Thursday, July 14, 2005

"Flat Earth" Flat Wrong

Tom Woods1 has written a great article debunking the myth that anyone ever thought the Earth flat:

The Flat Earth Myth

Interesting excerpts:

European monarchs’ initial hesitation to support Columbus’s proposed expedition had nothing to do with the idea that the world was flat and Columbus might fall off the edge. It was precisely the accuracy of their knowledge of the earth that made them skeptical: they correctly concluded that Columbus had drastically underestimated the size of the earth, and that therefore he and his men would starve to death before they made it to the Indies. (Thankfully for them, of course, the Americas, which no one knew about, fortuitously appeared in between.)


Uncritical acceptance of the myth was too tempting for many scholars, since it fit in so well with the caricature of Christianity they were already inclined to draw. "If Christians had for centuries insisted that the earth was flat against clear and available evidence," explains Russell, "they must be not only enemies of scientific truth, but contemptible and pitiful enemies."

Take that, Jacobins: happy Bastille Day!

1. Tom's most recent claim to fame is The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, which on top of being a New York Times bestseller, was roundly denounced as dangerous by the Times's editors. (The Times wouldn't promote censorship, now would it?) If that's not enough recommendation for the book, please take my word that it's well worth reading. Even the most wary are surrounded by so many liberal lies that we can't help but believe at least some of them; this book is the red pill.

Jeffrey Burton Russell Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians (New York: Praeger, 1991).

For completeness: Flat Earth Society (their custom URL no longer works; perhaps lack of interest and funding?)


Anonymous Avila said...


In case you're interested, here's the full text of the Times editorial condemning Dr. Thomas E. Woods, Jr.:

January 26, 2005 Wednesday
Late Edition - Final , Section A , Page 16 , Column 1

The Difference Between Politically Incorrect and Historically Wrong


If you're going to call a book ''The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History,'' readers will expect some serious carrying on about race, and Thomas Woods Jr. does not disappoint. He fulminates against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, best known for forcing restaurants and bus stations in the Jim Crow South to integrate, and against Brown v. Board of Education. And he offers up some curious views on the Civil War -- or ''the War of Northern Aggression,'' a name he calls ''much more accurate.''

The introduction bills the book as an effort to ''set the record straight,'' but it is actually an attempt to push the record far to the right. More than a history, it is a checklist of arch-conservative talking points. The New Deal public works programs that helped millions survive the Depression were a ''disaster,'' and Social Security ''damaged the economy.'' The Marshall Plan, which lifted up devastated European nations after World War II, was a ''failed giveaway program.'' And the long-discredited theory of ''nullification,'' which held that states could suspend federal laws, ''isn't as crazy as it sounds.''

It is tempting to dismiss the book as fringe scholarship, not worth worrying about, but the numbers say otherwise. It is being snapped up on college campuses and, helped along by plugs from Fox News and other conservative media, it recently soared to No. 8 on the New York Times paperback nonfiction best-seller list. It is part of a boomlet in far-right attacks on mainstream history that includes books like Jim Powell's ''FDR's Folly,'' which argues that Franklin Roosevelt made the Depression worse, and Michelle Malkin's ''In Defense of Internment,'' a warm look back on the mass internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

It is not surprising, in the current political climate, that liberal pieties are being challenged, and many of them ought to be.[!] But the latest revisionist histories are disturbing both because they are so extreme -- even Ronald Reagan called the Japanese internment a ''grave wrong'' and signed a reparations law -- and because they seem intent on distorting the past to promote dangerous policies today. If Social Security contributed to the Depression, it makes sense to get rid of it now. If internment was a good thing in 1942, think what it could do in 2005. And if the 14th Amendment, which guarantees minorities ''equal protection of the law,'' was never properly ratified -- as Mr. Woods argues -- racial discrimination may be constitutional after all.

At the start of the ''Politically Incorrect Guide to American History,'' Mr. Woods says he is not trying to offer ''a complete overview of American history.'' That frees him to write a book in which major historical events that do not fit his biases are omitted, in favor of minutiae that do. The book has nothing to say about the Trail of Tears, in which a fifth of the Cherokee population was wiped out, or similar massacres, but cheerfully points out that ''by its second decade Harvard College welcomed Indian students.''

The ''Politically Incorrect Guide'' is full of dubious assertions, small and large. It makes a perverse, but ideologically loaded, linguistic argument that the American Civil War was not actually a civil war, a point with which dictionaries disagree. More troubling are the book's substantive distortions of history, like its claim that the infamous Black Codes, passed by the Southern states after the Civil War, were hardly different from Northern anti-vagrancy laws. The Black Codes -- which were aimed, as the Columbia University historian Eric Foner has noted, at keeping freed slaves' status as close to slavery as possible -- went well beyond anything in the North.

The book reads less like history than a call to action, since so many of its historical arguments track the current political agenda of the far right. It contends that federal courts were never given the power to strike down state laws, a pet cause of states' rights supporters today. And it maintains that the First Amendment applies only to the federal government, and therefore does not prohibit the states from imposing religion on their citizens, a view that Clarence Thomas has suggested in his church-state opinions.

Most ominously, it makes an elaborate argument that the 14th Amendment was ''never constitutionally ratified'' because of irregularities in how it was adopted. This, too, is a pet cause of the fringe right, one the Supreme Court has rejected. If it prevailed, it would undo Brown v. Board of Education and many other rulings barring discrimination based on race, religion and sex. But Mr. Woods does not carry his argument to its logical conclusion. If the 14th Amendment was not properly ratified, neither, it would seem, was the 13th, which was adopted under similar circumstances, and slavery should be legal.

