As I Please
Tribune, 27 December 1946
Somewhere or other I think it
is in the preface to Saint Joan Bernard Shaw remarks that we
are more gullible and superstitious today than we were in the Middle Ages, and as an
example of modern credulity he cites the widespread belief that the earth is round. The
average man, says Shaw, can advance not a single reason for thinking that the earth is
round. He merely swallows this theory because there is something about it that appeals to
the twentieth-century mentality.
Now, Shaw is exaggerating, but there is something in what he
says, and the question is worth following up, for the sake of the light it throws on
modern knowledge. 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
earths 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?
Against the Oval Earth man, the first card I can play is the
analogy of the sun and moon. The Oval Earth man promptly answers that I dont know,
by my own observation, that those bodies are spherical. I only know that they are round,
and they may perfectly well be flat discs. I have no answer to that one. Besides, he goes
on, what reason have I for thinking that the earth must be the same shape as the sun and
moon? I cant answer that one either.
My second card is the earths 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 dont know, but have taken this piece of information blindly from
newspaper articles and science booklets.
Defeated in the minor exchanges, I now play my queen of trumps:
the opinion of the experts. The Astronomer Royal, who ought to know, tells me that the
earth is round. The Oval Earth man covers the queen with his king. Have I tested the
Astronomer Royals statement, and would I even know a way of testing it? Here I bring
out my ace. Yes, I do know one test. The astronomers can foretell eclipses, and this
suggests that their opinions about the solar system are pretty sound. I am therefore
justified in accepting their say-so about the shape of the earth.
If the Oval Earth man answers what I believe is true
that the ancient Egyptians, who thought the sun goes round the earth, could also
predict eclipses, then bang goes my ace. I have only one card left: navigation. People can
sail ships round the world, and reach the places they aim at, by calculations which assume
that the earth is spherical. I believe that finishes the Oval Earth man, though even then
he may possibly have some kind of counter.
It will be seen that my reasons for thinking that the earth is
round are rather precarious ones. Yet this is an exceptionally elementary piece of
information. On most other questions I should have to fall back on the expert much
earlier, and would be less able to test his pronouncements. And much the greater part of
our knowledge is at this level. It does not rest on reasoning or on experiment, but on
authority. And how can it be otherwise, when the range of knowledge is so vast that the
expert himself is an ignoramous as soon as he strays away from his own speciality? Most
people, if asked to prove that the earth is round, would not even bother to produce the
rather weak arguments I have outlined above. They would start off by saying that
everyone knows the earth to be round, and if pressed further, would become
angry. In a way Shaw is right. This is a credulous age, and the burden of knowledge
which we now have to carry is partly responsible.
differ about the verdict in Professor Laskis libel case. But
even if one feels that the verdict was technically justified, I think it should be
remembered that Professor Laski took this action in effect an behalf of the Labour Party. It was an
incident in the General Election a reply, felt at the time to be necessary, to the
anti-Red propaganda of part of the Conservative press. It
will therefore be extremely unfair if he is left to pay the very heavy costs unaided. May
I remind everyone again that contributions should be sent to Morgan Phillips, Secretary,
Labour Party, Transport House.
The Laski case will presumably lead to further discussions about
the composition of juries, particularly Special Juries, but I wish it would have the
incidental effect of drawing peoples attention once again to the present state of
the law of libel.
I believe the libel trade, like some other trades, went through a
slack period during the war, but a few years before that the bringing of frivolous libel
actions was a major racket and a nightmare to editors, publishers, authors and journalists
alike. Some people used to declare that it would be better if the libel laws were
abolished altogether, or at any rate greatly relaxed, so that newspapers had as much
latitude as they used to have, for instance, in pre-war France. I cannot agree with this.
Innocent people have a right to protection against slander. The racket arose not so much
because the law is unduly strict as because it is possible to obtain damages for a libel
from which one has not suffered any pecuniary loss.
The sufferers are not so much the big newspapers, which have
fleets of retained lawyers and can afford to pay damages, as publishers and small
periodicals. I do not know the exact provisions of the law, but from interviews with
terrified solicitors which I have sometimes had before a book went to press, I gather that
it is almost impossible to invent a fictitious character which might not be held to be a
portrait of a real person. As a result, a blackmailing libel action is an easy way of
picking up money. Publishing houses and periodicals are often insured against libel up to
a certain sum, which means that they will pay a smallish claim sooner than fight an
action. In one case I have even heard of collusion being practised. A arranged to libel B,
B threatened an action, and the pair of them split the proceeds.
It seems to me that the way to put this right is to make sure
that a libel action cannot be profitable. Except where it can be shown that actual loss
has been suffered, let no damages be paid. On the other hand, where a libel is proved, the
guilty party should make a retractation in print, which at present does not usually
happen. Big newspapers would be much more frightened of that than of paying out £100,000
damages, while, if no money payments were made, the motive for blackmailing actions would
correspondent has sent me a copy of one of the disgusting American comics
which I referred to a few weeks ago. The two main stories in it are about a beautiful
creature called The Hangman, who has a green face, and, like so many characters in
American strips, can fly. On the front page there is a picture of what is either an
ape-like lunatic, or an actual ape dressed up as a man, strangling a woman so
realistically that her tongue is sticking four inches out of her mouth. Another item is a
python looping itself round a mans neck and then hanging him by suspending itself
over a balustrade. Another is a man jumping out of a skyscraper window and hitting the
pavement with a splash. There is much else of the same kind.
My correspondent asks me whether I think this is the kind of
thing that should be put into the hands of children, and also whether we could not find
something better on which to spend our dwindling dollars.
Certainly I would keep these out of childrens hands if
possible. But I would not be in favour of actually prohibiting their sale. The precedent
is too dangerous. But meanwhile, are we actually using dollars to pay for this pernicious
rubbish? The point is not completely unimportant, and I should like to see it cleared up.