How to Win an Argument With Flat Earth Conspiracy Theorists
It's expert vs "expert" in our guide to arguing with even the staunchest Flat Earther to ever walk our round-as-hell planet.
The planet Earth is curvy and proud. Photo via Flickr
The other day I saw a story in my feed about how Mark Zuckerberg was all fired up and ready to block all Flat Earth content from the social media site. Sadly, the whole thing was some more of that fake news Facebook is trying so hard to scrub from the internet.
It's too bad because I am sick of the whole Flat Earth thing. Earlier this month, I interviewed a local Flat Earther for a story on how big the whole conspiracy theory is here in Indonesia. So, of course, the article sent the comments section of our Facebook page off on a weeks-long argument between the Flat Earthers and those who believed in the regular old round Earth.
The whole argument is a bunch of nonsense, but I couldn't help but think I had to do something. It was my article that set this whole thing off, after all. Well look, not everyone out there has the patience to deal with the whole Indonesian Flat Earth fringe. And even less people have the time to look up all the evidence to counter their claims.
But I do. Especially when I'm being paid for to do it. I called up Thomas Djamaluddin, the head of the National Institute of Aeronautics and Space (LAPAN), to ask him what he thought of the whole Flat Earth thing. LAPAN is basically the Indonesian NASA. We never went to the moon or sent a man into outer space, but we still built a fair amount of satellites. So, of course, Thomas knows a lot about space. But does he know if the Earth is actually round?
"Flat Earth has no scientific elements in it whatsoever," Thomas told me. "They just took a bunch of terms from all over the place and hilariously connected them to Flat Earth theories. That's not the framework of scientific thinking."
I also called up David Lawrence, a former British Airways engineer, and the dad of our own Iyas Lawrence, to ask him about all the aeronautical "evidence" Flat Earthers like to use so much.
So now, the next time you see one of the following arguments on Facebook, you can just share this story and call bullshit on the whole thing.
Claim: Gravity is a hoax. What we think is gravity is actually the buoyancy of objects of different mass interacting with each other.
Truth: Gravity is real. An object's gravity depends on its mass, explained Thomas. That's why rocks don't have their own gravity, but asteroids do. Rocks are tiny and on Earth (a place with its own gravity). Asteroids are like rocks too, but they are humungous and out there in space.
"Gravity happens because of the mass of an object," Thomas told me.
Still not convinced? Then think about this: when you weaken the effects of gravity (i.e. in space), objects of different mass float.
Claim: Antarctica isn't a continent. It's a giant wall of ice surrounding the flat disk Earth.
Truth: Antarctica is real. Flat Earthers say no one has ever crossed the whole continent before. Except they have. And they still do. All the time. To believe otherwise or get wrapped up in whether these incredibly brave explorers crossed the continent in a straight line is just total nonsense. Has anyone ever crossed Indonesia in a perfectly straight line before? Does anyone doubt that it exists?
Thomas thought the argument was equally ridiculous.
"I don't need to respond to this one," Thomas said. "There is so much evidence out there of explorations, videos, and photos to prove the continent exists. Reconstructed satellite data on Google Earth is the most-simple evidence out confirming the existence of Antarctica."
Claim: If the Earth is actually round, then how come when a boat goes over the horizon, it is still visible through a telescope? Why didn't it disappear over the curve of the Earth?
Truth: Because the Earth is crazy big. You really think our naked eyes can see the curvature of the Earth from the ground? We are tiny little creatures on a massive planet, a planet so big that takes 20-something hours to get to the other side of the world in a plane traveling at like 900 kilometers-an-hour.
If you want to actually see the curvature of the Earth, you need to go up, and I mean way up. A normal flight isn't enough. And you won't be able to see the curvature of the Earth on that Jakarta-to-Singapore flight. You need to be on a long-haul, super-specialized flight. Passengers used to be able to sort of see the curvature of the Earth aboard Concorde flights. Don't believe me? Here's proof. Why? Because the distance of the horizon depends on our height relative to the ground. The higher up you go, the farther out your eyes can see.
So what's up with the horizon line? The human eye isn't all that great, explained Thomas. It often plays tricks on you. Rainbows aren't really curved arches, and boats don't disappear over the horizon to reappear through a zoom lens. Your eye stops seeing the boat long before the ship actually sinks over the curve of the Earth. When you zoom all the way in and see the ship again, all you need to do is wait. And then guess what happens? The boat sinks over the horizon.
Claim: An eclipse happens when the transparent, or sky-colored x-moon crosses in front of the sun or moon.
Truth: The x-moon? Are you kidding me? Look, the x-moon isn't real and eclipses happen because of the exact reasons Flat Earthers refuse to believe are true. How do we know? Because we know a lot about our own solar system. So much that we can mathematically predict the next eclipse.
"The dates of the eclipses happening between 2011 and 2020 all exist, and the calculations regarding the date, time, and location of the eclipse you could see from Indonesia on 9 March 2016 were all proven correct," Thomas said.
It takes some complicated math to calculate the next eclipse. But thankfully NASA put a calculator online that allows anyone to easily figure out when and where the next eclipse will happen. That's a hell of a lot more than Flat Earthers can provide.
"Can Flat Earthers mathematically predict this x-moon eclipse?" Thomas said.
Claim: The Earth is flat because bridges don't look curvy from the sky.
