Conversations in Management: The Hollow Earth!

I declare the earth is hollow and habitable within.

John Cleves Symmes

Hollow EarthJohn Quincy Adams believed the earth was hollow and populated by an advanced civilization while Andrew Jackson dismissed the idea because he knew the earth was flat. That’s the idea promoted by a recent television show dealing with psychology. The program concluded that because of these beliefs Adams was “crazy” (how’s that for a 21st century diagnosis) and Jackson was ignorant. Of course, neither man actually held these beliefs, but it makes for an interesting story. It began with John Symmes, a distinguished War of 1812 veteran, who in 1818 published, “Circular No. 1, directed TO ALL THE WORLD!” In it he claimed that the earth was hollow and contained a number of solid concentric spheres accessible from both the north and south poles. He hypothesized that refracted light created a warm climate within the spheres that supported plants, animals and possibly human life. Recognizing that his proposal may seem far-fetched, he attached a certificate of sanity to the circular. That didn’t prevent the tsunami of ridicule and derision that met his proposal. Over the next decade, however, his humility, persuasiveness and exhaustive—if flawed—research gradually won folks over. He lectured to packed houses from St. Louis to Boston to Canada and left audiences, if not convinced, at least thinking that he might be on to something. Sadly, Symmes never saw any results from his efforts. Exhausted by his travels, he retired from the lecture circuit and died shortly thereafter.

An unconvinced follower, Jeremiah Reynolds, took up where Symmes left off. While not expecting to find polar openings he did support the idea of polar exploration. It was after all, the age of exploration and both nations and private organizations were mounting expeditions to the unknown. Reynolds approached President Adams and received modest funding for such a trip but before he could get underway, a new President was elected. Jackson questioned whether this was an appropriate use of federal funds and stopped the project. Reynolds, though, proved relentless and ultimately the government sponsored an exploration of the South Pole and Pacific region. The successful expedition proved that Antarctica was a continent and the thousands of specimens collected became the nucleus of the Smithsonian Institution.

In addition to Reynolds, Symmes inspired the anonymous author of Symzonia. It was a satiric novel in which a Captain Seaborne travels through the polar opening and discovers a utopian civilization. It’s a land of plenty enjoyed by a peaceful and intelligent people. They are technologically superior as well and enjoy innovations such as flying machines and rockets.

In time, the satire became conflated with the hollow earth theory which in turn became conflated with the government expedition. From there it’s not a great leap to determine that the President who funded an expedition to utopia must be crazy. If the fellow pulling the plug on this endeavor believes the earth is flat; well, that makes the story so much more fun. It is fun, but a reminder that we conflate things all the time. From your lucky tie or shoes to the belief that a cave man diet is good for you, we take unrelated ideas and by analogy link them. This leads us to believe things that aren’t necessarily true. But beliefs are powerful and we surrender them reluctantly. Look around your world. Are you conflating ideas? Are you accepting the conflated ideas of others? Be careful if you are—you could end up as the crazy one on TV!  —Ebert

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