The idea of a Flat Earth is firmly at the far end of the conspiracy spectrum. It's an extreme conspiracy theory because the belief requires that you accept that the entire space program is a fake, designed to cover up hundreds of years of an even deeper scientific conspiracy to hoodwink people into thinking the earth is round (for no good reason). On the Flat Earth GPS does not work by satellites, but from radio towers, flights between Australia and South America are fake, the sun sets via a bizarre interpretation of "perspective", and Antartica does not exist.
To the person first looking into this theory it can be difficult to believe that the proponents actually take themselves seriously. And indeed many of them do not. Many Flat Earth popularizers are simply doing it for fun, or to make a philosophical point about people's over-reliance on the authority of science. But there are are also people who take it very seriously. Mostly they do so for religious reasons - feeling that a literal reading of the Bible (or sometimes the Koran) indicates the Earth is flat.
So what's a debunker to do? Religious beliefs are largely faith-based, and so not susceptible to reason. But the Flat Earthers attempt to provide scientific proofs of their theory, and some even claim not to be at all religious, and to be approaching it from a purely scientific viewpoint.
To understand a subject it's very useful to understand its history, and to be effective in debunking a subject, you would do well to understand the history of debunking that subject. To that end I highly recommend the book Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea, by Christine Garwood.
The book details the history of ideas about the shape of the Earth, going back to ancient times. But the focus of the book is on the flat Earth movement that sprang up in the late 1800s. An integral part of the story is the role of skeptics and debunkers who attempted to address the issues. There were many points in the book at which I literally laughed out loud with recognition. Not only at situations repeated recently in in flat Earth debunking, but more generally at how the events surrounding the flat earth debate mirrored the debates over more modern conspiracy theories like "chemtrails".
The book opens with a prologue: The Columbus Blunder, describing the origin of the misconception that Columbus proved the Earth was round. In fact the rotundity of the Earth had been known for thousands of years, and very few people of learning doubted it at the time of Columbus' journey. The misconception came about from a colorful account of Columbus' life written by Washington Irving (author of Legend of Sleepy Hollow).
Garwood identifies the Columbus myth as being central to the modern misconception that until recent times everyone though the Earth was flat. This creates the backdrop for the first chapter Surveying the Earth, where she details the evolution of ideas about the shape of the Earth. The shift in thinking from flat to round is identified as being about 2,500 year ago, in the time of Pythogoras, then Plato and Aristotle. While interesting, this chapter is perhaps a little dry, and might put off the casual reader. It can quite safely be skimmed. The important points simply being that the shape of the Earth was discovered (and proven) many hundreds of years ago.
Subsequent chapters are more interesting, as they are arranged more like character portraits. Mini-biographies of the key figures in the flat Earth movements. Often overlapping, they detail the struggles of professed believers - some genuine, some joking, some possibly charlatans. Interwoven are the stories of those opposed to the spread of the false idea.
Chapter two, A Public Sensation, tells the story of Samuel Rowbotham, and opens with:
Here we are introduced to the idea of "zetetic" thinking, a concept that is key to understanding the mindset of the flat Earth believer, both old and new. Pure zeteticism is essentially a form a scientific skepticism where ideas are believed only if you can personally verify them. It is perhaps the ultimate form of "do your own research" where not only do you have to research the evidence for an idea, but you also have to research the very foundation of science itself.
THE MODERN PUBLIC REVIVAL of the flat-earth idea was the brainchild of a travelling lecturer and quack doctor known by the pseudonym ‘Parallax’. Born in Stockport in 1816 and christened Samuel Birley Rowbotham, by the late 1830s he was managing a radical socialist commune, allied to Welsh cotton manufacturer and social reformer Robert Owen (1771– 1858), set deep in the Cambridgeshire fens. Here, in a vast, flat landscape criss-crossed by a network of watercourses and dykes, Parallax undertook various experiments to discover the shape of the earth centred on one simple question: what was the shape of the surface of water? Parallax deduced that if the earth was truly a globe, water must have a degree of convexity and this was the point he investigated with a series of experiments on a six-mile stretch of the Old Bedford Canal. During the winter when the canal was frozen, he had apparently lain flat on the ice with a good telescope and spotted skaters at Welney, six miles away, while in the summer he claimed to have seen village folk running in and out of the water, and even those who were swimming. He also made observations on boats sailing along the canal with similar results, or so he said, leading to a conclusion that the canal and the earth were flat.