These revisionist historians have started meeting pockets of resistance from those who believe they are rewriting reality to suit an ideological agenda. A group called Progress for America recently produced an ad that, incredibly, used Franklin Roosevelt's picture to support President Bush's plan to privatize Social Security. But Progress for America lost the public relations war when James Roosevelt Jr., F.D.R.'s grandson, announced that his grandfather ''would surely oppose the ideas now being promoted by this administration.''

Then there was the large Christian school in North Carolina that assigned its students a booklet called ''Southern Slavery: As It Was.'' At first, the school argued that the booklet -- which describes slavery as ''a relationship based upon mutual affection and confidence'' -- simply provided a valuable ''Southern perspective.'' But after North Carolina newspapers reported on its contents, and quoted local pastors expressing their concern, the school quietly withdrew the text last month, apologizing for the ''oversight.''

The last paragraph comes right out of the blue. The editorial's subject is ostensibly Dr. Woods's book, so why the need to class him with the racist authors of a manifestly bogus book?

When liberals are losing a fight, it never takes long for them to shout "racism!". Yes, "racist, sexist, homophobic" is the opiate that soothes away any threat of reasoned discourse. When in doubt, shout it out....

Lawrence Gage said...

Thanks, Avila!

An ironic paragraph from the Flat Earth Society's mission statement:

For centuries, mankind knew all there was to know about the shape of the Earth. It was a flat planet, shaped roughly like a circle, with lots of pointy things hanging down from the underside. On the comparatively smooth topside, Europe sat in the middle of the circle, with the other continents scattered about the fringes, and parts of Africa hanging over the edge. The oceans lapped against the sides of the Earth, and in places ran over, creating currents that would pull over the edge ships that ventured too far out to sea. The space beyond the edge of the world was a dark realm inhabited by all sorts of unholy beasts. Fire and brimstone billowed up from the very depths of hell itself and curled 'round the cliffs whose infinite length jutted straight down to the darkest depths . . . .

It's sad how purportedly "conservative" people can become dupes of an anti-Christian ideology. It's not enough to uniformly oppose "the enemy"; such a mindless strategy hands control to your opponent. To find the right path, you have to focus on truth--seek truth without compromise.


Anonymous Avila said...

Dr. Woods rebuts the Times editorial here:

Noticed by the New York Times

Here are the concluding paragraphs:

My book explains all of this very clearly. Let’s see what Adam Cohen has to say about it. "If the 14th Amendment was not properly ratified," he writes, "neither, it would seem, was the 13th, which was adopted under similar circumstances, and slavery should be legal." Congratulations, Mr. Cohen: you’ve attributed to me exactly the opposite argument from the one I advance in the book. The point is that if the Radicals were going to object to the Southern states’ initial rejection of the Fourteenth Amendment on the grounds that those states had no legal governments, then they would be logically compelled to turn down those states’ ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, since nothing about those state governments had changed between those two votes. Thus the only people who might have a logical difficulty in maintaining the legitimacy of the Thirteenth Amendment would be the Radicals themselves, not me.

(Knowing how scrupulous the Times is with facts, I just know they’ll run a correction.)

To say that this "review" came as no surprise to me would be something of an understatement. For longer than most Americans care to recall, the Times has done its best to make sure that no fundamental questions are raised, much less answered, in our public square. It is largely thanks to the Times that our political debate is as narrow and stunted as it is; our betters at Cohen’s paper do their best to ensure that certain perspectives are neither covered nor even acknowledged. No wonder they hate my book.

Tim said...

I'm grateful to Anonymous Avila for having posted the Times's review of Woods's book. Since I don't own a television, I seem to have missed the ads for it. But the Times has done a better job advertising it than Fox ever could have.

Incidental note on the Flat Earth Society's pronouncement regarding the shape of the Earth: this reminds me of a question I frequently ask my students at the beginning of a course on the history and philosophy of science from Aristotle to Galileo. Virtually all of them, it turns out, are convinced that the pancake theory held sway until the voyage of Columbus. When I then ask them to describe the causal mechanism of a lunar eclipse, most of them look at me as though I were recommending the study of hieroglyphics -- What can that possibly have to do with the shape of the earth? But one or two get the point. If they don't, the readings from Aristotle's Physics and Ptolemy's Almagest make it for me.

Another day, another blow against chronological snobbery ...

Lawrence Gage said...

Thanks for the insightful comments, Tim.

That your students think your lunar eclipse question so strange shows they have no real knowledge of the Earth's shape, but merely take it on faith from others, just as they take their ideas of the ancient world from others.

Ironically, this type of ignorance is the same we moderns attribute (wrongly) to the ancients.


Tim said...


Just so. The majority of my students also seem to be convinced that we moderns are much smarter than the greatest minds of millenia past. The disinformation campaign waged by people like William Whewell and Washington Irving regarding the vast ignorance and intellectual servility of the middle ages has been wildly successful, one of the great propaganda triumphs of all time.

The notion that we stand on the shoulders of giants strikes many of my students as a quaint novelty, the sort of paradox that one might expect of a philosopher. But they assume it must be some kind of joke.

Then I make them work through a few of the proofs from Ptolemy or from Newton's Principia and their smug self assurance evaporates, leaving something more mature in its place.

Education, real education, is the process of laying conceptual sandbags against the rising tide of cultural darkness.

Marcus Tullius Cicero said...

To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child.