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Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea Hardcover – Unabridged, 20 Apr 2007
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This is popular science history told with rare accuracy and enough intrigue to keep the reader entertained. --Astronomy Now
The first book to unveil the strange crusade to prove that science is fiction and the earth is flatSee all Product description
Top customer reviews
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.
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.