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The Flat Earth and Pseudoskepticism

by Brian Dunning, Nov 29 2012
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A hint from the Illuminati

This week my Skeptoid podcast episode was on the history of the Flat Earth Theory. By now most everyone knows that there really wasn’t a time when any governmental or scientific authority actually believed the Earth was flat, and most of us also know about the existence of a Flat Earth Society. But there is a fascinating, and sometimes quite dramatic, intertwinement of the two.

As I discussed, Flat Earthers have, for as long as they’ve been a movement, been of two basic varieties. There are the Biblical literalists who interpret certain Bible passages to mean the Earth is flat, and consider science to the contrary to be blasphemous. The second type consists of alternate science conspiracy theorists, cranks who think they’ve overturned Newton’s laws, and who point to the United Nations flag as a hint from the Illuminati as to the true shape of our world.

There were two particular points of “pseudoskepticism” that I found, in particular, that have characterized the Round Earthers, and that were an interesting lesson for me. These were cases where bad arguments were made against the Flat Earthers — when really, the facts are so obvious that we should hardly need to resort to those.

First was the use of the famous “Turtles all the way down” joke. There is no culture that ever believed this. Moreover, ancient cultural references to a World Turtle were never intended to mean that the world is literally on the back of a giant turtle, any more than we believe in a literally human Mother Earth. The World Turtle was allegorical at best, and meant many things to many peoples other than the modern caricature. Our joke of “Turtles all the way down” is an ignorant and insulting straw man.

Second was the overzealous finger-pointing at Christians by early secular humanists for responsibility over the existence of a (really nonexistent) Flat Earth movement. “Christians are so stupid they believe the world is flat” was a frequent charge since the middle of the second millennium, and really came to a head in the mid 1800s. That’s the time when a guy named Parallax and his followers were trying to promote their Flat Earthism, and it’s true that Biblical literalism was a part of their evidence. However, we’re talking about a very, very small number of people, probably fewer than 100 in Europe. By no rational logic can it be said that “Christians are so stupid they believe the world is flat.”

For space constraints I was not able to thoroughly explore this aspect of flat Earth history, though it probably deserves a larger treatment than I gave it. Historian Jeffery Burton Russell ably summarizes his book Inventing the Flat Earth:

Contortions that are common today, if not widely recognized, are produced by the incessant attacks on Christianity and religion in general by secular writers during the past century and a half, attacks that are largely responsible for the academic and journalistic sneers at Christianity today.

A curious example of this mistreatment of the past for the purpose of slandering Christians is a widespread historical error, an error that the Historical Society of Britain some years back listed as number one in its short compendium of the ten most common historical illusions. It is the notion that people used to believe that the earth was flat–especially medieval Christians.

It must first be reiterated that with extraordinary few exceptions no educated person in the history of Western Civilization from the third century B.C. onward believed that the earth was flat…

The reason for promoting both the specific lie about the sphericity of the earth and the general lie that religion and science are in natural and eternal conflict in Western society, is to defend Darwinism. The answer is really only slightly more complicated than that bald statement. The flat-earth lie was ammunition against the creationists. The argument was simple and powerful, if not elegant: “Look how stupid these Christians are. They are always getting in the way of science and progress. These people who deny evolution today are exactly the same sort of people as those idiots who for at least a thousand years denied that the earth was round. How stupid can you get?”

But that is not the truth.

Having spent a full week immersed in the history of the flat Earth while researching my episode, I agree with everything Burton says, although I believe he overstates the zeal by “Darwinists” to show that Christians are stupid. In my experience, that’s a sort of behavior generally found only among atheist activists, and rarely among evolutionary biologists, who generally have more productive things to do with their time. I did not uncover much evidence of smear campaigns against Christians at all; that is, not until the Flat Earthers who based their beliefs on Biblical literalism raised their ugly heads.

It’s probably not true that there was ever a period of open warfare over the shape of the Earth, not even in the press; but rather that it was a curiosity that popped up now and again when a person like Parallax staged his various PR stunts. I find no reason to believe that a significant number of Christians ever formed an organized movement promoting a flat Earth, and I find no reason to believe that a significant number of anti-Christians ever made an organized movement to sling mud based on the myth of Flat Earthism. The true story of the Flat Earth is not one of large movements and tales of Hollywood proportions, but rather one of fascinating individuals and small incidents that become all the more intriguing in their proper context.

17 Responses to “The Flat Earth and Pseudoskepticism”

  1. Deen says:

    Indeed. If you want to give an example of Christianity standing in the way of progress and denying scientific evidence, the church’s opposition to heliocentricity is a much better choice.

    • The Whyman says:

      Deen, that is also a bit of a ‘tall tale’ also as:

      1. “The Church”, namely Roman Catholicism you speak of isn’t representative of Biblical Christianity and

      2. What “The Church” was *actually* doing was abandoning the Bible and adapting its thinking to the science of ITS day, i.e. Ptolemaic cosmology, then joined with the Aristotelian scientists of the universities in rejecting Galileo.

      It seems you want to have your cake and eat it too. I’m afraid that reality doesn’t work that way.

