4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars History of a surprisingly modern idea
Looking at the title one could be forgiven for thinking: Not very interesting, surely? After all nobody believes in it now. People in olden times used to think the world was flat, indeed the Church taught that, but Columbus proved the world was round, and with the development of modern scientific knowledge nobody can possibly hold to such an idea.
If you think that...
Published on 11 Mar 2010 by Iain S. Palin
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Some people will believe anything!!
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this book for me was that as soon as I started to read the accounts of the nineteenth century flat-earthers I was immediately struck by the similarity between them and the modern day climate change deniers or those who believe that they can prove the moon landings were faked. So the story does have a lot of resonance today...
Published on 3 Mar 2011 by E. Carter
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars History of a surprisingly modern idea,
This review is from: Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea (Paperback)Looking at the title one could be forgiven for thinking: Not very interesting, surely? After all nobody believes in it now. People in olden times used to think the world was flat, indeed the Church taught that, but Columbus proved the world was round, and with the development of modern scientific knowledge nobody can possibly hold to such an idea.
If you think that you would be wrong on all counts. This book not only shows this, it offers insights and understanding to anyone interested in the relationship between science and religion and how what we "know" can be shaped by personal factors we are unaware of.
As Garwood explains, the Ancients knew the world was round, and the Christian Church had no problem with the idea. Some figures in the early Church rejected the idea, apparently because it was part of the "pagan knowledge" they were turning their back on, but they were a minority. The idea that "the Church taught the Earth was flat" was promoted later by anti-religious writers pursuing their own agenda.
Similarly, those who opposed Columbus's proposed trip knew perfectly well the Earth was round; they were against it for sound reasons. In fact their ideas were closer to the truth than Columbus's, but he was very lucky. Again, the facts were misrepresented to suit later writers' agenda (putting down the Catholic Church and building up Columbus as a prototype for American "rugged individualism").
Flat-Earthism as a vocal pseudo-scientific movement actually arose in Nineteenth-Century England, whence it spread to the USA. It was established by fundamentalist Christians who were reacting to the advance of scientific knowledge, which they saw as a godless force or conspiracy aimed at destroying the Christian faith. In response they constructed a "Christian" model of the Universe based on scattered verses from the Bible.
Although its heyday was more than a century ago, Flat-Earthism still persists in that milieu inhabited by anti-scientists, conspiracy theorists, and fundamentalist "young Earth" Creationists. Such people tend to see themselves as blessed with a special insight and battling heroically against Godless or conspiratorial forces. Their reaction to the threatening modern unsettled and unsettling world is to build themselves a mental fort and inhabit it secure in their own beliefs and their willingness to face the enemies all around. They have retreated to "the old certainties" as a reaction to change in the world around them.Perhaps it is understandable if they see science and religion as fundamentally opposing forces rather than paths to understanding that deal with different aspects of human life.
This is a fascinating well-researched book. The author is never patronising or contemptuous of the Flat-Earthers, who are shown as real, sincere, people, while the issues are presented fairly and thoroughly (eprhaps a little too thoroughly in places, some skipping will aid the reading of certain passeages). I enjoyed it and recommend it.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Some people will believe anything!!,
This review is from: Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea (Paperback)Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this book for me was that as soon as I started to read the accounts of the nineteenth century flat-earthers I was immediately struck by the similarity between them and the modern day climate change deniers or those who believe that they can prove the moon landings were faked. So the story does have a lot of resonance today.
Overall I would say this book is well written, interesting and entertaining in parts but its main failing is that it is too long. It could easily be edited down to half its length without losing anything of importance.
11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Review of Garwood (2007) - Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea,
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.
