Review: Flat Earth

Christine Garwood - Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous IdeaTitle: Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea
Author: Christine Garwood
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books, 2008
Language: English

This book is at once incredibly interesting and hopelessly broken. It is seriously let down by its misleading subtitle and back cover blurb as well as by meandering aimlessly through its subject matter. Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating look at the development of science and the persistence of belief in the cold hard light of fact.

Despite claiming to be the history of the idea that the world is flat, it does away in the first chapter with the myth that any educated person in the west has thought this in the last two thousand years. Most of the text concerns various nineteenth century cults of personality who fought against man-made science dominating and eroding faith in divinely inspired biblical literalism. The bible states the earth is flat (actually, it doesn’t) and only wiked human pride says otherwise. The flat earth debate was the creationism of its time.

The examination of the psychology of the flat earth societies in Britain and America should be recommended reading for anyone interested in the development of science and modern thought. During the nineteenth century, science gradually transformed from an amateur to a professional pursuit. It was here rather than with Bacon in the middle ages that the scientific method was developed and determinations made of what was worthy of serious study and what was beyond the pale.

Then the book switch tack again to look at modern groups such as the Flat Earth Society of Canada. I would love to be a member of this bunch were they still around. After a heavy drinking session in the late 1960s, four university students started this group to point out the contradiction between people today claiming that scientific rationalism governs daily lives yet almost all people rely on received authority for their knowledge of the world as much as did their medieval ancestors. For instance, everyone knows the world is round but, with resorting to recent photos from space, how many could put forward even a single proof of it?

The one thing that the book does well is to put the lie to the claim of the media that they must present at least (and usually only) two sides to every issue. Giving equal air time to the crazy only gives them legitimacy and a sense of entitlement. It promotes doubt and uncertainty where none exists – take the current debate about climate change, for example. To my mind, this puts the responsibility squarely back on the shoulders of educators to teach critical thought and the foundations of scientific thinking.

The book is really an oblique investigation into epistemology – the study of how we know what we know – looking at the conflict between the direct “common sense” evidence of our senses (eg: the earth is stationary orbited daily by the sun) and more complete explanations which better explain all observational data.