Flat Earth was never a belief that was wildly accepted by scholars or experts. Even the ancient Greeks knew that the Earth was more like a sphere from multiple, independent lines of evidence. They even made a decent estimate of the circumference of the entire planet using basic mathematics and observations of shadows. It is a common myth that people in the Middle Ages thought that the Earth was flat and that Columbus risked travelling over the edge. The real reason people did not believe that the Columbus voyage would be successful was because they believe that it would be too long.
However, minor pockets of flat Earth activists has existed for a long time and continues to do so today. Initially dismissed as mere parody, many well-known celebrities, musicians, artists, and athlete have revealed that they believe the earth is flat, including Tila Tequila, B. o. B and Kyrie Irving. Now it looks like Shaq might be joining that crew.
Shaquille O’Neal use to be a famous rapper and basketball player. Among his many victories and awards, he has been an NBA champion four times and got the NBA Most Valuable Player Award in 2000. His rap album Shaq Diesel has sold platinum. O’Neal currently works on the Inside the NBA show as a basketball commentator and analyst and hosts his own podcast called The Big Podcast with Shaq.
Why did Shaquille O’Neal claim that the Earth is flat?
In the podcast episode “Shaquille O’Neal and Kevin Garnett talk NBA and Area 21, plus Shaq sounds off on the Boogie Cousins trade and WrestleMania” that aired on Feb 27, 2017, O’Neal made the following statement (starting at ~09:25). Because it is a little bit difficult to tell the two other guys in the podcast apart, I have just written “Interlocutor” when someone else is talking.
The primary arguments that O’Neal puts forward is that the road between the different parts of the U. S. seems flat, that it does not seem to make sense that China could be “under us” and that satellite images could be made up. The first claim can easily be refuted by noting the curvature is too short on that scale for it to be noticed. It is only about 8 inches per mile (or about 20 cm per 1.6 km). The second argument is not really an argument, but an appeal to incredulity based on a failure to understand gravity. China is not on a cave below the U. S. but on the other side of a sphere-like planet. The third argument is a conspiracy theory which fails because it would have to include too many people for it to be reliably maintained over such a long time period.
For completeness, it should be noted that the place that is on the exact opposite of the U. S. (its antipode) is not China, but the Indian Ocean near Africa.
The podcast finishes the Flat Earth segment by briefly discussing the possibility that Kyrie might have made a social commentary on fake news. O’Neal agrees that there is there is a lot of fake news out there and that nowadays people can just put out anything.
Is this for real? Does O’Neal really believe that the Earth is flat? It might be the case, but it might also be a sophisticated parody. These days, it is extremely difficult to tell a parody of pseudoscientific nonsense apart from someone who actually believes it. This is because pseudoscience activists make such absurd claims that it baffles the mind almost all the time.
How we know the Earth isn’t flat
Even the ancient Greeks knew that the earth was not flat. Eratosthenes estimated the circumference of the Earth in ~240 BCE with remarkable accuracy compared with modern measurements. Aristotle and others pointed to several separate pieces of empirical evidence against the flat earth idea. First, there are stars that can be seen on some places of the Earth but not others. This suggests that the surface of the earth is curved and not flat. Second, during a lunar eclipse, the shadow of our planet that falls on the Moon looks round. Third, when ships go far out pasts the horizon, it is always the top of the ship that disappears last. Had the Earth been flat, one would have expected that the entire ship would fade away at the same time.
In the modern era, the weight of the evidence that the earth is not flat is absolutely crushing. It includes images from space, geomagnetic reversals, the Coriolis effect, people circumnavigating the entire planet, the existence of time zones, comparison with other planets, center of gravity and so on. The science is settled. The Earth is not freaking flat and former basketball players who claim otherwise do not have any credible arguments or evidence for their position.
There are also massive problems with the underlying conspiracy theory. How could NASA hide all of this from everyone? It would have to involve many thousands if not tens of thousands of conspirators and that could never be kept hidden for so long. There is also no clear reason or aim for the conspirators. What could they possible gain from fooling everyone that the Earth is really flat?