Are Flat-Earthers Right?

We often view truth and falsity as a binary choice. When you make a precise statement about the world, it presumably is either true or false. While this may be true, there is an example which made me think twice.

What shape is the world

Throughout history many people, especially those who lived in isolated, landlocked areas thought that the world was flat. I do not think this was that foolish an idea. If you look at the world and you don’t see any ships sailing over the horizon, it seems a little a perverse to imagine it is a sphere. The world looks pretty flat. I suspect that if I lived in, say, ancient Central Asia, I would think the world to be flat.

Yet, it did not take long for people to have different ideas. Plato, although he doesn’t seem to justify this, thought that the world is a sphere. If you get up high, you can see that the world has curvature and you can see ships sail over the horizon. Furthermore, when you see a lunar eclipse, you can guess that the earth is between the sun and the moon. But, there are still lots of ideas you could come to which are all pretty reasonable. Columbus probably thought the world was pear-shaped.

…nearly a sphere?

However, this is not the whole story. Even if you claim that the world is a sphere, you are not quite right. Perhaps using some physics-based ideas, you might guess that the world is more like a slightly-squashed sphere. The equator bulges out slightly. If you do some more fancy measurement, you might find that it is more like this than a perfect sphere.

We can still go further! The world is not smooth. There are valleys and mountains. There are smaller bumps in the surface if we look closer. We can still get closer though. We could set up a vast network of satellites in the sky and record every nook and cranny (more commonly called Google Earth). You might be tempted at this point, perhaps, to say that the Earth is the shape described by Google Earth.

But – I think you can guess where I will go now – we are not quite there. The earth changes, very slightly, shape every second. Beaches erode and tectonic plates shift. No photo or video or static description can be quite right. Also, there is an atomic level detail which is probably impossible to reach. Yet, when I see all these description of the shape of the Earth, something troubles me. I cannot honestly say that they are all just wrong. There are shades of truth there.

The Flat-Earthers may be wrong, but only somewhat.

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