Flat Earths and Fake Footnotes

At the interface of science and faith, two quite entertaining scholars have many stories to tell.

We are publishing a four part series of excerpts on most entertaining of books on the history of science, Flat Earths and Fake Footnotes,

Why won’t this stubborn pseudohistory die? To the rescue comes Peterson, a historian extraordinaire with many stories to tell. Exuding a palpable glee, he quests to debunk the grand pseudohistorical myths of conflict. His book about books leads the reader in an adventure across centuries. Hacking through the webs of false references and out-right fabrications, the payoff is a glimpse of what really happened. The truth is far more hopeful than the fiction. Rather than inevitable conflict, the true arc of science and religion might be dialogue, maybe even friendship. May this book get the wide readership it deserves.

On the same topic, we published an excerpt from Kenneth Kemp too.

Of course, do not miss Ken Miller’s AAR/SBL paper. He is an entertainer too, so watch the video if you can.


It is apparent that educated people in Medieval Europe knew that the earth was spherical. That would mean charming harmony between science and The Church, if it were also true that the pastors gave sermons to the masses pointing out this fact. Did they ever get up there on Sunday and say “Well, you know that the Bible contains images of a domelike sky over a flat earth with four corners, but really the earth is round”? No?


This section at the end of the excerpt is fantastic.

Now admittedly, that last bit about getting stuck at the bottom of the world will no doubt bring a smile to the reader’s face for being so quaint. But we will do well to remember that they were following well entrenched principles of Ptolemaic science, and it is hard to blame this subset of men arguing such things for not being up to date on gravity or the relativity of motion nearly two centuries in advance of Isaac Newton and four before Einstein. For the Ptolemaic layout, up was up, and down was down. Hence the notion that moving along the circulature of the earth’s sphere would bring with it as one traveled a shift in the frame of reference did not occur to them. Columbus was not immune to this opinion. In his travel journals transcribed by de las Casas, Columbus remarks that as he entered the mouth of the Orinoco river the vast pressures against the boat led him to believe he may have already run into the hill of the earth’s curvature, and was beginning to sail upward. Far from invoking fear, however, a thrill came over Columbus in part because of the idea put forward by the theologian Peter Lombard, and later by the poet Dante, speculating that the earth was in fact more shaped like a pear hanging from a tree—with the lost paradise of Eden sitting atop the bulging crest of the world. The thought of trying to storm Eden, inaccessible because of the currents stemming from the cataract of waters glissading downward off the roof of the world was no small motivator for Columbus to continue forward, whatever the cost.

Is there evidence that the masses didn’t know the earth was round based on very superficial readings of the Bible? I would think that basics of the scientific knowledge of the educated usually filter down to the masses. And if it was not official doctrine, and the masses did not have their own Bibles, how could there be disharmony? It seems more likely that they knew the earth was round than they knew of any passages that might lend to thinking otherwise. I guess I’d have to read the book to see if that was the case or not. :blush:


@tim please treat the visiting scholar with basic respect. You can disagree with him, but not like that.



The Church set science back centuries, writes Timothy Ferris, and “the proud earth was hammered flat; likewise shimmering in the sun” while the heavens were wheels, pushed by angels in the courses of their perihelion.

I tracked down the source for this. What Ferris actually wrote was:

Boethius was executed in 524, and with the extinguishing of that last guttering lamp the darkness closed in. The climate during the Dark Ages grew literally colder, as if the sun itself had lost interest in the mundane. The few Western scholars who retained any interest in mathematics wrote haltingly to one another, trying to recall such elementary facts of geometry as the definition of an interior angle of a triangle. The stars came down: Conservative churchmen modeled the universe after the tabernacle of Moses; as the tabernacle was a tent, the sky was demoted from a glorious sphere to its prior status as a low tent roof. The planets, they said, were pushed around by angels; this obviated any need to predict celestial motions by means of geometrical or mechanical models. The proud round earth was hammered flat; likewise the shimmering sun. Behind the sky reposed eternal Heaven, accessible only through death.

