Tag: Flat earth

A Tabernacle-Shaped Earth

Illustration of the world in a tabernacle, from a 9th-century copy of Cosmas Indicopleustes’s “Topographia Christiana,” BAV, vat. graec. 699, fol. 43r

Although Cosmas Indicopleustes is far from a household name, he enjoys an outsized reputation (at least in the abstract) as a representative of the benighted medieval belief that the earth was flat. To be sure, in his “Topographia Christiana” he says the earth is a parallelogram surrounded by oceans. Moreover, this parallelogram-shaped earth was stuffed inside a tabernacle-shaped cosmos. He thought the cosmos must be shaped like a tabernacle because its shape had inspired Moses to construct the Biblical tabernacle. Cosmas was not, however, a geographer nor was his “Topographia Christiana” clearly meant to represent physical reality. Moreover, there’s little evidence that anybody before the late 17th or early 18th century cared about Cosmas’s ideas. This didn’t stop people like Andrew White from making up stories about Cosmas having influenced medieval ideas about the construction of the earth. Alas.[1]


  1. I’ve written about Cosmas before.  ↩

A. R. Wallace and “preter-human intelligences”

In “Wallace’s Woeful Wager” Dana Hunter tells the story of A. R. Wallace’s bet with John Hampden about the shape of the earth. In her version, Wallace—“venerable 19th century man of science”—was duped by scheming, doltish, young-earth creationists who assailed science with Biblical passages and ignored evidence in defense of their flat-earth beliefs. Hunter is right: there was no way Wallace was going to win that bet. Hampden and his friends were not going to be convinced by Wallace’s evidence. But that’s the problem with evidence, it is never free of the bias people bring to it. Wallace himself suffered from a similar problem: like Hampden he ignored or explained away inconvenient evidence and assailed science with arguments from authority.

To call A. R. Wallace a “venerable 19th century [sic] man of science” stretches our comfortable notions of “man of science” and ignores the fact that for many 19th-century “men of science” Wallace was, well, not all that venerable.[1] Science, for Wallace, included all sorts of ideas that we would now reject, ideas that undermine the rational science vs. dogmatic religion framework that animates Hunter’s post. Take, for example, Wallace’s provocative pamphlet The Scientific Aspect of the Supernatural that was dismissed by many of the scientists he sent it to.[2] Here he argued against miracles as violations of the laws of nature, but argued for “preter-human intelligences”—“intelligent beings [that] may exist around and among us, unperceived during our whole lives, and yet capable under certain conditions of making their presence known by acting on matter”—and the power of mediums to summon spirits.

Over the next few decades his belief in spirits and other spiritual forces continued to grow. He became convinced of his own ability to focus mesmeric energy, despite the medical profession’s opposition to mesmerism, which he dismissed out of hand as ignorance and prejudice. In his autobiography, My Life, Wallace says:

…I found that I had considerable mesmeric power myself, and could produce all the chief phenomena on some of my patients; while I also satisfied myself that almost universal opposition and misrepresentations of the medical profession were founded upon a combination of ignorance and prejudice.

Wallace’s biography and his Miracles and Modern Spiritualism (1896) attest to his unwavering belief in spirits and his own mesmeric powers as well as those of his brother.[3] Conviction and belief shaped Wallace’s interpretation of evidence and trumped the arguments of experts. He reported knocking sounds and tables floating in the air and other evidence of “preter-human intelligences” acting in our world. In many instances, Wallace’s evidence is nothing more than the reports of witnesses he considered reliable and who hold important posts in society, that is, authorities. In other cases, he experienced the phenomena himself—it’s hard to know what Wallace experienced when he says:

I will only state here that I was so fortunate as to be able to see the simpler phenomena, such as rapping and tapping sounds and slight movements of a table in a friend’s house, with no one present but his family and myself, and that we were able to test the facts so thoroughly as to demonstrate that they were not produced by the physical action of any one of us. Afterwards, in my own house, similar phenomena were obtained scores of times, and I was able to apply tests which showed that they were not caused by any one present. A few years later I formed one of the committee of the Dialectical Society, and again witnessed, under test conditions, similar phenomena in great variety, and in these three cases, it must be remembered, no paid mediums were present, and every means that could be suggested of excluding trickery or the direct actions of any one present were resorted to.

