Episode 152 - Modern Flat Earth Thought, Part 3 (Young-Earth Creationists Debunking Flat Earth)
Recap: This podcast show most often focuses on refuting pseudoscience with real science, but it rarely sets out to make a positive case for real science. This episode is one of those rarer ones where I have used an unlikely source - youn-Earth creationists - to explain the case for why Earth is round and not flat.
- References and Resources
- Logical Fallacies / Critical Thinking Terms addressed in this episode: Special pleading, Argument from authority, No True Scotsman
- Relevant Posts on my "Exposing PseudoAstronomy" Blog
Claim: The reason that I thought this would make for an interesting topic is that many people in the past have argued that a literal reading of the Judeo-Christian Bible shows Earth is flat, and therefore that is evidence Earth is flat. Thus, I thought it intriguing that the Creation Ministries International (CMI), one of the largest young-Earth-promoting ministries and based out of Australia, posted a lengthy article on September 13, 2016, entitled, "A flat earth, and other nonsense," with the subtitle, "Dealing with ideas that would not exist were it not for the internet."
Biblical Claims of Evidence for a Flat Earth
People who believe in a flat Earth and get that belief - or at least claim evidence from - the Bible will cite any of a number of different passages, some really grasping at straws, while others seem perhaps a tad more reasonable if one were to interpret them literally.
From what I think is the really-reaching perspective, one could go to any of the numerous passages that state something is rising "up," and some, such as Charles Johnson who was the leader of the Flat Earth Research Society in the 1980s, used that to argue for a flat planet because on a round planet, there is no absolute direction "up," it's all relative from your position on a globe. Therefore, Earth is flat.
From the more reasonable literal interpretations, Isaiah 40:22 is often quoted because it states that god "sits enthroned above the circle of the earth," and the writers specifically did not use the Hebrew word for a sphere.
In other passages, such as Matthew 4:8 and Luke 4:5, the book refers to the devil taking a person to a high mountain and them being able to see all the kingdoms of the world at once. Clearly, on a sphere, you can never see at least 50% of the globe at once, therefore the only way this would be literally possible is if Earth were flat. A similar passage in Daniel 4:10-11 states that a tree was so high it was visible from everywhere on the planet -- only possible if it's flat.
Elsewhere, references to Earth's "four corners" are mentioned, which would only work if Earth were a flat square, or if Earth were a three-dimensional tetrahedron. Considering that "four corners" would disagree with a literal interpretation of Earth being a circle, and flat-Earth proponents think Earth is a flat circle - or a disk several miles thick - this kind of language of four corners is less frequently cited.
But, while most of us reading these may appreciate early Judaic cosmology or even the language for its poetic value and wonder how anyone could possibly interpret this as meaning Earth is flat, Biblical literalists take other passages from the Bible as literally true. For example, God making everything in six literal days, in a completely different order from modern cosmology. Or a literal Noah who was 600 years old and gathered thousands of "kinds" of animals in pairs and took care of them for a year with just his small family helping. This is despite all of modern science saying these ideas are ridiculous, just as ridiculous as the idea of a flat Earth.
And so, I found it interesting that a young-Earth creationist website would tackle this issue and for once, come down on the side of real science.
The CMI article starts out pointing out what several of us who address this claim have: The modern resurgence of the modern flat Earth proponents is very recent, only happening in the last few years. They identify this by pointing out that in 2013, they wrote about the flat Earth myth, and they received zero negative comments. In contrast, their article from two months ago as I record this has had so many people attacking them and claiming Earth is flat that they closed the comments, even though they screen their comments.
They refer to an article they wrote the previous month as to motivation for their new article and the number of flat-Earth responses they got in the comments. The previous article, from August 11, 2016, was, "Isaiah 40:22 and the shape of the earth." This is the one where it says that god looks down at the circle of the planet. To that article, there really aren't that many flat-Earth responses, with only the last one by "Oleg D." in the Ukraine writing, "It's a paid article. [...] If Hebrews didn't saw [sic] any difference between ball and circle, they would use same word [sic]. But they don't. Just look at the horizon. See any curves?"
In their September article, they say, "Most of the influence [of flat-Earth proponents] today is coming from a series of online videos that have been shared widely. These were created by charlatans and, sadly, are deceiving many. Even more sadly, some Christians are being caught up in the hype. It is not our business to warn people about each and every false idea that comes up, but only when the idea directly impinges on a straightforward biblical teaching."
And so their motivation is to say that Earth is not flat because they don't think it's flat and yet other people are using the Bible to say it is flat. And they don't want people to think that the Bible is so silly as to to claim Earth is flat, and therefore people won't believe other things that they do that they say the Bible says.
