Guest whatever by David Middleton
Do People Really Think Earth Might Be Flat?
A poll says lots of Millennials evidently do—and it’s not entirely clear why
By Craig A. Foster, Glenn Branch on August 21, 2018
“Just 66 percent of millennials firmly believe that the Earth is round,” read the summary from the pollster YouGov. Kids today, right? But it’s not only curmudgeons eager to complain about the younger generation who ought to find the survey of interest. For despite the recent prominence of flat-earthery among musicians and athletes, YouGov’s survey seems to have been the first systematic attempt to assess the American population’s views on the shape of the Earth.
Moreover, the results raised a number of compelling questions that deserve attention. For example, why is the scientifically established view on the shape of the Earth less popular among younger respondents (according to YouGov) when the scientifically established view on the history of life and on the cause of global warming have been, in poll after poll, more popular among younger respondents?
The authors (“a psychology professor at the Air Force Academy and a long-time staffer at the National Center for Science Education”) went on to examine the raw data and could not verify YouGov’s survey results…
Puzzled but undeterred, we used the information in the spreadsheet to calculate acceptance of the round Earth by age groups and found that only about 82.5 percent of millennials (as YouGov called 18–24-year-olds) agreed with “I have always believed the world is round.” That’s still dismayingly low, of course, but it’s not as dismayingly low as 66 percent. And those aged 25–34 turned out to fare a tad worse, with only about 81.8 percent agreeing.
The discrepancy between the data underlying YouGov’s original report and the data provided in the spreadsheet undermined our understanding of both data sets. Frustratingly, YouGov was unable or unwilling to provide further assistance. Although there are transparency standards in survey research, such as the principles of disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls, they are, regrettably, not universally followed.
Even more oddly, the majority of the ~18% of survey respondents who didn’t believe the Earth was round(ish) also didn’t believe it was flat.
In the absence of further information, what can we conclude? Clearly, despite the discrepancy between the results, younger people are less likely to agree with the scientifically established view of the shape of the Earth. Yet, B.o.B. and Kyrie Irving notwithstanding, the spreadsheet data indicate that they are not substantially more likely to agree that the Earth is flat. Indeed, firm belief in a flat Earth was rare, with less than a 2 percent acceptance rate in all age groups.
Rather, according to the spreadsheet data, younger people were more likely to be uncertain or ambivalent about the shape of the Earth, either agreeing that they have recently entertained doubts that the Earth is round or opting for the “Other/Not Sure” choice on the questionnaire. Importantly, these responses weren’t distinctive to those aged 18 to 24 but were comparably prevalent among those aged 25 to 34 and those aged 35 to 44.
What can we conclude from this? I’d like to conclude that the 16% of not round, but not flat respondents were thinking spheroid… which is still round(ish). Although the most likely answer is that they are uninterested in the shape of the Earth because it didn’t come from an iPhone app.
We can also conclude that the results of public polling need to be taken with a LARGE grain of salt.
I’ll just conclude with a bit of humor…