The final rays of sunlight fell on Nassau Street as a crowd gathered around a lone man. David Hicks — a hardcore atheist-turned-born-again Christian — preached the gospel of the Flat Earth to anyone who listened.
“Right now, I’m trying to have people understand their beliefs can sometimes be false,” Hicks said in an interview. Mirages over Lake Michigan, the stars’ fixed positions, and polar ice walls are all evidence of the Earth’s flatness. To him, it’s plane and simple. This wasn’t his first time visiting Princeton, and it likely won’t be his last.
In the 10 minutes that I talked to Hicks, I found it difficult to believe his story. When asked about his religion, he didn’t know to which denomination of Christianity he belonged and struggled to cite specific Bible verses that supported the Flat Earth model. But I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt on the Christian-identity front. Regardless, Flat Earth arguments are scientifically false, and their proponents’ overwhelming skepticism is unjustified.
Humans have known about the Earth’s sphericity since Antiquity. Greco-Roman scholar Claudius Ptolemy compiled a curved map of Eurasia in “Geographia” around 150 A.D. A printed copy of it from 1482 is in Firestone Library. I’ve seen it, and his cartographic calculations are remarkably accurate given his archaic technology. Likewise, there have been plenty of studies in the following two millennia that confirmed the planet’s three dimensional nature.
I won’t directly refute Hicks’ objections to a spherical Earth. That would be unproductive because other people have already done so.
But I will address one underlying principle. Flat Earthers set an unreasonably high standard of evidence for proving anything. They dismiss pictures from space as part of an elaborate NASA-led conspiracy, and they allege the use of physics theories for evidence doesn’t count unless they can be derived on the spot, which is beyond a layman’s mathematical skills.
Hicks told one passerby, “I don’t trust people any longer. I trust my senses.” Similarly, in response to a student’s opposition to his logic, he asserted, “I no longer believe what I used to believe.”
Oh really? I don’t buy that. I doubt that he chemically tests the gasoline in his car to ascertain its octane rating. I doubt that he questions the source of the electrical currents that course through every building. And I doubt that he navigates with a sextant on the New Jersey Turnpike instead of a GPS.
None of these things are observable with the senses alone. Unless a person lives under a rock, it’s impossible to function in the modern world without vesting some modicum of blind trust in scientists’ work. Becoming skeptical of science that conflicts with religious dogma or YouTube conspiracy theories — while accepting it in other contexts — is arbitrary and hypocritical.
When Hicks entered Christianity after learning about the Flat Earth model, he said the Bible, “spoke about the Flat Earth, and it has many verses that describe that. It resonated with me.” Most Christians reject this interpretation. Even the most ardent Biblical literalist organization — Answers in Genesis — considers the Flat Earth theory absurd. The ministry’s astronomer states, “Clearly, the Bible does not teach that the earth is flat. It was Bible skeptics who introduced this false claim in the 19th century.”
As our conversation came full circle, Hicks closed by noting, “[People] call it a horizon. When you look over the horizon, that’s horizontal. They don’t call it a curvrizon.”
Actually, “horizon” is a bit of a curve ball. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word originates from the ancient Greek word “ὁρίζων” — meaning “the bounding circle.” This word is derived from “ὁρίζω” and “κύκλος,” which roughly translate to “I mark out a boundary” and “circle, sphere,” respectively.
Hicks and other globe deniers are probably nice, regular people who mean well. But they have been duped. The spherical Earth concept isn’t a flat-out lie. There’s no way around that.
Liam O’Connor is a junior from Wyoming, Del. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.