23 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Faith Rampant Over Science,
Educated medieval people did not believe the Earth to be flat. In fact, if they studied their Plato, Aristotle, or Euclid, they knew the shape of the Earth. The Columbus story was appealing to those who unnecessarily wanted to promote a view of science in eternal warfare with religion. The dispute between the two realms over the shape of our Earth seemed to be settled, but was revived in England by a loud, smart, confident, and energetic socialist quack from Lancashire, Samuel Birley Rowbotham, who started touring England in the 1830s. He urged people to take the Bible literally and also just to look around: anyone could see we were not walking around on a sphere. The Earth was a stationary disk, he taught, and the Sun was only 400 miles above it, and if ships disappeared over the horizon, it was just a play of refraction and perspective, not evidence that the surface of the water was curved. He had many followers, and Flat-earthism didn't stop with the Victorians. There were Flat Earth Societies of different kinds during the twentieth century. The American fundamentalist preacher Wilbur Voliva took over the utopian city of Zion in Illinois, and used his radio station in the 1920s not only to broadcast intimidations of hell-fire but also to spread such explanations of sunrise and sunset being only optical illusions. The Canadian Flat Earth Society is different from any other group described here, since it was not religiously inspired. It was a bunch of writers and philosophers who took up the cause as a bit of serious fun, to push concepts of epistemology. To poor, serious Samuel Shenton, founder of the International Flat Earth Research Society, fell the task of defending the concept of a flat Earth while astronauts went around it and to the Moon. He asserted that Christ himself had warned of "a great deception which might shake frail Christian faith," and he was furious that astronauts had radioed "the opening verses of Genesis... as a deceptive cloak" concealing the promotion of globularism. The new flat-earthers were eager to promote their own "scientific" views, but their arguments harked back to those of the previous century. For instance, they asserted that people could sail east to west around the world just like a needle sails around a phonograph record, but no one sails around it north to south, because that would take one into the edges of the disk, a realm of forbidden cold. Others also pointed out that in sailing from Australia to America, a passenger did not get on board ship upside down, and did not sail upwards around a globe. And of course, the ocean looked flat during the whole trip.
Almost all the flat-earthers here mount their beliefs from knowing that, as one wrote, "the Bible is a flat-earth book", and from feeling that God had called them to refute astronomical treachery. In many ways, they were more fundamentalist and more literalist than the current creationists; indeed, the head of the International Flat Earth Research Society of America denounced the Creation Research Institute as a "criminal gang" and "the worst enemies of the truth" for ostensibly defending the Bible while it was actually undermining it. The flat-earthers had faith that could not be shaken by anything scientists had to offer. Science eventually had even photographic proof, but the pictures of our orb were denounced as a hoax that "just makes the whole Bible a big joke." The faith of some flat-earthers was strong enough to withstand, for a while, at least, even science's photographic assault. Garwood draws analogies, of course, between them and our creationists whose faith is also currently great enough to withstand scientific objections, and who, like the flat-earthers, insist that accepting science is the same as discounting the Bible. In the current case, though, scientists can't muster, for instance, simple photographs that show evolution in progress. Garwood's book shows just how doggedly faith in an unscientific idea can hold.
4.0 out of 5 stars Well-written and well-researched,
This review is from: Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea (Kindle Edition)Clearly a great deal of research has gone into this book, and Garwood deserves applause for it. The tale of stupidity and blind argument is told as any great story should be. My only issue with the book is the sheer amount of detail, which caused me to become distracted in places. Otherwise great!
4.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating glimpse into science and public debate,
This review is from: Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea (Paperback)This fascinating, if slightly overlong, book is well worth reading for understanding how public scientific debate is constructed. The author draws parallels with Creationist theory, but there are interesting lessons too about some of the political challenges to climate change theory. It's also a good read in general, often illuminating and frequently painfully funny - such as the report of the chap expelled from the Flat Earth Research Society of America for alleged 'spherical tendencies'. My only serious criticism is that the book tells us only about Anglophone 'planoterrestrialism'. Was/is it really confined just to Britain, the US, Canada and New Zealand. What about France and Germany? About this the author makes no mention which is a pity for it would cast flt-earthism in another light if it was/is indeed restricted to 'Anglo-Saxon' countries. Otherwise, for the open-minded reader, here is a worthwhile diversion into examining some features of the odder reaches of human condition with lessons for some of the most critical issue of our day.