Garwood, Christine (2008-08-05). Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea (pp. 36-37). St. Martin's Press. Kindle Edition.
The zetetic mindset has a surprising amount in common with the scientific skeptical mindset. The primary difference being that the scientific skeptic builds upon the solid foundation of established science, while still being open to that science being proven wrong. The scientific skeptic focusses on extraordinary claims that are at odds with established science. The zetetic, on the other hand, treats all claims as extraordinary - often relying more on a sense of personal incredulity to identify things to be suspicious about. The sun does not seem to be 93 million miles away, so for a zetetic it probably is not. Earth does not feel like it is spinning round at 1000 miles per hour, so for a zetetic it seems more likely that it is stationary. It looks flat, so it probably is flat.
The chapter details Rowbotham's attempts to popularize the flat Earth theory via a series of writings and public lectures. Somewhat at odds with zetetic philosophy he also argued from the evidence of the Bible (which he simply accepted as a universal truth). But religion was not the only motivating factor for early flat-earthers, as Garwood describes in her picture of one of Rowbotham's early converts, William Carpenter:
The quote "find out for yourself" was the first thing in the book to make me chuckle, for it so closely resembled the modern refrain "do your own research". More chuckles were to follow.After spending an hour and a half listening to Parallax’s talk at Greenwich, Carpenter said he had never doubted that the earth was flat. He recognized that his belief was ‘not popular and keeps a man back in the world’ but maintained that he ‘cared nothing’ for that. As a mesmerist and spiritualist, he had already been involved in alternative forms of science and belief, and had an established interest in experimenting with physical and metaphysical reality and challenging orthodox ideas. Although he was not motivated by a particular desire to defend the Bible, the do-it-yourself zetetic philosophy and its explicit challenge to scientific authority held an intoxicating appeal. With its egalitarian emphasis on Baconian fact-finding and practical experimentation, the call to ‘find out for yourself’, zetetic astronomy embodied one attraction of the alternative sciences alongside an appeal to scriptural truth. Despite its foundation on an erroneous ‘fact’, Parallax’s two-pronged assault on science was beginning to reap rewards, for it appears that Carpenter was attracted by the anti-elitist overtones of his zetetic campaign. He decided that he would do what he could to assist Parallax.
In 1864 an analog version of the internet existed in pen and ink. Communication was much slower. E-mail was real mail, and discussion forums were either real-life meetings or the letter pages of newspapers. The exploits of "Parallax" were often covered by local newspapers, and the letters that followed bare a striking similarity to the comments sections of more modern times.
The amateur debunkers emerge! And with such similarity to the modern flat earth debunker. Many of the arguments you would read today in a flat earth forum were first made 150 years in letter form. Including laments about the state of the education system:
[in 1864] the paper’s correspondence pages were crammed with letters from irate citizens of Plymouth, many of whom were disgusted by zetetic exploits in their town. Among those most appalled were amateur astronomers and local seamen, who wrote in droves complaining about Parallax’s ‘foolish assertions’ and his attempts to mislead the public about the most fundamental scientific facts. Keen to make amends, they offered a series of proofs for rotundity, from circumnavigation to the curved shadow of the earth during an eclipse of the moon. One sailor, from a naval and nautical school, even felt it necessary to add that during twenty years of voyaging he had never seen the ice barrier that was supposed to surround the disc-shaped earth, and Parallax’s claims to have observed boats at great distances on rivers and seas were impossible unless his eye had been elevated far above water level. Amateur astronomer James Willis agreed, declaring that as Parallax had posted himself as a teacher, he should be willing to replicate his experiments openly for all to see. This drew a response from Parallax who declared, on 6 October, that he was ready, willing and able to ‘do battle, inch by inch’ with his Newtonian opponents ‘and upon their own ground’.
