when the Earth was flat

I received yet another popular science book to review (for Significance), When the Earth was flat by Graeme Donald. The subtitle is “All the bits of Science we got wrong”, which is both very ambitious (“All”, really?!) and modest (in that most scientific theories are approximations waiting to be invalidated and improved by the next theory). (I wrote this review during my trip in Gainesville, maybe too quickly!)

The themes processed and debunked in this book are wide-ranging. In fact they do not necessarily fall under my definition of science. They often are related to commercial swindles and political agendas loosely based on plainly wrong scientific theories. The book is thus more about the uses of (poor) science than about Science itself.

To wit, we find in When the Earth was flat entries on bogus sociology as phrenology (how the shape of the skull can predict your criminal inclinations), subliminal messages (including accusations at the hardrock band Judas Priest), magnetism (from Mesmer’s influence on 18th century royals to William Reich’s theories, the later being at some point tested by Einstein in Princeton) and cannibalistic tribes (giving the European invaders a motive for turning them into slaves, as if they needed one), bogus physics as troops on bridges (which cannot cause the right [or rather wrong] type of vibration to set the bridge to collapse) and as flat and hollow Earth theories (involving both Halley and Hitler, the latter being convinced that the Earth was either hollow [as in Jule Verne’s Voyage au Centre de La Terre or Edgar Rice Burrough’s At the Earth’s Core] or concave!), bogus chemistry as alchemy (turning lead to gold costs much more than it is worth!), even though alchemy is truly the precursor of chemistry and should not dismissed altogether, bogus medicine over-represented as hysteria (interpreted by the author as a negation of women sexuality till the early 1900’s), as tobacco, cocaine and heroine for medicaments (the first administered by enemas for a long while, the later enjoyed by the whole range of the Victorian society and leading to the Opium Wars), as monkey gland injections (making a case for its possible connection with the HIV epidemics), as germs (lauding Pasteur and Semmelweis while blaming Florence Nightingale for stopping at personnal hygiene), epidemics (with a surprising rehabilitation of rats and a proposal that the great plagues were anthrax epidemics), and as body humours (the antique and medieval conception of medicine), bogus biology as eugenics (with the looming figure of Francis Galton, conveniently forgetting the roles of Fisher and Pearson in this most sinister endeavour: that California and other US states did implement eugenic policies through forced sterilisation in the first part of the 20th century is a frightful reminder of how easily things can turn wrong in the name of Science!), as telegony (a cheap scare to keep women from pre-wedlock affairs!), and as anthropology (again a Darwin related story, the notion of a missing link between man and monkeys in the evolution tree, with an unexpected Stalin popping up and trying to create a new race of half-monkey half-human slaces, just unbelievable!).

The style of When the Earth was flat is light, as expected, and enjoyable, with a personal twist in the stories that is not unpleasant. There are inserts and vignettes, either related to the current chapter, or simply debunking another belief. (For instance, one such insert is about bomb-obsessed Edmund Teller proposing to use H-bombs to dig an harbour in Alaska.) There are a few imprecisions and mistakes that drive me not to take the whole book at face value and doubt some of the theories advanced therein (the bibliography is only made of other books. For instance, Mendel is spelled Mendl in the title of the chapter about heredity (and the fact that he also cheated in his bean design not mentioned), French New Guinea is actually former French Guinea (or Guinée équatoriale), tomato is or was called pomme de Moor in French (should be pomme de maure), &tc. I am not convinced phrenology is at the source of the ethnic cleansing in Rwanda (while Belgian colonialism clearly was), the counter-theory about the Black Plague being anthrax is one of many, the injections of monkey glands as sexual rejuvenation in the 1930’s being the cause of the HIV 50 years later sounds also rather far-fetched,  &tc. So, while this is a fun read, and taught me a thing or two, I remain slightly skeptical about some of the points made therein. On reflection, the exercise of making fun of former scientific theories is a wee too easy and it misses the point that scientific knowledge builds upon successive proposals for explanation of natural phenomena, thus actually requires unusual or even downright silly theories. What is laughable is the gullibility of contemporaries failing to ask for reproducible experiments, but, as shown by the publication of numerous irreproducible studies and the permanent exposure to experts dropping unverified figures in the media are we  that far from this era?!

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