More on the Flat Earth

The logo of the 2013 Flat Earth Society (click for credit)
The logo of the 2013 Flat Earth Society
(click for credit)
I have written about the concept of a flat earth several times before (here, here, here, and here). Since the time of Aristotle (and probably before), most philosophers understood that the earth is a sphere. In fact, Eratosthenes was able to measure the circumference of the earth’s sphere around 200 BC. Thus, the idea that most ancient scholars thought the earth is flat is a complete fabrication. Indeed, the idea that people thought Columbus would sail off the edge of the world originated in works of fiction, not works of history. Nevertheless, from time to time, I encounter a modern person who believes that the earth is flat or knows someone who does. Such was the case this past weekend when I attended the Indiana Association of Home Educators annual convention.

I love attending that convention. Not only is it close to home, but the organization that runs it is incredible, and the speakers they invite are usually quite wonderful. I don’t always get to attend, because I am often asked to speak at a different convention that same weekend. However, this year, I had no previous commitments, so I went to the convention to sit at my publisher’s booth and give a brief talk about my new award-winning elementary science series. At the end of my talk, a homeschooling mother asked to speak with me about the fact that some people in her family were beginning to believe that the earth is flat. She asked what she could do help debunk that notion.

I talked with her for a while and gave her a couple of resources, and I also gave her my e-mail address in the hopes that her family members would send me any questions they had on the issue. However, as I started thinking about our talk, I decided it would be best to produce a page where I could gather some of the resources that clearly show the earth is not flat. It’s rather ironic that an idea which could be easily refuted more than 2,000 years ago still requires refuting today. Nevertheless, I am happy to do my part.

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Memes: Spreading False Ideas Since 1980

heisenberg

If you have spent much time on the internet, I am sure you have seen memes like the one shown above. They usually contain a picture and some sort of message. I really enjoy the funny ones, but I typically don’t like the serious ones. It’s not because I don’t enjoy being serious. It’s because you rarely know whether or not the information in the meme is trustworthy. Consider, for example, the meme shown above. It attributes a quote to Dr. Werner Heisenberg, a giant in the field of quantum mechanics. Indeed, his work continues to guide our understanding of the atomic world. I fully agree with the quote, and I deeply respect Dr. Heisenberg. There is only one problem: the meme is almost certainly false.

A Facebook friend posted it on my wall because she knew that I would agree with it. However, I had read a lot of Heisenberg’s work, and the quote didn’t seem to fit the person who I had come to know through my reading. Consider, for example, his main work on the relationship between science and religion. It is called “Scientific Truth and Religious Truth,” and it was published in 1974 (two years before his death) in Universitas, a German review of the arts and sciences. In that work, he seems to argue that science and religion each arrive at truths, but the truths are unrelated to one another. Consider, for example, his own words:

The care to be taken in keeping the two languages, religious and scientific, apart from one another, should also include an avoidance of any weakening of their content by blending them. The correctness of tested scientific results cannot rationally be cast in doubt of religious thinking, and conversely, the ethical demands stemming from the heart of religious thinking ought not to be weakened by all too rational arguments from the field of science.

This is a common view among religious scientists. It often called the “Nonoverlapping Magisteria” (NOMA) view, and it was championed by Dr. Stephen Jay Gould, an ardent evolutionary evangelist who died in 2002. I strongly disagree with the NOMA view, so when I read Dr. Heisenberg’s work, I was disappointed that he seemed to hold to it.

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Gospel of Jesus’ Wife Is a Fake

The papyrus fragment that is now known as 'The Gospel of Jesus' Wife.' (click for credit)
The papyrus fragment that is now known as ‘The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.’ (click for credit)

I am in China right now, and I have been here for almost two weeks. However, internet access is sporadic (at best), which is why I haven’t added any articles recently. Things are a bit better today, though, so I thought I would share my thoughts on a story I recently ran across.

On September 18th, 2012 at the International Congress of Coptic Studies in Rome, Dr. Karen L. King announced the existence of an astounding 4-cm by 8-cm papyrus fragment. It contained what she thought was a 4th-century Coptic translation of a gospel that she suggested had probably been written in the late second century AD. While the discovery of any ancient papyrus that has writing on it is interesting, this particular fragment was especially interesting because it contained the following phrase:

Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…”

As a result, this papyrus fragment came to be known as “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.”