Whatever Wallace experienced, he knew what it demonstrated. Wallace’s refusal to see evidence (e.g., of trickery) or entertain other explanations for the evidence (e.g., fraud) looks a lot like Hampden’s refusal to consider evidence that contradicted his beliefs.

There’s a symmetry in all this. Hampden and Co. ignored or interpreted evidence to suit their beliefs. Wallace ignored or interpreted evidence to suit his beliefs. Now Hunter treats both Hampden and Wallace as evidence to suit her own beliefs.

I am not offering some backhanded defense of Hampden (or attack of Wallace)—he was a nut job (as was Wallace in his own way). I am trying to draw attention to the ways that Hunter’s caricature of Hampden does little to help us understand what he was doing and why it was kooky, just as her sanitized version of Wallace similarly prevents us from understanding this “man of science.” Both versions distort the past by projecting our values and prejudices onto that past and thereby obscuring any lessons that we might learn from it.[4] And, in the end, casting the Wallace-Hampden wager as an early version of our science (i.e., reason) vs. religion (i.e., stupidity) debate ignores evidence that doesn’t suit our present beliefs.


  1. Christine Garwood does a nice job explaining how and why Wallace’s peers were upset that he even accepted Hampden’s bet. Wallace had, they thought, undermined science by implying that the shape of the earth was debatable. Moreover, Wallace did not have the expertise to defend the shape of the earth—that should have been left to an astronomer like Astronomer Royal George Airy. See Christine Garwood, Flat Earth. The History of an Infamous Idea, pp. 79–117.
    Wallace’s continued belief in spiritualism and mesmerism put him at odds with many of his contemporaries, who increasingly thought poorly of him for it.  ↩

  2. Huxley’s response to Wallace is great (reproduced in Wallace’s My Life):

    I am neither shocked nor disposed to issue a Commission of Lunacy against you. It may be all true, for anything I know to the contrary, but really I cannot get up any interest in the subject. I never cared for gossip in my life, and disembodied gossip, such as these worthy ghosts supply their friends with, is not more interesting to me than any other. As for investigating the matter—I have half a dozen investigations of infinitely greater interest to me—to which any spare time I may have will be devoted. I give it up for the same reason I abstain from chess—it’s too amusing to be fair work, and too hard work to be amusing.  ↩

  3. In some of these stories Wallace and his brother abuse (or are duped by) Indian boys by enticing them into their home and sending them into trances. In return, Wallace and his brother would give them “a copper” or a little present when they released the boys from the trance:

    I will here only add that my brother Herbert also possessed the power, and that when we were residing together at Manaos, he used to call up little Indian boys out of the street, give them a copper, and by a little gazing and a few passes send them into the trance state, and then produce all the curious phenomena of catalepsy, loss of sensation, etc., which I have already described. This was interesting because it showed that the effects could be produced without any expectation on the part of the patients, and, further, that similar phenomena followed as in Europe, although these boys had certainly no knowledge of such phenomena. One day, I remember, when we were going out collecting, we entered an Indian’s hut, where we had often been before, and my brother quietly began mesmerizing a young man nearly his own age. He did not entrance him, but obtained enough influence to render his arm rigid. This he instantly relaxed, and asked the Indian to lie down on the floor, which he did. My brother then made a pass along his body, and said, “Lie there till we return.” The man tried to rise but could not, though several of his relatives were present. We then walked out, he crying and begging to be loosed. Thinking he would certainly overcome the influence we went on, and coming back about two hours later we found the man still on the ground, declaring he could not get up. On a pass from my brother and his saying, “Now get up,” he rose easily. We gave him a small present, but he did not seem much surprised or disturbed, evidently thinking we were white medicine-men. Here, again, it seemed to me pretty certain that the induced temporary paralysis was a reality, and by no means due to the imagination of the usually stolid Indian.  ↩

  4. Take, for example, Hampden’s pamphlet, The Popularity of Error. In it he defends the Bible and gestures to the Scriptures but doesn’t site any passages. Instead, it rehearses a simple set of common-sensical objections to both a spherical earth and a mobile earth. What jumps out of his pamphlet are not the Bible verses (there are none) but his opposition to Newton and Copernicus and his efforts to dismiss both as merely offering theories or hypotheses. There may be something interesting about the Hampden’s approach here and current efforts to dismiss global warming or evolution as mere hypotheses and theories. As there may be something interesting in his invocation of quotidian experiences as objections to increasingly abstract scientific theories. ↩