What I don't like about this article is that they do not go into the Biblical arguments that are made and refute those; instead, they go through science arguments for Earth being a sphere. And, since I haven't yet discussed any of the positive, independent evidence for Earth being a sphere, rather I've only gone through refutations of flat-Earth arguments, this is as good as any reason to talk about this independent evidence.
Positive Evidence for a Sphere: Lunar Eclipse
The first they discuss is lunar eclipses. A lunar eclipse is when Earth passes between the sun and moon, such that Earth's shadow is cast on the moon. A lunar eclipse happens everywhere on Earth that can see the moon at the same time, as opposed to rise and set times which vary by your location. Lunar eclipses also happen regardless of which parts of Earth are facing the moon at any given time. So even if you don't get to see the current lunar eclipse, someone else on the planet does, and it looks mostly the same as the next time you do get to see one.
This is pretty much impossible if Earth were flat. As the CMI article states, "The shadow of the earth, when cast on the moon during a lunar eclipse, is round. [...] But note that lunar eclipses do not always happen when the moon is in the same position in the sky. If the earth were flat, the earth's shadow would not have the same shape when the moon is directly overhead as it would when the moon is closer to the horizon."
And, this is something that ancient peoples did observe, at least as far back as Aristotle, and they used these observations to argue that Earth was round and not flat. In order to argue that this shows a flat planet, you have to do some pretty crazy ad hoc special pleading.
Positive Evidence for a Sphere: Disappearing Objects Beyond the Horizon
The second piece of positive evidence cited in the CMI article is how objects disappear beyond the horizon. They disappear bottom-first, and they reappear top-first. This has long been observed, well back into ancient times, and surviving writings from the Middle Ages used this observation to argue that Earth was not flat.
This was brought up when Jimmy Church interviewed Mark Sargent about his flat Earth claims. Jimmy went on and on about ships disappearing bottom-first and reappearing top-first at the horizon, and how he watched that as a child living in Panama. When confronted with this, Mark's only response was that it was due to optics. He claimed that telescopes bend light and therefore this was simply an artifact of looking through a telescope or binoculars. Jimmy countered that by saying that he was doing this with his unaided eye, he wasn't using a telescope. Mark dodged the question and moved on to something else.
I would play the clip for you, but it's 15-20 minutes long and no one should have to listen to that much of a paranormal radio host arguing with a flat-Earth proponent.
Positive Evidence for a Sphere: Sunlight in Different Places
The next evidence that CMI uses is a group of observations that have to do with sunlight. First, they point out that the sun stays the same size in the sky regardless of where it is, either on the horizon or straight up. Flat Earth proponents claim the sun and moon are flashlights in the sky that have a directional beam that move around above the planet, and therefore get closer to and farther from you. Meaning they would have to change size, but the sun does not, and the moon's size change does not correlate with where it is in the sky.
The next part of this sunlight evidence is that if you live near or visit mountains, you will see sunlight hit the tops of the mountains first, before anywhere else, and they will be the last bits to lose the sun. Similarly, this is hard to explain with a disk Earth as opposed to it being exactly what you would expect if Earth were a globe.
Third are noctilucent clouds, which are high-altitude faint clouds composed of tiny ice crystals. They're several times higher in altitude than normal clouds, and they are not visible during the day, but they are at night. And, they're lit up longer into the twilight and night than lower altitude clouds. This only works if Earth is round and these clouds are high enough that they catch the sun's light that's below the lower clouds' horizon but these higher clouds can see the sun because their horizon line is farther away.
Positive Evidence for a Sphere: Parallax of the Sun and Moon
The next piece of evidence is one that I'll intro by quoting CMI: "One of the worst aspects of the flat-earth claim is that to believe it you also have to deny simple trigonometry. You see, if two people standing at different places on the earth, but a known distance apart, simultaneously measure the angle to the sun (from a theoretical chord drawn through the earth), they get approximately the same answer. Why? Because the sun is so far away that parallax is almost non-existent. It amounts to just over 8'' of angle (0.000407 degrees).
"What happens if the earth is flat and two people try this? Let’s say someone measures the angle to the sun at sunrise. At the exact time someone else on the other side of the world measures it at their sunset. They both get an angle of zero. This means that the sun must be sitting on the earth! In the north-south direction, stars that appear overhead at night to an observer on the equator would appear to be sitting on the ground to an observer at the north pole, and v.v. Yet, both parties would claim those stars are very far above their heads indeed."
The CMI article continues to discuss how we did get the distance to the sun, through the transit of Venus across it in the 1700s and then again in the 1800s, again using very basic trigonometry. To get a flat planet, you pretty much have to deny very basic mathematics that would screw up most of our modern world if it were wrong.
