Flat Earth Week, Day 4: George Bernard Shaw Knows This Meme Is Stupid


Oh snap!  Irish playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw really stuck it to the Globe Earthers, didn’t he?  Actually, no.

This is indeed a quote by Shaw, taken from the introduction to his 1924 play Saint Joan, about the French heroine Joan of Arc.  It is also an egregious example of cherry-picking.  If the meme’s author had included just one more sentence from Shaw’s introduction, the meme would have ended like this:

I must not, by the way, be taken as implying that the earth is flat, or that all or any of our amazing credulities are delusions or impostures.

Ouch.  Context matters, doesn’t it?  The Flat Earth Society has inadvertently damaged its own argument by its incautious selection of supporting quotes.  Perhaps they should stick to quoting B.o.B. lyrics (Warning: NSFW language) where they will no doubt find more staunch support.

George Bernard Shaw was not a Flat Earther.  He also did not believe that any of the amazing revelations of modern science were false.  He was making a point that the evidence for many of science’s pronouncements lies beyond the scope of the average human senses.  Science routinely bombards us with things that run contrary to our everyday experiences, yet nevertheless asks that we believe them because…science!

In one sense, I agree with Shaw.  As science marches into new territory, and as the discoveries of science become more fantastical and contrary to common sense, it simultaneously becomes more difficult for a layperson to follow the analytical pathways that led to these discoveries.  We accept that atoms are real, but how many people can say why we believe that?  We believe that the Sun is about 150,000,000 kilometers away, but who among us has directly measured it?  And how many people can explain with clarity and succinctness how any of this knowledge was generated in the first place?

Despite the past and present efforts of science popularizers like Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Brian Cox, to name just a few, there remains a frustrating but unavoidable veil of opacity around much of the scientific process, at least from the public’s perspective.  I can almost understand how this frustration leads people to cynicism, and how cynicism grows into a willingness to accept ideas that are wrong, but which appeal to the senses…ideas like Flat Earthism.

On the other hand, the shape of Earth is not something you need a particle accelerator or a gene sequencer to observe.  A couple of times each year, Earth obligingly casts its shadow on the face of the Moon – a shadow that is always round.  We know that this shadow comes from Earth because lunar eclipses never happen except when the Sun, Earth, and Moon are all in a straight line.  If the round shadow that darkens the Moon’s face during an eclipse is not cast by Earth, then what causes it?

As I mentioned yesterday, anybody with binoculars and a beach may watch ships coming and going over the horizon.  When a ship sails past the horizon, it always disappears bottom first.  The top part of the ship is always the last part to disappear.  Ships approaching the coast always appear in the opposite order: top first, then the hull becomes visible as the ship gets closer.

Knowing the shape of Earth does not require specialized technology, which is why people discovered that Earth was a sphere a long, long, long time before they discovered, say, gravitational waves.  When you listen to a Flat Earther’s arguments, you are not hearing the dismantling of thousands of years of Globe Earth dogma; you are hearing a person attempting to disguise his frustration with the fact that nature stubbornly refuses to conform to the information his short-sighted senses are providing for him.

One thought on “Flat Earth Week, Day 4: George Bernard Shaw Knows This Meme Is Stupid

  1. Shaw continued:

    I must not, by the way, be taken as implying that the earth is flat, or that all or any of our amazing credulities are delusions or impostures. I am only defending my own age against the charge of being less imaginative than the Middle Ages. I affirm that the nineteenth century, and still more the twentieth, can knock the fifteenth into a cocked hat in point of susceptibility to marvels and saints and prophets and magicians and monsters and fairy tales of all kinds. The proportion of marvel to immediately credible statement in the latest edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica is enormously greater than in the Bible. The medieval doctors of divinity who did not pretend to settle how many angels could dance on the point of a needle cut a very poor figure as far as romantic credulity is concerned beside the modern physicists who have settled to the billionth of a millimetre every movement and position in the dance of the electrons. Not for worlds would I question the precise accuracy of these calculations or the existence of electrons (whatever they may be). The fate of Joan is a warning to me against such heresy. But why the men who believe in electrons should regard themselves as less credulous than the men who believed in angels is not apparent to me. If they refuse to believe, with the Rouen assessors of 1431, that Joan was a witch, it is not because that explanation is too marvellous, but because it is not marvellous enough.

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