Flat Earths

There is a fun article in the Atlantic today on Donald Trump’s evolving views on climate change, which follows the standard e-publication roadmap of taking other people’s reporting (in this case Ben Adler and Rebecca Laber of Grist) and repackaging it into a branded format with some added context or snark or smaller words, depending on the publication in question. Anyway, as we all know Donald Trump believes that global warming is a hoax created by the Chinese, but as it turns out, in 2009 he added his name to a list of VIPs on a full-page ad in the New York Times calling on the U.S. government to take action against climate change. The Atlantic article goes on to list other high-profile Trump about-faces.

Buried in this catalogue of historical flip-flops, which is probably already being passed around by shocked former Trump supporters like a Luther bible in Reformation Germany, is a quote from Ted Cruz:

Today, the global warming alarmists are the equivalent of the flat-earthers,” Cruz said. “It used to be [that] it is accepted scientific wisdom the Earth is flat, and this heretic named Galileo was branded a denier.

That stuck out to me, because if I remember correctly, Galileo was persecuted by the Catholic Church because he believed in and propagated a heliocentric view of the solar system. So what was Cruz, who despite his HUAC haircut and regressive views towards established scientific theories actually went to Princeton and presumably learned some history, doing talking about a flat Earth?

In the 6th century BC Pythagoras hypothesized a spherical Earth. This was confirmed by Aristotle in the 4th century BC, and from there an all-star cast of Western and Islamic scientists/philosophers in an unbroken line from Ptolemy to Pliny to St. Augustine to Boethius to Isidore to Bede to Muslim astronomers in Baghdad and Isfahan and Cordoba to Thomas Aquinas and various monks and Christian commentators straight to the present day all accepted that fact. Dante portrayed the Earth as round in The Divine Comedy, Columbus and everyone else knew it was round when he sailed to the Americas, and then in 1519-21 Magellan actually sailed around the goddamn world. In 1615 the Pope didn’t care that Galileo knew the Earth was spherical, because he knew it was too. As a matter of fact, historian Jeffrey Burton Russell writes that “with extraordinary few exceptions no educated person in the history of Western Civilization from the third century B.C. onward believed that the Earth was flat.”

The myth that medieval Christians believed in a flat Earth dates from early-modern Protestants who sought to discredit the Catholic Church. This gained credence during the Enlightenment, which (generally incorrectly, historically speaking) viewed Christianity, and especially the Catholic Church, as backwards and anti-science. One leading Enlightenment thinker, Thomas Jefferson, even claimed in his Notes on the State of Virginia:

Government is just as infallible too when it fixes systems in physics. Galileo was sent to the inquisition for affirming that the Earth was a sphere: the government had declared it to be as flat as a trencher, and Galileo was obliged to abjure his error.

One of the more interesting ironies in Cruz’s assertion is that it’s based on the writings of anti-church thinkers like Jefferson. That makes a little more sense, however, if we remember the theory’s roots in anti-Catholic bigotry, which the evangelical Protestant community of which Cruz is such an enthusiastic supporter used to embrace more whole-heartedly than it does today.


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