What? The World Isn’t Flat?

I have a phrenology bust.

German physician and research scientist Franz Joseph Gall theorized that the brain is the source of all mental activity. He was the first to measure shape of the skull scientifically to determine how its bumps indicate character.

Enos Barnard, a learned man, inventor, dairy farmer, and my great-grandfather, was widely read and very forward thinking. He insisted that my great-grandmother attend Swarthmore College before they married. He developed a cooling system for cream separation. And he believed as Gall showed that, through careful observation and extensive experimentation, the high spots at specific areas on the skull tied to the locations of faculties in the brain. The popular phrenology busts were topographical maps of the skull used to measure character scientifically.

It is an interesting curiosity; I collect curiosities.

Rooted originally in Ancient Egypt, alchemy is the system of transmuting metals. Alchemists invented distillation, made glass, mortar, paint, and cosmetics, and then decided they could turn base metals into gold. This science — well supported by empirical evidence of materials changed by the alchemists — was universally accepted into the Middle Ages. Believers had faith in alchemy.

Geocentricity was all the rage in the scientific establishment until Pope Urban VIII (the last pope to expand the papal territory by force of arms) jailed Galileo in the 17th Century for debunking the scientific theory that the earth is the center of the Universe and that all other objects move around it. The view — well supported by empirical evidence that the sun, stars, and planets appear to revolve around Earth — was universally accepted in ancient Greece and in ancient China. (Belief in a flat earth was gone by the third century BC, despite claims by the modern Flat Earth Society). Believers had faith in geocentricity.

30 years after Galileo died, German physicist Johann Joachim Becher theorized the existence of Phlogiston. The view — well supported by empirical evidence — showed that a fire died out when the phlogiston saturated the air. This is the earliest known example of anthropogenic effects on the atmosphere. Believers had faith in the existence of the classical elements.

The Bible (and other historical records) show that God made man from dust. Science embraced Spontaneous Generation as well supported by empirical evidence of the elemental nature of the universe. Anaximander wrote that the first humans had been born spontaneously from the soil as adults. Aristotle wrote that some animals grow spontaneously rather than from other animals. Jan Baptist van Helmont wrote a recipe for making a mouse from wheat and soiled cloth. Believers had faith in equivocal generation. Louis Pasteur’s discovery of biogenesis debunked spontaneous generation in 1859.

University of Vermont professor of zoology Henry F. Perkins began teaching eugenics in his heredity course in 1921. His “Vermont Eugenics Survey” of 1925 His view — well supported by his empirical evidence of heredity in human affairs — led directly to the Vermont sterilization law of 1931. The 253 sterilizations performed on poor, rural Vermonters as well as Abenaki Indians, French-Canadians and others deemed unfit to have children in Vermont ranked this small state 25th in the nation. Believers had faith in eugenics. Earlier this month, the Vermont Assembly took testimony on a non-binding resolution to express regret about the eugenics movement.

The science of Astrology has shown through extensive experimentation that the positions of celestial bodies influences, divines, or predicts personality, human activities, and other terrestrial matters. That view — well supported by empirical evidence linking human action to star location — has spawned traditions and applications from the third millennium BC to the present. Believers have faith in astrology. Although the scientific community has demonstrated that astrological predictions have no statistical significance, millions of Americans trust it.

Early climatologists theorized that human settlement caused a permanent increase in rainfall (“Rain follows the Plow”). In the 19th century Americans settled the Great American Desert (now called the High Plains), the Southwestern Desert (now called Arizona), and parts of South Australia (now called South Australia). Modern climatologists theorized that human settlement caused a permanent increase in global temperature they called Global Warming. Believers have faith in man-made Global Warming. Although the scientific community has demonstrated that the predictions of human change driving atmospheric change made by this political science are flawed, millions of Americans still trust it.


Once upon a time all the evidence showed each was a universal truth. Believers had faith. That’s a problem when laymen come to science to find universal truth. Science gives us a way to compare what we think (our hypotheses) to what we know (the results of our experiments). A real scientist develops a theory from what he thinks and what he sees. That theory will change as new data comes to light. True scientists understand this need for change but it is hard for laymen to give up their hopes.

My great-grandfather may have given up the busted religion of phrenology but he kept the bust.

Biologist Ludwik Fleck warned us that witnesses see what they expect to see, notwithstanding facts that contradict them nor what impartial observers measure. As Thomas Cardinal Wolsey wrote, “Be very, very careful what you put into that head, because you will never, ever get it out.”

Now that’s still true.

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