And the tactics used by Rowbotham also seem to ring a bell:
It was a pity, the correspondent continued, that Parallax had not been set upon disproving the multiplication table, rather than the shape and motions of the earth, because everyone would be in a position to make their own judgement, which was patently not so in the present case. It was a sad reflection on the education system, but those who were ignorant of science ‘may just as well try to decide a dispute between two Frenchmen’ as make sense of the conflicting arguments of Parallax and a Newtonian. Personally, he concluded, he would take a sailor’s calculations over Parallax’s trickery on any day of the week.
A series of pat answers, and then when he finally hits an objection he cannot answer he simply leaves. Many of us have experienced similar things with chemtrail believers.
One correspondent, ‘Theta’, from Devonport’s famous dockyard, wrote that Parallax had been careful to use the time allotted to present his ‘facts’ in a wholesale style, reserving proofs for the short discussion and only if challenged directly. Even then, Theta continued, many found his arguments difficult to disprove without doubt, because it appeared that Parallax had an answer for every refutation. When asked why the pendulum vibrated faster towards the Poles, a well-known proof of the earth’s rotation, he said that in the case of the North Pole this was due to the expansion and contraction of the pendulum
caused by a difference in temperature; tides, meanwhile, were apparently the result of the disc-shaped earth shifting on the primordial waters rather than the effect of gravity, and when asked to account for the curved shadow of the earth cast during a lunar eclipse, Parallax had retorted simply, What proof was there that it was the shadow of the earth at all?’ It was a disgrace, Theta declared, that in the nineteenth century a man should have the audacity to stand up before an intelligent audience and contradict the established axioms of nature’s laws and call the nation’s most renowned men of science impostors. Even worse, he complained, when Parallax had hit a snag in his flimsy defence, rather than admit defeat, which would have been the gentlemanly thing to do, he simply snatched up his hat and stalked out of the venue, leaving his questioners fuming.
Garwood, Christine (2008-08-05). Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea (p. 57). St. Martin's Press. Kindle Edition.
The term "conspiracy theorist" was unknown back then, and not really applicable in the time before the space program required a deep conspiracy as explanation. In the late 1800s the term "paradox" was used for an unusual idea that contradicted known science, and "paradoxer" would somewhat be the equivalent of "conspiracy theorist". Debunking at the time might have been called "de-paradoxing", and we have some 19th century debunkers in those that addressed the paradoxers.
In the same chapter as the slick flat-earth salesman Rowbotham we are introduced to the more strident figure of John Hampden, a christian driven by his faith to promote the flat earth idea, rather less politely than Rowbotham:
... the professor of mathematics at University College London, Augustus de Morgan, delighted in the blunders of so-called ‘unhappy enthusiasts’. A lover of puns and puzzles, he coined the term ‘paradoxer’ in the 1850s to describe proponents of strange ideas that ‘deviated from general opinion, either in subject-matter, method or conclusion’. A vague definition, which if used literally would apply as much to Copernicus as to Parallax, de Morgan’s term took hold and he became well known for his wrangles with paradoxers in public and in private correspondence.
According to astronomy writer Richard Proctor, however, de Morgan ‘bore the shower of abuse’ from flat-earthers with ‘exceeding patience and good nature’, and plundered their publications for amusing articles for the Athenaeum and his posthumous bestseller, A Budget of Paradoxes (1872). De Morgan’s work was well received and magazine editors quickly followed suit with similar stories, keen to win readers with entertaining material in the booming and competitive popular-science market.
Following de Morgan’s lead, new columns, ‘corners’ and ‘braces’ of paradoxes, appeared in publications from cheap mass-circulation papers to the more highbrow journals.
Besides humour value, editors and writers had other motives in covering ‘alternative’ subjects. Some, such as Richard Proctor, saw confuting paradoxes as a useful exercise for those learning basic astronomy, pointing out that ‘nonsense-mongers’ could act as ‘foolometers’ for the better informed. He realized, however, that proponents of strange theories could prove a danger to scientific dabblers and general readers, and placed the blame for their success on the authors of badly written books. All it took, Proctor complained, was a half-understood explanation or a carelessly worded account, and the potential ‘paradoxer’ was formulating a novel theory on any given subject. Driven by over-confidence, once the paradoxer had devised his theory it seemed to take complete possession of his mind, leading him to use any available fact with the least bearing on the topic to fit his theory.
