Shaq's Flat Earth Jokes Are No Laughing Matter for Scientists

Joon LeeStaff WriterMarch 21, 2017

LAS VEGAS, NV - JANUARY 05:  NBA analyst Shaquille O'Neal laughs as he tries a pair of Snapchat Spectacles that record circular video for Snapchat during a live telecast of 'NBA on TNT' at CES 2017 at the Sands Expo and Convention Center on January 5, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. CES, the world's largest annual consumer technology trade show, runs through January 8 and features 3,800 exhibitors showing off their latest products and services to more than 165,000 attendees.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Shaquille O’Neal recently hopped aboard the "Earth is flat" conspiracy theory train, at least temporarily. Ever since February's NBA All-Star Weekend when Kyrie Irving declared that globes are falsely portraying the shape of our planet, the "flat Earth theory" has been a hot topic to ask athletes about because, well, it’s ridiculous.

Of course, when it comes to Shaq, ridiculous is the norm. On his podcast, The Big Podcast with Shaq, the NBA legend explained his reasoning to co-host John Kincade.

"It’s true. The Earth is flat," O’Neal said. "There’s three ways to manipulate the mind: What you read, what you see, and what you hear. In school, first thing they teach us, 'Oh, Columbus discovered America.' But when you got there, it was some fair-skinned people with long hair smoking on peace pipes. So what does that tell you?"

O’Neal goes on to explain that his drives from coast to coast helped him come to this conclusion. "The s--t looks flat to me. ... I do not go up and down on a 360-degree angle, and all that stuff about gravity. Have you looked outside of Atlanta lately and seen all these buildings? So you mean to tell me that China is under us? China is under us? It's not. The world is flat."

The 15-time All-Star then when on to dispute satellite imagery, calling it potentially "drawn and made up." On Monday night, Shaq walked back those comments during the NBA on TNT broadcast, saying that he was joking.

It’s easy to write this off as another instance of a notable goofball just being goofy, but there is harm in someone with Shaq’s international public platform spreading blatantly false information, at least according to Sam Bentley, a professor of geology and geophysics at the Hall of Famer’s alma mater, LSU.

"People who have a big public presence have a responsibility to be considerate of their bully pulpit when they make statements like this," Bentley tells Bleacher Report. "This particular case, it’s unusual and perhaps unfortunate, but people should be basing our actions on the best available knowledge."

MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 22:  NBA Legend Shaquille O'Neal looks on with the championship trophy in the background at his number retirement ceremony on December 22, 2016 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges an
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And was this the best available knowledge?

"If Shaquille O’Neal is claiming that the Earth is flat based on his observations driving from California to the East Coast, then he is not using all of the available data," Bentley says. "As you can imagine, this is a very interesting time to be an empirically based scientist. Shaquille is a big friend of LSU, and we are very proud of what he’s done, but he should also act responsibly in respect to this sort of transmission of information."

Derek Muller, who runs the popular science YouTube channel Veritasium and earned a Ph.D. in physics at the University of Sydney, says that the internet has led to the re-emergence of many of these conspiracy theories.

"The internet was made to make everyone more educated and get everyone to agree on facts," says Muller, who will appear in Bill Nye’s upcoming Netflix series, Bill Nye Saves the World. "It’s instead allowed silos to form where people with crazy ideas can find each other. The internet preys on our greatest weakness, which is the confirmation bias. If someone thinks the Earth is flat, they go and search 'is the Earth really flat?' [and] they come across all of this stuff that says that the Earth is flat instead of looking for the debunks."

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The mere mention of these conspiracy theories on such a large platform begins to blur the line of what is reality and what is fiction, according to Muller.

O’Neal did clarify that he was joking when talking about the flat Earth conspiracy, but this in itself could present problems given his enormous public platform. Muller says that if Shaq was joking, he should’ve made that much clearer in the first place, but by acknowledging a theory publicly, O’Neal gives credibility to something that is verifiably untrue, even if he was joking.

"It leads their fanbases to consider ridiculous ideas and possibly consider ridiculous ideas to be true," Muller says. "Obviously, these people have god-like reputations among some of their fans. They’re clearly prominent, and even if you don’t fully believe them, it definitely raises the visibility of the claims. In the long term, it does damage because you have a group of people who don’t know what to believe. When you don’t have those established consensuses, the world makes bad decisions."