Scientists hope to dispel antiscience prejudices by better science education, and pundits hope to sway public opinion on issues like Obamacare or global warming by presenting the public with accurate facts and expert reports. Such hopes are grounded in a misunderstanding of how humans actually think. Most of our views are shaped by communal groupthink rather than individual rationality, and we cling to these views because of group loyalty. Bombarding people with facts and exposing their individual ignorance is likely to backfire. Most people don’t like too many facts, and they certainly don’t like to feel stupid.
In a footnote to a previous post I worried that in a post on Columbus and the flat earth myth Valerie Strauss had preferred the opinions of a mathematician over the expertise of a historian. And in fact, Strauss did prefer the dilettante to the expert. She rejected the historian’s conclusions, which were based in training, evidence, and experience, and relied instead on the opinions of a non-expert, which ignored both evidence and experts.
Perhaps because she is awed by mathematics or assumes scientists are smarter than everybody else, Strauss aped the mathematician Robert Osserman’s fantasy about people in the early middle ages believing in a flat earth. Osserman was an accomplished mathematician at Stanford. He was also celebrated for bringing “math to a broad audience.” Turns out, he also happens to have been a flat earther.
For reasons that make little sense, Osserman repeats a particular version of the flat earth myth in his Poetry of the Universe. Chapter 2, “Encompassing the Earth,” opens with a rejection of the idea that Columbus proved the earth was round. Osserman even calls out this myth, saying
One of the enduring myths of the Western world is that in order to gain support for his expeditions, Christopher Columbus had to first overcome a pervasive belief that the earth was flat rather than round …
So far, so good. But then Osserman succumbs to the fantasy,
The myth undoubtedly stems in part from a compression of the historical past, conflating the early Middle Ages, when a belief in a flat earth was indeed widespread in Europe, with the late Middle Ages…
No, the myth doesn’t stem from a “compression of the historical past” but rather a willful rejection of the historical past, a willful rejection of historical fact, a willful rejection of evidence, and a profound intellectual laziness validated by arrogance and hubris. I am confident that Osserman had multiple colleagues at Stanford who could have explained to him how his beliefs were wrong, were myths. All he had to do was dial an extension or walk across campus and ask them. But he chose not to. He chose, instead, to traffic in a myth, to spread misinformation, and to do so with the authority of being a “mathematician.”
That authority was persuasive. It dazzled Strauss and convinced her to reject the expertise of the historian in favor of the unfounded beliefs of the mathematician. Her preference for the mathematician has, in turn, disseminated the myth yet further, now robed in the authority of a Washington Post column that claims to be grounded in research and to be a resource for teachers and parents. Unfortunately, Strauss has mislead the teachers, parents “(and everyone else)” who reads her column.
I marvel at the power of that old chestnut about people in the middle ages believing the earth was flat. Even a person who rejects the myth that Columbus proved the earth was a sphere nevertheless trots out the poor, benighted medieval Europeans as believers in a flat earth. Consider, for example, Valerie Strauss’s post for the Washington Post: “Busting a myth about Columbus and a flat Earth.” Despite the promising title, she traffics in one of the typical versions of the flat earth myth.
Strauss celebrates scholars in antiquity who knew the earth was a spherical. Aristotle, Euclid, Ptolemy, these people got it right. Medieval Europeans, however, were apparently not so bright. On the basis of no evidence, she claims:
During the early Middle Ages, it is true that many Europeans succumbed to rumor and started believing that they lived on a flat Earth.
In her story, medieval Europeans were back on the right track by the 1200s CE, when texts like Sacrobosco’s De sphaera “discussed the Earth’s shape.”
Strauss has no excuse for making this claim. She is simply and demonstrably wrong. And she should know it.
Strauss cites Jeffrey Burton Russell’s book, Inventing the Flat Earth, implying that she has read it. If she has, she can’t also believe that people in the early middle ages thought the earth was flat. If she has read even the first 30 or so pages of Russell’s book, she will recognize her version of this myth as one of the most common. Russell spends some time surveying this form of the flat earth myth:
Another version of the Error is that the ancient Greeks may have known that the world was round, but the knowledge was lost (or suppressed) in medieval darkness.… Many inconsistent varieties of this version exist: The knowledge was lost in the first century A.D., or the second, or the fifth, or the sixth, or the seventh; and on the other end it was lost until the fifteenth century, or the twelfth, or the eighth. The mildest variety, therefore, posits only a few years of darkness from the flattening of the Greek earth to the rounding of the modern one.
Yet Strauss seems as committed as ever to a Dark Ages model of history, complete with its flat earth fantasy.
Two further thoughts:
First, I am particularly worried because Strauss’s myth-busting post appeared on her regular column, “The Answer Sheet,” which she characterizes as a “A school survival guide for parents (and everyone else).” How many parents and everyone else’s have read and been misinformed by Strauss’s “survival guide?” At least one other person has read, believed, and repeated Strauss’s claim about medieval Europeans thinking the earth was flat.
On April 15 the anonymous blog, “Today in History,” posted “Columbus’s Flat Earth.” Borrowing closely from Strauss, the author asserts:
Since Columbus owned a copy of an ancient Greek book [i.e., Ptolemy’s Geography] that outlined the reasons why the earth must be round, he did not believe that the earth was flat. So did anyone ever believe that the earth was flat? Actually, yes. During the Middle Ages in Europe, many people began to believe the rumors that the earth was actually flat.
Actually, no. During the Middle Ages in Europe, almost nobody began to believe or likely even heard any rumors that the earth was actually flat. The person who runs “Today in History” claims to be “someone who love history” and is “passionate about learning” and hopes to “provide more insight into event in the past.” Alas, duped by Strauss’s “survival guide” the person who runs “Today in History” is passing on misinformation and falsehoods.
Second, I also worry that Strauss believes expertise in mathematics is somehow a) applicable to other, non-scientific domains of knowledge and b) superior to historical expertise. Why else would she gratuitously cite a mathematician for evidence that “Columbus did not worry that he would fall off the Earth’s edge.”
On the one hand, Strauss’s post reflects willful ignorance and dogmatic rejection of evidence. On the other hand, Strauss’s post reflects historians’ failure to dispel this myth. Despite all our ranting and raving, we historians have failed to communicate with audiences, e.g., scientists, journalists and authors, politicians, educators, etc. I have fared no better in various efforts to combat this myth (some of which you can find by searching this blog for flat earth).
I can only guess that Strauss means by “early Middle Ages” some portion of the millennium between Ptolemy and Sacrobosco. ↩
J.B. Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth (1991), 28–29. ↩
Perhaps the other book Strauss cites, R. Osserman, Poetry of the Universe makes this asinine claim. I haven’t had a chance to look at it. If it does, and if she preferred to accept the comments of a mathematician over those of a historian, i.e., to accept the opinion of a non-expert over the knowledge of an expert, we have other problems. ↩
“As part of Groupon’s commitment to science,” the online coupon site offered on April 1 a special on 2-D, flat earth globes.
The description neatly poked fun at the recent NBA fad to claim the earth is flat—gotta like referring to Shaquille O’Neal as “The Big Aristotle”—as well as conspiracy theories about NASA hiding evidence that the polar ice caps are really ice walls around the rim. I guess we’ll find out when they melt.
Sadly, it is no longer available. But if you really want one, contact me. I along with more than 680 other people downloaded the PDF. In case you missed it, I covered the PDF to a JPG (option-click or right-click to download).