by Abid Iqbal Choon
In this modern age of science and technology, it would be absurd not to think that everyone knows and believes that the Earth’s shape is not flat, but is that of a sphere (well not exactly, to be pedantic, Earth’s exact shape is called an Oblate Spheroid.) This means that the Earth is a sphere, but has slightly flattened poles and a slightly bulging equator.
This rising (and worrying) trend of Flat Earth societies across the globe (see what I did there) is not a recent thing. It has started since 2 centuries ago or even longer. Modern flat Earth hypotheses can be traced back to an English writer named Samuel Rowbotham in the 19th century. Since then, the Flat Earth movement has been mostly predominant in the United States. What is surprising is that this ideology has entered into our beloved homeland, Malaysia.
Back then, even though our society was still premature and generally was not science literate, Flat Earth movement was not heard of or at least it was not as popular nowadays in Malaysia. This is alarming because Malaysia, aiming to be a developed country in 2020, is falling prey to pseudoscience. Pseudoscience which includes, but is not limited to MLM (Multi-level marketing) products, anti-vaccine notions and of course not forgetting the hero of today’s story, Flat Earth hypothesis
(I am reluctant to call it FE theory because it has no scientific basis whatsoever to be quantified as a scientific theory).
One of the most popular, if not the most predominant Flat Earth movement in Malaysia is taking place in our sanctuary from real life, Facebook. The page “Bumi Bukan Sfera” (lit. Earth is not a sphere) has 10,000 likes and is projected to keep growing at this rate. The primary reason for this is religion. Malaysia’s religion of federation (as it is in the Constitution) is Islam. About 60% of Malaysia’s population today are Malay-Muslims. Similarly, in contrast to their parallel in the United States, the FE movement there is mostly influenced by religion (Christianity).
From my understanding of Islam, certain verses in the Quran are cherry-picked (which is a fallacy) and read literally by these people to justify their beliefs of Flat Earth. These literally vague verses, are often wrongly misinterpreted as saying the Earth is flat. For example, one of the most quoted verses to justify this stance would be in 79:30, “And after that He spread the Earth.” The word “spread” here is argued to imply that the Earth is flat. Speaking from a linguistic perspective, it does not necessarily mean the Earth is flat since it can be interpreted in a more metaphorical way. Some might suggest the term “spread” here is referring to the Continental Drift. Whereas in Islamic tradition, only a qualified scholar can interpret the Quran, and the verses in the Quran sometimes can be interpreted literally or metaphorically, depending on the context. Moreover, most of the time, especially modern scholars of Islam, acknowledge the current scientific position about Earth’s shape due to the overwhelming evidence that we have today. Even if there are certain fundamentalists that truly believe the Quran says the Earth is flat, their views are that of a minority and since there is a consensus within the scholars about the Earth’s shape is spherical in relation to the verses in the Quran, these minority’s view is not representative of Islam per se. Basically, these people are either genuinely confused with their own logic and misunderstand their religion in regards to it, or for whatever dogmatic reason, they believe in the Flat Earth hypothesis, and are just abusing the religion for their own goals.
Also, the conspiracy theorist psychology, which is frequently mixed up
together with religion as well. One of the most mind-boggling things about these people is how hardcore their line of thinking is skewed towards conspiracies (A.K.A “everyone’s out there to get me or us” mindset). As absurd as it may sound, these people do believe that NASA, the government and the “Illuminati” are in control of this world and the science that is introduced and promoted to us (such as climate change, vaccines, moon landing and Earth’s shape) are nothing more than just a gimmick to ‘brainwash’ us (because some
religions thinks we are currently in the End Times.) Ever heard of the “Blame the Jews” notion from some of the ignorant people here in Malaysia? This mindset essentially stems from ignorance and their inability to accept their own faults while wanting to shift the blame to a third irrelevant party. Interestingly enough, there is a research study done by Dr David Grimes from Oxford University, explaining with a mathematical equation that he devised, it is shown that conspiracy theories are ‘prone to unraveling’. He applied his equation to four major conspiracy theories: Moon landing was a hoax, climate change is not real, the belief that vaccines cause autism and pharmaceutical companies actually have the cureor cancer but are just hiding it. These conspiracy theories would have been exposed within 3 to 34 years by the study.  If Earth’s photo by NASA is just photoshopped and they faked the moon landing, it would have been exposed by now.
Moving on, the next factor is probably education. Most of the people who believe in the FE hypothesis, are not from a science education background. Whenever they read something online, and especially scientific information, they have no ability to dissect and discern whether what they read is actually scientific or not. For example, Flat-Earthers claim that the Earth is flat because roads are built flat. If the Earth is spherical in shape, surely, there is a need to consider the curvature of the Earth right? However, since roads are built flat, they conclude, therefore the Earth is flat. “Checkmate!”, they claim. In reality, there is no need to consider the curvature of the Earth because it is too small and is negligible. The error is so small that if we built a road that went all the way around the Earth by using a one-mile-long baseline, the total error would only be about 32 cm.
Before ending the article, let’s discuss one more argument from the Flat-Earthers. “Where is the curvature?” By using photos taken at a high level from the Earth with a flat horizon, it is claimed that that is the proof the Earth is flat because if the Earth is spherical in shape, the curvature of the Earth would be seen. Whereas in actuality, we will never see the horizon to be curved. The reason is our size as humans are just too insignificant compared to the colossal size of the Earth. Think about it like this, imagine that you are a bacterium. If you were to be on a basketball, there is no way you can feel that you are on a spherical object since the ratio of our size to the curvature length is insignificant, making it seem like we are on a flat surface. Here comes the funny part, the fact that there is a horizon, proves that the Earth is not flat because if the Earth was flat, by using a sufficiently powerful telescope, the edges of the Earth where Flat-Earthers claim are bounded by an “Ice Wall”, should be able to be observed. (which we know, isn’t the case)
All in all, it is impossible to fully disprove Flat earth hypothesis because there will always be an ad-hoc explanation for each situation even if we know they are flatly wrong. Why? The fact that satellites needs to be calibrated in relative to the Earth’s rotation, snipers have to compensate long range firing due to the Coriolis and Eötvös effect (proves the Earth is rotating), ships are disappearing over the sea’s horizon, the existence of time zones, observable gravity effects of the Earth, photos of Earth from space, flight routes taking great circle distances into account, the moon appears upside down in the Southern Hemisphere compared to the Northern hemisphere just means that the Flat Earth hypothesis is not even plausible to begin with.