14 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A triumph that flattens Intelligent Design,
While reviews seem to fit the pattern, Dr Garwood's enduring triumph is that she avoids all the classic pitfalls that beset scholar and lay person alike. This is an astounding book dealing with a fascinating movement quite brilliantly, bringing all the very best skills and methods of the history and sociology of science to bear. She does so in a manner that is accessible, extraordinarily well researched (there are incontrovertible and powerful archival sources that have never been accessed or gathered by a scholar before), contextually interpreted and understated in its lucid and politically relevant conclusion.
Every chapter of this book can be viewed as a scholarly, historically rich and wide ranging case study. It is a genuine jaw dropper for anyone who wants to understand the relationship between science and society, religion and science and science as a potentially ideological force in the world. The book takes the very best and most scholarly literature in the field and develops the history and sociology of science further by providing an insightful and erudite analysis of her case. It is a path breaking book in so many ways.
From the discussion of the older history of the idea of a flat earth, which rightly builds on David Lindberg and Professor Burton Russell, the scene is well set and prepared for an intelligent and stimulating discussion of the relations between science and religion. There is a wealth of reference material available that Dr Garwood has skillfully interpreted that shows a long pattern of development and knowledge acquisition in the medieval period.
Into the contemporary era, Dr Garwood includes the wonderfully written and evocative example of the Canadian society and the so-called 'counter culture', noting how non-scientific ideas can feed and mutate themselves on a wave of social scepticism about the use of science. The sections on Wallace are revelatory; demonstrating the complexities in claims to scientific knowledge and in deciding what constitutes science at different times. It is also gripping as a narrative.
This book is an indispensable addition to the shelf of every reader, every class room and every university reading list in history, sociology or politics.
So why the controversy? When you read this book and you really must, you will understand how something as pernicious and incoherent as creationism or Intelligent Design can claim scientific status in the modern world. Context, motivation, power, money, politics are all here and Dr Garwood has done an enormous service in providing such a relevant, politically instructive and educationally motivating work for the public.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating conflict,
This review is from: Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea (Paperback)The book gives a fascinating account into the debates that once raged over what is now generally accepted as fact, but in Victorian times was regarded by some as a crackpot scientific theory to be argued over. The characters involved and the experiments carried out (to prove / disprove) are well described. The fact that the debate is a largely forgotten one now made the book more interesting, especially when one discovers that luminaries such as Alfred Russel Wallace were sucked in to it. However, for me, a little too much space is devoted to later (20th Century) proponents of a Flat Earth who, faced with photos from space etc., simply seem stubborn. Also, given that Flat Earthers don't believe that a South Pole exists, I was surprised that the journeys to the South Pole e.g. by Amundesn aren't mentioned.
2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A rather flat book,
This review is from: Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea (Paperback)With books like fermat's last theorem or zero a biography what the authors do is take the central concept and use it to guide you through the story of mathematics or physics. Christine Garwood attempts to do the same thing here with the concept of the flat earth. The problem with this is twofold-
1) The theory itself is so fringe as to be nowhere near as compelling as how the number 0 became so hotly debated and essential to modern mathematics.
2) The other books mentioned were short, fast paced and fun to read. Instead Christine Garwood eschews this style and dumps research on you like Karen Armstrong. I will forgive Armstrong this dry and dense story telling as she picks very big topics indeed (the history of god, the history of Jerusalem) but that level of scrutiny is not needed for a subject that is essentially a curiosity.
In short this book is too long and takes itself too seriously. Some of the other reviews feel that this book is attacking one side or another instead I'd say if you believe in a flat earth good luck to you and don't visit Australia, if you don't then welcome to the real world! However as a potential reader of this book, avoid, it's a very long rather pointless book.
