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Hollowed Earth?

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Grades 11-12 | Argumentative | Text-Dependent


Learning Standards


Read the following sources about John Symmes and his Hollow Earth theory (one article, an excerpt from an article, and an excerpt from a book). 

Analyze how each author presents the theory, considering the use of ethos, pathos, and/or logos; style, word choice and tone; and the author’s purpose. Then determine which author presents the most  persuasive argument.  Use evidence from these texts to support  your analysis.


Hollow and Habitable Within: Symmes’s Theory of Earth’s Internal Structure and Polar Geography

The Strange Tale of Symmes Hole and the Hollow Earth Theory



I May Be Some Time

by Francis Spufford


Take, for example, the case of John Cleves Symmes. 


Symmes was born in New Jersey to an old settler family in modest circumstances. Largely self-educated, he joined the American infantry in 1802, and fought against the British in the war of 1812. It seems likely that he picked up some skill in surveying and military geometry. Not long after the peace, he resigned his commission (though the courtesy title of ‘Captain Symmes’ which he continued to use gave him a misleadingly nautical air) and retired to St Louis on the Mississippi. A friendly witness described him as ‘of middle stature, and tolerably proportioned; with scarcely any thing in his exterior to characterize the secret operations of his mind, except an abstraction, which, from attentive inspection, is found seated on a slightly contracted brow; and the glances of a bright blue eye, that often seems fixed on something beyond immediate surrounding objects’. Symmes’ eye fixed on something that could not have been further distant from the streets of St Louis. There, far from any sea, let alone from the polar regions, he began to issue geographical pamphlets at his own expense: they expounded a novel theory of the earth which, like his own appearance, made up for an unremarkable outside by hinting at secrets within. In 1819 he moved to Cincinnati, but the series continued. The seventh pamphlet was an ‘Arctic Memoir’, Symmes being a devoted reader of polar narratives and the Arctic having a special place in his geographical scheme. From there, he also lectured around Kentucky and Ohio. The audiences filled the halls he booked, though his voice was untrained and his manner peculiar; though his arguments were ‘presented in confused array, and clothed in homely phraseology’. He lacked the temperament to be any sort of showman. People came to marvel at the earnest zeal with which he believed his own theory. They also came, it is true, just to laugh. But he did win disciples. For the purposes of demonstration, he had a large wooden globe on the stage at his lectures, specially constructed and intricately marked. Symmes’ pointer would go up, down, around, and eventually inside. The globe was hollow, with countersunk holes at the top and bottom -- as Symmes believed the earth to be. 


‘Symmes’ hole!’ was a common American jeer at anything quackish or fake throughout the 1820s and 1830s, and the theory would not have had the currency it did if it had not been easy to grasp Symmes’ outrageous central claim, but detailed summary is hard. This is because the theory, of its nature, changed continually, veering this way and that to stave off attacks or to appropriate some new bit of ‘evidence’. In the hands of Symmes’ followers, some of whom were surprisingly eminent, the pattern was a wavering advance-and-retreat, from the full-blown Symmesian idea of a hollow and habitable inner world, to a modest fallback argument for an ice-free polar ocean. (The poles were supposed to be ringed by a northern and southern ‘icy hoop’ - both duly inscribed on the wooden model.) Symmesian claims could be curbed to suit the skepticism of the hearer, and of course not all hearers were automatically skeptical. Symmes’ application to the US Senate in 1822 for a polar expedition to test his propositions received twenty-five yes votes. Such hedging, however, was foreign to Symmes’ own absorption in proof and counter-proof. In his hands the theory just grew. From a simple one-shell earth he progressed to an arrangement of seven nested spheres, each pierced at the poles, each -- he calculated, sketching planes and angles -- receiving enough sunlight to support life. (Though the air deep inside might be rather unhealthy.) And then it was reasonable to assume that every other planet in the solar system was contrived in the same way. It finally became necessary for him to refute Newton’s law of universal gravitation, since a planet like a Chinese toy ought not to attract us to its surface with the force it does, if gravity is proportional to a planet’s mass. He had not succeeded in doing so by the time he died, in 1829. 


