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.




For a few weeks, a grade sc... (Below threshold)

October 13, 2008 3:54 PM | Posted by Jim: | Reply

For a few weeks, a grade school teacher reversed latitude and longitude when teaching us the system. Dad picked up on it early and tried to correct my understanding. I was sure he was wrong until he patiently walked me through an appropriate entry in the encyclopedia.

I assumed a teacher's wisdom in these matters was greater than my parents'. It was a revelation that this is not the case, and a more important lesson than navigational semantics. I would eventually conclude Dad was smarter and wiser than any teacher I had before college (and nearly all of them during).

So I'm glad my boys will be taught a few demonstrable falsities in the classroom. It'll provide the opportunity teach them to approach their education with healthy skepticism.

Dad told me not to correct the teacher in class, as well. He didn't want to seem like a know-it-all. Eventually, she realized what had happened straightened us all out.

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I suppose next you're going... (Below threshold)

October 13, 2008 4:31 PM | Posted by m (2): | Reply

I suppose next you're going to tell us George Washington didn't chop down the cherry tree. Another fine myth shot to hell. :)

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One of my history profs in ... (Below threshold)

October 13, 2008 6:16 PM | Posted by Esther: | Reply

One of my history profs in college debunked -- for my class -- the whole idea about people in the late 1400s believing the earth was flat. Since then I have corrected people when they say things about how, "Well, in Columbus' time everyone thought the earth was flat." Nobody ever believes me. I guess they'd rather just be ignorant.

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I began reading this fine w... (Below threshold)

October 13, 2008 7:37 PM | Posted by Common Reader: | Reply

I began reading this fine work to my son today:


It's better to light a candle than curse the darkness, truly it is.

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Until you answered your pre... (Below threshold)

October 13, 2008 10:19 PM | Posted by David: | Reply

Until you answered your premise, I thought the reason why Columbus was wrong was because he believed the circumference of the world was significantly smaller than it was and subsequently believed there was a a sea route to the Spice Islands and China. I didn't even bother to jump to the secondary question of " ... who was right?"

Silly me. I should have realized my answer "reveals [my] educational and political biases."

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Yay! You're back to your on... (Below threshold)

October 13, 2008 10:46 PM | Posted by spriteless: | Reply

Yay! You're back to your one man war against stupidity!

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I have a problem with prima... (Below threshold)

October 13, 2008 11:30 PM | Posted by No name: | Reply

I have a problem with primary sources, they can be faked. Anyone can write anything, correct? Why don't people film experiments? By which I mean, have a camera up in the corner of a room with a feed to the internet. It doesn't have to be live. It just needs to have all the hours there. Until then, for me at least, it's important to realize that knowing who Christopher Columbus is doesn't affect me in the least. Sure is entertaining though.

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Makes me even more glad I h... (Below threshold)

October 14, 2008 2:38 AM | Posted by &y: | Reply

Makes me even more glad I homeschool!

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I can't remember when I fou... (Below threshold)

October 14, 2008 3:02 AM | Posted by gillian: | Reply

I can't remember when I found out the real story behind the Boston Tea Party. Whatever I'd been taught in my history textbook (I don't know why we're taught American history in Canada, but we are) and the "known" story is supposedly wrong, or at least overly simplified to the point of contradicting the facts. I was taught it was a protest against high taxes on tea, but actually it was a protest after the removal of import taxes.

Maybe we're taught the wrong stories because they're easier to understand or explain to youngsters? I used to get mad to see music teachers explain music theory to people incorrectly, just because the real answer was beyond the students' knowledge. But saying anything else might've just created further confusion.

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The second question of "... (Below threshold)

October 14, 2008 10:25 AM | Posted, in reply to David's comment, by Alone: | Reply

The second question of "who was right?" was meant to show that the meaningful question of "how big is the world?" has a right and a wrong answer, but the meaningless question of Columbus vs. Erickson doesn't have an opposite answer. I wasn't trying to focus on that second part, just lead into the issue of energy devoted to meaningless questions (like this blog! HA! pre-empted someone else's joke.) But if you had already known that the real debate was about the size of the world, where did you learn that? In school, or on your own?

Someone above asked why not video experiments? I go a step further-- when (not if, but when) do you think they will start videotaping surgeries and other procedures? It's coming. Thanks Google!

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yah right ,hes right you li... (Below threshold)

October 14, 2008 11:37 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

yah right ,hes right you lied

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he is right.thats not possi... (Below threshold)

October 14, 2008 11:41 AM | Posted by emmma sigler: | Reply

he is right.thats not possible the world is round so shut up and stop lieing.