Did such churchmen exist? Cosmas Indicopleustes would appear to be one such.

[Addendum: on closer examination, it would appear that Cosmas Indicopleustes was an extreme exception, rather than a representative example. This means that, whilst it can be argued that Ferris’ statement is technically accurate, it can also be argued that it was misleading. Unfortunately Patterson did not make that latter argument.]

Is Ferris’ representation of the interaction between First Millennium Christianity and Science a fair one? I don’t know. But I would say that Peterson’s characterisation of Ferris’ statements appears to be less than charitable.


I eventually tracked down the source for the “best–selling history of science text” claim that I was looking for before. It turns out that the claims Patterson mentions aren’t merely alluded to by the source but made (sort of) by the source itself. It is in fact a pop science book not a “history of science text”, and written by a scientist, rather than a historian of science. Also it does not attribute the “main culprit in this debacle of the human spirit” (Patterson’s words not Gleiser’s) as being the Church, but rather attributes this "redirect[ion] in “worries” to “the ascendancy of the Church and the decline of Rome” – i.e. to more generalised historical forces. A subtle difference, but I think an important one. I should not have been surprised, it would have been somewhat out of character for a pro-religion scientist like Gleiser to have indulged in gratuitous Church-bashing.

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Let me reformulate my problems with Patterson’s piece.

Firstly the “claptrap” (as I previously described it) that is taught to Americans about Columbus, from a young age, can more easily be placed in the context of an American tendency to valorise and mythologise its history, than to a specific desire to miscast historic understanding of the shape of the Earth. Given Rightwing (including Religious Right) preference for this valorised version (observable from their complaints about less valorised approaches), it would not be surprising that students at an institution like Biola demonstrate this in an exaggerated manner.


This suspicion is further heightened by the fact that Washington Irving is widely cited for perpetuating this myth in his book A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus.]

Looking beyond Columbus, the two footnotes whose sources I tracked down above demonstrate an exaggeration and mischaracterisation of those sources.

Looking further, we see an attempt by a misguided pair of Christian demographers to offer up Flat Earth as another ill attributable to Christianity. Hardly probative.

And we have the words of Jeffrey Burton Russell:

in reality, there were no skeptics [of a round earth]. All educated people throughout Europe knew the earth’s spherical shape and its approximate circumference.

I’m sorry, but in spite of Russell having written a “book–length study” on the topic, this statement would appear to be directly contradicted by the views expressed by Cosmas Indicopleustes, as I noted above.

[Addendum: in the Wikipedia article on the subject, Russell is quoted as saying something slightly different:

with extraordinary few exceptions no educated person in the history of Western Civilization from the third century B.C. onward believed that the Earth was flat

(My emphasis)

“All” or “with extraordinary few [but some] exceptions”?

Every time I look more closely at this issue, it gets murkier.]

Given all this, the fact that Patterson appears to be relying in part on Michael Keas (and previous exposure to him has failed to yield observable daylight between him and the DI apologetic party line) and his book, the fact that he is primarily a historian of Christian Thought rather than of Science, and who teaches at a religious institution, I cannot help but think that an overly apologetic view or framing of this issue may have influenced his views on the matter.

In short, it is becoming unclear which of the Myth of Flat Earth and the Myth of the Myth of Flat Earth is the more mythical.


My audience is American. And the use of Cosmas is quite ironic as it embodies exactly the mistakes that historian’s point out have caused these sorts of misunderstandings, and which with Cosmas in particular I speak of in my book. I do not “rely” on Michael Keas, but use an anecdote from his book. I have many deep disagreements with ID. I suggest you reflect on the nature of what an ad hominem is, since you seem keen to debunk by naming allegiances and associations rather than arguments. My book is based on “secular” historiography (if we have to insist on those categories) in the history of science and religion in the main, where it has become common fair to not only dismiss the warfare thesis and its many vignettes like the typical notion of the flat earth, as the nonsense they are – the warfare thesis and its vignettes are actively held up as how not to do history. I’d be happy to recommend some works from the nearly 800 that populate the bibliography of my book ad which I’ve spent several years working through, which help us relieve many misunderstandings of, say, the Galileo affair, or Darwinism, if you ever grow tired of your frantic questing through wikipedia.

