Ambitious Science Teaching for Flat-Earthers

Michael Hughes believes the world is flat and disc-shaped. He is also a professional limo driver who was able to construct and launch a steam powered rocket that traveled over 1300 feet with him in it. That flight happened in January 2014. Hughes built another rocket and planned another, longer flight in November of this year. His goal is to take a picture during the flight to prove the Earth is flat. However, it has been postponed since he is unable to get federal approval to launch on public lands.

“I don’t believe in science,” said Hughes, whose main sponsor for the rocket is Research Flat Earth. “I know about aerodynamics and fluid dynamics and how things move through the air, about the certain size of rocket nozzles, and thrust. But that’s not science, that’s just a formula. There’s no difference between science and science fiction.” (Graham, 2017)

Okay science educators, what back pocket questions can we ask Mr. Hughes to help him relate his thinking to larger science concepts? I shared in an earlier post the story of room full of professional academics who could not explain how they know the Earth revolves around the sun. They just believed it. Hughes believes the Earth is flat and he knows enough about “aerodynamics and fluid dynamics and how things move through the air, about the certain size of rocket nozzles, and thrust” to build and launch a rocket. Can you imagine the amazing project-based lesson a teacher could do with a student-Hughes?

First, it would be helpful to learn a little more about what Hughes’s thinking. What has he observed that leads him to infer that the Earth is flat?

(Somewhere, Olivia feels a disturbance in the force and whispers “Scaffolds to make students’ initial thinking public..”)

Hughes has a significant online presence that doesn’t offer much information about his reasoning. However, other flat-earthers might help with this hypothetical lesson. Kyrie Inving plays for the Boston Celtics and also believes the Earth is flat. In the story The Ongoing Battle Between Science Teachers and Fake News  a science teacher laments:

“How have I failed these kids so badly they think the Earth is flat just because a basketball player says it?” He says he tried reasoning with the students and showed them a video. Nothing worked.

I can understand the teacher’s frustration, but there is opportunity here! Kyrie Irving’s argument seems to be that he can’t picture how the Earth can be round based on his observations of how things move in the world. Why not have the students address this? What do we observe in our everyday life that makes it hard to believe the world is round? The Flat Earth Society’s Wiki page states:

The evidence for a flat earth is derived from many different facets of science and philosophy. The simplest is by relying on ones [sic] own senses to discern the true nature of the world around us. The world looks flat, the bottoms of clouds are flat, the movement of the sun [emphasis added]; these are all examples of your senses telling you that we do not live on a spherical heliocentric world.

Now a quick review of back pocket questions:

  • The first question should be about what the students observed.
  • Next, the students should be asked to think why they think what they observed occurred.
  • Finally, the students should be tasked to apply this reasoning to something unobservable.

The world looks flat, the bottoms of clouds are flat, the movement of the sun” – These are all possible answers to the first BPQ! Next, a teacher could challenge the students to explain what they think is the cause of the observation. This would help give the teacher insight into what the students are thinking. This information will help determine what the final task/question will be.

It is easy to get discouraged by how science is portrayed in the news, but our job as science educators is to help our students learn to challenge these ideas for themselves. If we rely on our own knowledge and persuasion skills, we’re going to be foiled by basketball stars with more status and charisma. Our job is not to convince, but to teach.


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