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5.0 out of 5 stars
Review of Garwood (2007) - Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea, 5 Sep 2007
The pathways through which the history of scientific progress can be mapped are strewn with the remains of overturned ideas and outdated pronouncements, some cranky and (with hindsight) nonsensical, others perfectly reasonable given the state of knowledge at the time. Newtonian physics, though sensible at the human scale, suddenly fails to convince at a subatomic level, not because of any failings on the part of Newton, but because technological and mathematical advances have allowed modern physicists to probe closer and deeper. Similarly, in biology, many established taxonomic ideas concerning the evolutionary relationships between major groups of flowering plants, mammals and other large clades are, thanks to molecular phylogenetics, shown to be erroneous. And so science advances, from the clearly wrong to the (probably) correct, leaving in its wake the cast off ideas of previous generations.
Except sometimes, when science (or at least fringe perceptions of scientific understanding) takes a backwards stride of such length that one begins to question whether scientific "facts" mean the same thing to everyone. The concept of the Flat Earth may be a unique example of how a fact (the globularity of the Earth) could be established very early in the development of the rational analysis of nature, only to be rejected by a minor, but vociferous, cohort of "true believers". As this fascinating book by Christine Garwood relates, observations by Aristotle confirmed the true shape of the world, and there were no serious challenges to this idea until the 19th Century. Mediaeval scholars accepted a spherical Earth (mappae mundi, I was interested to learn, were symbolic, not cartographic, in intention) and the fears raised by the prospect of Columbus plunging over the edge of the world were a Nineteenth Century fiction concocted by the author Washington Irving.
The emergence of flat Earth views in Victorian England as a serious (at least to their promoters) attack on received scientific wisdom has to be seen as an unusual reverse in thinking, not least because the "Zetetic" Flat Earthers sought to use science against itself to accumulate evidence to support the idea of the Earth as a plane, not a planet. In this vivid and well researched account, Christine Garwood moves easily between historical scholarship and popular science to follow the development of Flat Earth thinking from its rejection by the Ancient Greeks through to its Victorian revival, when learned men as distinguished as Alfred Russell Wallace could be convinced to take part in parochial experiments along England's canal system to try to prove that the Earth was a globe. Darwin, Huxley and others saw little value in rising to the Zetetics' bait, and Wallace himself regretted his involvement in later years (but seems to have needed the cash at the time).
As the author demonstrates, the death of the early major movers in the sphere of Flat Earth promotion was followed by the emergence of other, equally committed and frequently just as eccentric personalities, until eventually popular support for the notion of a Flat Earth ebbed away with the first manned space flights, and the photographs and experiences which were returned to Earth. Flat Earthism did not entirely die, however, and no amount of "proof" could dissuade the opinion of zealots such as Samuel Shenton, founder of the International Flat Earth Research Society. Like fundamentalists of all persuasions, he had an answer for everything, however contrived and paranoid. In Garwood's thought provoking book our understanding of the development of fringe ideas in the history of science is advanced through an analysis of the primary sources relating to an intriguing subject. The book is scholarly but accessible, at once entertaining and authoritative, and also topical in the context of the increasingly widespread anti-evolutionary views promoted by some religious groups. Unsurprisingly Garwood finds parallels between Creationism and Flat Earth thinking, not least because until recently they were promoted by groups with similar world views and memberships.
Flat Earth ideas continued to be advanced in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as both an academic jest with serious anti-establishment overtones by the International Flat Earth Society of Canada, and as a continuation of Zetetic thinking by other groups. Currently these ideas are defunct and even the most literal of Biblical literalists reject the notion, making it unlikely to re-emerge. Even if it did, no modern scientist would risk credibility by debating it. Creationism is a different matter entirely and some professional scientists (myself included) have opted to debate with Creationists despite the views of (amongst others) Steve Jones and Richard Dawkins that such exposure only provides oxygen for their cause. Unlike the Flat Earth theorists, however, anti-evolutionists are not simply going to fade away and their influence is now felt in American classrooms and textbooks. How should scientists respond? With reasoned arguments that convince the public and politicians (if not the fundamentalists, who can believe what the hell they like as far as we're concerned) or by ignoring them and hoping they might disappear in their own infighting?
Both Flat Earthism and Creationism reflect wider social and attitudinal differences regarding the role of Homo sapiens in nature, as rapacious exploiter, careful steward or ecosystem component. Science can provide data and theories and models, but it is up to individuals how they choose to interpret and act on such information, or whether they decide to deride or ignore it. Christine Garwood's first book is a marvellous insight into just how deeply self-delusional beliefs can become embedded in the minds of intelligent, but blinkered, individuals, and it is hoped that her subsequent books examine these themes in more detail. Perhaps her successors 200 years in the future will be similarly taken to write about the incredulous movement that denied that Earth's climate was changing and that the human species was fundamentally altering the biosphere through pollution and over-exploitation of resources, despite the weight of data. And let us hope that we still have a society that can appreciate the irony.