Neil deGrasse Tyson, perhaps the most famous astrophysicist in the world and a seemingly affable guy, upset teachers and started something of a Twitter frenzy with a tweet blaming U.S. schools for people who believe the world is flat:
The rise of flat-Earthers in society provides some of the best evidence for the failure of our educational system.
— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) July 19, 2017
With this tweet, which had more than 72,000 retweets and more than 188,000 “likes” late Friday afternoon, Tyson was expressing alarm at “flat-Earthers,” people who believe the Earth is flat and who have been able to grab some headlines in recent months as videos insisting the Earth is not a sphere have become popular on social media.
The Daily Mail recently ran a story titled, “Inside the World of flat Earthers,” and the famous former basketball Shaquille O’Neal was in the news a few months ago when he said the Earth was flat — and then later said, “I’m joking, you idiots.” And the Courier just published a story noting that flat-Earthers had posted signs along a highway in Scotland urging people to research the flat Earth.
Flat-Earthers believe NASA is part of a broad conspiracy to fake the evidence of a spherical Earth, and there are societies of people, such as this Flat Earth Society, that produce materials “proving” the conspiracy. For example, this is the description of one of the podcasts available on this group’s website:
In this series we will be dispelling a number of globularist claims. This week we take a look at lunar eclipses in the ball model and using the Parallaxian mind-set put forth by Samuel Rowbotham showing the globe earth theory to be incoherent with observed phenomena.
Tyson’s tweet blames America’s schools — most of which are traditional public schools — for such ignorance, but is that really fair? It is true that science education is not a priority in too many schools, and young people don’t learn anywhere near enough about the world. But a refusal to believe basic science like this suggests something other than minimal or lousy teaching, such as willful ignorance, a rejection of science and/or religious beliefs.
I sought comment from Tyson but didn’t hear back.
It is worth noting, as I wrote here, that the true shape of the Earth has been known since ancient times. Historians say there is no doubt that the educated in Christopher Columbus’s day knew quite well that the Earth was not flat but round — and as early as the sixth century B.C., Pythagoras — and later Aristotle and Euclid — wrote about the Earth as a sphere.
Ptolemy wrote “Geography” at the height of the Roman Empire, 1,300 years before Columbus first sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492, and considered the idea of a round planet as fact. (Columbus owned a copy.) During the early Middle Ages, it is true that many Europeans succumbed to rumor and started believing that they lived on a flat Earth, but Islamic countries knew better and preserved the Greek learning, and by the late Middle Ages, Europe had caught up and in some cases surpassed the knowledge of ancient Greece and medieval Islam.
Several books published in Europe between 1200 and 1500 discussed the Earth’s shape, including “The Sphere,” written in the early 1200s, which was required reading in European universities in the 1300s and beyond. But in the 1800s, a myth was perpetuated that Columbus thought the world was flat.
In a 1991 book, “Inventing the Flat Earth,” retired University of California professor Jeffrey Burton Russell pointed to writers, such as Washington Irving, who in 1828, Irving wrote the mostly fictional “The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus,” which says that Europeans learned from Columbus’s trips to the New World that the planet was round.
There were some cheeky responses to Tyson’s tweet:
Not enough globes, too many maps
— cazlad (@Callum_McH) July 19, 2017
The Earth is actually square.
— Spencer (@Spengraf) July 19, 2017
But others were offended or took issue with his swipe at schools and teachers:
No. It is a reflection of the demonization of the intellectual, the teachers, and public schools. It is evidence of ideology over facts.
— CJ (@KidsNotMarkets) July 19, 2017
Sorry, but I would argue against that one. It is society's fault for allowing talk like that to be ok, to give them a platform.
— Patrick Goff (@BMSscienceteach) July 20, 2017
People in the 1400s knew earth was round. It's not about our education system. It's about people thinking feelings = facts. Starts at home.
— Patrick Abdalla (@PaddyAbs) July 20, 2017
If you examine the AGE of the flat earthers it says nothing about today's schools.
:-p (Yeah I'm a teacher.)
— Bob Calder (@bob_calder) July 19, 2017
Dear Dr. Tyson: respect for you = gone. Love, Dr. Luann, veteran science teacher.
— Luann ChristensenLee (@stardiverr) July 20, 2017
This is like saying, "The rise of obesity is some of the best evidence for the failure of gyms".
— Dane Peagler (@kdpeagler) July 20, 2017
This is not coming from public schools. I have a photo of Earth from space in my class.
— Brooke Asher (@fellfromastar) July 20, 2017
Education begins at home. Kids indoctrinated to distrust science will resist no matter how well it's taught.
— Jamie Walker (@JamieWalker808) July 19, 2017
Please don't blame teachers for this, too. We have a hard job countering disinformation from all sides. Believe me, we're trying!!!
— Ann Brown (@brownal59) July 19, 2017
(Correction: Fixing attribution to a news story)