Or, as CMI put it: "Hipparchus [used parallax to measure the distance to the moon] in the 2nd century BC (thus, you could do it too). He was less than 10% off and must have assumed a spherical earth to do the calculations. Today, we know the moon is 384,400 km away. This is not debatable. Or trigonometry is a lie. Like the sun, the moon is also too far away for flat-earth models."
Positive Evidence for a Sphere: Rising and Setting of Stars
CMI's next piece of positive evidence for a globe is time zones. I don't like this one as much because it would also work with a flashlight sun over a disk Earth, even though that's still a pretty much special pleading explanation. But embedded within the time zone argument is again a writing from almost a millennium ago, by John Sacrosbosco:
"That the earth, too, is round is shown thus. The signs and stars do not rise and set the same for all men everywhere but rise and set sooner for those in the east than for those in the west; and of this there is no other cause than the bulge of the earth. Moreover, celestial phenomena evidence that they rise sooner for Orientals than for westerners. For one and the same eclipse of the moon which appears to us in the first hour of the night appears to Orientals about the third hour of the night, which proves that they had night and sunset before we did, of which setting the bulge of the earth is the cause. (Tractatus 1:9)"
Other Arguments CMI Uses
There are several other evidences that CMI uses to show Earth is a globe. Like time zones, I don't like all of their arguments and I think it shows that they haven't listened to quite as many flat Earth proponents as I have.
For example, they use the argument that you see different stars depending on your latitude on Earth. Flat Earth proponents argue this is the case because the stars are very close, and it's simple parallax based on your position on the planet, where the stars I see directly overhead are different than those someone else would see because they are beyond the other person's vanishing point.
Of course, there are lots of problems with this explanation. Like, again parallax works both ways here and if it can show that the sun and moon are really far, ti also shows that stars are really far. So far that stellar parallax wasn't found until the 1800s. And, while this explanation could work for why people in the northern hemisphere see different stars than those in the south, because a flat Earth model has the southern hemisphere all spread out around the periphery of a circle, everyone in the southern hemisphere should see different stars from everyone else in the southern hemisphere! For example, in the disk Earth model, someone in Australia would be required to see something completely different from someone in Argentina because they are on opposite sides of the disk -- that follows from using THEIR reasoning for why someone in the northern hemisphere - or, near the center of the disk - would see something different from someone in the southern.
So, while I don't like this argument that proves Earth is a globe because the Flat Earthers still have sort of a way around it, their way around it still doesn't work.
Another line of evidence CMI uses is circumnavigation of the globe. I don't like this because it's less provable by the average person, and so the Flat Earth proponents often will just claim conspiracy or say that people get lost and didn't actually go where they said they did or spend as long doing it as they say they did.
CMI also talks about astronauts in space, but Flat Earthers have an entire genre of claims that they say refute space travel, so I'm going to save that for another episode. Cynically though, I think it's important to point out this line from CMI: "One astronaut, Col. Jeff Williams has recently returned from his fourth trip to space. Not only has Col. Williams set the record for cumulative days in space (534) but he is also an outspoken Christian!"
They're saying that because someone is an outspoken Christian, there's no way they could be lying about this. Because apparently, if you're religious, you don't lie.
The article goes on to discuss why Earth APPEARS to be flat to the causal observer on the ground, something that I've addressed in previous episodes so I won't get into it here.
CMI ends their article with a conclusion section, and because I can't help it, I have to point out that the very first sentence of their conclusion is a No True Scotsman fallacy: "Every major creationist organization rejects the flat earth idea, and always has."
I say this is a No True Scotsman fallacy because I would argue that many Judeo-Christian creationist organizations have argued Earth is flat, considering that there's no objective metric to say one is a "major creationist organization." In fact, I suspect that some founders of the Flat Earth Society from over a century ago would argue that they were a major creationist organization because they were taking the Bible, as they thought, so literally.
Also, the next sentence says they "are all about science, good observational science." And, two sentences later, "CMI absolutely rejects the theory of evolution." But that's a story for other podcasts.
For my wrap-up to this episode's main segment, I hope that you found this interesting. It's one of the few episodes I've done where I start out to make a positive case for something in science rather than set out to make a negative case for the pseudoscience. The episode where I've done this before that most comes to mind is episode 44, "Independent Evidence the Apollo Moon Landings Were Real." So, it's high time that I do it again.
And, I think it's also important through this episode to show that just because I may disagree with the vast, vast majority of what some people and institutions claim, that does not mean that I reject absolutely everything they say or do just out of spite, or "just 'cause." I think for proper and fair skepticism, you can't just dismiss everything someone claims out of hand on principle, but rather every claim must be examined on its own merit.
I've used arguments that Richard Hoagland has made to prove that the moon doesn't have an atmosphere. Here, I used arguments from young-Earth creationists to show that Earth is not flat. And, as Martha Stewart would say, It's a Good Thing.
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