In a peer-reviewed paper that was later published in the Harvard Theological Review, Dr. King presented the results of several tests that had been done on the papyrus fragment. Those tests led her to conclude that it was from the 8th century AD and was not a forgery. In the same issue of the journal, however, another scholar wrote an article concluding that the papyrus was a forgery. The Vatican weighed in as well, dismissing the fragment as a “clumsy forgery.”

Since then, there has been a lot of discussion about the papyrus fragment, and a website was set up to provide all of the latest information about it. Based on subsequent tests done on the fragment and its ink, Dr. King became so convinced that the fragment is authentic that she told Time:

I’m basically hoping that we can move past the issue of forgery to questions about the significance of this fragment for the history of Christianity, for thinking about questions like, ‘Why does Jesus being married, or not, even matter? Why is it that people had such an incredible reaction to this?’

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No, Dr. Michio Kaku Hasn’t Proven God’s Existence!

Dr. Michio Kaku, theoretical physicist and "futurist" (picture from his Facebook page)
Dr. Michio Kaku, theoretical physicist and “futurist” (picture from his Facebook page)

The headlines are screaming it. Christian Today says, Top scientist claims proof that God exists, says humans live in a ‘world made by rules created by an intelligence.’ The Geophilosophical Association of Anthropological and Cultural Studies proclaims, Scientist says he found definitive proof that God exists. ChristianHeadlines.com says, Respected Scientist Says He Found Proof God Exists. At last! We now have definitive, scientific proof For the existence of God, right? Wrong!

I guess this story broke when I was busy getting ready to go to Salt Lake City to speak at a homeschool convention, because I hadn’t seen it until someone emailed me the Christian Today article and asked me what I thought of it. Since then, several other people have contacted me via email and Facebook to get my thoughts. Initially, I only glanced at the article, but even with that little glance, I was incredibly skeptical. The article claims to report on the work of Dr. Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist who had done some cutting edge research a couple of decades ago, but is more of a “scilebrity” today, promoting science and his ideas about the future on television shows, etc.

According to the article, Dr. Kaku was conducting tests on “primitive semi-radius tachyons” and decided that his tests told him that we live in some sort of “matrix” that was made by an intelligence. This bothered me a lot. Tachyons are theoretical particles. We have no idea whether or not they exist. If they exist, they travel faster than the speed of light, so it’s hard to know how in the world we could ever detect them, much less conduct tests on them. I have no idea how such particles can tell us something about the nature of the universe. I looked in vain for an article on the subject authored by Dr. Kaku himself. I then went to his Facebook page, which made no mention of this “monumental discovery.”

Since I couldn’t find anything written by Dr. Kaku, I decided to investigate these “primitive semi-radius tachyons” myself. I had never heard that term before, but then again, I am not a particle physicist. So today, I tried to find the term in my reference books. I could not. When I did an internet search on the term, the only hits I got were to articles about this supposed discovery. As a result, I seriously doubt that primitive semi-radius tachyons exist, even in the minds of theoretical physicists.

However, searching for that term did lead me to some Spanish websites, which show that this is actually an old story. This website posted the same story more than a year ago. Through the magic of Google Translate, I learned that this website decided the story was a hoax more than two years ago. Apparently, the hoax started on Spanish websites and has now made its way to English websites.

I think science offers a wealth of evidence to support the belief that God exists. However, as far as I can tell, Dr. Michio Kaku has not offered any.

Another Bad Sermon Illustration

A shepherd in Wales (click for credit)
A shepherd in Wales (click for credit)

My first post on a bad sermon illustration led a person on Facebook to ask me about a different sermon illustration. That also turned out to be a bad one. Well, that post led another person on Facebook to ask about another sermon illustration:

If a shepherd has a sheep that is always straying and getting into trouble, sometimes what the shepherd will do is break two of the sheep’s legs. Then the shepherd would set the bones and carry the lamb on his shoulders. It would take about five to eight weeks for the sheep’s bones to heal, and in that time, the lamb would grow closer to the shepherd. Once the sheep was well, he wouldn’t want to stray anymore because of the bond that developed between him and his master.

Maybe something traumatic has happened in your life because this is God’s way of breaking your legs.