Unfortunately for astronomers, ideas about the solar system seemed to possess an inherent appeal. One reason for this, Proctor believed, was that paradoxers had an over-developed sense of their own importance, matched with a tendency to think big.
Garwood, Christine (2008-08-05). Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea (pp. 70-71). St. Martin's Press. Kindle Edition.
It would be just as easy to believe that the earth had been ‘made by fairies’ as to accept it was a globe, Hampden contended, for he was convinced that the earth was a disc bordered by an immense barrier of ice. The North Pole lay at the centre, hell festered on its underside and the South Pole was nothing but a vicious myth, the invention of ‘half-witted, well-paid journalists and schoolmasters’. In fact, Hampden branded all efforts to circumnavigate the earth ‘fools’ errands’, while the idea that ‘ships and bedsteads, elephants and bishops’ were all speeding round the sun at a thousand miles an hour, like ‘squirrels in a cage or felons on a treadmill’, was an assertion of the ‘utmost idiocy’. As for common proofs of the earth’s rotundity and revolution, such as day, night, sunrises, sunsets, the seasons and circumnavigation, Hampden dismissed them all as the result of a special zetetic law of perspective, ‘optical delusion’, ‘eyesight and eyeglass failing’ or lies concocted by ‘expert’ astronomers.
Another chuckle there, for what modern debunker has not been accused of being a "government shill", "bribed in secret"?
By 1870, Hampden was panicking that Britain was in the grip of a heinous conspiracy involving the press, the pulpits and the platforms of learned societies, all of whom were in league with science. He was particularly scornful of journalists, identifying them as the most enthusiastic scientific accomplices, bribed in secret to disseminate glaring fallacies about the shape of the earth.
The characters (Rowbotham, Carpenter, and Hampden) fully established, we come to perhaps the most well known episode in flat earth history with chapter 3, The Infamous Flat Earth Wager. This details a wager proposed by Hampden in 1870:
There are shades here again of modern theorists who offer cash for people who can prove them wrong. Generally though such modern challenges (such as the "Hiewa Challenge") are less tractable than this one, which seems like a pretty sure bet to anyone with surveying experience. And indeed one such man was Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer (with Charles Darwin) of the theory of evolution and natural selection.
What is to be said of the pretended philosophy of the 19th century, when not one educated man in ten thousand knows the shape of the earth on which he dwells? Why, it must be a huge sham! The undersigned is willing to deposit from £ 50 to £ 500, on reciprocal terms, and defies all the philosophers, divines and scientific professors in the United Kingdom to prove the rotundity and revolution of the world from Scripture, from reason or from fact. He will acknowledge that he has forfeited his deposit, if his opponent can exhibit, to the satisfaction of any intelligent referee, a convex railway, river, canal or lake. JOHN HAMPDEN.
Wallace was an interesting character. While a man of science, he was also convince spiritualism was real and attested to observing supernatural events (including levitation) during seances. This placed him somewhat on the outskirts of science, frowned upon by his contemporaries. His taking up of the wager did not help, with many feeling he was taking advantage of the mentally confused Hampden.
But the wager went ahead. The six mile long canal known as the Bedford Level was the location agreed upon. The first attempt involved fixing six flags at equal heights above the waterline, and then viewing them through a telescope. If the flags were in line that would show the water was flat, and if the middle flags were raised, then it was curved. Unfortunately it was not so simple:
So a second experiment was devised, a simpler version with taller targets that we now refer to as the "Wallace Experiment"
Telescope in place, Walsh and Carpenter stepped forward to check the view. Confused, they discovered that the six markers along the canal bank were in disarray; they could not even judge which was which, let alone decide whether the line of sight along them was flat or curved. Heated debate ensued, an angry quarrel followed, and the experiment descended into farce while Hampden apparently relaxed, enjoying the scene from a nearby barge. It appeared that Wallace’s ‘simple and conclusive test’ had been a dismal failure.
This was carried out, and the middle marker was observed to be several feet above the other markers, thus proving the surface to be curved. Unfortunately the "independent referee" John Carpenter had a bizarre reaction to the observation, literally jumping for joy and declaring that this proved the earth was flat.
