History of flat-earth theories

2008-10-02 08:05

One might think that people who believe the Earth is flat are not worth some 400 pages of thoroughly researched attention by a serious scientist (Christine Garwood has a PhD in science and lectures on it in the UK). However, this book is more than the history of a crazy obsession: it is also partly a history of science as a whole and a probing examination of the human mind.

It also dispels a number of “myths” (read “untruths”), the main one being that most people believed the world was flat until Columbus discovered it wasn't. In fact very few people, including Columbus and his contemporaries, since the fifth century BCE, thought it was flat: that is totally a minority idea. Another myth is that science and religion are always at war with each other. They have been at odd times, and flat-earthers have encouraged this misperception; but it is mostly not so. Perhaps another myth is that the world is obviously round, and, most of us accept, is whirling through an infinite void; in fact our senses suggest strongly that the Earth is flat and is stationery beneath our feet.

Garwood shows how flat-earthers, mainly since the mid-19th century, always claimed to be appealing to observable facts rather than mere “scientific” theories - they regarded scientists as little better than manipulative crooks - and how such people also tied in their astronomical belief with literalist religion, claiming that the Bible told the literal truth about absolutely everything, and that scientists who queried Biblical truth were not only dishonest but also blasphemous. And the movement had political overtones: its adherents - a colourful crew they have been, too - claimed to be championing “freedom of thought” (roughly, democracy) against false dogma imposed by “authorities”, including scientists. Thus, flat-earthism involved far more sensitive and compelling issues than we might think.

The book also, notably in its epilogue, shows just how far human minds construct their own truths: “the history of the flat-earth idea highlights the precise ways that information can be used and arguments constructed to defend a diversity of opinions and goals”; and “there will never be consensus on any given fact, however essential and obvious it may appear”.

A thorough, lucid and highly absorbing book.

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