No, a third of millennials don’t believe the Earth is flat – but give it time
You’d have thought, given recent upsets, that the world would have learned to take polling with a pinch of salt. Apparently not. YouGov – which has previously given us valuable insights on which political party people think Santa would vote for and whether eating cereal for dinner is strange – is back with another curio: what percentage of Americans believe the Earth is flat.
To be clear, any figure above zero isn’t ideal, but the results have been blown completely out of proportion by some publications, which proclaimed that a third of Millennials subscribe to the pancake Earth theory. As you can see by looking at the raw data, this simply isn’t the case:
So, no: overlooking the fact that some definitions have millennials turning 38 this year, a more accurate but less clickable headline would be “two-thirds of millennials have always believed the world is round”. Those who clearly state the world is flat come to just 9% – and more than half of those are having doubts.
Perhaps a better question would be why 16% of 18- to 24-year-olds clicked “other/not sure”. Well, a fraction may be the most glorious kind of pedant who objects to the term round when applied to planets, but most – more likely – are just clicking any old answer to get to the end of the survey quicker for their reward. Others may just be an entirely thought-free zone: 4% of respondents claimed to have no opinion on salad, remember.
That doesn’t make this a good news piece.
While the overall trends – that 84% of respondents have always believed the Earth is round – is pretty decent, the results show less certainty the younger respondents get. For me, the most troubling section is those that have always thought the Earth was round, but have recently expressed doubts. That goes from 1% of 55-year-olds to 9% of 18- to 24-year-olds.
True, that could be explained away by the fact that younger generations enjoy selecting stupid answers to quizzes, but my anecdotal hunch is that technology may be to blame here, specifically YouTube, Google and Facebook. The internet has proved to be a great way of disseminating knowledge, but quality control is very much a secondary concern.
Take Google, for example. The algorithm, though clearly powerful, isn’t set up to rank accuracy, only relevance and engagement. As well as only providing a superficial knowledge of a topic, the search engine has been known to push propaganda and conspiracy: like promoting a fundamentalist Christian explanation of what happened to the dinosaurs, or auto-filling anti semitic suggestions. Facebook has similar issues: if you hang out with conspiracy theorists long enough, you’ll see more and more conspiracy-theorist content on the site.
READ NEXT: Why do people believe conspiracy theories?
But the bigger problem is YouTube, which is king with the 18-24 demographic in question. As The New York Times recently showed, the site works as a “great radicaliser”, pushing you to more and more extreme content over time. YouTubers have learned that controversy sells, and the algorithm pushes this along, actively promoting conspiracy theory along the way. As the author Zeynep Tufekci found: “Videos about vegetarianism led to videos about veganism. Videos about jogging led to videos about running ultramarathons.” Sure enough, searches for flu vaccine information soon lead to dangerous and loopy anti-vaxxer propaganda. Guess what happens if you show an interest in flat-Earth topics?”
YouTube has acknowledged its problem with conspiracy theories, but its suggested solution is utter garbage.
With 18- to 24-year-olds the most YouTube-friendly demographic on the YouGov survey, the idea that 9% are “having doubts” about the Earth being round is alarming, but here’s a troubling thought: the 13-18 age group weren’t surveyed, and they’re the ones with the most time to kill on YouTube.
This problem will get worse before it gets better.