A large calico sheet was hung from the Old Bedford Bridge, with a thick black band painted across its centre. Then a telescope was placed six miles south on Welney Bridge at the same distance from the water as the black band. Last, between these two points, about three miles from each bridge, a long red pole topped by a marker disc was set up, designed to fall in line with the black band and the telescope. All three points were thirteen feet three inches above the water. The plan was to view the marker disc and the black band in a line through the surveyor’s telescope. If the middle marker disc appeared below the line of sight, this would be taken as proof of the flat surface of water and Hampden would receive £ 500 from Wallace, plus his original stake of £ 500. If, on the contrary, the middle marker disc appeared above the line of sight, it would be taken as proof of the earth’s curvature and Wallace would receive £ 500 from Hampden, plus the return of his original £ 500. Wallace calculated that, even allowing for atmospheric refraction, the central marker should appear at least five feet above the line of sight from the telescope at Welney to the black band on the sheet at Old Bedford Bridge.
Arguments followed, however the holder of the stakes, John Walsh, was quickly swayed to the side of Wallace, especially after discovering that Carpenter was not independent at all, and after a few weeks the fully sum of £1,000 was paid to Wallace. Hampden was apoplectic with rage.
Chapter 4, Trials and Tribulations, details the decades long aftermath of this wager. Hampden insisted that he had been cheated. He wrote many libelous letters to (and about) Wallace, and even threatened him with violence. Eventually Wallace sued him for libel, and Hampden was fined and eventual imprisoned several times. This was financially difficult for Wallace, who had little in the way of income from his work. It nearly led to ruin when six years after the fact a court decided that since Hampden had asked for his stake back before the wager was complete, then Wallace actually had to repay Hampden his £500. Wallace however continued to flirt with the flat earth idea.
Rowbotham (Parallax) continued apace, and new "debunkers" arose to challenge him. One notable being Richard Proctor:
I find Proctor's approach fascinating, because it closely matches my own "ask them to explain their views and to remove the difficulties" - i.e. ask them why they believe as they do (their evidence) and then find the errors in their reasoning or claims of evidence. Debunking.
By November 1881, the astronomy writer Richard Proctor had embarked on a new venture of his own, establishing a twopenny illustrated magazine, Knowledge, intended to cater for the needs of the general reader. With this publication, he was determined to challenge the increasing dominance of back-slapping specialists and the literary channel for their views, Norman Lockyer’s elitist Nature. Armed with a disdain for privilege and the ‘closed shop’ mentality that seemed to accompany the professionalization of science, Proctor emphasized that Knowledge would avoid the jargon laden analyses that blocked the participation of amateurs and ordinary people. In terms of ideology and format, he was harking back to the tradition of the mechanics’ magazines earlier in the century by championing the self-improving artisan over the professional expert. Notably he had much in common with Wallace in this regard. Anti-elitist, argumentative, with a deep-seated commitment to popularization, they were both self-employed authors who truckled neither to professional authority nor to the opinions of more cautious peers. Undoubtedly, such traits were crucial to their willingness to engage with paradoxers; it is somewhat ironic that while they were vilified as pillars of the establishment by the zetetics, in the diverse world of Victorian science neither Wallace nor Proctor could be taken as representative of a conventional professional elite. Despite Proctor’s professed reluctance to debate with flat-earth believers, from the first issue of Knowledge he set out to stir up Parallax and his followers with articles alluding to paradoxers and flat-earth theory alongside the occasional editorial assault. He even allowed Hampden column space in which to ‘calmly express his views’, an experiment that seemed to end in dismal failure. Nevertheless, Proctor claimed,
I am a little pleased with my new invention for silencing paradoxists. Reasoning has been tried in vain … ridicule is ineffective, and a bad example; denunciation is idle. The plan with paradoxists is to ask them to explain their views and to remove the difficulties, which are, of course, in reality fatal. They either give up in despair, like our enthusiastic earthflattener, Mr. Hampden, or flounder so absurdly in their efforts to explain their preposterous notions, that even the unlearned (for whom alone, of course, the thing is done) see at once how hopelessly at sea the paradoxists are.