To that end, since you appear to believe Christians can say little to nothing true, let me point you to Umberto Eco (which I cite in my book): “No medieval author knew Cosmas, and his text was considered an authority on the ‘Dark Ages’ only after its English publication in 1897.” (Umberto Eco, “The Force of Falsity,” in Umberto Eco, Serendipities: Language and Lunacy, p.5). In fact the only citation of him that we have by Photius of Constantinople, is a remark on how odd it is that Cosmas believes in a flat earth. Aside from that, until the rediscovery of the manuscripts he was unknown, and certainly not an authority. A few other flat earthers include Lactantius. There are five, perhaps six total Christian theologians who hold to it from the time of Christ up until the 19th century, where it starts up with the work of a man who fashioned himself “Parallax.” Christina Garwood’s book on the flat earth is particularly good here. The retroactive rewriting of history due to misunderstandings of men like Parallax, or the strange use of Cosmas, and logical leaps in judgment is a fascinating one. Its unfortunate that you are so dismissive and combative, with, clearly, zero interest in understanding or discussion. Your constant revision of your posts above is a great example. It indicates that you went in to this knowing nothing of the topic, wildly reading as you went about rudely perpetuating a preconception that was falling apart before your eyes, and yet you still had such a high opinion of your own abilities you thought you could debunk everything with a few half hearted treks onto wikipedia. Also, my name is Peterson for the record. As you abuse my character based on what appears to be no real understanding of the issues at hand and an entirely bad faith approach to any sort of discussion, please do at least bother to spell things like my name correctly. Also, for the record, despite you not having read Russell and dismissing him for being a Christian, his work is taken as authoritative by essentially everyone working in history, Christian, secular, or otherwise. Maybe give it a read before pronouncing on it.


That’s just silly. What @subrationedei has in his book is well accepted in the history of science. Here is one of the endorsements from Peter Harrison…

“Flat Earths and Fake Footnotes offers a comprehensive and compelling demolition of
the tired myth of an enduring conflict between science and religion. Peterson not only
exposes the historical bankruptcy of this familiar story, but also shows how it became
a foundational narrative for Western modernity and why it persists. Beautifully written
and impeccably researched, this book deserves a wide readership.”

-Peter Harrison, Former Andreas-Idreos Chair of Science and Religion, Oxford University, Current Australian Laureate Fellow and Author of The Territories of Science and Religion

@TedDavis can also confirm. This also is just 1/4 of 1 chapter. More posts are coming out, and they present more information and data.

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A surprising number of American universities were “previously known” as clergy training schools and seminaries. Indeed, my own alma mater was founded under the simple title “State Seminary.”

I’ve often heard said that all of the Ivy League universities with the exception of Cornell were founded by religious sects for the purpose of training clergy.

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How many of them have an Apologetics Department and a disproportionate number of Discovery Institute affiliates on staff? My implicit point was that the name change didn’t come with any significant change in the institution’s religious character.

This in turn leads to my point that this institution’s students may be an unrepresentative, and thus potentially biased sample.

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Then I find it very odd that you failed to mention the rather prominent role that Washington Irving’s (a very prominent early American author) 1828 book A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus played in the Columbus-Flat Earth saga.

I would note that you have failed to address my ‘valorisation/mythologisation of American History’ point on this issue.

Given that it is highly likely that Ferris had Cosmas in mind when he did not write that “the Church set science back centuries”, but rather a less extreme claim, I cannot consider his mention inapt.

I would however bring to your attention that I did (if belatedly) state:

What we have access to here, and what is therefore the topic of discussion, is your linked essay, not your book.

