Interest Beyond the Ivory Tower

by David Westmoreland, U.S. Air Force Academy*

I recently had a speaking engagement at a local pub which took an interesting turn related to metacognition. “Science on Tap” is a loosely organized program that takes place in cities around the United States, in which people with an interest in science can meet with a scientist to learn about current developments. The topic that I chose to cover was not current at all – in fact, it was a historical narrative set in England during the 1870s. The story revolved a public challenge to prove that the earth is a sphere, as opposed to being flat, which was published in the journal Scientific Opinion. The author of the challenge, John Hampden, was a biblical literalist who offered to match a wager up to £500 (over $30,000 in today’s dollars) that would be held by an independent party until that person determined whether the burden of evidence had been met. The bet was picked up by Alfred Russel Wallace, who used a simple demonstration involving nothing more than wooden stakes with flags, a telescope, and a surveyor’s level to win. Those interested in the details of the story can find them in Schadewald (1978).

My intent in presenting the story was to engage the audience in the process of scientific reasoning – rather than presenting Wallace’s solution, I challenged those sharing a table to come up with a convincing demonstration using the same tools that Wallace employed. They succeeded, converging on a common theme similar to the one that Wallace used. In the Q & A that followed, the audience was clearly more interested in questions about the nature of thinking than in historical details. What is happening when two people view the same evidence and come to opposite conclusions? How often does a person make a deliberate attempt to view evidence through the lens of another? When someone rejects data in order to retain a belief, has rationalism been abandoned? The discussion was lively, engaging, and ultimately had to be cut off as we ran out of time. For me, it drove home the point that metacognitive thinking is of broad interest, not relegated to the halls of the academy.


Robert Schadewald. 1978. He knew the earth is round, but his proof fell flat. Smithsonian Magazine 9 (April), 101-113.

* Disclaimer: The views expressed in this document are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U. S. Air Force, Department of Defense, or the U. S. Govt.

Leave a Reply