Examining Flat Earth Believers

Apr 19, 2019

Texas Tech graduate student Alex Olshansky was looking for a study topic in late 2017. He says he knew he was interested in science and how it conflicts with religion. In the news then were stories about people who believe the Earth is flat. After a few Google searches he settled on his topic.

“The purpose of the study is to understand why certain people deny clear science. There’s a reason that a topic like the shape of the Earth is coming up again and there’s a motivation to believe these certain things, and to understand why certain people believe certain things like they do, and why they’re motivated to believe these certain things helps prevent these types of science denial, and helps inform ways of better communicating these types of things to the public,” Olshansky says.

Olshansky’s study utilized feedback from recorded interviews with people who attended flat earth conferences in 2017 and 2018. He also did an online survey.

He says YouTube videos purporting to show proof that the Earth is flat first appeared on the platform in 2011. By 2014, more people were watching, creating the movement seen today. Several types of arguments can be found in videos.

“The YouTube videos usually have conspiracy-based arguments, or religious-based arguments, or science-based arguments. Most people seem to be persuaded—not persuaded to believe in Flat Earth—but persuaded just to start questioning everything they’ve been told by the science-based arguments, because they seem more convincing.”

According to a poll done last year by Yougov.com, 2 percent of Americans, or about 6.5 million people, resolutely say the Earth is flat. Eighty four percent believe the Earth is round, while at least 5 percent say they used to believe that but now have doubts.

Olshansky, who is now working on his doctorate and whose research areas include misinformation, conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, and fake science news, says those in the science communications field know it’s challenging to respond to those who believe the Earth is flat.

“What we’re doing is calling on more scientists and science advocates to create their own YouTube videos to kind of fight misinformation with good information and produce videos that answer most of the questions that flat earthers pose in their videos—not in a debunking or dismissive way, more just to show them that we can answer these questions that they have. Most of the time they claim that science can’t answer this, or science hasn’t answered this. But we have.”

Olshansky says people who believe the Earth is round initially would have a lot of cognitive dissonance if they watched some of the YouTube videos. Other grad students at Tech have told him they’ve viewed some of them.

“It made them question everything that they’ve been told because if you’re not familiar with most of the science that they talk about, it can seem legit. It can seem like they have good understanding of what they’re talking about because they sound confident in what they’re saying, and the way that they spout off so many facts at you, it doesn’t allow you to stop and think maybe that one wasn’t true before they’ve already given you like three more arguments. That’s kind of how their videos work,” he explains.

He says most religious people do not believe the Earth is flat. Same with most Biblical literalists.

“There’s Biblical literalists in the wider bunch, but then you have a subset who are also conspiracy minded and it’s there where you’re going to find most flat earthers.

Olshansky says it isn’t a lack of critical thinking that leads people to believe the Earth is flat.

“They think that they’re scientists in a more truer way. That they’re hands-on instead of dealing with theory and stuff. I would say it’s, instead of a lack of critical thinking, it’s more of a motivation to think in a certain way and to come to conclusions that fit with their pre-held world views.”

Olshansky hopes to get his paper published in a peer-reviewed journal. It’s currently published at the Texas Tech Library.