The Flat Earth Theory Theory

“Flat Earth theory” refers to the theory that the earth is flat. This post is not about that theory, but about flat Earth theory theory. That’s two “theory”s mind you. So what on Earth is “flat Earth theory theory”?

Well, you see, when it comes to the theory that the earth is flat, there is a popular fairy tale that runs something like this:

“In 15th century Europe, everybody thought that the Earth was flat, until Christopher Columbus sailed all the way to America without falling off the edge.”

This is what I am calling the flat Earth theory theory. It is the popular belief that flat-earthism was quite popular until relatively recently. All the oldendaysers thought the earth was a flat disk. Haha! Silly them! But then, after Christopher Columbus, or Marco Polo, or Galileo, or Copernicus, or someone-or-other with a swish and clever sounding name, we all discovered that the earth was actually round, and now we get to laugh at the oldendaysers because they were from the oldendays and didn’t know what we know. And (double Haha!) now there are these new flat-Earthers who believe just what the oldendaysers believed! What a pack of fools they all are. 

The funny thing is that the flat Earth theory theory is no better off than the flat Earth theory itself. Both are as wrong as they come. Indeed, virtually no Western scientists, explorers, writers or cartographers have ever regarded the Earth as being flat. To find a flat Earth view seriously proposed as a live hypothesis, one has to look as far back as the pre-Socratic philosophers. Anaximander, for example, conjectured that the Earth was a thick, flat disk, with the inhabited world plonked on top. We can hardly fault the man for being so wrong. After all, Anaximander’s theory was one of the very earliest scientific theories about the shape of the Earth, and it was proposed some time around 575BC. His theory was wrong, but it was still revolutionary for its day. The reason his theory caught the imagination of the pre-Socratics, was that he envisioned the earth floating on nothing, suspended by equal force in all directions: an astounding thought!

Yet a couple of hundred years after Anaximander,  the idea that the earth was spherical was widely accepted. Indeed, its circumference had been accurately measured by the Greek philosopher Eratosthenes. He did this by comparing the lengths of shadows at different latitudes in the country we now call “Egypt”. Aristotle, the philosopher whose works had the greatest influence on medieval thought, also provided arguments for a round earth. For this reason, even medieval scholars were no more ignorant than anyone else about the spheroid shape of the earth. Indeed, it seems that since around about the 4th Century BC, virtually no learned men or women in the West have entertained the view that the Earth might be flat. Christopher Columbus no more thought he would fall off the edge of the earth than I worry that my breakfast will eat me. The flat Earth theory theory needs to be put to bed.

As for the flat Earth theory itself, well, of course that also needs put to bed.

As is well known, the flat Earth view appears to be experiencing some kind of popular renaissance at the moment for reasons that I can’t even begin to guess at. Previously considered nothing more than an object of ridicule, sympathy for flat-earthism has now become a kind of badge of anti-authoritarian distinction. Flat-earthers describe themselves as independent thinkers, sceptical of the totalitarian leanings of modern science. This mantra of “independent thinking” and an aversion to “group-think” is commendable in one sense. After all, the greatest intellectual leaps forward typically depend on people who “think outside the box”. The trouble is, though, the value of independent thinking depends on having a reasonable education in the traditions, history and scientific understanding of one’s own ancestors and peers. That is why the saying goes that we “stand on the shoulders of giants”, and not that we stand on our own shoulders.

The reason we stand on the shoulders of giants is to get a better view. From up so high, we may even notice the curvature of the earth. If we try instead to stand on our own shoulders, we do no more than stomp our own heads into the flat Earth below. 


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