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The Plane Truth: Noted Skeptic’s Newly Published (Posthumous) Book About Flat Earth Theories

Nov. 19, 2015 by | Comments (4)
Explore Bob Schadewald's last book, on the topic of most specialized skeptical expertise: Flat Earth theories.

Explore Bob Schadewald’s final project, a book on the topic of his most specialized area of skeptical expertise: Flat Earth theories.

I’m very pleased to learn that The Plane Truth, the unfinished final work of skeptical scholarship by the late Robert J. Schadewald (1943–2000), has now been prepared for publication and released online for free. You can read the book in its web version here, where you also find the EPUB ebook version available for download.

During his life, Bob Schadewald was the world’s leading skeptical expert on the history of flat-Earth advocacy. The pseudoscientific notion that the Earth is a flat disk may seem as quaint as it is preposterous, but so-called “Zetetic Astronomy” enjoyed a surprisingly strong period of public prominence in the UK and US during the 19th century—attracting attention from debunkers of the period such as Alfred Russel Wallace1 (see Skeptic Vol. 20, No. 3) and Richard Anthony Proctor, and prompting reflections from later thinkers including George Bernard Shaw and George Orwell. During the 20th century the relative sophistication of Zetetic Astronomy collapsed into muddled conspiracy theories, parody, and ultra-fundamentalist Biblical literalism; nevertheless, flat-Earth advocacy continues to this day.

Cover of Junior Skeptic 53, bound inside Skeptic Vol. 19, No. 4. Subscribe to Skeptic

To maintain and advance knowledge of today’s “weird things” requires ongoing skeptical scholarship—perhaps especially (I have argued) historical scholarship that traces the origins and evolution of fringe ideas over time. When I turned to the history of flat-Earth thinking for my Junior Skeptic #53 story, “Flat Earth?! The Convoluted Story of a Flatly Mistaken Idea” (bound inside Skeptic magazine Vol. 19, No. 4) I benefitted from two particularly useful overview sources. One was Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea, by historian Christine Garwood. The other was Worlds of Their Own: A Brief History of Misguided Ideas: Creationism, Flat-Earthism, Energy Scams, and the Velikovsky Affair, an anthology of skeptical essays by Bob Schadewald (edited by his sister Lois Schadewald and published after his death).

A Skeptic’s Skeptic

For decades Bob Schadewald researched flat-Earth thinking and related concepts such as Hollow Earth theories, Velikovskianism, and, notably, “Creation Science.” My Flat Earth research for Junior Skeptic grew out of work he originally published in the pages of Science Digest, Smithsonian magazine, The Bulletin of the Tychonian Society, and elsewhere. His essays on pseudoscience appeared regularly in periodicals including the Skeptical Inquirer and the Reports of the National Center for Science Education, and in valuable anthologies such as the The Fringes of Reason: A Whole Earth Catalog (New York: Harmony Books, 1989) and Scientists Confront Creationism (New York: W.W. Norton, 1983). He was the last person to interview Immanuel Velikovsky (for Fate magazine)

“My brother was a student of pseudoscience,” recalled Lois Schadewald. “It fascinated Bob to try to understand how someone could so firmly believe in an idea that almost everyone else would consider an indicator of insanity or, at least, naiveté.”

With that understanding as his goal, Schadewald maintained generous personal relationships with prominent advocates for flat-Earthism and creationism.2 I never had the chance to meet Bob Schadewald, but I wish that I had. He seems to have been a skeptic after my own heart. He was a serious, hard-hitting critic of pseudoscientific belief systems, yet known for the civility and respect he extended towards those who held those beliefs. (The acknowledgements he left for The Plane Truth thank both skeptic Martin Gardner and creationist Duane Gish.) He clearly liked people. And, he seems to have known that earned knowledge is a potent critical weapon, while mere indignation is comparatively weak.

Former NCSE President Bob Schadewald. (Image courtesy Lois Schadewald.)

The late Bob Schadewald (1943–2000), a former President of the National Center for Science Education. (Image courtesy Lois Schadewald.)

That emphasis on patient, soft-spoken skeptical outreach and deep understanding is an approach often associated in recent years with the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). Perhaps it is not surprising then that Bob Schadewald was a former president of that organization. He is remembered at the NCSE in, for example, this 2000 obituary and this 2014 reflection “Thinking of Bob,” both by the esteemed Eugenie Scott (NCSE Executive Director for 27 years—now retired). (Further explore his involvement with the NCSE using this custom Google search.)

“He attended more creationist conferences than anyone I know,” Eugenie Scott wrote, “somehow maintaining his sanity, but also his civility and sense of humor throughout. He did not hesitate to correct the abundant scientific misstatements that proliferate at such events, but he did it with a Midwestern geniality that didn’t generate offense.”

