How do you know the Earth is round?

June 17, 2013 by Joshua
in Blog, Nature

One of the most important skills to have about beliefs and models is being flexible. Flexibility is one of the hardest skills for my clients to develop… until they get it. Then they realize the value of the skill and get good at it quickly.

Today I want to share a way I’ve found useful to undermine people’s rigidity in their beliefs — to point out how an incredibly strong belief can be based more on just agreeing with everyone else without questioning them than direct observation.

One of the most basic facts we all know about our world is that the Earth is round. To say otherwise puts you in a category of kook or loon. Someone who believes the Earth is flat will be shunned. Columbus helped show the Earth was round. Magellan sailed around the world. The ancient Greeks figured out it was round. Any culture that didn’t figure that out is developing at best, more likely backward.

My question to you: What first-hand evidence do you have that the Earth is round, not counting what someone told you or pictures someone else took?

I’m not suggesting it’s not. I’m asking you what evidence you collected or observed yourself. Because when I look at the Earth, it looks pretty flat to me.

I’ve seen pictures of the Earth from space, but I didn’t take them. I don’t doubt them, but for today’s exercise, I’m not counting them because you didn’t take them (unless there are any astronauts reading my blog — if so, please let me know).

I can think of things like seasons and how stars look in space that suggest the Earth is round, but I can imagine other ways such things could work.

People talk about trips that have taken them around the world, but they just got into airplanes that flew them around. For all they knew the planes flew in circles over a flat Earth.

We’ve all seen globes, but globes aren’t the Earth. They aren’t evidence about the Earth’s shape.

My point?

My point is not to challenge whether the Earth is round or not. It’s to challenge you on your foundation about something you take as a fundamental fact about your world.

Plenty of times and places existed where everyone believed the Earth was flat and ridiculed anyone who suggested otherwise. If you had been born where everyone said the Earth was flat you almost certainly would have agreed and ridiculed anyone for thinking otherwise.

What difference does it make to your life to believe the Earth is round? Since few people’s lives depend in any way on the Earth’s shape, the main benefit you have is to fit in. The Earth may be round, but that’s not why you believe it is. You believe it to fit in.

I suggest to you that nearly all the sensory information you have about the Earth’s shape is consistent with it being flat. I also suggest nearly all your information about the Earth’s shape comes from what other people tell you, whose information is based on what other people told them. I’ve asked a lot of people what evidence they have that the Earth isn’t flat and few people can answer anything meaningful.

Since we built rockets we could see or at least photograph the Earth from space, so we have the advantage of seeing those pictures, even if we didn’t take them ourselves. Before then, it’s hard to imagine what evidence we have of the Earth not being flat or any advantage to our lives for imagining it round.

We consider backward and ignorant anyone not knowing it’s round, yet our main foundation is hearsay from people who know no more than ourselves.

How many other beliefs do we have that are based on little more than what everyone else says?

I find it liberating to realize how little foundation we have for many beliefs. Or, alternatively, how easily we can change our beliefs and models. You can believe anything you want. People ridiculing you for it doesn’t have to change your belief.

Read my weekly newsletter

Lsbs book

Subscribe for a weekly update of musings on leadership, the environment, and burpees.

We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by Seva

4 responses on “How do you know the Earth is round?

  1. Hello Joshua, I am used to of exploring the facts about earth on internet. Through internet I found many interesting facts about earth. There are many theories about the round shape of earth, many years ago scientists proposed a theory on earth which tells earth is round which was accepted by all the people, but now another theory has been proposed which replaces the older theory and tells that earth is not round, its egg-shaped.

  2. I think my biggest piece of personal evidence is my observation that the elevation angle of the North Star changes as I travel north or south.

    • Thanks for that useful observation. I was going to reply that while it works, you’d need to measure it precisely. Then I realized if you go far enough south the North Star goes out of view completely.

Leave a Reply

Sign up for my weekly newsletter