Deception & Misdirection

The Flat Earth is a myth. So’s that story about people who believed in a Flat Earth.

[Continuing our series on deception in politics and policy.]

Progressivism is an ideology based on the idea that most people are stupid, and that society is best governed by a small band of smart people—“smart” defined as being well-credentialed, such as you are when your father gets you into an Ivy League school.

Progressivism can be a cruel ideology.  Progressives such as Woodrow Wilson stuck African-Americans in separate, inferior schools (for what was supposedly their own good). Under Obamacare, an army of heartless, anonymous bureaucrats re-wrote tens of millions of health insurance policies (because those old policies, which most people liked, were “bad apples” and people were fools for buying them). Progressive policies hurt lots of people, but they are necessary if the elite is to be in charge.

And the pressure to continually justify Progressive policies obliges Progressives to invent new insults on a regular basis. That’s why, if you oppose those policies, they paint you as ignorant and racist, or they link you to supposedly inferior groups such as Southerners and non-Muslim/non-leftist religious people. Vice President Al Gore once referred to some conservatives as “the extrachromosome right wing,” an apparent reference to Down syndrome.

One of the most powerful insults is “flat earther.” In 1990, then-Senator Gore authored a New York Times op-ed in which ridiculed opponents of Global Warming theory in a question-and-answer format:

Q.: But how can we trust scientists on this issue when some of them say global climate change is real and some of them say it’s not?

A.: Five hundred years ago, most scientists said the world was flat. Most people believed them because the Earth did indeed look flat. The new ”model” of a round Earth was based on mathematical calculations that they could neither touch nor understand.

“Flat earther” became one of Gore’s favorite insults. That term, and the history associated with it (that most experts 500 years ago thought the earth was flat), have often been used to ridicule skeptics of Global Warming theory. President Obama, speaking in 2012 at Prince George’s Community College in Maryland, ridiculed those who oppose his “green” policies such as subsidizing windmills and solar panels: “Let me tell you something. If some of those folks were around when Columbus set sail [audience laughter] they must have been founding members of the Flat Earth Society. [laughter] They would not have believed that the earth was round. [applause]”  And Secretary of State John Kerry recently assailed skeptics of Global Warming theory as members of the “Flat Earth Society”—a charge that was celebrated on network news programs as clever and illuminating.

In fact, the flat earth story is a myth, propagated by academics in order to paint their adversaries falsely as fools. It’s a politically motivated lie—just like Global Warming theory.

[I should remind the reader that Global Warming theory is not the idea that the earth is warming, any more than the theory of evolution is that things evolve or the theory of relativity is that things are relative. Global Warming theory is that the earth’s climate, having been at a stable optimum for thousands of years, is now getting significantly warmer as a result of human activities such as industry, transportation, and energy generation; that this process is due mostly to emissions of carbon dioxide; that the warming is worldwide, not localized, and that it is catastrophically harmful to humanity and to life on earth, without significant offsetting benefits; and that those emissions can be prevented by means consistent with freedom, prosperity, democracy, and peace. Thus stated, Global Warming theory is certainly false, and is recognized as false by most scientists. Now, back to Columbus…]

Science historians David Lindberg and Ronald Numbers noted that “there was scarcely a Christian scholar of the middle Ages who did not acknowledge [the earth’s] sphericity and even know its approximate circumference.”  Indeed, for 2,300 years or more, almost every well-educated person in the world has understood that the earth is round. As every well-educated American knows today, the argument that Christopher Columbus had with the experts was over the size of the earth, not its shape. Columbus greatly underestimated the distance from Europe west to Asia, and would have taken his crew to their deaths in the middle of the ocean but for his great luck, that the Americas happened to be located where he thought Japan would be.

So what was the source of the idea to which Gore referred, that learned men half a millennium ago were convinced the earth was flat? It apparently started as a 17th Century attack on Catholics; Columbus’s supposedly foolish adversaries were officials of the Catholic church. A garbled version of the story, in which Galileo was the enlightened hero— “Galileo was sent to the inquisition for affirming that the earth was a sphere: the government had declared it to be flat”—was used by Thomas Jefferson in 1784 in Notes on the State of Virginia, as part of an attack on state-sponsored religion.  Finally, the Columbus version was popularized in the 19th Century by Washington Irving, creator of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”  In 1828, Irving wrote a fanciful biography of Columbus that some people took as fact.  In Irving’s account, members of the Spanish commission examining Columbus’s proposed voyage objected to his plans based on the flatness of the earth. In the 1830s, authors in France and England used the flat earth myth to attack religion.

