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Flat-Earth Myth, Anyone? Recalling Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Long Pedigree

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There’s only one Neil deGrasse Tyson, winner of last year’s Censor of the Year award. Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture recognized celebrity TV educator Dr. Tyson for his outstanding work in foisting a photoshopped narrative of scientific history on viewers of the popular series Cosmos, animated by a desire to falsely cast religious faith as the enemy of scientific progress.

Well, a neat article at Newsweek reminds us that others pioneered in the same censorious field long before Tyson came along. Douglas Main gives the example of the myth that claims benighted religious scholars once insisted upon the doctrine of a flat earth. No, wrong, says Mr. Main. Medieval knowledge encompassed the knowledge that our planet is spherical. Going back to the ancient Greeks, that awareness was not lost in the Christian Middle Ages. Where, then, did the myth come from? The pedigree goes back more than a century and a half:

The fault lies with 19th century writers such as Washington Irving, Jean Letronne and others. Letronne was “an academic of strong anti-religious prejudices… who cleverly drew upon both to misrepresent the church fathers and their medieval successors as believing in a flat earth, in his On the Cosmographical Ideas of the Church Fathers,” published in 1834, [historian Jeffrey Burton Russell] writes.

Irving also penned a “history” of Christopher Columbus in 1828 that was treated as fact, but was largely fictional, and Russell credits him with inventing “the indelible picture of the young Columbus, a ‘simple mariner,’ appearing before a dark crowd of benighted inquisitors and hooded theologians at a council of Salamanca, all of whom believed, according to Irving, that the earth was flat like a plate.”

These falsehoods were picked up and amplified by historians such as John Draper and Andrew Dickson White, and “perpetrated in texts, encyclopedias, and even allegedly serious scholarship, down to the present day,” Russell notes.

Why bother perpetuating falsehoods? Russell and [Stephen Jay Gould] suggest the flat-earth myth was used to demonize Christians and religion in general, and to lionize scientists. “The falsehood about the spherical earth became a colorful and unforgettable part of a larger falsehood: the falsehood of the eternal war between science (good) and religion (bad) throughout Western history,” Russell writes.

“The reason for promoting both the specific lie about the sphericity of the earth and the general lie that religion and science are in natural and eternal conflict in Western society, is to defend Darwinism,” he continues, which was introduced around the same time.

“The flat-earth lie was ammunition against the Creationists. The argument was simple and powerful, if not elegant: ‘Look how stupid these Christians are. They are always getting in the way of science and progress. These people who deny evolution today are exactly the same sort of people as those idiots who for at least a thousand years denied that the earth was round. How stupid can you get?'”

The false narrative that science and religion are warring, necessarily conflicting forces continues to the present day, and impedes “a proper bonding and conciliation between these two utterly different and powerfully important institutions of human life,” Gould writes.

Of course, none of this is to discourage “fringe” beliefs or unpopular ideas; most ideas that have revolutionized the world were first regarded as such.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. The flat earth story was concocted to “demonize Christians and religion in general, and to lionize scientists” — “Look how stupid these Christians are. They are always getting in the way of science and progress” — and it was further promoted in order to “defend Darwinism,” a notion that was “introduced around the same time.”

We credited Tyson as last year’s top censor for much the same thing. Which reminds me, who will be this year’s COTY (Censor of the Year)? I told you already you’ve got until February 5 to give us your nominations. Do so by clicking on the orange Email Us button at the top of this page. We’ll announce the winner in time for Darwin Day, aka Academic Freedom Day, on February 12.

Image: Italy and the Mediterranean from space, by ESA/NASA.