If you liked this there's more historical debate and fun at @HistoryGems on Facebook and Twitter
5 of 23 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars The Flat Earth in a flat book,
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Petrarch wasn't harping back to a Golden Age, he meant it as a sweeping criticism of the decadence of late Latin literature. It was the period between the fall of Rome and loss of classical literature and the re-discovery of Latin texts by Humanists, for which he also coined the term 'Rinascimento', the 'Rebirth' which we now call the Renaissance.
Ignoring all this, we are told that there were no Dark Ages following the collapse of the Roman Empire, nor for that matter a 'Middle Ages' and that hostility between Christianity and Science is a myth.
It seems that in the Dark Ages (sorry, I mean before the Enlightenment) they were up on their astronomy too. Garwood puts forward the assertion that Lactantius' and Cosmas' belief that the earth was flat 'had little impact "on the contemporary thought about the shape of the earth ... because his works were all written in Greek it is safe to conclude that, like Lactantius, his radical flat-earth views had no impact in the Latin-speaking West". An extraordinary claim given that the entire New Testament was written in Greek, along with all the works of early Church Fathers such as St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, St. Athanasius of Alexandria, St. John Chrysostom, and the three Cappadocian Fathers.
St Augustine accepted that the earth might be a sphere, on the authority of Aristotle, but he dismissed the idea of men living 'under' the sphere on the grounds that they would be upside down and fall off: "As for the fabled 'antipodes', men, who live on the other side of the earth, where the sun rises when it sets for us, men who plant their feet opposite ours, their is no rational ground for such a belief" - he finds the whole idea "too ridiculous" to discuss.
Presumably we can rely on Professor Father David Knowles, O.S.B, the eminent Roman Catholic Historian and authority on St Augustine to tell us what the early Church believed, for he adds a footnote: "By the third century A.D. the picture of the earth as a flat disk had displaced the spherical theory of the Early Greeks." ('Augustine: City of God', Penguin, page 664).
The book is peppered throughout with such loaded phrases as "Enlightenment propaganda", "propaganda par excellence", "Dark Age promoters" and we are told that "Christianity had a critical role in preserving the scientific knowledge that had survived from Greco-Roman times ... which further disseminated knowledge of the spherical shape of the earth." Oh, really?
The author tells us that the "early Church Fathers were not Biblical literalists who believed that the Bible was the only authority on the natural world ...". This smacks of sloppy research - isn't Garwood aware of St Augustine's authoritative dictum, to quote but one Church Father, that "Nothing is to be accepted save on the authority of Scripture, since greater is that authority than all the powers of the human mind", a stern pronouncement which set scientific enquiry back not by decades but by centuries.
It is fashionable these days to denigrate Andrew White's "The Warfare of Science with Theology". Out trot Garwood's over-the-top adjectives to describe it: 'this gargantuan history of science', 'all the hallmarks of a scholarly tome' (presumably meaning that it isn't); 'exhaustive compilation of hits and misses'. Calm down! It's just two volumes of 415 and 474 pages, hardly 'gargantuan'. True, it has extensive footnotes detailing all sources, is this somehow wrong? It is still an exciting read and far more informative than this light-weight book.
Incidentally, of White's two volumes, Garwood says "... medieval flat-earth thinking again played a notable role as a prime example of scriptural literalism derailing 'natural' progress towards scientific truth". Her own 'scholarly' note correctly references pages 89-95 of Vol.1, and that's all there is on the flat-earth - 7 pages out of 889 - hardly a notable role in a detailed study.
Then we have Darwin. Ah, yes, Darwin. His modern day followers are apparently 'evolutionists' (not biologists, or cosmologists, or geologists, or astronomers, or astro-physicists, or just plain scientists). Thus in the book we have 'evolutionists' opposed to 'creationists', or is it the other way round? Not much to choose between them, really, if you follow this book. Here's an example (page 358) "Evolutionists have claimed that if the Bible is accepted as an inerrant, infallible, scientifically accurate authority, as creationists argue, then to avoid contradiction they must also believe that the earth is flat". `Evolutionists argue'? What, all evolutionists?
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Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea by Christine Garwood (Paperback - 18 April 2008)