Then came Darwin. The debate over evolutionary theory was often characterized as a conflict between religionists and scientists, and experts such as John William Draper (in his History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science, 1874) and Andrew Dickson White (in A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, 1896) eagerly promoted the tale of Columbus vs. the flat earthers.

The idea of an inherent conflict between religion and science, known as the conflict thesis, was taking root in the late 1800s, and Draper and White were leaders on the side of science as they saw it.  Draper was the first president of the American Chemical Society and the first person to make a detailed photograph of the moon.  White, married to the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in the U.S., was co-founder of Cornell University, the first private university that was secular; he called Cornell “an asylum for Science—where truth shall be sought for truth’s sake, not stretched or cut exactly to fit Revealed Religion.”

There is a direct line from Draper and White, peddlers of the fiction of Columbus and the flat earthers, to today’s scientist-activists who involve themselves in public policy matters of which they have little or no understanding. Take the case of Eugenie Scott, a physical anthropologist who was the longtime executive director of the National Center for Science Education, which promotes Global Warming propaganda in schools. She once called the Flat Earth Society an example of “extreme biblical-literalist theology: The earth is flat because the Bible says it is flat, regardless of what science tells us.”

One problem with her claim: The Bible does not say the earth is flat. (It says the earth is a circle in a void. Whether the term “circle” means a flat disk or a sphere depends on the translation and on one’s view of the use of metaphor in the Old Testament.)

By the way, the Flat Earth Society does exist, with a membership of perhaps a few dozen or a few hundred, although it’s unclear how many people in the society really believe the earth is flat and how many are pulling our leg. (The Canadian branch that was active a few years ago was explicitly satirical.)

What does the head of the Flat Earth Society think about global Warming? The left-wing online magazine Salon reported at

As it turns out, there is a real Flat Earth Society and its president thinks that anthropogenic [man-made] climate change is real. In an email to Salon, president Daniel Shenton said that while he “can’t speak for the Society as a whole regarding climate change,” he personally thinks the evidence suggests fossil fuel usage is contributing to global warming.

“I accept that climate change is a process which has been ongoing since beginning of detectable history, but there seems to be a definite correlation between the recent increase in world-wide temperatures and man’s entry into the industrial age,” he said. “If it’s a coincidence, it’s quite a remarkable one. We may have experienced a temperature increase even without our use of fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution, but I doubt it would be as dramatic as what we’re seeing now.”

Thus, the leading flat earther stands alongside Gore, Obama, and Kerry in the great debate over Global Warming. How lucky we are to be led by men so much smarter than ourselves!


A final note: Above, I quoted from an Al Gore op-ed in the New York Times. Let me give you a longer version of the quote.

Q.: But how can we trust scientists on this issue when some of them say global climate change is real and some of them say it’s not?

A.: Five hundred years ago, most scientists said the world was flat. Most people believed them because the Earth did indeed look flat. The new ”model” of a round Earth was based on mathematical calculations that they could neither touch nor understand. Similarly, Galileo was punished for his then-novel view that the Earth orbited the sun, instead of the other way around.

In the last 20 years, eminent scientists continued to ridicule the theory of continental drift. The theory of global climate change used to be ridiculed, too. But in the last few years, the overwhelming majority of scientists who have examined the evidence have agreed that the problem is real.

Al Gore, who today urges us to accept the “scientific consensus” on Global Warming, argued 24 years ago that we should reject the views of “some” scientists because, after all, the scientific consensus was wrong about whether the earth goes around the sun or the other way around, and the scientific consensus was wrong about continental drift, and the scientific consensus, Gore claimed, was wrong about whether the earth was flat. In 1990, Gore argued that you simply can’t trust the scientific consensus.

That’s the great thing about Global Warming theory: Warm weather proves it, but cold weather doesn’t disprove it (and, in fact, proves it, too). Continual warming over a period of years proves Global Warming theory by confirming the accuracy of computer models, but a 17-year pause in warming, unpredicted by computer models, doesn’t disprove it. Evidence of past periods of warming or cooling with catastrophic effects, such as the Black Plague and the fall of the Vikings, proves that climate change threatens the human race, but the fact that there was warming and cooling in pre-industrial times does not disprove the idea that climate change was caused by the Industrial Revolution, which hadn’t happened yet. If many or most scientists reject it, you can’t trust the scientific consensus, but, if the President claims (falsely) that 97% of scientists believe it, you can’t not trust it.


Science sure am hard, ain’t it?


Dr. Steven J. Allen

A journalist with 45 years’ experience, Dr. Allen served as press secretary to U.S. Senator Jeremiah Denton and as senior researcher for Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign. He earned a master’s…
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