On an initial examination, the fact that you cited Michael Keas raised a red flag with me, so I started checking (at least a few) sources. When I (i) found sources being reframed to exaggerate their malignment of the Church, and (ii) saw fairly frequent citation of religious-aligned sources, the suspicion of some degree of bias or group-think is not unnatural.

None of this of course relies on Wikipedia, let alone naive acceptance of it.

What I have seen to date, both here and on the Conflict Thesis thread, is a willingness to bend sources to match your preferred narrative, rather than letting your narrative bend to match what your sources actually said. This does not engender much trust.

No Joshua, what we have is a pattern of exaggeration of the extent to which sources blame “the Church” for loss of scientific knowledge or the mythical belief in a Flat Earth.

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It’s hard to know exactly what “the masses” in the Middle Ages believed about the shape of the earth, but we can say with confidence what they were taught by the images presented to them by church and state.

(1) A 2D example—Fra Angelico, Christ in Majesty (1447), Cappella di San Brizio Cathedral, Orvieto
(2) A 2D example—from Chronica Hungarorum (1488)

(3) A 3D example from 15th Century, almost certainly pre-Colombian

(4) A 2D example of the coronation of Henry III, Holy Roman Emperor, mid-11th century miniature

(5) Generic history of this symbol:


Yes, this is really beyond reasonable doubt. I’ve personally examined multiple copies of the standard introductory astronomy textbooks from the Middle Ages and Renaissance. These were printed in various university cities and towns across Europe, and they are typically identical or nearly identical from place to place. Every one of them teaches unambiguously as an established fact the spherical shape of the Earth, giving evidence for it both from Aristotle and subsequently. The crucial case is the pre-Columbian printings of Sacrobosco’s “On the Sphere” (where “sphere” here means the starry heaven, but the book also teaches a spherical Earth).


That work was written by an English monk who taught at Paris in the 13th Century. After Gutenberg, the text circulated widely in print editions that included wonderful illustrations of the Earth’s spherical shape. Here’s an example: https://library.missouri.edu/news/wp-content/uploads/sites/53/2014/10/sacrobosco0005-300x208.jpg

This may sound wrong, but it’s fully accurate: Sacrobosco remained in use for 400 years. It was perhaps the most widely used science textbook in history, when judged by its shelf life and geographical scope. (Any standard modern text will of course sell many more copies, but also will fall out of use far sooner.) Johannes de Sacrobosco and the sphere of the universe – Library News



Are you familiar with Sagan’s TV series and printed book, “Cosmos”? It’s been enormously influential worldwide, perhaps a billion people would have known his name then. IMO (shared by many historians), Sagan did untold damage to popular understandings of the history of science and religion. In essence, he was a modern mythmaker of great standing.

For example: The Myth of the "Medieval Gap" - Articles - BioLogos



I applaud your inquisitive skepticism, and since Mike Keas is associated with TDI it’s easy to understand where you’re coming from.

In Mike’s defense, however, let me point out that he is a trained expert in history and philosophy of science. He earned his PhD at Oklahoma, which was and is a top program in that field. (Full disclosure: I did not do my doctoral work at Oklahoma, but they made me an affiliate fellow several years ago. So, I have an insider’s knowledge of their faculty and resources, but also perhaps some bias in describing them.) Mike worked under Mary Joe Nye, a distinguished historian of chemistry and the philosophy of science. Mary Jo Nye - Wikipedia. Mike knows a great deal more about the history of science than you seem to realize.

Furthermore, I scrutinized many of the chapters in his book, “Unbelieveable,” prior to publication, giving him extensive feedback and sometimes additional information that he used. This doesn’t imply that I agree with everything he wrote, but I was sufficiently impressed to provide an endorsement on the dust jacket–and I used it as a text in a senior honors seminar my last year of teaching. It’s very thoroughly researched. If it raises red flags for you, perhaps this says something about where you’re coming from.

Finally, I should also point out that Mike Keas recently published an article on another topic in Synthese, rated as the #1 philosophy journal by Google Scholar. This should say something about his scholarly skill set.


