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flat earth

18 july 2009

Contrary to popular-music belief, they did not all laugh at Christopher Columbus when he said the world was round. They laughed at him for wanting to sail around a world that everybody knew was round. Central to Christine Garwood's engrossing Flat Earth is the basic fact that natural historians since classical Greece have put the roundness of the earth into the "duh" category. Medieval man knew that the world was round; it took modernity to produce serious flat-earthers.

Flat Earth is a series of vignettes that portray the principal flat-earth proponents, from the Victorian huckster known as "Parallax" to the touchingly isolated Charles K. Johnson, who kept the flat-earth faith into the 21st century in (where else?) California. Flat-earth philosophers have sometimes been lunatics, like Parallax's associate John Hampden, who bet the great naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace £500 that observations would show the world was flat – and then refused to believe the observations that proved just the opposite. Flat-earthers have sometimes been con artists; Parallax was something of a publicity hound, and Lady Elizabeth Anne Mould Blount (1850-1935) superintended a dentistry scam that deprived subscribers of their teeth on the false promise of custom dentures.

But the most interesting characters in Garwood's narratives are the earnest believers, those in it for neither paranoia nor pecunia. Charles Johnson and his predecessor, Englishman Samuel Shenton, are the archetypal 20th-century flat-earthers. They combined a healthy skepticism in scientific matters with an odd credulousness when it came to Scripture. Both became minor celebrities in an age of space travel and satellite communication. Mass media, eager to quote colorful contrarians, would call upon Shenton, and later Johnson, for commentary when obvious round-earthy events made news, like men walking on the Moon or the Challenger disaster. The resulting human-interest stories were a mix of schoolyard mockery and the indomitable human spirit. No matter what pictures were broadcast from space, Shenton and Johnson had some kind of answer that reconfirmed their planoterrestrialism.

The fact that the earth is round is visible to anyone who watches a ship go out to sea – or here in shipless North Texas, to any Interstate driver who watches the Dallas skyline come up over the prairie horizon. But for mundane purposes, the local earth is flat enough to be represented by a road map. Unless you're Buzz Aldrin, you've never really seen the whole globe at once. Hence the peculiar balance that makes flat-earthery not quite lunatic enough to be unthinkable, but far enough beyond common sense to fall into the realm of the pretty screwy. Garwood, at many points, traces parallels between flat-earth belief and creationism. Creation "scientists," however, are sober characters compared to their flat-earth brethren. (In fact, flat-earthers and creationists have tended to despise one another – flat-earthers aghast that creationists accede to round-world principles, and creationists appalled by the flat-earth tendency to bring scripturally-based science into disrepute.) Evolution, unlike the globe, is not available to the senses, even subtly. It stands at the end of a chain of inferences that amplify the data of our senses.

There will always be people who won't believe in fish if you hand them a tuna sandwich. But there will also be people who believe in Bigfoot if you tell them that your crazy cousin Rachel's cable guy's brother-in-law once found a size 19 footprint in the woods. Science is ultimately built on the skepticism of the former. Every child who takes seventh-grade geography should doubt that the world is round and ask to be led through the proofs. Every freshman biology major in college should start out as a creationist. But unlike flat-earthers or intelligent-designers, both our budding skeptics should be amenable to being convinced by the evidence. One of the more intriguing chapters in Flat Earth concerns the Flat Earth Society of Canada, a Goon-Show-like team of pranksters who provoked skepticism by adopting the most outrageous pseudo-scientific stances. The FESC eventually dissolved into anomie, but for a while they challenged the youth of Canada to question authority, using a stand-up-comedy approach to critical thinking.

Garwood's story ends with Charles Johnson's death in 2001. One would think that the Internet would be a hive of flat earth buzz that could provide Garwood with material for a sequel, but she doesn't go there. With good reason, I think. The first page of Google results for "flat earth" features a desultory discussion form, a kind of watered-down FESC-like site peppered with jokes, a computer-security company, and a brand of snack chips. The world isn't as flat as it used to be.

Perhaps flat-earth thought is a kind of snack chip for the mind, but even junk food can inspire critical thinking and an appreciation for the extremes of human potential. Christine Garwood's book inspires both.

Garwood, Christine. Flat Earth: The history of an infamous idea. 2007. New York: St. Martin's, 2008.