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.

Join the conversation!

24.com encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.

24.com publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.