I recently finished reading a book about the history of the idea of the Earth being flat.
At first glance, it would seem that this is a concept that has deep historical roots, and that was only widely disproved during mid-to-late Renaissance times, but this is actually not the case. According to the writer, the idea of a flat Earth wasn’t something that was accepted by the intelligentsia even during Roman and Medieval times, and has actually only seen a true revival during more recent times. The idea that scholars during the Middle Ages believed in a planar Earth and were only disproved by Columbus’s voyage is actually a modern invention, an embellishment on that famous journey of the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria.
A travelling salesman/patent medicine charlatan who went by the name of “Parallax” actually pushed the idea back into common discussion in the 1860′s. The mid 1800′s were a time when professional science was just starting to come into its own, and Parallax saw an opportunity to point out the inconsistencies between the scientific fact of a globular Earth and the “common sense” idea that our visual perception indicates that the Earth has a flat surface. He also relied on biblical quotations and examples to support his theory, something that would heavily influence those who followed him.
Parallax wrote a textbook on the subject, and then went on a lecture tour around England to sell his idea to the public. He was apparently a very persuasive speaker, and was able to hold his own in a debate despite the fact that a majority of the people who showed up to his lectures were there to heckle him. He actually had a very successful career, and his writings became the guiding principles for all anti-globularists who followed his example. It’s not clear whether Parallax actually believed what he was trying to sell, but most of those who were to follow were true believers through and through whose perceptions tended to be influenced by their religious fundamentalism.
The interesting thing to me about the flat earthers is the arc of their popularity, since their crusade has many things in common with modern creationists/”intelligent design” enthusiasts. They were originally pitied and belittled, but then over time they built up a bit of a following and actually had a small global community of believers. Even during the modern era, there were actually whole communities of people who subscribed to the flat Earth principle, such as the inhabitants of the religious settlement of “Zion” in Illinois in the early 1900′s.
The part of the story that gives me hope for the triumph of reason over illogical ideas is the gradual decline of flat earthism during the mid-late 20th century. Fewer and fewer people bought into the idea until eventually it was used mostly as a joke and only forwarded by a few very misguided but overall harmless individuals. A group of writers in Canada actually used the idea as a way to spur thought on the unthinking belief of the public in the teachings of science. They didn’t actually believe that the Earth was flat, but wrote a number of articles and made appearances on TV promoting the topic as a kind of avant-garde protest against the unshakable authority of the scientific establishment. The last true champion of flat Earth theory passed away in 2001, leaving his few remaining adherents to fade into obscurity.
This is only a summary of the topics covered in Christine Garwood’s excellent novel on the subject. I recommend checking it out yourself if this was at all thought-provoking for you.