesis 1: There are pictures & videos of the Earth from space, showing its spheric shape:
Strictly spoken, even though this picture is most likely a real photograph, I will probably never be able to see the Earth from that perspective with my own eyes. So I cannot experience this perspective, it remains a total abstraction to my mind.
Hypothesis 2: The spherical shape of the Earth can be deduced mathematically like e.g. done by the Greek mathematician Eratosthenes. He observed that the sun casts no shadows at noon in one place (Syene), whereas at another place further north (Alexandria) it casts a shadow at the same time. I could theoretically go after what he did, but I would take a lot of time and effort.
Hypothesis 3: The calculation of positions and navigation using GPS-satellites is founded on mathematical models that take the Earth as a sphere. And it seems to be working very well, its all in our smartphones.
Hypothesis 4: Stars that are visible in the northern hemisphere might not be visible in southern countries. This could only happen on a curved surface. Yes, I once saw the “Crux” (a star constellation) in Argentina, which I was never able to see back in Europe.
Hypothesis 5: When at the sea, an object (e.g. a ship) at the horizon will slowly disappear:
Just recently I was on the sea and I observed some islands while we were traveling on a ship. I could clearly see that the islands slowly disappeared. Not because they got smaller and smaller, but because the lower part of them actually disappeared behind the horizon. I could see the tip of the mountain, but not the lower part anymore which was still visible before.
First conclusion: Hypotheses 1-3, especially 1 are not easy to use as an easy self-test based on own observations. And conspiracy theories might argue that the moon landing never happened and that there is no Space Station, so maybe a difficult way to start a discussion with. But observing the stars or being on the sea can be a straight-forward way to get at least a glimpse of the spherical character of the Earth.
However, I am still asking the question: why are people saying that the Earth is flat? The people who told me so were no maniacs, but normal and reasonable friends, one of them being a smart and skilled engineer. Obviously, all those arguments mentioned above are not enough to convince them otherwise. Is there something else that I should consider?
We have to admit that the “model” of the spherical Earth is not an easy one to comprehend. When we are not at the sea or not in space, we honestly have to admit that the world appears to us as flat. That is our everyday experience. The world that we dwell in is flat! Everything else are conceptions in our mind which are not related to the experiences of our senses.
Recently I read an interesting article¹ from the social anthropologist Tim Ingold where he shows how young kids are struggling with the idea of the Earth being round. When they are asked to draw a picture of the Earth, it will mostly be a picture of people standing on a flat surface with trees and houses around them, the sky above. Again: the idea of the spherical Earth is totally abstracted and disconnected from our experience. The Earth that we are living on is the Earth that we experience every day. It is not the Blue Marble Earth as shown in the picture above. And this is not just for kids, but the same for adults except astronauts who are, strictly spoken, not earthlings while they are dwelling in space.
In that sense, “flat earth” makes a lot of sense to me and I understand people who say so. Having all its proofs and evidence, modern science stands firmly on the achievement of the “spherical earth” model, clearly unquestionable in terms of hard physical science and mathematics. But questionable when we come to ask: what model of the Earth is more suitable for the human life-world: the one that appeals to our experience, or the one that has been determined by scientific reasoning and space travel? In an interview with the Spiegel magazine 1976², the German philosopher Martin Heidegger gave a striking comment on the pictures of the Earth that were sent from the lunar orbiter:
I do not know if you were frightened, but I was scared when I saw the shots from the Moon to the Earth. […] the uprooting of humanity is already happening. […] This is no longer Earth on which man lives today.
Is the fact that today we are looking at the Earth as a spherical planet showing how disconnected we are from it as a place of dwelling already?
¹ “The Shape of the Earth”; in: Ingold, T. (2011). Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description. Routledge, London.
² On this page you will find a link to a PDF of the SPIEGEL interview