My overall assessment is precisely the opposite, Tim. I reviewed Peterson’s book for a forthcoming issue of Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith and said this: “Flat Earths and Fake Footnotes functions well as a primer for non-specialists on the ideological origins of the conflict view and how badly it misled scholars in earlier generations, leading them to write many things that would not pass muster today, and how it was eventually deconstructed.”


To the extent that I have failed to make it clear that I was addressing exagerations in Patterson’s essay, and worse allowed rhetorical florishes to lead me to explicitly overstep this limit, I apologise.

I am curious however to see Carl Sagan rather than Washington Irving blamed for the Flat Earth myth. The fact that this myth, and specifically the Columbus variant of it in school textbooks, predates Sagan’s show and book would suggest otherwise. (I am not defending the eggregious History of Science errors Sagan made however.) The issue seems to have more to do with a hypertrophied willingness to accept, and pass on, valorised and mythologised versions of American History (yes, I know, I’m a broken record on this point, but nobody seems willing to address it).

I have documented Patterson’s exagerations both on this thread, and on the Conflict Thesis thread (with further, if self-censored, followup here). One thing I have come to notice is that Patterson seems unwilling to let his sources condemn themselves ‘out of their own mouths’ – the maligning of Christianity seems to be always in Patterson’s own words (“A main culprit in this debacle of the human spirit was the Church”, “The Church set science back centuries”, “perpetuate the idea that Christians because of the flat earth, and now six-day creationism, have always opposed science in the majority”), and Patterson’s wording always casts Christianity in a worse light than his sources in fact do.


I think my reference to Sagan mislead you, owing to some lack of precision on my part. I was responding specifically to your general point about people blaming “the Church” for loss of scientific knowledge, not to your specific point about the Flat Earth. I should have been clearer.

The column I referenced, mainly by Canadian historian of science Steve Snobelen (with editorial assistance from me on behalf of BioLogos), documents how Sagan promulgated your general point, about blaming Catholicism for holding back scientific progress. That’s a huge historical myth that long predates Sagan, but he did perhaps more than anyone else to popularize it, especially among the many religious skeptics who literally don’t know any better. (And those folks aren’t the only people influenced by it who don’t know any better.)

Here’s a recent example of someone who DOES know better, in Time magazine: What the 'Dark Ages' Myth Gets Wrong About Medieval Science | Time. I applaud the author and the editors.

Here’s another, by a well informed high school teacher. I’m encouraged.4 They Thought the World Was Flat? Applying the Principles of How People Learn in Teaching High School History | How Students Learn: History, Mathematics, and Science in the Classroom | The National Academies Press

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I have already apologised for failing to make it clear that I was addressing the contents of Patterson’s essay/chapter/whatever.

That piece puts a heavy emphasis on Flat Earth in general, and the Columbus Flat Earth myth in particular. I therefore do not consider it unreasonable to concentrate on this issue.

I also do not think it is unreasonable, particularly given Washington Irving’s involvement, to suggest that the Columbus Flat Earth myth was aimed at distorting/romanticising American History, rather than the History of Science, and that the History of Science was merely ‘collateral damage’, and that this therefore fits more uncomfortably into any wider pattern.

If this phenomenon is this common (and I have no reason to disbelieve you on this point) then I am surprised that Patterson was unable to find anyone who would condemn themselves out of their own mouth, and had to resort to putting words in their mouth.

I do not think this is helped when an atheism “skeptic” (I’d use a more severe term myself) makes baseless accusations on the subject, and clearly “don’t know any better”, as he thinks these quotes are “the quotes [he] had in mind”, when they support nothing of the sort.

I have never read Sagan’s book, nor seen his series – it was probably shown eventually in NZ but, given practices at the time, probably not for years afterwards. I have however read Patterson’s piece and his baseless accusations against several prominent atheist scientists. I think I can be forgiven for both wanting to concentrate on the latter, and wishing to see them addressed before we move onto the wider subject (including Sagan).