The chapter wraps up the lives of the key characters. Wallace secures a government pension and lives a quiet life, somewhat regretting he ever got involved, reflecting that ‘fifteen years of continued worry, litigation, and persecution with the final loss of several pounds’ was not worth the wager, which he finally considered to be somewhat unethical, as he knew the outcome in advance.
Rowbotham continued to fight for his beliefs, and died while in the middle of a legal battle involving them. Hampden likewise continued to obsess over Wallace to the end of his days.
The three chapters relating the exploits Rowbotham, Hampden, Carpenter, and Wallace were for me the heart of the book, the foundational tale that was largely repeated with different flavors in later chapters.
Chapter five - Lady Blount and New Zetetics recounts the tale of Lady Elizabeth Anne Mould Blount, an aristocrat who took up the cause, and pursued it with considerable vigor. She published many books and pamphlets. Interestingly she, like Rowbotham, was an advocate of alternative medicine:
There is a similar modern obsession with health to be found in many conspiracy circles. Promoters of conspiracy theories like Alex Jones sell snake-oil remedies like "Survival Shield X-2" or "Super Male Vitality" - not really different in idea to Lady Blount's Muric Acid.
Never one to rest on her laurels, Lady Blount embarked on a new project while the controversy rumbled on. One of her primary concerns had always been health, both spiritual and physical, and the newspapers reported that even in her mid-fifties she could still cycle fifty miles a day. 47 In common with other leading zetetics, she was extremely inventive and attracted to alternative medicine alongside alternative science. In the early years of the twentieth century she formulated her own version of Dr Birley’s [Rowbotham's] syrup of free phosphorus, Lady Blount’s Muric Acid, which she sold as a cure for rheumatism and gout. On a more personal level, she had taken to wearing magnetic corsets, vests and gloves for the good of her health, and having experienced beneficial results, she decided to publish something as a mark of her gratitude. The subsequent pamphlet, Magnetism as a Curative Agency (1905), was a tour de force of advertising propaganda for the company Appareil Magnétique, wherein Lady Blount waxed lyrical about the positive influence of magnetic currents on her stomach ulcers and circulation.
Chapter Six - Flat Earth Utopia - covers Wilbur Glenn Voliva, a deeply religious man who led Zion City - a planned fundamentalist christian community of 60,000 in Illinois. Voliva recited the arguments easily, and was immune to reason. After being asked a series of questions by a young Irving Wallace, he easily rattled off the answers:
And had similar nonsensical explanations for gravity, still used today by people who assert things fall because of "density"
Ships don’t disappear in the distance at all. You can see a ship twenty-five miles out at sea if you look through field glasses. According to scientists, the curvature of the earth for those twenty-five miles, allowing for refraction, should be three hundred and fifty-eight feet. If the earth is round, how can you see your ship over a hump of water three hundred and fifty-eight feet high? … As for that round shadow on the moon, the flat earth would still cast a round shadow. A saucer is round, isn’t it? … Of course Magellan sailed round the world and came back to where he started. He went round the flat earth exactly as a needle goes round a gramophone record. Millions of men have sailed round the world from east to west, and west to east. It can be done on a saucer, too. But do you know of anyone who has ever sailed round the world from north to south? Of course not. Those who tried fell off. That’s why so many explorers have disappeared.
Chapter Seven - Man on the Moon - covers Samuel Shenton, the leader of the International Flat Earth Research Society, in England in the 1950s onwards. This time was uniquely challenging for Flat Earther, as the space program was getting into full swing, and each new event - satellite launches, space walks, the Apollo missions around the moon, and finally the moon landings themselves - seemed like fatal blows to the flat earth idea. Shendon claimed to be initially disheartened, but quickly recovered and simply doubled down by claiming that they were all fake, the entire space program was fake, and the astronauts were either lying or had been brainwashed. He became a popular fellow for the press to interview after every success in space, but he continued on his path.