Like the other two sermon illustrations I wrote about, this one is false. Breaking an animal’s bone is a risky business, and it causes an enormous amount of trauma. In addition, there are chances for complications, poor recovery, etc. In his classic book The Sheep, William Arthur Rushworth discusses what you should do with a sheep that has a broken leg.1

A sheep will, as a rule, nurse a broken leg and make a good recovery if the parts have been properly dressed, but unless the animal be a valuable ram or ewe, especially desired for breeding purposes, it is best not to try treatment, but to turn the animal at once over to the butcher.

I could not find any work from any reputable source that indicates a shepherd would ever intentionally break a sheep’s leg.

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Another Bad Sermon Illustration

An adult bald eagle in flight (click for credit)
An adult bald eagle in flight (click for credit)

I posted my previous blog article on my Facebook page, and someone asked about another sermon illustration that involves eagles. A typical version of that illustration is:

To convince the little eagles that the time has come to leave the nest, the parent eagles “stir up the nest.” That is, they rough it up with their talons, and make it uncomfortable, so that sticks and sharp ends and pointy spurs stick out of the nest, so that it is no longer soft and secure, ruining their “comfort zone.” The nest is made very inhospitable, as the eagles tear up the “bedding,” and break up the twigs until jagged ends of wood stick out all over like a pin cushion. Life for the young eaglets becomes miserable and unhappy. Why would Mom and Pop do such a thing?

But to make matters worse, then the mother eagle begins to “flutter her wings” at the youngsters, beating on them, harassing them, and driving them to the edge of the nest. Cowing before such an attack, the little eagles climb up on the edge of the nest. At this point, the mother eagle “spreads her wings” and, to escape her winged fury, the little eagle climbs onto her back, and hangs on for dear life. As if that were not enough, then the mother eagle launches out into space, and begins to fly, carrying the eagle on her back. All seems safe and serene, the little eagle never expected such a thrilling ride — but that was nothing to what was to come shortly. For suddenly, without any warning, the mother eagle DIVES, plummeting downward, depriving the little eagle of its “seat,” and the next thing it knows, it is in free fall, falling, and tumbling down, down, down, in the air, its wings struggling to catch hold of the air currents, but flopping crazily due to its inexperience. For it must learn to flow, and there is nothing like “experience” to teach an eagle to fly! Instinct alone is not enough!

Just at it thinks all is hopeless and lost, however, the mother eagle swoops down below and catches it once again on its back, and soars back into the atmosphere. Much relieved, the young eagle hangs on for dear life. But just when he thinks everything is “OK” once again, the mother pulls another sneaky trick, and dumps him into the air, alone, again! Once again, the little eagle struggles, this time his wings begin to work a little better, and instead of tumbling like a rock pulled by gravity to certain destruction below, he manages to slow his descent, and is able to stay aloft a little longer, as his wings begin to strengthen. Again, if necessary, the mother eagle rescues him from death, and soars back into the heavens. But just as he thinks everything is finally “hunky dory,” she does it again! And down he goes! Finally, he learns how to catch the air currents and ride the winds, and begins to soar “like an eagle” — and now experiences the thrill of total “freedom” and “liberty”! Now he is no longer confined to the parameters of the nest. Now he is free to soar in the sky, and to be a true “eagle.”

Like the previous one I wrote about, there is nothing true in this illustration.

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A Bad Sermon Illustration

An adult bald eagle in flight (click for credit)
An adult bald eagle in flight (click for credit)

A student who has used some of my science courses contacted me asking if something he heard in a sermon was actually true. He said that it sounded kind of hard to believe, based on what he knew about science. The student’s question made me happy for two reasons. First, it showed that he was diligent in trying to learn the truth. Second, it showed that he was able to take what he had learned from my science courses and use it to do some critical thinking.

Here is one version of the story he heard:

The eagle has the longest life-span among birds. It can live up to 70 years, but to reach this age, the eagle must make a hard decision. In its 40’s, its long and flexible talons can no longer grab prey which serves as food. Its long and sharp beak becomes bent. Its old-aged and heavy wings, due to their thick feathers, become stuck to its chest and make it difficult to fly. Then, the eagle is left with only two options: die or go through a painful process of change which lasts 150 days. The process requires that the eagle fly to a mountain-top and sit on its nest. There, the eagle knocks its’ [sic] beak upon a rock until it plucks it out. After plucking it out, the eagle will wait for a new beak to grow back and then it will pluck out its talons. When its new talons grow back, the eagle starts plucking its old-aged feathers. After five months, the eagle takes it famous flight of re-birth and lives for 30 more years!

