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.
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).
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.