Tuesday, September 17, 2019

"The Earth Is Flat"

Awhile back, I was in Alberta, Canada to speak at a conference. Arriving at my hotel late and hungry I stopped into the restaurant for a bite. There were a couple of other single gentlemen travelers dining at the bar so, in the interest of a little light conversation, I joined them. One of them turned out to be a truck driver, a regular, who offered recommendations from the menu. He was a good humored, talkative fellow. We started with sports: I know little about hockey, so I allowed him to educate me for awhile, but then the conversation began to stray as conversations do.

At one point, in response to something I said, I thought I heard him respond, "Well, you know the earth is flat."

Thinking I'd misheard, I said, "Excuse me?"

"The earth is flat." He was smiling so I interpreted it as a joke. I laughed.

He laughed along with me while saying, "I'm serious."

I've heard there are people who believe the earth is flat. I know they exist. There is even a Flat Earth Society, but I never thought I'd meet anyone who would admit their belief in public. "Really?"

"That's right, the earth is flat."

I started laughing. Thankfully, he laughed along with me. I asked, "How can you believe that? What about the astronauts who've looked down on the earth?"

"Every picture I've seen looks flat."

"How do you explain that an airplane can take off from an airport, fly in a straight line, and wind up landing at the same airport?"

"The earth is disk shaped. They just fly around the edge."

"So all the scientists are lying?"



"That's what I'd like to know."

I was full on laughing by now. He must have been familiar with this response because he took it well. We went back and forth for several minutes as I gamely tried to poke holes in his belief, but he was firm. We parted ways on friendly terms, his only concession being that he knew he was in the minority.

As a preschool teacher, I often find myself in conversations with people who believe things that are simply not true, who are convinced that there are Tooth Fairies and Easter Bunnies, who assert that Star Wars is real because "I've seen it," who have invisible baby sisters. And it's not just children. I know adults who believe in things that cannot be true, even if their ideas don't usually sound quite as ludicrous as a flat earth or a man who comes down your chimney bearing presents. Indeed, I often find it charming. I once read a poll that found that 80 percent of Icelanders believe in the "hidden people," trolls and fairies and whatnot. And, I suppose, at one level, I found this man's belief in a flat earth to be charming, he left me chuckling after all. But then one begins to wonder what other crackpot things he believes and to then realize, with a shudder, that he has the right to vote.

I was seven-years-old when I watched Neil Armstrong become the first human to walk on the moon. By then, I must have been familiar with the earth as a globe, but it was this event that cemented the idea for me, making it real. I spent days wondering about it, considering gravity, blowing my own mind with thoughts of people on the other side of the earth experiencing night as I was experiencing day. Today, I don't know any five-year-olds who do not know that the earth is a sphere. Yet I also know that there are adult people, probably many of the same people who believe the earth is flat, who contend that the moon landing was a hoax.

From John Holt's book Escape from Childhood:

No amount of ignorance, misinformation, or outright delusion will bar an adult from voting . . . (There are) people who believe all manner of absurd, fantastic, and even dangerous things. None of them are barred from voting. Why should young people be?

As I daily consider the intelligence, wisdom, and compassion of young children, I wonder the same thing.

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