The idea, of course, is that change is hard, but if you make the change, great things can happen. While this is an inspiring tale, almost nothing in it is true. Let’s just start from the beginning and work through the story, comparing what the story claims to what we know about eagles.

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Debunking the Myth That Copernicus “Demoted” the Earth

Jan Matejko's painting entitled, "Astronomer Copernicus, or conversation with God."
Jan Matejko’s painting entitled, “Astronomer Copernicus, or conversation with God.”

It is a common statement made in many discussions of how Copernicus revolutionized our understanding of the universe. Goethe’s quote is a typical example:

Of all discoveries and opinions, none may have exerted a greater effect on the human spirit than the doctrine of Copernicus. The world had scarcely become known as round and complete in itself when it was asked to waive the tremendous privilege of being the center of the universe.

If you read one of my previous blog posts you will recognize one myth in that quote. People knew the earth was round long, long before Copernicus. Indeed, by 200 BC or so, the distance around the earth had been measured.

There is, however, another myth in the quote. Do you see it? It is the myth that the ancients put the earth at the center of the universe to indicate how important humanity is and that Copernicus “demoted” the earth and humanity’s importance by taking the earth out of that center. While this myth is commonly taught wherever Copernicus’s revolution is discussed, it is quite false.

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Debunking the Flat Earth Myth

This painting depicts Christopher Columbus kneeling in front of Queen Isabella.
This painting depicts Christopher Columbus kneeling in front of Queen Isabella.

Since today is Columbus Day, I thought I would discuss a myth commonly associated with the man. I learned it in school, as did many others. It’s the myth that people in Columbus’s day thought the earth was flat. Highlights of American History Before 1850, for example, tells students about a conversation that supposedly took place between Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella:1

“Your Highness,” said Columbus, “instead of going east across the land to reach India, your traders can sail west across the ocean.” “What? Are you mad?” asked Queen Isabella. “If they sail too far west they will fall off the edge of the earth!”

A more recent book puts it this way:2

Only 500 years ago, sailors aboard the Santa Maria begged Columbus to turn back lest they sail off the Earth’s “edge.”

There is a big problem with such pronouncements: no historical evidence exists to back up the idea that most people (even uneducated people) in Columbus’s day believed the earth was flat. In addition, there is a wealth of evidence that indicates no one took such an idea seriously.

We know, for example, that philosophers understood the spherical shape of the earth long before Christ was born. It was discussed by philosophers like Pythagoras in the fifth century BC3 and became widely accepted when it was championed by Aristotle (384–322 BC). He saw that the stars were different in one part of the world than the other. This indicated to him that the earth must be a sphere.4 The spherical shape of the earth was so widely accepted among philosophers that Eratosthenes (c.276–c.195 BC) used the change in a staff’s shadow resulting from a 500-mile trip to measure the circumference of the earth. He was correct to within less than 2% of today’s accepted value.5

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What Does It Mean To Be Open-Minded?

My new elementary science series has been included in Cathy Duffy's "102 Top Picks for Homeschool Curriculum"
My new elementary science series has been included in Cathy Duffy’s “102 Top Picks for Homeschool Curriculum”
Those who have been homeschooling for many years probably recognize the name Cathy Duffy. For years, her Christian Home Educators’ Curriculum Manual was the main reference homeschooling parents used to choose among their various curriculum options. Over the years, other means by which home educators can get curriculum advice have been developed. Nevertheless, Cathy Duffy continues to be a trusted resource for many homeschooling parents.

Her latest book, 102 Top Picks for Homeschool Curriculum, is a set of reviews of what she considers to be the best curriculum available to home educating parents. I was honored to find out that my new elementary science series has been included in that book. In her review, she writes:

I’m not aware of any other science curriculum similar to this. While it is a Christian curriculum, it avoids the apologetics flavor of some others that spend a lot of energy arguing for creationism and against evolution. Nevertheless, it helps students view science from Christian worldview. The use of hands-on activities to introduce lessons, the multi-age format, and the chronological approach in this series are also features likely to appeal to many families. This seems to me an excellent way to teach science, and an approach that should have exceptional appeal for classical educators.

I truly appreciate Cathy Duffy’s kind words!

Of course, there are many other reviews of my new series, and most of them are very positive (see here, here, here, here, here, and here, for example). There is one negative review as well. In addition, there is one review that is a bit mixed, and it’s the one that caused me to write this post.

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