George Orwell is best remembered for his politically-charged satire, science fiction, and social commentary journalism. But he was also a noted literary critic, and wrote as well on a variety of general interest topics. In a 1946 article for London’s Tribune, for example, he wrote a reflection on the plight of the layperson when confronting pseudoscience and claims to scientific truth. He began with this provocative question:
Just why do we believe that the earth is round? I am not speaking of the few thousand astronomers, geographers and so forth who could give ocular proof, or have a theoretical knowledge of the proof, but of the ordinary newspaper-reading citizen, such as you or me.
As for the Flat Earth theory, I believe I could refute it. If you stand by the seashore on a clear day, you can see the masts and funnels of invisible ships passing along the horizons. This phenomenon can only be explained by assuming that the earth’s surface is curved. But it does not follow that the earth is spherical. Imagine another theory called the Oval Earth theory, which claims that the earth is shaped like an egg. What can I say against it?
My second card is the earth’s shadow: when cast on the moon during eclipses, it appears to be the shadow of a round object. But how do I know, demands the Oval Earth man, that eclipses of the moon are caused by the shadow of the earth? The answer is that I don’t know, but have taken this piece of information blindly from newspaper articles and science booklets.
“Believe in” is a special ungrammatical construction; One believes THAT the Earth is round, not IN its roundness. “Believe in” appears in religious statements; It is not used by scientists. When G.B.Shaw refers to “the men who believe in electrons”, presumably physicists, he showed his ignorance of the modern METHODS of discovery. When a reporter asked David Suzuki whether he believed in evolution, he replied, “No. I don’t believe in it. I know it.”
One can forgive those who in the past, held beliefs which, thanks to science and technology, we now know to be erroneous. But even today there are those who will not believe the science on the grounds that theology trumps science. The danger is that sometimes, these people have influence over the thinking of hundreds of millions of people.