  2. Brian – I think you’re being a bit harsh on reference to “turtles all the way down.” While loosely based on cultural metaphors about the Earth resting on the back of a turtle, the reference to this specific phrase comes from Stephen Hawking’s book “A Brief History of Time,” from an anecdote he relays in the book. It simply is a cute way to refer to an endless regression as an explanation, or more loosely to any self-referential or circular explanation. It has, essentially, taken on a life of its own, and referring to it does not imply that any particular culture actually believed in turtles all the way down.

    • I was surprised to learn how far back the joke goes, at least the 1800s. You are right that the majority of references to it are to point out the flawed logic of infinite regression. The reference I used where it was used as a straw man against ancient flat Earth myths is one of the six listed in my references, but unfortunately I did not note in which one. I can tell you that it’s not in the Garwood book. (Referencing fail)

  3. MadScientist says:

    The truth of course is that both points of view are valid. The earth is both round and flat – just like a pancake!

  4. Ed says:

    You are absolutely right that it was known that the earth was round (well, spherical) before Columbus. And there was plenty of scientific evidence to support the theory.

    But Columbus was thought to have been the first to “prove it” by heading west and ending up in the far east. Of course, we know now that Columbus missed India and the far east by about half the globe. He headed west and simply ended up further west. It was Magellan who was the first to “prove” the Earth is not flat by physically circumnavigating it.

    It’s one thing to believe the scientific theory. It’s another to set sail in a wooden ship and bet your life and the lives of your crew on it.

    Another way to look at it is that we have “known” since Einstein published his theory of relativity a number of things about the universe. But it’s not until relatively recently that certain parts of that theory have been “proven.”


    • kermit says:

      Educated Europeans have known since Eratosthenes the approximate size of the Earth, and 15th century merchants and sea captains knew that their ships (or at least a shipload of supplies) couldn’t carry them the distance from Western Europe to China. And they were right – remember those stories of Columbus’s crews ready to mutiny because they knew they had gone through more than half of their supplies (and couldn’t go home again)? If Columbus hadn’t stumbled on to a previously unknown land mass, his trio of ships would have lost their crews. It’s not clear that he ever understood that he hadn’t established a back door to Asia.

      Columbus, far from being a visionary, simply lied to himself about the math, and survived by dumb luck (bad luck for the Native Americans, though).

  5. Old Rockin' Dave says:

    The whole Flat Earth myth was spread in the United States by Thomas Paine, apparently citing older writers, and was popularized by Washington Irving’s colorful, fact-challenged, biography of Columbus. The propagation of the myth appears to me to contain elements of disdain for both European monarchies and the Catholic Church. The latter was particularly distrusted in the United States in the first half of the 19th Century.

  6. Walter says:

    “Moreover, ancient cultural references to a World Turtle were never intended to mean that the world is literally on the back of a giant turtle, any more than we believe in a literally human Mother Earth.”

    I thought a big part of Hindu tradition was the belief that the world rested on the back of a turtle. In fact, isn’t that where the idea for Discworld basically came from?

    Anyway, on a similar topic, “Hollow Earth” by David Standish is another good skeptical read. There are probably far more people alive today who honestly believe the world is hollow than flat (although still few in number).

  7. Janet Camp says:

    Isn’t there more to worry about than the relatively few cranks who cling to (the edges of?) the flat earth?

  8. Phil says:

    I have also heard the turtle story associated with Chinese mythology. I am interested in how Brian found out the turtle myth was allegorical and not taken as literal once upon a time.

    • My own research, but more importantly that of the authors who did far more research than I, found no examples of such beliefs; yet all the modern publications of such drawings come from European writers. Given the lack of any evidence, and plenty to the contrary, I’m still with the null hypothesis.

  9. Dan JM says:

    The source saying that there was virtually no educated person since the 3rd century BC who thought the earth was flat is fine and all, but that doesn’t really count for as much as he seems to think when you consider that the vast, vast majority of people throughout history were not educated. Just because some ancient Greek and Egyptian intellectuals (and the medieval Platonists influenced by them) knew the earth was round doesn’t mean that almost no one for over 2,000 years has honestly believed the earth was flat.

    I see this weird claim sometimes, where the beliefs of intellectuals are made to appear to be the belief of the overwhelming majority of a population. Using that logic in 100 years we might have people saying that there were only ever a handful of US Christian young-earth creationists, because we all know “virtually no educated scientist was a young-earth creationists.” I’ve been to dozens of churches and attended two Christian colleges who taught that it was a fact that humans and dinosaurs lived in harmony together in the garden of Eden, so the fact that just about no scientifically literate person thinks dinosaurs and humans lived together doesn’t have much bearing on if people believe it or not. And think how much difference in opinions there was between the intellectuals and the average person back before quick communication, public education, literacy, the printing press, etc. One more example, I’ve had Christians say that educated people since Hippocrates knew epillepsy had a natural cause, so it is a myth to imply that the belief that epilepsy was caused by demons or spirits was ever common. While it might be true that not many educated doctors (at least the ones who followed Galen and Hippocrates) thought epilepsy was demonic, it doesn’t mean that belief wasn’t common among the laity, church leaders, and was and still is common in other religions (including some branches of Christianity).

    • Old Rockin' Dave says:

      While the point is valid, had Columbus actually intended to prove something about the shape of the Earth, it would not have been to some Catalan cowherd but to the educated elite.

      • Dan JM says:

        True, but I’m not sure how that intersects with my point about not ascribing the beliefs of the Greek and Roman philosophers and the medieval Platonists to everyone in those cultures.