Coronavirus and the Flat Earth Society

Nigel Whittle, Senior Consultant, Medical and Health

By: Dr. Nigel Whittle

Head of Medical & Healthcare

14th April 2020

3 minute read


I have recently become fascinated by the world of Flat Earth believers.  Once a belief in a flat earth (or a hollow earth) was largely the preserve of cranks, perhaps the same people who would write long missives to prominent scientists (as happened regularly to my PhD supervisor) in spidery green-inked handwriting, explaining how cancer was the result of ‘bad vibrations caused by oscillations in the primary aether’.  Why am I interested? Well, the world has become a much nuanced environment; gone are the days of black & white, truth & lies, facts & non-facts.  To some extent this is a good thing, as simplistic explanations are rarely correct, particularly in the complex world that we inhabit. But when reality becomes divided into facts and ‘alternative facts’, surely something has gone wrong with our thought processing?

flat earth interest chart

So, Flat Earth?  I’ll go out on a limb here and say that this is pure nonsense. The world isn’t flat, there is no uncertainty, no nuance, and there is a mountain of evidence generated over the past 2,000 years that incontrovertibly proves the earth is a spinning globe. So why do people persist in the belief, and why does there seem to be an increasing interest in the subject?

The commonest retort from Flat Earthers is to “do your own research” and the truth will be revealed. And by conducting bad experiments or by cherry-picking data it is possible to come up with some surprising results. But for the most part, ‘doing your own research’ means looking at YouTube videos made by other Flat Earthers.  And that is the crux of the issue, not so much a distrust of mainstream science, but an inability to understand how science works.  Newton said that he was “standing on the shoulders of giants”, and each increment of science is built on a previous discovery. Richard Feynman said that “science isn’t hard, there is just a lot of it”. Anybody who wants to criticise or comment on a scientific issue needs to have some basic understanding of science. It’s not enough to say “the world is flat because I can’t feel it spinning”; arguments from personal incredulity carry no weight.

So what does this have to do with Coronavirus, you are asking? You may be aware, and if you aren’t you soon will be, of an increasing belief that Covid-19 is caused by the roll-out of 5G networks. You may have heard of people in the UK attempting to burn down 5G towers, but you probably aren’t aware that the £20 note has a picture of a 5G mast underneath an image of a coronavirus.  Have a look, that can’t be coincidence, surely?  Well, yes.  And the infection began in Wuhan soon after the roll-out of a 5G network in that Chinese city, right? Well, no.

Obviously this is all nonsense, and carries the same weight as a belief in a Flat Earth.  A review in 2005 based on a study of more than 1,300 peer-reviewed studies on the biological effects of radio frequencies declared that those commonly used for 5G transmission posed “no adverse health effects” aside from the heat produced by wireless devices.

But my point is that we live in a world where, despite a supposed distrust of experts, everyone has become an armchair expert.  But ‘experts’ who have no understanding of the science and with no comprehension of how science works. The internet has provided unparalleled access to knowledge but sadly most people just choose to skim the surface, ignoring the vastness of scientific understanding that underpins our whole society.

Is there a solution? Better management of the internet may be one answer, so that people aren’t slowly constricted by a cocoon of like-minded ideas – YouTube and Facebook have huge responsibilities here that they regularly shirk. Better teaching of science to show the progression and development of ideas through the years has to be important. But ultimately it is up to ourselves to challenge unscientific attitudes, to confront unsubstantiated rumours whenever we hear them, and most of all to promote science as the best tool we have to help mankind.

What are your thoughts? We would love to hear from you.