Washington Irving’s Columbus and the Flat Earth

For generations now American school children have learned that Christopher Columbus proved the earth was round. They have learned that the Church tried to prevent Columbus from sailing west to Asia, fearing that he and his seamen would sail off the edge of the earth or plunge into a chasm. They know that Columbus persevered and eventually overcame religious opposition. And they know that Columbus was right. At its core, the Columbus story pits humble rationality against dogmatic obscurantism in a sort of secular inversion of the David and Goliath story. Judging from the students in my intro classes, the Columbus story is thriving in American schools.

The only problem, as any historian or historian of science will tell you: it’s a myth.

Like any beloved myth, the Columbus story mixes truths and truthiness, something that seems so natural and so obviously true but isn’t. Columbus did face opposition. He did persevere. He did sail west. He did find land (not Asia as he had predicted and continued to believe but the New World). But these truths have nothing to do with the shape of the earth—Columbus and all his detractors knew that the earth was round. The truthiness in the myth lies, on the one hand, in the image of a dogmatic medieval Spanish Church that clung to a retrograde idea about the shape of the earth and refused to listen to reason and evidence. On the other hand, truthiness also inheres in the image of Columbus as a proto-modern, quasi-secular thinker guided only by reason and evidence. The truthiness is the reason 19th-century authors fabricated the myth and 21st-century educators continue to repeat it.

The seeds of the Columbus myth seem to grow from Washington Irving’s biography of Columbus, A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828) (online here). Alexander Everett, Minister Plenipotentiary to Spain, had invited Irving to Madrid in the hopes that Irving would translate a recently published collection of documents on Columbus. When Irving got there and had a chance to read the collection, he decided

that a history, faithfully digested from these various materials, was a desideratum in literature, and would be a more acceptable work to my country, than the translation [he] had contemplated.

So he set out to write a history of Columbus. Irving enjoyed unfettered access to libraries, which he mined for his biography. He culled from manuscripts and published books a wealth of information. Despite the material at his disposal, the sources were at times silent or missing or not all that interesting. So Irving embellished. He wrote what should have happened, what surely did happen even if the evidence had since disappeared. He did what historians had been doing since Herodotus: he made it up. He seamlessly wove fact and fiction together into a “clear and continued narrative.”

Irving detailed Columbus’s thoughts about the size of the earth. Columbus examined earlier maps that depicted the known world that stretched from Canary Islands in the west to its eastern limits in China. The Portuguese had more recently explored further west to the Azores. According to Columbus’s calculations, only a third of the earth’s circumference remained unexplored. Moreover, based on his reading of Arabic astronomers, Columbus thought the length of a degree at the equator was shorter than the commonly accepted length. The third of earth’s circumference was, Columbus concluded, much smaller than that accepted by contemporary cosmographers. As Irving pointed out in various places, Columbus was aberrant in his beliefs, which beliefs were, in fact, wrong:

It is singular how much the success of this great undertaking depended upon two happy errors, the imaginary extent of Asia to the east, and the supposed smallness of the earth ….[1]

But a recitation of historical truths was boring, especially when Irving knew the confrontation between Columbus and the Council at Salamanca must have been dramatic. So Irving embellished a little when he described Columbus before the council. He enhanced the historical truths with truthiness—events that seemed so right, so natural, that must have happened even if there’s no record of them.

The Council at Salamanca was composed of professors of astronomy, geography, mathematics, as well as church dignitaries and learned friars, and convened to examine Columbus’s “new theory.” Most of the council members were biased against Columbus, “an obscure foreigner, without fortune, or connexions, or any academic honors.” In what must have been the acme of truthiness for Irving, he described the council benighted by “monastic bigotry” and assailing Columbus with Biblical citations. They rejected mathematical demonstrations that conflicted with scriptures or Church Fathers. At issue was not, however, the shape of the earth, but the possibility of antipodes:

Thus the possibility of antipodes in the southern hemisphere … became a stumbling block with some of the sages of Salamanca.