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SHUT UP! ha ha ha ha ha ha ... (Below threshold)

October 14, 2008 11:43 AM | Posted by emma sigler: | Reply

SHUT UP! ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha hab ha

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To me, the question of "who... (Below threshold)

October 14, 2008 12:18 PM | Posted by ME: | Reply

To me, the question of "who discovered America" is primarily a question of technological achievement, as a proxy for national superiority. Columbus' discovery of America was seen as something similar to our landing on the moon -- something only a great nation could have done. So, to say that the Chinese were there first is to say, European naval technology was not more advanced than Chinese naval technology. Which, I think, is a valid historical debate, and brings us to the whole Guns, Germs, and Steel question of why such-and-such is more advanced than the rest.

As for the "world is flat" question, I have also heard that there was some book claiming that people thought that the world is flat for nefarious reasons.

But I think the real reason why people think people used to think the world is flat is because they themselves didn't know the world was round until someone told them, and so they assume that once upon a time, people just didn't know. And, people don't know how to figure out that the world is round (i.e. the well-shadow method used by the Greeks), so they just don't realize it could be done without actually sailing around the world.

Of course St. Augustine knew the world was round, because he was a highly educated person. But probably, most peasants and the like did not know.

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Thanks for your comments. ... (Below threshold)

October 14, 2008 12:48 PM | Posted by David: | Reply

Thanks for your comments. I sometimes feel disingenuously led upon the "garden path" towards some preconceived destination when reading this blog. We used to call this process being "set up." I'm one of those people who still finds it hard not to personalize the world ... which, if I get it correctly, is one of the signs of a narcissistic personality. Also which, I'm working on (hints of shifting tectonic plates, glaciers moving, etc) diminishing. To answer your question ... Everything I learned about Columbus, I learned this from a pretty good history teacher in a catholic grade school.

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Whoever reached North Ameri... (Below threshold)

October 14, 2008 1:09 PM | Posted by AK: | Reply

Whoever reached North America prior to Columbus did NOT affect the European world view in the way that Columbus' discovery did.

What happened in 1492 was as mind blowing as discovering that there was intelligent life on another planet.

Yes, the earth was known to be round, but what was not known was that there were entire continents never charted by the Greeks or Romans.

Columbus' arrival on a new continent (though he didnt himself know he had reached a new continent) revealed that there were things to be known that were beyond the philosophy of the Greeks and Romans.

And Columbus' landfall reached Europe at a time when information could be rapidly transmitted by printing press, whereas Leif Erickson's landfall did not become news at a time when such information could be rapidly dissiminated.

Columbus's news reached Europe at exactly a tine when the medieval churchly unity of Europe was breaking down and new secular monarchies were beginning to replace this power vacacy.

People were already beginning to question age old certainties in a way that had not been the case. The discovery of America hit Europe right at a time when old certainties were already being called into question, travel was easier, communication could be more rapidly transmitted than in Leif Ericksons time.

So it wasnt only Columbus' landfall, but its timing, that mattered.

So...the 1492 landfall in Hispaniola had an impact and a significance that makes 1492 a date to remember, no matter how much we bitch about what to name the holiday.

And for those who hate Columbus, a case has been made that he contracted another import from the New World...syphilis. And some of his sailors and mercenaries went on to spread this new STD throughout Europe--and it had a shattering effect on psychology and sexual mores.

(Read Pox by Deborah Hayden if you want to read more about this. The chapter on Adolf Hitler is fascinating)

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In school in Norway, we wer... (Below threshold)

October 14, 2008 2:21 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

In school in Norway, we were taught that the world at large believes Columbus discovered America whereas it was in fact Leifr Eiriksson.

Thus we had the luxury of simultaneously furthering conventional wisdom while at the same time believing we were having it debunked for us. Not coincidentally, the version we accepted as contrarian was the one that granted us -- Norwegians, collectively, never mind where the man was born and where he lived at the time -- a piece of the glory.

This part of the curriculum always provided the opportunity for much moral outrage and auto-flagellation about the horrors unleashed on the Americas by Europe. Subsequent to Columbus's arrival, note, not Leifr's.

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Nei faen. I meant to attach... (Below threshold)

October 14, 2008 2:23 PM | Posted, in reply to Anonymous's comment, by Per Jørgensen: | Reply

Nei faen. I meant to attach my name to this. For the record: I am the anonymous poster above.

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I do try to "tell a stor... (Below threshold)

October 14, 2008 5:19 PM | Posted, in reply to David's comment, by Alone: | Reply

I do try to "tell a story" in each post, bit by bit, but the intent is not to mislead. I'm trying to get at something and I don't know other ways to do it. Nine times out of ten, if a post seems whacked, or even offensive, it's because I suck as a writer.