Truth: Again, whoever makes this argument thinks the Earth is way smaller than it really is. Look, the radius of the Earth is about 6,300 kilometers long. So lets simplify that and reduce it to 63 meters, roughly half the length of a football pitch. If that's the entire Earth, then the world's longest bridge is only about 2 centimeters long Thomas explained. Now imagine that you were able to lift up that 63-meters of grass and form it into a ball. Would the 2-centimeter-long bridge curve too? Nope. It's just too damn small.
Claim: Satellites don't orbit the Earth. They can't even leave the atmosphere.
Truth: So LAPAN actually makes satellites and gets them launched into space. So this is sort of Thomas' field of expertise. But to tackle this claim, you need to break it into two parts, 1) the stuff about satellites not leaving the atmosphere and 2) the stuff about satellites not orbiting the Earth.
1) The Earth's "atmosphere" actually extends pretty far into space. The last layer of our atmosphere starts about 500 kilometers up. But this layer—dubbed the exosphere—is 10,000 kilometers thick. It's where the atmosphere of Earth slowly transitions into real "outer space."
That means, that in some regards, part of this statement is true. Satellites and the International Space Station (ISS) are lower down and therefore still technically in Earth's atmosphere. But that doesn't mean they can't leave the Earth's atmosphere, or that the atmosphere is actually what Flat Earthers think it is. FYI: We left the exosphere behind when we went to the Moon. And satellites leave it all the time when they head out to other planets.
2) Not all satellites orbit the Earth. Plenty do, but certain orbits, called geostationary orbits, actually don't orbit the Earth at all. But this only happens at very specific altitudes, and on the equator. It requires getting a satellite into an orbit that matches the Earth's rotation exactly. So from our perspective, it doesn't appear to move at all (even though it actually is). LAPAN actually has a satellite in geostationary orbit called the A2/Orari. And Japan's Himawari satellite is out there above Kalimantan.
Claim: All NASA photos of the Earth and other planets are fake.
Truth: We've been taking photos of the Earth from space well before anyone had the capability to make a realistic CGI image of a planet.
"Satellites have been around since the 1950s," Thomas said. "But it wasn't until the 1970s that we were able to take photos from space."
Well that's not entirely true. NASA was able to take images of the Earth from space back in the late 1940s by mounting cameras to rockets and shooting them into the sky. But those images only captured part of the planet—they just weren't high enough— and they were in grainy black and white.
Claim: The Earth is flat because pilots don't need to constantly dip the nose of their plane down to follow the curvature of the planet.
Truth: Flat Earthers like to point to a calculation that says that if you're traveling in a straight line, you will rise in altitude eight inches for every mile you travel. But this argument only convinces people who don't understand how air travel actually works.
"A plane doesn't fly for one mile and need the pilot to dive eight inches to follow the Earth's curvature," Lawrence said. "That's ridiculous. We already got the instruments like the altimeter and a system that calculates everything."
Pilots in the cockpit of any commercial airline aren't up there doing the entire flight by hand. There is an entire cockpit of technical instruments adjusting a plane's course and heading automatically. It's called an auto-pilot. The entire flight, the auto-pilot, or the pilot themselves, is making near-constant corrections and adjustments to maintain course and altitude. But these adjustments are so small that most people don't even notice.
And planes don't fly in straight lines. They fly at a set altitude and hold that based on barometric pressure outside the cabin. What you think is a straight line is a course based on barometric pressure, and since air pressure depends on altitude, it too follows the curve of the Earth.
If the Flat Earth argument was correct, then a plane would eventually leave the Earth if it flew far enough. But things don't work that way. It takes a tremendous amount of speed to break free of the Earth's gravity—11.2 kilometers per-second. That's 33 times the speed of sound. You ever hear a plane break the sound barrier on a trip overseas? Thought not.
Claim: Nothing can leave the Flat Earth's dome. Rockets that are launched into space actually level off and fly parallel to the Earth before crashing into the sea. They never actually go anywhere.
Truth: I mentioned this to Lawrence, and he just started laughing. Thomas said that, if anything, this claim is proof that gravity exists.
A rocket flies on a curved flight path because it's conserving fuel for the long trip into orbit. It would take a lot of thrust—and fuel— to launch straight up. Instead, rockets launch straight up until the air thins out—and air resistance drops—and they then adjust with a maneuver called a "gravity turn" to fly out toward the desired altitude. Why? Because rockets aren't trying to launch out into outer space. They're trying to get into Earth's orbit, which is a lot lower than most people think. Even satellites destined for other planets first enter the Earth's orbit so they can conserve fuel and build up the speed needed to break away from the Earth's gravity.
Anything above 160 kilometers will sort of stay in orbit, Thomas said. But at that height, these objects need their orbits adjusted to compensate for atmospheric drag. Anything below that will rapidly drop back to Earth, typically burning up on the way.
"When an object becomes debris and it's floating around in the atmosphere, its height will continue to decrease," he said. "When it gets to 120 kilometers above the Earth, it will be pulled in by the Earth's gravity."
So that curve is real, but the Flat Earther's reason why is totally false.
And that's where we're stopping here. Look there are so many bizarre Flat Earth claims out there. YouTube is full of nonsense videos that claim to prove that the Earth is flat and I don't have the time or energy to refute every single one.
But this list covers most of the big claims Flat Earthers love to trot out as "evidence." And who are you going to believe, actual experts or some guy with iMovie uploading videos to YouTube? I'm siding with the experts. Happy arguing.