Members of the council invoked Lactantius, who connected the existence of antipodes to the shape of the earth. Irving quoted what has become the standard passage:

“The idea of the roundness of the earth,” he adds, “was the cause of inventing this fable of the antipodes with their heels in the air….”

A quick reading of Irving might confirm that the issue here was the shape of the earth, but in the next sentence he returned to the antipodes:

But more grave objections were advanced on the authority of St. Augustine. He pronounced the doctrine of antipodes incompatible with the historical foundations of our faith; since, to assert that there were inhabited lands on the opposite side of the globe, would be to maintain that there were nations not descended from Adam, it being impossible for them to have passed the intervening ocean.

The council’s grave objections focused on the existence of other humans, not on the shape of the earth.

Iriving described briefly a couple objections raised about the shape of the earth—passages from the Psalms and St. Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews—but these serve merely as a foil for the objections raised by “[o]thers, more versed in science, [who] admitted the globular form of the earth.” Their objections were grounded the knowledge that the earth was a sphere. They worried that it was impossible to sail across the torrid zone at the equator, that only the northern hemisphere was inhabitable, and that the circumference of the earth was so great as to require three years to sail across the Atlantic.

Whatever liberties Irving took in crafting his biography, he did not lose sight of historical truths. Instead, and perhaps more disturbingly, he enlisted those truths in the service of truthiness. In Irving’s version, Columbus had struggled against “errors and prejudices, the mingled ignorance and erudition, and the pedantic bigotry” of the Spanish Church that refused to listen to reason and evidence. His biography was less about Columbus and more about the timeless struggle between on the one hand rationality, science, individuality, and anti-aristocratic modernity and, on the other hand, a retrograde, oppressive, medieval Church. It was the story’s truthiness that appealed to other 19th-century authors.

Within a decade, William Whewell had published his History of the Inductive Sciences (1837) (online here). In a section on antipodes, he admitted that most people throughout history had known the earth was round. Only a few people who preferred scriptural evidence over physical evidence denied the sphericity of the earth. Lactantius, of course, and now Cosmas Indicopleustes, who says nothing about antipodes but offers an easily mocked tabernacle-shaped world and flat earth. Whewell then returns to the antipodes before concluding the section by casually remarking: “Tostatus notes the opinion of the rotundity of the earth as an unsafe doctrine, only a few years before Columbus visited the other hemisphere.” Again, Columbus and the shape of the earth.

By the latter 19th-century, the supposed truth of the Columbus story had completely replaced the historical truths. In works like John Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) (online here) we read nothing of the reasoned objections raised by the Council at Salamanca or of Columbus’s errors. Instead we learn that his proposal’s

irreligious tendency was pointed out by the Spanish ecclesiastics, and condemned by the Council of Salamanca; its orthodoxy was confuted from the Pentateuch, the Psalms, the Prophecies, the Gospels, the Epistles, and the writings of the Fathers—St. Chrysostom, St. Augustine, St. Jerome, St. Gregory, St. Basil, St Ambrose.

In the end, Columbus prevailed and along with Vasco Da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan finally settled the question of the shape of the earth.

By the time Andrew White wrote his A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896) (online here), Columbus’s struggles to overcome a medieval Church that believed in a flat earth had become historical fact. Historical truth had surrendered to truthiness. White transformed Irving’s biased but still recognizable historical account into little more than agitprop:

The warfare of Columbus the world knows well: how the Bishop of Ceuta worsted him in Portugal; how sundry wise men of Spain confronted him with the usual quotations from the Psalms, from St. Paul, and from St. Augustine; how, even after he was triumphant, and after his voyage had greatly strengthened the theory of the earth’s sphericity, with which the theory of the antipodes was so closely connected, the Church by its highest authority solemnly stumbled and persisted in going astray.

Despite decades of historical work and dozens of articles and textbooks and, more recently, blogposts, the Columbus myth is alive and well in the United States. The cosmologist Lawrence Krauss recently invoked it. President Obama equated opponents of clean energy to people who opposed Columbus on the grounds that the earth was flat. The president received much applause when he said (at 0:55 in the video):

If some of these folks [opponents of clean energy] were around when Columbus set sail, they must have been founding members of the flat earth society. They would not have believed that the world was round.

