To understand Flat Earth theory, you need to recognize one key fact: people lie. And I’m not talking about the Flat Earthers.
Flat Earthers are not all insane, nor are they all ignorant. They are, for the most part, very self-confident people who are, as are most conspiracy theorists, convinced of their own inherent superiority. Not to everyone, mind, but superiority to the average person.
They have seen evidence… concrete evidence… that the Earth is flat. Meanwhile, they have been repeatedly told by people that they are wrong. The majority of these people are those who hold views they find as woefully myopic and ignorant. They have developed some small level of expertise in a few fields and now hold in disregard those who do not show at least some level of expertise in a field they view as worthwhile. As an example, a Flat Earther may have interest in the stock market or ; those who do not at least know of 17-year cycle theory (whether they agree with it or not) will be shunted to the “ignore” category unless they can demonstrate an overwhelming knowledge in another field that strikes the FE’ers fancy.
By limiting the circle of people they would consider to be their intellectual peers, they insulate themselves from all criticism and ridicule. Anyone outside of that circle is just making noise, speaking to the air.
Their views are bolstered by shifting scientific theory and occasional outright fraud committed in the name of science. It’s bad enough when we’re told that Brontosauruses never existed or that Pluto is no longer a planet, only to have those “certainties” reversed (maybe) upon closer examination. It’s worse when we learn that acid rain was only a threat to a areas upwind of particularly polluting factories such as the Black Triangle or the zone north of Pittsburgh and Eastern Ohio. It’s absolutely terrible when we learn that the theory taught for a century to explain how airplane wings produce lift is, and always was, almost completely wrong. Or when they see the praise heaped by “leading scientists” upon An Inconvenient Truth only to have its most immediate warnings demonstrably not come true.
It becomes very, very easy to disbelieve “science”, when one chain of logic is extended: “Science is explained by scientists”; “Scientists lie”; “You can’t trust “science”.” For some, this is as far as it needs to go; many of those are apt to use religion to fill the void in worldly explanations. For the others, there is an extension; “You can’t trust “science” that you haven’t done.”
Now, keep in mind: to a Flat Earther, the astronauts are liars who are in on the scam to make money and gain popularity; bringing them out to “prove” something is a non-starter. Likewise, most astronomers and similar people whose livelihood depends, at least in part, on the earth being spherical. Take it from this perspective: if someone who would immediately be rendered penniless and humiliated if the world were proven to be flat is the person making the argument for a spherical world, they are not going to be believed.
Likewise, the smugly superior denunciations of Flat Earthers by the commenters in the Youtube videos and online magazine articles do nothing but bolster the Flat Earther’s sense of supremacy as the scan the people with pop culture avatars and no concept of language arts chattering what is perceived as their mindless boosterism of scammers.
It’s not that they’re not hearing the “proofs”. It’s that they’re dismissing the arguments because of the people presenting them. It’s also why they’re willing to accept proofs such as the “airplane spirit level” argument presented by “intellectually curious” and “realists” who present themselves as reasonable normal people.
As with all such arguments, there are ample scientific explanations to debunk it, bringing into play concepts such as gradual shifts, relative distance, relative curvature, motion within an accelerating object and more. The interplay of forces upon each other seems to be the simplest things imaginable… throw a ball from point A to point B. It’s the energy you impart to the ball during the throw which determines where it lands… except it isn’t. There are also rotational forces upon the ball, gravity, and the motion of the wind. Then, when even more specificity is introduced, such forces as the energy transferred to the ball by light, the gravitational attraction from other objects around it, and even internal molecular forces within the ball. At a certain point they are small enough to be mathematically negligible, but they’re still there… which is why Physics gets to be its own branch of science.
The spirit level test is an example of this sort of event. Like the throwing of a ball, it appears simple. When a serious examination of the event is undertaken, it becomes complex.
Astute readers will notice I have not debunked a single thing about Flat Earth theory as yet. I’m not going to. If people want me to do a column just debunking Flat Earth on a scientific basis, I will… but as mentioned above, there are hundreds of those available, and most people know at least one or two practical examples.
In order to actually debunk Flat Earth theory for the people who take it seriously, they have to come to that conclusion independent of the people who demand they conform to the consensus “belief.” The only way to do so is to approach them as someone worthy of their respect, who can then encourage them to prove it to themselves.