As I Please

in Tribune

27 December 1946

George Orwell

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 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?

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 don’t 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 can’t answer that one either.

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.

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 Royal’s 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.

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OPINIONS may differ about the verdict in Professor Laski’s 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 people’s 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 have disappeared.

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A 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 man’s 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 children’s 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.

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