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Flat Earth? Round Earth?, by Theresa Martin

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Flat Earth? Round Earth?

Flat Earth? Round Earth?, by Theresa Martin

Epistemology is a difficult subject. How do we know what we know — and indeed, how can we know anything at all? Assuming that we can know anything, is there any way to ground that knowledge rationally? Is there any value to insisting on rational beliefs, or are any ad hoc explanations sufficient? As difficult as these questions are, how can they possibly be addressed in a children's book?

Summary

Title: Flat Earth? Round Earth?
Author: Theresa Martin
Publisher: Prometheus Books
ISBN: 1573929883

Pro:
•  Provides excellent introduction to how a person can have rationally grounded beliefs
•  Demonstrates how ideas can be scientifically investigated and proven

Con:
•  Treatment of Stan doesn't always seem reasonable

Description:
•  Children's book about skepticism and epistemology
•  Teaches how beliefs can be investigated and rationally defended
•  Shows that it is better to have evidence and logic to support claims

 

Book Review

Well, that was a task Theresa Martin set for herself when she wrote Flat Earth? Round Earth?, a children’s book describing a disagreement between two students over whether the earth is flat or round. Given an assignment in their science class to create a model of the earth, one creates a traditional globe while the other, Stan, squishes his flat, insisting that this is what the earth really looks like.

Neither the teacher nor the first student find this very credible, but while the teacher is content to send Stan to the principal’s office, the first student is more interested in trying to find a way to convince his friend that the earth really is round rather than flat. In the process, he also engages in a very scientific way of thinking about evidence and using evidence, providing a valuable lesson to readers on those topics.

The narrating student goes through several of the traditional means used to prove that the flat earth is wrong — changing times of sunrise, the way ships seem to sink as they travel further away on the ocean, photographs from space, and more. In response, Stan uses many of the sorts of excuses we often see employed to explain away unpleasant evidence: conspiracies, errors, ad hoc rationalizations, etc. In the end, the narrating student finds that it is more reasonable to rely upon a single, testable explanation for all of the data than all of the different, untestable rebuttals Stan tries to offer.

There are a couple of points where I disagree with the book. At one point a scientific hypothesis is described as a “guess.” In reality, a hypothesis is frequently much more than just a guess and the idea that hypotheses and theories are only “guesses” is frequently used to challenge scientific conclusions which contradict religious dogma. Some word other than “guess” might have been more appropriate here.

Flat Earth? Round Earth?

Flat Earth? Round Earth?, by Theresa Martin

Also, the story gives the impression that Stan was sent to the principle’s office on account of his disagreeing with the scientific conclusion that the earth is round — a very disturbing idea because people shouldn’t be punished for being skeptical, even when that skepticism becomes extreme and leads one astray. It is possible that Stan is only sent to the principle’s office because he turned his back on the teacher; this still seems extreme, but if it is the case it should have been made much more obvious in the story.

Such flaws are relatively minor, however, and the book is still something worth giving to children if you want them to learn more about the proper role of skepticism and the ways in which we can arrive at reasonable beliefs and rationally-grounded knowledge of the world around us. The student may not succeed in convincing Stan that the earth is round, but as he says in the end, he does convince himself: he has discovered that what he previously believed simply because it is what was taught he now believes based upon good evidence and logic, an important achievement.

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