Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2020-21/Truth in Conspiracy Theories: Flat Earth

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Introduction[edit | edit source]

Flat Earth theory is a pseudoscientific model in which the Earth is not spherical, but a flat disk. While this has been a view held by some societies in history, the notion that the Earth is round has such overwhelming scientific support that it is no longer a subject of debate in the mainstream scientific community, and is the generally accepted view in modern society. However, in the last two decades, the theory gained popularity again[1]. Flat Earthers are sometimes driven by religious convictions. Flat Earthism acts as a conspiracy theory, with the idea that mainstream media, government and academia are deceitful[2]. Often, this can be contextualised within these individuals' broader ideas of the world and political outlook, wherein instead of using the scientific method to arrive at an empirical truth, an approach more common to politics and reminiscent of social constructionism is used. The attempt to approach astrophysics in the way one would approach politics can play a part in explaining the prevalence of this conspiracy theory.

Truth in Physics[edit | edit source]

Physics is a science that "deals with the structure of matter and the interactions between fundamental constituents of the observable universe".[3] Therefore, by using this definition, we can say that there exists an absolute truth, otherwise known as reality, which physics strives to help us understand. Through the use of the scientific method, physicists have been able to draw conclusions derived from rigorous testing and scepticism, making these conclusions empirical and reliable. As a result, the “truth” in a scientific context can be seen as the most accurate representation of reality that has been achieved. Furthermore, the “truth” within physics also has a social aspect to it. Physics as a discipline is constructed by the society of physicists and the “truth” can also be seen as the model which is most widely accepted in that community. Every advancement suggests that physics is getting closer and closer to the truth in its purest form[4] and the exhaustive lengths physicists take to make the data as accurate as possible reflects this.

The pseudoscience behind the flat earth theory is based on rudimentary pieces of evidence that display a limited knowledge of physics and have been easily debunked by the scientific community. This can be seen in one of the main supporting arguments of the flat earth theory. Pictures that show skylines beyond the horizon line[5] are consistently used by flat earthers to justify their reasoning. However, these images are mirages, explained by the refraction of light. The air directly above the surface of the water has a higher refractive index than the warmer air above it, causing the rays of light to bend downwards towards our eyes. Meanwhile, we assume that the rays of light have travelled in a straight line, creating a superior mirage where the object appears higher than it actually is[2].

On the other hand, the proof that the earth is indeed round is overwhelming. Basic mathematical principles such as that of Newton’s law and the angle of incidence allow us to deduce the curvature of the earth[6]. Moreover, Foucault’s Pendulum, which is attached to a motionless point, changes its direction of oscillation over the course of a day, as the earth rotates beneath it[7], proving that the earth is a rotating sphere rather than a flat disc.

Truth in Politics[edit | edit source]

Political science is subjective and the concept of truth lies in its relativism. There is no guaranteed correct answer, rather Politics hinges on people's perceptions. Zerilli questioned if there even is truth in politics [8]. It is impossible to find the truth via experimental means to the highest standards due to ethical and practical constraints. Therefore, the data derived from these experiments are less conclusive. Often, the political frame of mind fails to appreciate the depth of rigorous testing of truth physics allows and requires, leading to false conclusions such as flat Earth.

Politics as a discipline aims to scrutinise power structures. Flat Earthers’ radical rejection of mainstream academia is often a political act. Often, flat Earthers disagree with many outcomes of academic research[9]. Any political system or belief is a compromise in which one must decide which outcomes are more or less important: for instance, one might argue safety is more important than personal freedom to support their gun control stance. Flat Earthism becomes a part of such a compromise, whereby the parts of academia which do not fit into the individual’s political system are important enough that entirely rejecting the institution of academia becomes necessary. This rejection results in a denial of academia’s findings, such as basic astrophysics.

Conflicts About Truth[edit | edit source]

Physics, ideally, looks at data with an impartial eye and values negative and positive outcomes equally, thus drawing a conclusion as a logical extension of the data. On the other hand, Politics often deals with parties of opposing views, so the author often uses evidence to convince rather than to investigate, affecting how truth is perceived. The work often has a clear bias[10]. Therefore, a lot of "amateur science" fall into the trap of conducting studies to convince. Flat Earthers' experiments often attempt to prove that their theory is correct rather than to investigate the question at hand. The experiment becomes a rhetorical tool rather than one of inquiry.

Physics as a field has a clearer progression of truth than Politics and this creates tension between the disciplines. In Physics, the shape of the Earth was derived from empirical and numerical proof, so the topic is no longer contested within mainstream academia. The field of astrophysics can move on to other issues[11]. In Politics, according to its subjective nature, an idea can never be truly proven right. Even if a theory has developed in great detail, its roots can still be challenged and debated, for instance, the current Western system of capitalism is still often disputed[12]. Additionally, the field of Politics is adaptive to its surroundings, such as levels of technology, which are liable to change, causing a shift in what the “optimal” political system is at the time[13]. Thus, nothing in Politics is ever as certain as the curvature of the Earth is in Physics (where the sort of research that would be required to put the shape of the earth in question is improbable). By looking at the work in astrophysics from a political lens, this means that the certainty in the Earth's curvature seems like the result of whoever must be in charge rather than of the scientific consensus.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Using flat Earth as an example, we can acknowledge the objective and subjective views about truth within Physics and Politics. The misapplication of a discipline such as Politics to astrophysics results in tension, and leads many to form incorrect conclusions. Understanding this can be useful in finding approaches to dispelling conspiracy theories.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Wolchover N. Are Flat-Earthers Being Serious?. [Internet]. 2017 [cited 2020 Dec 11] Available from:
  2. a b Brazil R. Fighting flat-Earth theory [Internet]. 2020 [cited 2020 Dec 12]. Available from:
  3. Brown L. Physics [Internet]. 2020 [cited 2020 Dec 6]. Available from:
  4. Schmidt PF. Truth in Physics. American Journal of Physics. 1960 Jan; 28(1):24–32. Available from:
  5. Cornwell S.[Internet]. 2020 [cited 2020 Dec 13]. Available from:
  6. Břízová L, Gerbec K, Šauer J, Šlégr J. Flat Earth theory: an exercise in critical thinking. Physics Education. 2018 May 17; 53(4):045014. Available from:
  7. Errico A. [Internet]. 2020 [cited 2020 Dec 13]. Available from:'s,experiment%20demonstrating%20the%20Earth's%20rotation.
  8. Zerilli L. Truth and Politics. Theory & Event. 2006; 9(4). Available from:
  9. Steve M. Flat Earthers: What They Believe and Why [Internet]. 2020 [cited 2020 Dec 13]. Available from:
  10. Bromwich D. A Brief History of the Political Essay. 2020 [cited 2020 Dec 13]. Available from:
  11. National Research Council. Conclusions and Recommendations. In: Irwin F and Paul CS, editors. A Strategy for Assessing Science [Internet]. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press; 2006. p. 124-136. Available from:
  13. Farrands C, Talalay M, Tooze R. Technology, culture, and competitiveness: Change and the world political economy. 1st ed. London: Psychology Press; 1997.