Flat Earth believers tend to be younger, survey says

Commentary: A YouGov survey appears to suggest that our youth are riven with doubt about apparent scientific certainties. Can this be true?

Chris Matyszczyk
3 min read

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WORLD GLOBE EARTH SERIES, MEDITERRANEAN: a satellite and 3d rendered image focused on the Mediterranean.

There are still those who flatly deny it.

maps4media / Getty Images

We live in questioning times.

Some say the basis of the questioning is questionable, but there's little doubt that the very fundamentals of our existence -- democracy, for example -- are now subject to conspiracy theories believed by many.

Take the traditional notion that the world is spherical. 

Luminaries such as rapper B.o.B and NBA star Kyrie Irving have sprinkled doubt -- whether in jest or not -- that the Earth is as it appears in pictures.

And now a YouGov survey of 8,215 American adults comes out that offers troubling results. 

The numbers appear to show that only 84 percent of Americans have always believed the Earth is round and had no doubts about it.

Worse, perhaps, is that a mere 66 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds have always believed the world is round. Does this really mean that 34 percent have their doubts?

Well, 16 percent chose the "Other/Not sure" box. Only 2 percent say they've always thought the world is flat and another 2 percent responded that while they've always thought it flat, some doubts have crept in of late. 

Perhaps they've recently encountered the words of astrophysicist Nei DeGrasse Tyson. Or perhaps they've recently bumped into a science documentary on Netflix.

It's always wise to be a touch skeptical about such surveys. 

If you're responding to one, there's surely a temptation to offer answers that amuse you, especially if it's a subject that doesn't actually interest you or you're being presented with questions that you find obvious or ridiculous.

Then there are the rewards. In YouGov's case, it offers points that are redeemable for rewards such as tote bags, T-shirts and prepaid gift cards.

Could it be that at least some of these young people are tempted by these inducements and don't actually take the surveys seriously? 

A YouGov spokesman told me that the company isn't worried about this.

"Like most research companies, we offer small rewards to thank long-term participants for their time. We have robust methods for spotting any inconsistencies or inaccuracies in answers," he said.

I worry, of course. After all, another YouGov survey tells me that 13 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds don't know how they feel about salad.

But even if there are substantial numbers of these young people who aren't sure the Earth is spherical, they'll surely have no doubt one day.

There will likely soon come a time when science will help them live long enough to see humans have to make their escape from the planet -- which Stephen Hawking feared might happen within 100 years. 

In the meantime, perhaps true doubters might save up and book themselves a flight on Virgin Galactic. Surely they'll believe their own eyes. 

Or will they?

Originally published April 7 at 12:23 p.m. PT.
Updated at 2:56 p.m. PT.: Added comment from YouGov.

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