A Natural History of Flat Earthers

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In the Nevada desert, limousine driver and amateur rocket enthusiast “Mad” Mike Hughes has built a homemade rocket in an attempt to launch himself approximately 2000 feet in the air. Why? To prove that the Earth is flat. Leaving aside how a 2000 foot flight will possibly prove this point, how is it that in 2017 people still believe the Earth is flat? First we need to look back at the myth of Christopher Columbus.

The myth is widely held that scholars of the Renaissance believed that the Earth was flat and Columbus had to prove them wrong by sailing west to “India.” Makes a great story, except that it’s categorically false. Since the dawn of recorded history, people realized that the Earth was a sphere. Aristotle came to this conclusion through geometry; Roman scholars were also clear on this point. Documented accounts take note of how the mast of a ship stays visible after the body disappears over the horizon. Even ancient sailors had to be aware of the Earth’s curve.

A misunderstanding of medieval maps may have further promoted the idea that people forgot the shape of the Earth.

The myth that Columbus had to reprove this ancient idea stems from misconceptions about the Dark Ages. The mythological view of the Dark Ages is that the painstakingly accrued knowledge of the ancient world was lost to feudalism and violence. Though there were exceptions, the majority of scholars agreed that the world was a sphere, or at least a cone.

That aside, Columbus did face genuine skepticism. Some thought that the trip was impossibly long, or doubted that this route could have gone undiscovered for millennia. Columbus’ crew also worried about how the journey was dragging (Columbus oversold the speed to recruits) and were worried about how to return to Europe against prevailing westerly winds. Nobody feared falling off the Earth.

Then, in the nineteenth century, round vs. flat earth belief became a proxy for anti-Catholic forces. Many scholars saw the Middle Ages as being in thrall to a hidebound Catholicism that couldn’t even accept the Earth as sphere. The spherical Earth represented modern capitalists in search of human progress against a regressive dogma. The writer Washington Irving did more than anyone to promote flat Eartherism as a religious obstacle to modernity. He used the myth of a plucky Columbus battling a bumbling, ignorant establishment as fuel. A misunderstanding of medieval maps may have further promoted the idea that people forgot the shape of the Earth.

Now, nearly 200 years later, the DIY rocket readies for blast off pending a few bureaucratic issues. Flat Eeartherism is a fringe view, but contrary to popular belief it was just as fringe in the year 1417 or the year 17.


JSTOR Citations

Flat Earth or round sphere: misconceptions of the shape of the Earth and the fifteenth-century transformation of the world

By: Lesley B. Cormack

Ecumene, Vol. 1, No. 4 (October 1994), pp. 363-385

Sage Publications, Ltd.

Columbus and the Flat Earth Myth

By: Mano Singham

The Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 88, No. 8 (Apr., 2007), pp. 590-592

Phi Delta Kappa International

James MacDonald

James MacDonald received a BS in Environmental Biology from Columbia and a PhD in Ecology and Evolution from Rutgers University, spending 4 years in Central America collecting data on fish in mangrove forests. His research has been published in scholarly journals such as Estuaries and Coasts and Biological Invasions. He currently works in fisheries management and outreach in New York.

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