Perceptions of Belief in a Flat Earth


This is a wood engraving by an unknown artist that first appeared in Camille Flammarion's "L'atmosphère: météorologie populaire" (1888). The image depicts a man crawling under the edge of the sky, showiing it as a solid hemisphere, to look at the mysterious Empyrean beyond. The caption underneath the engraving (not shown here) translates to "A medieval missionary tells that he has found the point where heaven and Earth meet."

This is a wood engraving by an unknown artist that first appeared in Camille Flammarion’s “L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire” (1888). The image depicts a man crawling under the edge of the sky, showiing it as a solid hemisphere, to look at the mysterious Empyrean beyond. The caption underneath the engraving (not shown here) translates to “A medieval missionary tells that he has found the point where heaven and Earth meet.”

It’s a wonderful thing, the imagination of humankind. It has brought us the wonders of science and technology, the ideals of freedom and democracy, the inspiration to question, and the desire to help others, to name only a few positive attributes of the human imagination. It also fosters sometimes weird, esoteric, and just plain wrongheaded ideas.

One of those, at least in the current world in which evidence to the contrary abounds, is the persistent belief that the Earth is flat. The idea of a flat Earth has always been with humanity, and evidence to the contrary has not always been persuasive for those with a desire to believe the Earth is flat.

While this might have been an easily accepted concept from the perspective of humans limited to the surface of this planet this is not so much a rational perspective in the modern world. As recently as 1945 this belief was listed as the second of “twenty critical errors in history” in relation to the idea that Columbus proved that the world was round. He didn’t, anyone educated knew differently, so did sailors and travelers around the globe.

Still the belief persist. There are fascinating individuals such as Samuel Birley Rowbotham (1816-1884), who took the pseudonym “Parallax,” and began what he called “Zetetic astronomy” to promote a flat Earth theory. This “Zetetic” theory has fueled the modern concept of the flat Earth and it persists with formally organized groups to the present. Sometimes those adopting this belief, such as Wilbur Glenn Voliva and his followers in the utopian community of Zion, Illinois, were motivated by biblical fundamentalism.

Leo Ferrari, the philosophy professor who co-founded the Flat Earth Society in 1970.

Leo Ferrari, the philosophy professor who co-founded the Flat Earth Society in 1970.

Others, not so much. One of the most interesting organizations in this arena was the Flat Earth Society of Canada, organized in 1970 by Professor Leo Ferrari, St. Thomas Aquinas University. Ferrari took a decidedly post-modern approach to this subject and argued for personal decisions about the nature of the Earth. He asked everyone to overturn the authority of experts in favor of their own observations, and asked if individual perceptions were that the Earth was round or flat. It represented a fascinating and cockeyed perspective on modern society, made all the more so by outrageous street theater from Ferrari’s group.

At some level, this insistance on a belief that is clearly disprovable represents one of the most interesting aspects of our post-modern society. Who is to say what is true? does one decide for oneself, or does one trust in the authority of others, presumably specialists who know more about the subject.

A fascinating issue to be considered when thinking about such things as belief in a flat Earth, it seems to me, revolves around issues of scientific versus other types of authority. A hallmark of the scientific revolution was the privileging of scientific knowledge over other types—political, religious, economic, social, or cultural. Deference to this authority reached a zenith in the middle twentieth century, as it embedded intrinsically into the philosophy of Progressivism at the turn of the twentieth century emphasizing professionalism and scientific and technological expertise over politics in the solving of national problems.

A backlash occurred through several avenues, epitomized by one critic, Ralph E. Lapp, who characterized the rise of the scientific and technical elite as The New Priesthood, stated in his 1965 book. He urged Americans not to abdicate their political power to these elites, whom he believed were no better prepared to give answers than anyone else. “Like any other group in our society, science has its full share of personalities—wide-gauge and narrow-track minds, sages and scoundrels, trail-blazers and path-followers, altruists and connivers,” he wrote. “To say that science seeks the truth does not endow scientists as a group with special wisdom of what is good for society” (pp. 227-28).

A representation, with tongue firmly in cheek, of a flat Earth.

A representation, with tongue firmly in cheek, of a flat Earth.

In addition, the juxtaposition of the forces of modernity in relation to the concept of a flat Earth and the emergence of postmodernity, might also affect understandings. Historian of science Paul Forman suggests that trends from modernity, with its emphasis on the authority of experts, to postmodernity, with a tendency toward rejection of rule-following and questioning of what constitutes both knowledge and the authority to decide it, have been profound in the last few decades of the twentieth century.

Such an alteration of perspectives may have affected significantly the manner in which ideas about the flat Earth have been accepted or not in Western Civilization.

At some point I hope to do more with this subject. I am pursuing research for a book entitled “Envisioning the Earth: Conceptions of this Planet from the Flat Earth to Gaia.” I hope to do more with the flat Earth concept there. Ideas are welcome.

This entry was posted in History, Lunar Exploration, Personal, Religion, Science and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Perceptions of Belief in a Flat Earth

  1. A very interesting article. I covered the same topic recently on Windows into History with some quotes from an 1885 book on the subject: http://windowsintohistory.wordpress.com/2015/07/31/our-flat-earth-snippets-21/

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  2. mike shupp says:

    There’s an old Steve Allen or Ernie Kovacs routine in which a scientist or other authority answers questions from listeners. One question was on the order of “If the world is round, wouldn’t people on the bottom side be falling off?” Allen’s answer was “This is a common misperception. Actually people are falling off all the time.”

    I do hope you can track this down and use it in your book.

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  3. launiusr says:

    Great comment. Let me see if I can find a source.

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  4. Leo Ferrari was not a genuine believer in FE theory, just so you know….

    But anyhow, I was quite in the same camp, finding the very notion of the Flat Earth to be patently absurd on it’s face, and so when a few friends of mine started bandying the idea about, I set out to debunk them, more for my own personal enjoyment than anything, in seeing their idiotic speculations get slammed back in their faces.

    Unfortunately, my efforts only wound up in having to eat a fair amount of crow in the end….

    For starters, I am curious. Are you sure you have ever even seen an authentic photograph of the globe Earth from Space?? Are you sure you’ve seen an authentic photograph of ANY of the planets, for that matter? I know you think such questions are themselves insane. So did I, until I actually set out to find some myself.

    Do you believe the United States really landed on the moon in 1969? I did. And then I started being confronted with some very puzzling, and yet simple, questions indeed. For instance, how did the Apollo astronauts, both in the “lunar capsule”, and in their suits on the moon’s surface, manage to have Air Conditioning, when there was absolutely no possible means of convection, no known way (even today) through which heat could be transferred from within the space suits/ship to the outside, without the circulation of air, or some kind of refridgerent. The technology simply does not exist, and yet, we all assume that the astronauts were merrily bouncing around on the moon’s surface, in several hundred degree heat, with A/C units magically contained in their backpacks (along with all their air supply) all of which ran on nothing but battery power. (EVERYTHING, supposedly running on batteries, for two weeks!) This little issue alone is enough to keep one busy for several hours. Best of luck to you, if you are so inclined. It’s much easier to scoff and write it all off as insane conspiracy theory of course, and much more difficult to prove that such claims are actually false…

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