How is it that a law of gravitation can pull up a toy balloon and cannot put up a brick? I throw up this book. Why doesn’t it go on up? That book went up as far as the force behind it forced it and it fell because it was heavier than the air and that is the only reason. I cut the string of a toy balloon. It rises, gets to a certain height and then it begins to settle. I take this brick and a feather. I blow the feather. Yonder it goes. Finally, it begins to settle and comes down. The brick goes up as far as the force forces it and then it comes down because it is heavier than the air. That is all.
As before, Shenton received correspondence from critics and debunkers:
Of course their careful diagrams did not work, Shenton continued his work until his death in 1971.
Such merciless remarks ranged from ‘My mother feels that you are a ridiculous bunch of holdouts’ to ‘I fully realize that many people have called you quacks and attention-getters’, and among this, there was pity in abundance. Many people wrote to Shenton seeking to explain aspects of astronomy, geometry and gravity, enclosing photographs of the earth from space or diagrams painstakingly constructed with compasses and set-squares to add emphasis and clarity to their well-proven points. Caring correspondents frequently wrote of how they were only attempting to be of assistance
Garwood, Christine (2008-08-05). Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea (p. 278). St. Martin's Press. Kindle Edition.
Chapter Eight, The View From the Edge, is rather different in that it details the work of Leo Ferrari with the Flat Earth Society of Canada. FESC was actually a satirical organization - part joke, and part philosophical statement on the over-reliance on science and technology. Ferrari explained in an interview with J. William Johnson:
This message caught the attention of astronomer Bryan Andrew:
‘You think we’re crazy, don’t you?’ Ferrari asked. ‘On the contrary,’ Johnson had replied, ‘from what I’ve just read, I get the feeling your stand on the shape of the earth is not really what you’re trying to say.’ Ferrari leaped on the point. ‘Exactly,’ he admitted. We’re not really obsessed with the shape of the earth. We say it’s flat to dramatize our desire to keep our God-given senses from being numbed by technology. To provide some resistance to the forces of conformity.’ Echoing the neo-romanticism of radical sixties science critics, Ferrari insisted that the FESC had been established to promote the idea that a scientific world-view was not the only possible perspective. Myths and mystery were dead, he continued, and human world-views required adjustment before rationality ran out of control. ‘Believe what you see!’ he declared; the point was critical thinking. Invoking G. K. Chesterton’s remark that ‘A man should always question the strongest beliefs of his age, for those convictions are invariably too strong’, Ferrari said that the FESC intended to present an annual award to those who ‘defied the dictates of popular prejudice and made an outstanding contribution to the Cause of Common Sense’.
I suspect many people who currently argue for a flat Earth do so for similar reasons. But it's very hard to tell.
Entitled ‘In Defence of the Flat Earth Society’, [Andrew] had tailored his piece to suit a scientific audience. ‘The first reaction of most of you on hearing of the Flat Earth Society was probably one of scorn, disdain and disbelief,’ he began. ‘Or to put it more simply “Cranks”.’ Andrew admitted that this had been his own reaction on first encountering the society through Take Thirty, and it was some ten minutes into the programme before he had begun to suspect that he was being duped. The experience made him question his own conditioned reflex, and after reading some FES literature he had seen that the society was more than ‘a bunch of loony jokers indulging in some relatively harmless fun’. Although such a judgement certainly had some relevance, he admitted, he informed his readers that there was an undercurrent of seriousness to the society’s purpose that was deserving of further consideration.
Most telling for him was the assertion that, while everyone accepted without question that the earth was a globe, not one person in twenty could have provided, before the age of Apollo, one cogent reason why this was so. Although everyday common sense told most people that the earth was flat, they continued to believe implicitly that it was a sphere – because this fact had been imparted to them repeatedly and with confidence. For Andrew, this was a critical point about the public understanding of science and the social role of expertise, and was ‘surely an appalling condemnation, not only of our own failure as scientists to explain ourselves, but of the unthinking gullibility of man’. That a fact becomes truth was not due to its demonstrability or even to its implicit veracity but to repetition, lazy-minded acceptance and the authority with which it was told. Andrew noted that it was an uncomfortable fact of life that ‘if you say something often enough and assertively enough, eventually what you say will be believed without question’. In a world where increasing specialization created communication difficulties and the appearance of authority could outweigh the substance of an argument, Andrew argued that the public were at risk:
In an age of overwhelming technological and sociological change … experts, self-anointed or CBC-appointed, continue to offer us facile answers to complex questions. We are told that all we need is universal love, the abolition of the motor car, health food, communes, moustaches … We are told that all we need are price and wage controls, no strikes, law and order, everybody working, and short hair. 50
For Andrew what people truly required was the ability to think for themselves, and by pinning their campaign on an eye-catching, heretical idea the FES was successfully drawing attention to this crucial point.