That kind-but-resolute3 approach (“he gave no quarter in vigorous debate with the creationists…but he saw no contradiction in going out afterward for a beer with these same adversaries,” said Scott) was a position of strength—a strength built on an extensive scholarship of the weird. This included on-site research, face-to-face conversations, and, Scott recalled, “the largest personal library I’ve ever seen.”

He was inspired to this work by an earlier generation of skeptics. As his sister notes, “Bob remarked on several occasions that it was Martin Gardner’s book Fads and Fallacies in the name of Science (Dover, 1957) that was influential in determining his life’s passion: the study of alternative thinkers.” That’s a passion I share—and through that common passion for scientific skepticism, through that continuing work, Bob Schadewald has now in turn influenced me.

The Plane Truth

Bob worked on The Plane Truth until the week he died in 2000. Of all things, completing this book…was of the utmost importance to him.

Happily, Bob Schadewald’s legacy has outlived him thanks to the efforts of Lois Schadewald, Wendy Schadewald, and other admirers to share his writing in accessible modern print and digital formats. In particular, the editorial and technical work of Bob Forrest, Michael Behrend, and Lois Schadewald has now made The Plane Truth available to us all—for free! I for one cannot wait to dig further into it.

The book is “offered for what it is,” Lois cautions readers in her Preface: “an unfinished scholarly work on the history and background of flat-earth belief sprinkled through with the characters and colorful personalities of those involved.”

Even incomplete, it was the work of decades, she explains:

The Plane Truth…has been a work in progress since at least 1984, although I’m sure the idea of it dates to the 1970s. It’s a work that is unfinished in places, perhaps more detailed than one would have thought possible in places, perfectly constructed in places, and all over the (flat) map in still other places. Bob worked on The Plane Truth until the week he died in 2000. Of all things, completing this book to his satisfaction was of the utmost importance to him. I believe that the book remained unfinished because Bob felt that it never met his standards closely enough to be published.

That’s the reality for skeptical researchers, and indeed for scholars in general: none of our work will ever be done. The road stretches ever onward. Always there is more to learn. But we who are left to continue that work are richer today, for we have Bob Schadewald’s last gift to the scholars of the weird.


Notes
  1. Wallace was a complicated figure. His career spanned straight science (co-discovery of evolution through natural selection, development of biogeography), scientific skepticism (debunking flat-Earth claims), misplaced skepticism (anti-vaccine activism), and outright paranormalism (Spiritualism). For more on his support of the pseudoscientific fad of “spirit photography,” see my story in Junior Skeptic #52.
  2. In one well-known incident, Robert Schadewald sent a box of books to a creationist counterpart named Kurt Wise who had lost his research library in a fire. This was one of the last acts of Schadewald’s life, for he passed away just a month later—before the shipment arrived in the mail. Wise was deeply moved by this kindness from a man with a “wildly different philosophical and religious perspective than I,” saying, “I will always remember that box and the one who sent it with a tear in the corner of my eye. Thanks Bob. I wish we could have shared even more.” See Robert J. Schadewald. Lois A. Schadewald, Ed. “It’s a Small Flat World.” Worlds of Their Own: A Brief History of Misguided Ideas: Creationism, Flat-Earthism, Energy Scams, and the Velikovsky Affair. (Xlibris, 2008.) pp. 263–264
  3. Lois Schadewald makes clear that her brother was kind, not a pushover: “Now, after describing Bob’s warmth toward those he studied, I want to point out, and make it perfectly clear, he wasn’t empathetic with all of them. Bob had no time for dishonesty. … Bob held the characteristic of honesty in the highest regard. When he saw people lying to get their way—whether the purpose was swindling people out of their money or swindling people out of knowledge—he got livid.” Ibid. p. 259
Daniel Loxton

Daniel Loxton is the Editor of INSIGHT at Skeptic.com and of Junior Skeptic, the 10-page kids’ science section bound within Skeptic magazine. Daniel has been an avid follower of the paranormal literature since childhood, and of the skeptical literature since his youth. He is also an award-winning author. Read Daniel’s full bio or his other posts on this blog.

4 responses to “The Plane Truth: Noted Skeptic’s Newly Published (Posthumous) Book About Flat Earth Theories”

  1. Max says:

    The other day, I saw some commenter arguing that the Earth is flat, but it was so stupid, I couldn’t tell if it was Poe’s law or not.

  2. Eugenie Scott says:

    Thanks so much for this tribute to Bob. And I’m delighted that his last book has been published. Even if he wasn’t able to completely finished it to his liking, I’m sure he would be pleased to see it in print.

  3. Jim Lippard says:

    Re: Footnote 2: When Charles E. Johnson of the International Flat Earth Society’s home near Lancaster, California was destroyed by a fire in September 1995, Schadewald came to his rescue as well, to help restore his library of flat earth materials.

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