In a way journalism is like science: both can be complicated, and they can be frightening. Both produce analysis based on observation. Those observations can be challenged over time as more information is found, altered as different perspectives are obtained, or reevaluated when a bias is removed. But danger looms when that analysis wanders into opinion.
We can value both truth and opinion are important, but it is crucial not to confuse them. But look carefully, and there is a lot of that kind of confusion around.
Alternative facts – across the Atlantic
Following the 2020 US Presidential election, there were widespread claims that election victory had been “stolen” from Donald Trump. In February 2021 the voting technology company Smartmatic initiated a lawsuit against the Fox Corporation, the Fox News hosts Mariard Bartiromo, Lou Dobbs and Jeanine Pirro, and Trump’s attorneys Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell. The defendants had all made unfounded accusations about the integrity of their voting machines. In defence of its commercial reputation, Smartmatic summed up those truths in its opening submission.
“The Earth is round. Two plus two equals four. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the 2020 election for President and Vice President of the United States.”
Alternative facts – in East Anglia
Just as many in the United States seem to have an opinion that does not tally with the facts of the election result, here in East Anglia, it appears some strong opinions have been mistaken for facts.
When we say the world is round, it is because it has been proven to be so in numerous experiments, from Leon Foucault and his pendulum to the many observations carried out in space.
In East Anglia, contrary experiments have been attempted. In the Cambridgeshire Fens, there is a river section called ‘The Bedford Levels’, named after the Earl of Bedford, and it was the site of the Bedford Levels Experiments, which were originally intended to prove the earth was flat. Eventually, however, it did the opposite.
The man who designed them was Samuel Rowbotham, who was not a scientist or an engineer but a utopian socialist, and also an author and inventor. To say he was a bit of a character is an understatement.
An eccentric in the Fens
Rowbotham first came to prominence in 1838 as an organiser of the Owenite colony in Manea Fen in north Cambridgeshire. He wrote Zetetic Astronomy: Earth Not a Globe under the pseudonym Parallax, publishing it as a pamphlet in 1849 and later as a book in 1865. In it, he stated that a series of experiments he had conducted in the 1830s and 1840s showed the world was flat.
For his Bedford Levels experiments, Rowbotham used a telescope to observe a boat with a flag on it as it made its journey along a long, straight, slow-flowing drainage canal. Rowbotham asserted that, as he could see the boat over a distance of at least six miles, then the Earth was indeed flat, not round.
He was challenged on his conclusions, especially in relation to the reflective nature of the water and atmospheric refraction, but he went on to lecture on the subject across the United Kingdom, contradicting those who showed he was wrong. The author Augustus De Morgan, in his 1872 publication A Budget of Paradoxes, cited a case where Rowbotham reportedly ran away from a lecture in Blackburn when he could not explain why, if the world was flat, do the hulls of ships disappear first?
Dr Christine Garwood, author of Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea wrote of an experiment at Plymouth Hoe, where independent witnesses confirmed the results were consistent with a round earth. Rowbotham, who was present, loudly declared the witnesses wrong and that their results validated his findings.
Threats and tantrums
In 1870 this led to supporters of the flat earth theory, including a man called John Hampton, to issue a challenge and a bet of £500, equivalent to £51,000 in 2023, to anyone who could recreate Rowbotham’s experiment and prove the convex curve of the earth. Alfred Russell Wallace accepted, and repeated the experiment, this time planting an additional pole set at the same height and located at the midway point, overcoming the various biases. When viewed though a telescope the poles at either end were seen to be lower than the one in the middle. Consistent with a round earth.
Wallace was declared the winner. Hampton denounced Wallace as a cheat and waged a vicious letter-writing campaign against him; he would eventually be sent to prison for libel and threats to kill.
In 1902 Henry Oldman, a lecturer at Cambridge, repeated the experiment and obtained similar results to Wallace.
Undeterred, Rowbotham continued to lecture on a flat earth, and the Universal Zetetic Society – the legacy of his work – would outlive him, lasting until the 1920s. The ideas would later be resurrected in the 1950s by the newly formed Flat Earth Society.
The (contrarian) spirit of Rowbotham lives on
The Bedford Levels experiments and the creation of the Flat Earth Society find strange echoes in our modern age. An age where charismatic but ultimately misguided souls can persist in asserting what they feel should be true, while refusing to hear any evidence to the contrary. It seems he was a fitting precursor for many debates and conspiracy theories we have seen around the world in recent years.