Reports of the National Center for Science Education
November 10, 2008
Review: Worlds of Their Own
Worlds of Their Own: A Brief History of Misguided Ideas: Creationism, Flat-Earthism, Energy Scams, and the Velikovsky Affair
Robert Schadewald, edited by Lois Schadewald
Philadelphia: Xlibris, 2008. 240 pages.
It is a pleasure to recommend this book by Robert Schadewald, who died several years ago at age 57, before he was able to publish these essays together. Schadewald, a free-lance technical writer by profession, was an avid student of pseudoscience and advocate for a more rational world. The publisher describes this book as a distillation of a lifetime of research into why some people extend their views of reality beyond the evidence, or deny the common reality and create their own.
Bob's sister, Lois Schadewald, complied this book from a variety of sources. Many chapters are previously published essays, spanning 30 years. She also found notes for unfinished books on the subjects of alternative science, perpetual motion, scientific creationism and flat earth theories. She organized this diverse material and wrote short introductions to each section. The result thus does not present a unified perspective or consistent outlook in time, and some sections seem dated. But no matter; these essays express the unified vision of Bob Schadewald, and that is what matters.
The book deals with four examples of pseudoscience. The early chapters are devoted to Immanuel Velikovsky, including the last interview with Velikovsky a week before he died. Next is a detailed historical review of perpetual motion machines, both those put forward by honest, if confused, inventors who just have not quite made their machines work, and those with hidden batteries or motors built to defraud potential investors. The third topic, discussed in more detail in the following paragraphs, is flat-earth theories. Finally, there are several interesting chapters on "scientific creationism", providing useful background for current debates on "intelligent design".
Schadewald provides an illuminating perspective on creationism by exploring its 19th-century predecessor, flat-earth theory. Characteristically, he includes the human history, narrating the story of the "proof" of the sphericity of the earth conducted by Alfred Russel Wallace in 1870 at the Old Bedford Canal, and visiting the century-old flat-earth oasis of Zion, Illinois. The Old Bedford test was simple: to observe with a small telescope the marks on three poles, each the same height above the water, along a 6-mile straight stretch of the canal, to ascertain if they define a straight line. Simple, perhaps, but Wallace almost lost the £500 wager, because the criteria for judging the experiment were not precisely defined in advance. As Schadewald writes, "The naïve and idealistic Wallace assumed his opponent was rational and a gentleman, so he began losing points immediately."
Schadewald himself assumes that many pseudoscientists are, if not rational, then gentlemen. One of the strengths of his book is the way the author related personally to so many people with whom he disagreed. One such honorable opponent was Charles K Johnson, president of the International Flat Earth Research Society. Johnson explains that his beliefs are grounded in the Bible. He says that the Bible describes a flat earth under a dome or vault (what the King James Bible calls the firmament), and like many creationists he asserts that we can have no moral purpose outside literal acceptance of this written word of God.
Unlike many ancient religious texts, the Bible does not describe its cosmology. However, Schadewald shows how consistently the Bible assumes the Babylonian cosmology of an immobile, flat earth under a low, solid dome of the sky. Thus we have "He has fixed the earth firm, immovable" and "Thou didst fix the earth on its foundation so that it can never be shaken." The creation story in Genesis states that the earth was created on the first day, and the vault on the second day to divide the waters above from those below. Only on the fifth day were the sun, moon, and stars created, and they were placed in, not above, the vault. In Job we note that God beat out the vault of the skies, hard as a mirror of cast metal, and that God walks to and fro on the vaulted roof, where he looks down on the stars. Schadewald quotes biblical references to the ends of the earth and to windows though which wind and rain can penetrate the vault. He also explores more explicit descriptions of the Hebrew cosmology in the first century bce Ethiopic Book of Enoch, in which the author (with an angel as guide) visits the ends of the earth on which the heavens rest and views "the storerooms of the sun and the moon, from what place they go out and to which place they return."
Twenty-first–century creationists make the same case that their moral and ethical foundations require the literal truth of the Bible, yet they generally accept a spherical earth and heliocentric cosmology. This book makes a compelling case that the flat earth is better grounded in biblical literalism than is creationism, that Copernicus is a greater challenge to literalists than Darwin. If one puts the literal meaning of the Bible first, then the earth is flat as well as young, and God sits on a throne atop the solid dome of the sky.
Schadewald became a board member of the NCSE in 1986, and he devoted his talents and energy increasingly to combating creationism. Velikovsky and flat-earthers and the purveyors of perpetual motion machines are well recognized as cranks, and no one is arguing that their ideas should be taught in public school. In a 1982 letter, he wrote, "I consider Velikovskyism a relatively harmless delusion. The same cannot be said for the pernicious "scientific creationism". I will return to [other pseudosciences] when the creationists have been driven back into their caves." That objective seems more elusive now than it did two decades ago.
Most creationists receive little sympathy from Schadewald, who is especially hard on those who willfully distort scientific data and "lie for God". He writes that "[c]reation scientists ... behave much like ordinary cranks. Like secular cranks they ground their beliefs in exaggerated self-esteem and plot theories and maintain them by mangling logic and ignoring evidence." He calls scientific creationism "the best organized movement in the history of American pseudoscience, and thus the most dangerous." He provides an excellent summary of the differences between science and pseudoscience and concludes that true dialog between them is all but impossible.
Because of its diverse sources and the long time span over which the essays were written, this is perhaps not the most coherent introduction to crackpot science. However, it is a great book for readers of Reports of the NCSE and others embroiled in the evolution/creationism controversy. Schadewald provides us a valuable perspective on the nature of pseudoscience and its advocates, including the creation science of 30 years ago.
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.