More recently still, Chris Impey, an astronomer at University of Arizona who claims to be interested in and knowledgable about history, fell prey to the Columbus myth in a lecture posted on YouTube, “Ancient Astronomy.” He identifies himself as “a student of history” and a member of a select group, “the educated extreme of the culture.” Yet moments earlier he lamented that

[t]here was a thing called the Dark Ages. There was a period of 700 or 800 years when all of the extraordinary insights of the Greek philosophers were utterly lost. People thought the world was flat. And truly thought the world was flat. There were demons that lurked at the edge of the map.

He underscores this claim in his video series “Teach Astronomy” (which is part of an online textbook). In the section on “The Dark Ages” he says:

In the fourth century with the fall of Rome and the sacking of the great library at Alexandria scientific darkness fell across Europe. Even the language of learning, Latin, splintered as warring tribes took over. The theology of the day was defined by Augustine, and the Christian church was mostly anti-science. The learning of the Romans and the Greeks was denigrated as pagan knowledge. Even the knowledge of the round Earth was lost for many centuries.

Impey’s comments reveal, I think, the power of the Columbus myth. It has become so central to the idea of modernity, that even a self-described student of history who is both smart and very educated—part of the “educated extreme”—is not motivated to do a simple internet search to fact check that part of his lecture and textbook. Whereas Irving had mixed truths and truthiness into a “clear and continued narrative,” subsequent authors have pruned the historical truths from the story, leaving just a myth that has become part of modern folklore.


  1. Irving’s biography also depicts Columbus as something of a zealot, motivated by religious and dogmatic convictions as much as anything. For more on Columbus’s religious motivations, see Columbus’s Voyage was a Religious Journey.  ↩

A Call for Historical Accuracy

If we inveigh against people who distort science and ignore facts to prove their point and we label them dogmatic knuckleheads, we should at least guard against committing the same missteps in our criticisms of them.

Phil Plait recently drew attention to and rightly criticized a pseudo-documentary promoting geocentrism.[1] The same day, Lawrence Krauss—a theoretical physicist and cosmologist, and one of the experts who appears in the movie—proposes plausible ways he ended up, apparently, a spokesman for geocentricism. Yesterday, Graham Slaughter, staff reporter for The Toronto Star, reported on the pseudo-documentary and the various experts and former Star Trek actor who appear in the film: “Why do prominent scientists and a Star Trek star appear in unscientific ‘documentary’?

I have no doubt that this latest piece of quasi-scientific[2] claptrap is rubbish, but getting the history wrong—or, to put it more bluntly, ignoring facts and evidence[3]—mars both Krauss’s and Slaughter’s critiques (to be clear: Plait does not get the history wrong in his post).

In lamenting the persistence of old and false ideas, Krauss propagates an old and false idea.
In lamenting the persistence of old and false ideas, Krauss propagates an old and false idea.

Krauss repeats the flat earth myth. Lamenting his celebrity status, Krauss says

I get bombarded regularly by all sorts of claims, and have become painfully aware that ideas as old as the notion that the Earth is flat never seem to die out completely.

Krauss dredges up once again that past when the benighted humans roamed an earth they believed was flat. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that such a past ever existed.

The evidence offers up just three people, three, who claimed the earth was flat (or at least not a sphere): Lactantius—an early Christian author and advisor to Emperor Constantine I, Severian—a fourth-century Bishop of Gabala, and Cosmas Indicopleustes—a sixth-century Byzantine monk.[4] And there is no evidence that their opinions were widely accepted. Instead, the overwhelming vast majority of evidence reveals that people—Christians and pagans alike—believed the earth was a sphere. Most of this evidence provides reasonable philosophical and sometimes empirical arguments for the sphericity of the earth—more than two millennia ago Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth, which circumference scholars continued to cite for the next 1700 years.[5]

The evidence does not support the inference that people believed the earth was flat. To be sure, we cannot infer what the uneducated “person on the street” might have believed—that person might have believed the earth was a potato chip—but we can say the evidence supports the conclusion that people argued for a globe-shaped earth. If the evidence reflects contemporary beliefs, then the overwhelming vast majority of people throughout history have believed the earth was a sphere.

