October 13, 2008

Christopher Columbus Was Wrong

And what you think I'm going to say next reveals your educational and political biases.


Asked another way: If I say Columbus was wrong, then who was right?

Contrary to popular belief-- a belief caused by every American grade school textbook from An American Pageant to Prentice Hall Earth Science, no one in Christopher Columbus's time thought the earth was flat.  It was established information, since the ancient Greeks, that it was a sphere.  Eratosthenes calculated the diameter to 10% accuracy back in 200 BC.  Ptolemy (0 AD?) knew it was round, but thought the sun (another sphere) revolved around it.

And yes, even the Catholics believed it was round, too.  St. Augustine knew it was round, his  difficulty was accepting whether there were any people on the other side of the world-- how do you know it isn't all just water?

So the dispute was not whether the Earth was flat, but how big it was: most people thought that it was bigger than it actually was, and Columbus thought that it was much smaller than it actually was.   Turns out even Columbus didn't really believe it was that small either, as he fudged the ship's logs so that the crew wouldn't know how far they'd actually gone, and mutiny.

Either way, the Dominican Republic was in the middle, and no one expected that.

So Columbus was wrong about how big it was.  The prevailing estimates were closer to the truth.


Some of you might have assumed my initial question was of the variety, "Did Christopher Columbus discover America?" or "Did he think he made it to India?"

What's interesting about those questions is that they are not fact queries, but political alignments.  It is a fact he discovered America-- he didn't know it was there.  It is also a fact that others had been there before him, and people were indigenous to it, as well; but these are not mutually exclusive facts.

And people love to jump on the question, take sides: "no, no, he didn't discover it, Leif Erickson/the Chinese/Indians!!!"  But they're not correcting misinformation; they're debating  prejudices.  They're not taking sides for something; they're taking sides against something.

Anyone who tells you Leif Erickson discovered America is unlikely to know any other fact about Leif Erickson.  Not the date of his voyages, his country of origin (Viking is not a country) or what he was even doing that far west in the first place.  Nothing.  They don't care about Leif; they just want Columbus to be wrong.

Why that is could vary: maybe it's a slap against the establishment, their parents, "everything my Dad told me is wrong!"  as they take a deep drag from their only true friend.  Maybe they want to appear smart.  Or possessing of a trendy anti-european sentimentality.

What matters here is why such a meaningless debate is the one most people want to have; yet the other, more urgent one-- are we even being taught anything correctly in school?-- passes without even a thought.


So why is it we were taught that the prevailing opinion was that the Earth was flat and that Columbus's crew was terrified they would fall off the edge?

The most common answer is Washington Irving's (yes, that Irving) book The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, a fictional account, which assumes a prevailing belief in a flat earth.

Trouble is, most people have never heard of this book, let alone read it; to blame it for generations of misinformation seems, well, a stretch.

But the flat earth misconception does indeed appear in textbooks.  The problem comes down to this: no one cares enough to fix it.  Parents learned it; kids learn it; and even if you do discover the truth (e.g. now) it's simply not worth going back (to whom?) and fixing the source (e.g. the textbook.)  The correct information becomes a novelty, bar talk.  The factual information supposedly has no value.

Yet the debate about who discovered America-- that somehow matters.  The incorrect knowledge makes medievalists look like religious idiots-- that's ok.  That it alters your hazy guess about what life was like back then-- no problem.  That it supports the idea of history being divided between now and pre 1980-- awesome.   Secular humanism is the name of the game, and that also means no special place can be afforded to any Italian/Spanish explorers.

How do generations of Americans get the basic facts so horribly wrong?  No one reads primary sources, and, worse, everyone relies on the same bunch of interpretations of primary sources.  Then the debate is not about the the accuracy of the information, but the presence or absence of a political biases. 

We got what little information we have about history from the same few sources; no wonder we don't know anything, and we all don't know the same things.  Imagine if we all got our news from the same few sources, or our medical information from... oh, wait.

In other words, it's the same way we practice medicine and pick our Presidents-- More of The Same vs. Less Of Everything.  And it doesn't seem likely to change.