Today we’re going to follow up on an older Skeptoid episode from a few years ago, the Flat Earth Theory. In that episode we looked at the history of belief in a flat Earth, which was mainly driven by 19th and 20th century Christian fundamentalism driving clumsy efforts to prove the literal truth of the Bible. That era ended when the last of the well known proponents, an elderly couple who called themselves the Covenant People’s Church, died after their house burned down in 1996, taking with it the archives of their International Flat Earth Research Society of America. And where their story ended, today’s story begins, with a new, reinvented version of the Flat Earth theory.
The Biblical literalists have moved from the center of Flat Earth belief to its fringe, and their place has been taken by believers in conspiracy theories and alternate science. 21st century Flat Earthers are less likely to recite Bible verses and more likely to oppose vaccination, to charge that 9/11 was an inside job, and to claim the government is drugging the population with chemtrails sprayed from airliners. Flat Earthing is now entwined with perpetual motion machines, with a belief that Nikola Tesla held the secrets to free energy now suppressed by the global elite, cold fusion and zero point energy, and declare that it’s all part of the grandest coverup of all: that the Earth is actually a flat disk and not a globe.
An excellent resource for tracking the popularity of ideas is Google Trends, which tells us that Internet searches for the term “Flat Earth” began a sharp increase at the beginning of 2015. The popularity of this search term is still rising, and is presently at its greatest over the course of Google’s entire tracking history. This is with the exception of January 2016 which saw a tremendous spike. By then a pair of fringy C-list celebrities had been trumpeting the Flat Earth and declaring their rejection of the Earth as a sphere loudly and proudly, though it’s never been clear whether they actually believed this or were just bucking for attention. One of these was a rapper named B.o.B, who had been among the most vocal; and to the delight of the Internet, astronomer and beloved science personality Neil deGrasse Tyson began correcting him over Twitter. Within a short time it developed into a rap battle, with Tyson’s nephew providing the rhythm. The other was celebrated salacious person Tila Tequila, for whose Twitter feed the Flat Earth tweets constituted the most intelligent and weighty content.
If the new Flat Earthers were limited to these two “celebrities” and the handful of remaining Christian Flat Earth fundamentalists, that would be one thing. But they are not. Google Trends proves that B.o.B and Tila Tequila were only riding a wave that had been building for the better part of a year. Where was it building? YouTube provides another indicator. Search YouTube for “Flat Earth” and you’ll find countless videos, mainly amateurish explainers full of gross misunderstandings and misinformation, yet many with tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of views. Most of these were posted throughout 2015 and 2016. What triggered the sudden renewal of interest?