Yet this flat earth myth persists. While I might forgive President Obama when he invokes it, it’s harder to forgive purportedly fact-based science journalism for propagating the flat earth story. I find it more regrettable when Krauss repeats it. He rightly lambasts people who propound a geocentric model of the cosmos for ignoring evidence and facts. I would like to see him apply the same standard to his own claims about the past the believed in a flat earth. In both cases evidence and facts demonstrate that these claims—the geocentric model of the cosmos and the flat earth past—are wrong.[6]

Krauss didn’t need to invoke history to make his point. But since he did, he should strive to get his facts right. I suppose that’s what bothers me most. Krauss is an expert in cosmology and theoretical physics. His domain of expertise does not extend to history. Just as people invoking cosmology or theoretical physics should consult an expert about about their statements, so too should Krauss consult an expert—in this case, a historian of science—when he invokes history.

Slaughter hits all the high points of the Copernican Revolution myth in his attack on a pseudo-documentary.
Slaughter hits all the high points of the Copernican Revolution myth in his attack on a pseudo-documentary.

Graham Slaughter too should consult some historians of science. Slaughter opens his article by saying:

In the 16th century, Nicolaus Copernicus turned the scientific world on its head when he presented a controversial theory: the sun, not the earth, is the centre of our solar system.
The church was scandalized. How could God’s greatest creation be under the orbital control of a giant, burning star? Many Protestant scholars blasted Copernicus, saying his writings flew in the face of the Bible.

Here we have all the set pieces of the Copernican revolution myth: we see the hero, the revolution, and the villain.

As historians of science have long noted and widely discussed (and Thony C. has colorfully pointed out in various posts), the “scientific world” of the 16th century largely ignored or was ignorant of Copernicus’s “controversial theory.”[7] Moreover, the church was not scandalized. Late in the game, the Catholic Church placed Copernicus’s book on the Index, but that was in the 17th century after Galileo and Paolo Foscarini antagonized the Church by challenging its authority (again, see Thony’s post). And the Protestants were some of the earliest supporters of Copernicus’s theory.[8]

Slaughter didn’t need to appeal to Copernicus in his criticism of the pseudo-documentary. But since he did, he should get the history right. Alas, the history is once again wrong, and wrong in all the same ways that the pseudo-documentary is wrong: both ignore evidence and disregard facts.

I am not defending the producers of this latest quasi-scientific, geocentric dross or the film itself. I am, instead, calling for greater attention to facts and evidence in our criticisms of such dreck, especially if we are going to assume the moral, factual, and evidential high ground. We can do better.


  1. Plait provides the title, so click through if you want to know. I, like Lawrence Krauss, would rather not provide additional coverage for the film.  ↩

  2. It might not even rise to the level of “quasi-scientific.”  ↩

  3. Or distorting them or not doing the work to check them.  ↩

  4. Polemical writings accuse two other authors of denying the sphericity of the earth, but this is indirect and problematic evidence that cannot be taken at face value.  ↩

  5. Sometimes scribal errors corrupted the value reported for this circumference, as was the case in the sources Columbus was using. He argued for a much smaller number than was commonly accepted. He and his detractors argued over the how big around the earth was, not whether the earth was round.  ↩

  6. Accessible, and short, scholarly articles are readily available, e.g., Lesley Cormack’s “That the Medieval Christians Taught That the Earth Was Flat” in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Chicago, 2009), as are popular books on the subject, e.g., Christine Garwood, Flat Earth. The History of an Infamous Idea (New York, 2008) or Jeffrey Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth (New York, 1991). A quick Google search will turn up both the wikipedia page and my various rantings about it.  ↩

  7. Historians of science typically claim there were 10 Copernicans in the 16th century. Owen Gingerich has argued that more 16th-century scholars than previously thought might have encountered Copernicus’s De revolutionibus through the teachings of a small group of university masters, but this is indirect and inconclusive evidence. See Gingerich’s The Book Nobody Read.  ↩

  8. Robert Westman pointed this nearly 40 years ago in “The Melanchthon Circle, Rheticus, and the Wittemberg Interpretation of the Copernican Theory,” Isis 66(1975): 165–93. For a considerably more thorough analysis of the so-called Copernican revolution, see Westman’s The Copernican Question (Berkeley, 2011)  ↩