Chapter Nine - The Californian Connection - tells the tale of Charles Johnson, a flat Earth promoter who was not joking. In fact he essentially inherited the International Flat Earth Research Society from Samuel Shenton, setting it up again in California as the IFERSA ('A' for America). The IFERSA had over 200 members, and is somewhat reminiscent of a type of "alternative" Facebook discussion group which provides a safe place for beleivers, but bans dissenting opinion:
Schadewald became an expert on the Flat Earth belief, wrote often about them, and worked on a book on the subject. A perfectionist, he unfortunately did not finish the book, but it was finished posthumously, and can be read online. It is very similar in structure to Garwood's book.
Moreover, Johnson claimed that it was not merely a hardcore of fee-paying members who supported his cause: he had thousands of unregistered followers who concealed their beliefs to avoid animosity in their daily lives. For people of this type, Johnson was happy to provide confidential membership, a safe haven and a spiritual sanctuary in the IFERSA, and his recruitment flyer welcomed individuals of ‘goodwill who seek the truth [,] also known as the Facts’. Meanwhile ‘stupid, mindless, brute beasts with two feet whose only aim is to scoff’ were deemed ineligible for membership and every applicant was required to sign a statement agreeing never to defame the group.
Although research suggests that Johnson had many serious members, some inquisitive non-believers also negotiated the selection procedure and chief among them was Robert Schadewald, a science writer who assisted in making the society known to a broad audience with a series of fair-minded
fair-minded articles. Entirely frank about his globularist stance, he was careful to adopt an ethical and factual approach in his dealings with Johnson in his numerous publications about the society. Yet even this led to dispute. Much to his amusement, Schadewald was expelled from the group on the grounds of his ‘spherical tendencies’ and on another occasion received a letter from Johnson’s attorney forbidding him to publish anything pertaining to the IFERSA.
In the epilogue - Myths and Meaning, Garwood reflects on the Flat Earth movement. Easily dismissed and ridiculed, instead Garwood argues we should learn from it because it makes valid points about how we know what is true, and what the role of science is in that knowledge.
While the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ were more enlightened than is commonly supposed, conventional wisdom about modern-day believers is similarly limited; they are a minority so much maligned and little understood that their very existence has been the subject of some dispute. Yet contrary to popular perception, a tiny minority of people still believe the earth to be flat and simple stereotypes or invocations of insanity will not do. With Christianity playing such a critical role alongside the complexities of human psychology, flat-earth belief is deserving of notice beyond shallow ridicule and jokes. The zetetic campaigners certainly possessed a rationale, however misguided, for deviating from commonly held opinion in the face of seemingly incontrovertible proof. Neither grasping charlatans nor curious throwbacks, the principal public flat-earth believers were serious-minded individuals, widely read and irrevocably committed to their perception of truth. What they shared was an eccentric standard for the assessment of evidence and a willingness to launch a public campaign in support of a highly unorthodox world-view.
From personal interaction, political rhetoric and media coverage, to talk-show interviews and school textbooks, can you really believe what you see or read without investigating the subject at first hand? Do we possess adequate knowledge to trust without doubt what an apparent expert is telling us, or do we have little alternative in the majority of cases but to take them at their word? Besides the photographs from space or a schoolroom globe, how do you really know that the earth is a sphere? Could you refute complex counter-arguments effectively enough to conclusively prove your case? Has a teacher, author or journalist ever told you that medieval people believed the world to be flat, that Columbus discovered it round, that Galileo was persecuted for challenging flat-earth belief or that Darwin’s On the Origin of Species caused all-out warfare between science and religion from its publication in 1859? Writ large, the issue is how we receive and reject our knowledge and how we accept what is truth.