According to Mike Hughes, who recently canceled his plans to launch himself 1,800 feet high in a homemade scrap metal rocket to prove the Earth is flat, "There’s no difference between science and science fiction." It may shock you to find out Hughes' suspicion the Earth is flat is not one unique to him — but then again, you may not be surprised, considering the flat-Earth movement appears to be growing in popularity, as shown by data from Google Trends. According to the Economist, Google searches for "flat earth" have more than tripled in the past two years. So... there's that.
Now, this could indicate a rise in interest from people who believe in the flat Earth theory, but it's almost certain that the numbers are also increasing because more folks are hearing that flat-earthers are a thing. If you've not yet been exposed to this particular conspiracy theory, it's basically what it says on the tin. Though there are some variations in beliefs, as is the case with all conspiracy theories, most flat-earthers believe this: The Earth is not a globe; instead it is a "disc with the Arctic Circle in the center and Antarctica, a 150-foot-tall wall of ice, around the rim," according to Live Science. In addition, "NASA employees, they say, guard this ice wall to prevent people from climbing over and falling off the disc." So.
The flat-Earth theory is like many others in that the belief in flat Earth is also mixed with a healthy dose of suspicion and distrust of the government. In fact, many flat-earthers believe NASA, in conjunction with powerful governments, purposefully perpetuates the round Earth lie. What exactly NASA and governments will obtain from convincing people the Earth is a globe has not yet been determined.
There are mounds of evidence to prove Earth is indeed a globe, but the reason it is so hard to debate with or to communicate these facts at all to flat-earthers is because they believe scientific facts are lies made up by people with agendas. For those who do not believe the conspiracies, the truly frustrating thing is that the conspiracies are literally impossible to disprove. A probable contributor to the number of flat-earth Google searches is a February 2017 interview with Cleveland Cavaliers player Kyrie Irving, where he explained his flat-earth beliefs by saying, "I've seen a lot of things that my educational system said was real and turned out to be completely fake."
"Simply rebutting conspiracy theories may make adherents even more entrenched in their views. (If “they” are so keen to deny it, it must be true!)," the Economist explained. "Absence of evidence is taken as evidence of a fiendishly effective cover-up. Some conspiracy theories are irrefutable — the American government cannot prove, for example, that it is not storing dead aliens in a secret underground laboratory," à la the X-Files.
Everything that suggests the Earth is round is rejected by flat-earthers. Many do not believe gravity is real; many believe photos of Earth showing its globe shape are photoshopped; "GPS devices are rigged to make airplane pilots think they are flying in straight lines around a sphere when they are actually flying in circles above a disc," wrote Live Science.
The flat-earth theory is closely related to the moon landing conspiracy theory. Most folks who believe we — as in any of us, humanity entire — never reached space, much less landed on the moon, also believe space programs across the globe are hoaxes. They believe the Apollo 11 moon landing was performed and filmed on a sound stage.
If all of this sounds ludicrous to you, the Economist offers an explanation as to why people may be so willing to buy into conspiracy theories: "Conspiracy theories are appealing because they offer simple explanations for complex phenomena, or because they let people believe they are in possession of secret knowledge that the powerful wish to suppress." They tend to be most popular among less-educated people who do not trust institutions, the Economist added.
Whether or not Hughes ends up getting himself into the air and seeing a round Earth (hint: he won't, because he won't be high enough), he has spent at least $20,000 on an endeavor you can complete with a few sticks, Nottingham Trent University lecturer Ian Whittaker explained in an article for The Conversation.
"One of the best documented methods for determining the Earth’s roundness was first performed (to our knowledge) by the ancient Greeks," Whittaker wrote. "This was achieved by comparing the shadows of sticks in different locations. When the sun was directly overhead in one place, the stick there cast no shadow. At the same time in a city around 500 miles north, the stick there did cast a shadow. If the Earth were flat then both sticks should show the same shadow (or lack of) because they would be positioned at the same angle towards the sun."
This method seems logical, scientifically sound, and generally irrefutable, but then again, that could just be what NASA wants me to believe.