You might have heard in elementary school that Christopher Columbus proved to a darkened medieval world that the Earth was round. You probably heard accounts of terrified seamen straining their eyes in the night watch for some great waterfall just beyond the bows that would carry them all to destruction.
Of course, this was all nonsense.
In fact, long before 1492, educated people knew quite well that the Earth was a globe. As much as two- thousand years before Columbus, Pythagoras established this fact. Later, Aristotle, Euclid and Ptolemy essentially removed all doubt. Columbus himself sailed with a copy of Ptolemy’s book titled “Geography” – then already 1,300 years old – which considered the idea of a round Earth to be simple fact.
So you might be surprised to learn that the idea of a flat earth still had a popular following four hundred years after Columbus, not in some remote jungle outpost, but right here in the United States. A South Dakota Professor named Orlando Ferguson popularized a detailed model of a “Square and Stationary Earth,” not exactly flat, but in a sort of bowl carved out of square stone, with angels perched on the four corners. A caption on his map proclaimed: “Four Hundred Passages in the Bible that Condemns the Globe Theory, or the Flying Earth, and None Sustain It. This Map is the Bible Map of the World.”
How could this be, you wonder, right here in one of the world’s most “enlightened” countries? When all scientific doubt has been removed, how can reasonably informed people continue to embrace notions long since debunked? That’s what Yale Law School psychology professor Dan Kahan has been puzzling over, and his research has pointed to some startling findings. They are presented in the current issue of National Geographic, and the article is definitely worth reading.
In essence, Kahan tells us that as a rule, people aren’t convinced by facts. Rather, they tend to use scientific knowledge to reinforce beliefs that have already been shaped by their world-view.
In the case of Professor Ferguson and his 19th Century adherents, a world-view formed by the perceptions that we all have in nature – the earth feels motionless, the sun and moon seem to rise and set – and a strictly literal reading of ancient scriptures caused him to attempt to cram a trove of spherical-earth facts into his flat-earth grid, more than two millennia after educated people knew better.
Yale’s Dr. Kahan sees the same trends in similar debates today. He makes note of the persistent ideas that the moon landing was a fake, that vaccines cause autism, and that flourides in the water supply are harmful. But the debate over climate change illustrates his findings like no other dispute.
To begin with, there is no lack of factual information on what’s happening in the world’s climate. National Geographic sums it up this way:
“Last fall the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which consists of hundreds of scientists operating under the auspices of the United Nations, released its fifth report in the past 25 years. This one repeated louder and clearer than ever the consensus of the world’s scientists: The planet’s surface temperature has risen by about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the past 130 years, and human actions, including the burning of fossil fuels, are extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of the warming since the mid-20th century. Many people in the United States—a far greater percentage than in other countries—retain doubts about that consensus or believe that climate activists are using the threat of global warming to attack the free market and industrial society generally. Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, one of the most powerful Republican voices on environmental matters, has long declared global warming a hoax.
“The idea that hundreds of scientists from all over the world would collaborate on such a vast hoax is laughable—scientists love to debunk one another. It’s very clear, however, that organizations funded in part by the fossil fuel industry have deliberately tried to undermine the public’s understanding of the scientific consensus by promoting a few skeptics.”
But if the skeptic response is “laughable,” then why the huge public controversy? Dr. Kahan’s answer goes something like this, according to National Geographic:
“Americans fall into two basic camps. Those with a more ‘egalitarian’ and ‘communitarian’ mind-set are generally suspicious of industry and apt to think it’s up to something dangerous that calls for government regulation; they’re likely to see the risks of climate change. In contrast, people with a ‘hierarchical’ and ‘individualistic’ mind-set respect leaders of industry and don’t like government interfering in their affairs; they’re apt to reject warnings about climate change, because they know what accepting them could lead to—some kind of tax or regulation to limit emissions.
“In the U.S., climate change somehow has become a litmus test that identifies you as belonging to one or the other of these two antagonistic tribes. When we argue about it, Kahan says, we’re actually arguing about who we are, what our crowd is. We’re thinking, People like us believe this. People like that do not believe this. For a hierarchical individualist, Kahan says, it’s not irrational to reject established climate science: Accepting it wouldn’t change the world, but it might get him thrown out of his tribe.”
My experience tells me that there’s a lot of truth to this notion. I would admit that in recent years, I’ve developed a much more “communitarian” world-view. I’ve learned to pray our Father, not my Father; give us this day, not give me this day; forgive us our debts, and so on. And so the idea that the atmosphere belongs to all of us feels natural, even though I’ve burned things into it all my life. And so the science that tells me that burning fossil fuels into the atmosphere harms billions of people and uncounted species does nothing to threaten this world-view.
But I also know many people with a strongly “individualist” ethos. In my experience, most would rather not talk about climate change. But those who do tend to be largely impervious to new scientific facts, as I report them from time to time. When confronted with findings of the National Academy of Sciences, NASA or the American Geophysical Union, they tend to come back with blog posts by “wattsupwiththat.com” or quotes from Oklahoma Sen. Inhofe’s book: The Greatest Hoax. As recently as 2012, they often denied that the world was warming. But since that simply can no longer be defended with a straight face, they now admit that it may be warming, but maintain that it’s not mankind’s doing. New facts. Same conclusion.
I keep making the mistake of thinking that they just need a few more facts (which, by the way, are available in abundance at our fingertips). But perhaps I should be listening to the deeper narrative in my friends’ responses: I don’t want the larger society limiting my individual rights; I don’t like regulations, especially when they purport to mitigate harm that may be felt far away or in the future; and I certainly don’t want to be ostracized by those around me who think this way.
But maybe it’s time I began to focus on another narrative. Many Christians in America seem to be completely unaware of the radical individualism that has crept into our religious mindset. We have a “personal savior,” we say; we “come to the garden alone” in our hymns; and like Jesus, we “walk that lonesome valley” by ourselves. And yes, in fact, there is genuine substance to these notions that cannot be ignored.
But as the individualist narrative takes hold, much of the Christian gospel becomes almost unrecognizable to us. How can God promise to “bless” Abraham, when the reward won’t come to him at all, but to his offspring many generations to come? How can Moses allot land to every person equally, and periodically restore landless and indebted descendants? How can Jesus tell us to pray to the Father using only plural pronouns – our, us and we? And how can He tell his followers that love for Him will be demonstrated principally through the lens of love for “the least” of other people?
Maybe it’s time American Evangelicals began to reclaim the communitarian elements of the gospel story. God so loved “the world” – not just heaven, or a handful of human souls, but the world. God was in Christ reconciling “all things” to God – not just a individual people, but everything there is. In the culmination of history, Jesus will make “all things new.” And when we pray “give us this day our daily bread,” God’s full answer doesn’t come when I’ve had something to eat, but when all of us are satisfied.
And maybe then, if Yale’s Dr. Kahan is right, American Christians will be able to stand with their global brothers and sisters in looking squarely at the mountains of evidence pointing to the dire peril of global climate disruption.
National Geographic concludes in the clearest terms: “There aren’t really two sides to all these issues. Climate change is happening. Vaccines really do save lives. Being right does matter—and the science tribe has a long track record of getting things right in the end. Modern society is built on things it got right.”
To that I would add: The earth is not flat, even if there’s a little “flat-earther” in all of us.