The intellectual background to Symmes’ claims was not, itself, utterly unrespectable. There had been a flow of reasonable speculation about the polar ice caps for some time, and though Symmes was already a little late with his contribution, the geographical data was still patchy. Science theorised in the absence of sophisticated knowledge about currents, climate, and polar ecology. In particular, it was not yet clear just how the sea-ice that clogged the Arctic was formed. If, as one school argued, only a shoreline could birth the great bergs, then a landless central Arctic Ocean - correctly deduced from the common patterning of the Siberian and North American coasts- might well be free of ice. This was wrong, but reasonable. 

It would be a mistake to think that people found Symmes’ holes and hollownesses ridiculous be-cause they could be absolutely certain he was wrong. As well as for what he said, he condemned himself as much for the way he said it. What identified his doctrine immediately as pseudo-science -- and invited the ridicule of a continent to drop on his earnest head -- was an attitude to proof, and a tone of voice. It is strange to read the Symmesians now, because their characteristic procedures and modes of assertion are so familiar from current paperback madness. Like Erich von Daniken, like the other believers in ancient astronauts and Aztec high-tech, Symmes could be said to have known quite a lot about his subject. He collected facts. He kept up religiously with explorers’ reports.


As a late defender of his reputation said, he amassed many ‘detached instances’ from different fields of inquiry, here a puzzling remark by an Eskimo, there a surprising bit of behaviour by the common herring. But his instances were, exactly, detached: detached from the contexts that made sense of them, and willfully re-arranged. Since the notion of probability had no place in his thinking, he compounded one improbable interpretation with another, and another, and another, to produce one mighty improbability. Throughout, he entirely misunderstood the nature of scientific method -- which is not a game of assertions, but a way of refining probabilities. Symmes never grasped that you were required to show likelihood before a theory was taken seriously; you had to demonstrate the congruency of polar holes with everything already known. Instead he assumed you only had to prove your theory was not impossible, and it then became the responsibility of others to disprove if they could. To his continuing bafflement, nobody bothered to. He was waiting for an answer which did not come. 


And all this could be heard in his voice, his ‘peculiar manner’. There was a shoddy enthusiasm, a fascination with the details of his own inventions which far overran the perfunctory and muddled attempts at justification. There was endless reference to the work yet to be done -- to the further magnificent elaborations the theory demanded -- for it is an axiom of pseudo-science that the final substantiation, before which the learned will quail, is always located elsewhere. Not far away, to be sure, gentlemen, but always just outside the scope of our attention at this moment. There was an evasive waving of large words, and a corresponding delight in minutiae. There was an underlying void of meaning. Unlike other lecturers, Symmes had nothing, no thing, to report: no descriptions of sights seen, no records of experiments, only the single subject of his theory. In a sense he did not intend, he was on thin ice. 

Symmes was single-minded. He had at least the disinterestedness which is one part of the scientific temperament. Whether lecturing, or lobbying Congress, his sole concern was the vindication of his theory; and he did not, unworldly man, grow indignant at the cat-calls raining down on him from the cheap seats of his rented theatres. Nor did he stray into fantasies about the silence of the scientific establishment. He wanted acceptance: scientific acceptance for a ‘scientific’ proposition. But his followers were not so chaste. They did speculate, with resentment and petulance, about the vested interests which must be blocking the new truth; they did make accusations, see hidden influences at work, and offer overtly unscientific commentary. From Cincinnati, in 1826, James McBride published Symme’s Theory of Concentric Spheres: Demonstrating that the Earth is Hollow, Habitable Within, and Widely Open About the Poles. Half-skeptical, as was characteristic of the secondary Symmesian literature, McBride’s book nonetheless exhibits the state of mind of those contemporaries who wanted to believe Symmes. McBride’s unscientific defenses of Symmes are, in fact, statements of the imaginative attractions of the theory, hints why it might have flourished briefly in the wider worlds of culture and opinion while it failed to in the world of science.




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Last modified
13:43, 18 Apr 2016


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