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Hi man from Norway, I ha... (Below threshold)

October 14, 2008 5:21 PM | Posted, in reply to Anonymous's comment, by Alone: | Reply

Hi man from Norway, I have a question: were you taught that Columbus or Erickson thought the world was round against a society of flat earth followers? Or did flat/round earth not even come up?

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How did you deduce I am mal... (Below threshold)

October 14, 2008 6:16 PM | Posted by Per Jørgensen: | Reply

How did you deduce I am male? Ponder.

Frankly, I don't remember whether we ever learned in school that people thought the earth was flat. We may or may not have, I just can't remember. In hindsight, it seems like One of Those Things You Just Know.

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"I have a problem with prim... (Below threshold)

October 15, 2008 9:51 AM | Posted by MedsVsTherapy: | Reply

"I have a problem with primary sources, they can be faked. Anyone can write anything, correct? Why don't people film experiments? By which I mean, have a camera up in the corner of a room with a feed to the internet. It doesn't have to be live. It just needs to have all the hours there."

Science has another method for addressing faked data. Specifically, it incorporates the concepts of "replicability" and "falsifiability."

This takes care of situations where the details could not actually be caught on video, and situations where a video could be faked.

It worked for room-temperature superconductability and has worked for many other situations, including the replicability of the efficacy of antidepressants. Here is one example: while the promoters of SSRIs were burying data and employing other tricks to portray various SSRIs as valid treatments for depression [cf: pubmed articles 18036616, 18303940, 18199864], another study conducted for other purposes unintentionally revealed the limited efficacy that has finally emerged, through this replicability strategy: a trial was done in the 1990s to treat depression in heart patients: SADHART. In a review of the failure of this study, Joynt [PMID 15953805] notes that "unexpectedly, sertraline was not extremely effective for the treatment of depression in this population." She also noted that the placebo response was "considerably higher than the rates of 25% to 35% typically seen in antidepressant trials."

I am sure the pharma-funded psychiatrists could develop a convincing video tape trial demonstrating the wonders of SSRIs for depression. However, eventually other studies would attempt to replicate this effect outside of the watchful eye of pharma, as did SADHART. Replicability. Falsifiability.

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As an American whose Norweg... (Below threshold)

October 15, 2008 10:01 AM | Posted by fraise: | Reply

As an American whose Norwegian ancestors sailed to Canada, then immigrated to the Pacific Northwest, and who is now living in France (ha, did you see THAT one coming? :) ), well, several things. My family's Norwegian ancestors lived on the Lofoten Islands, and as far as we can tell (written records of the family go back to the 11th century), they were probably honest-to-God Vikings. The reason I mention it: my Norwegian grandfather learned that the Earth was round from his seafaring father, who learned it from his seafaring father, etc. We know for certain that ancestors sailed to Australia purposefully several hundreds of years ago, so it seems credible they knew it at least as far back as then.

In US public school some 20-odd years ago, I first learned they thought the Earth was flat during Columbus' time, but later that they knew it was round -- including farmer peasants (I forget the exact explanation why, but it had something to do with farmers paying close attention to natural cues). In France, friends and colleagues tell me they learned that most people knew it was round as well. They also learn about the "consecutive discoveries" of America; most claim Leif Ericsson to be the original, but not to downplay Columbus. (They like the Columbus story. Makes some sense, after all, quite a few of them went to settle North America afterwards.)

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"meaningless debate" its a ... (Below threshold)

October 15, 2008 10:48 AM | Posted by mark p.s.2: | Reply

"meaningless debate" its a chance to pick a team, side, or clan. Columbus's followers took the land from the native Indians. “History is written by the victors.” said Winston Churchill.

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"and subsequently believed ... (Below threshold)

October 15, 2008 12:36 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

"and subsequently believed there was a a sea route to the Spice Islands and China."

Wouldn't that explanaition alone make it obvious he thought the world was round. If you sail east (for the most part) to get to india, and india is in the east, why would you ever sail west to get to india if you believed the world was flat?

Do they not teach the spice/trading route reason for his voyage in public schools? (I went to a private waldorf school) And if they do teach it do they actually teach it along side the "world was flat" myth? Cause if they do I would have to say that at the very least the teachers would notice there was an inconsistency there and try to correct it, and most likely quite a few students would notice that the story doesn't match up. Strange. All I know is in the fifth grade I did a report on lief eriksson and so have known for quite awhile he discovered north america first.
Personaly I don't think having the knowledge, correct or incorrect, about these stories makes much of a difference unless you are going to be teaching history. And I really do not know how which story you choose to believe about whom discovered america can in any way reflect your current political views.
Getting upset that the stories told are more myth than truth, well when it comes to what the average american kid in public school needs to know about history pre 1900's, myths are as good as anything. That's why we have college and why college teaches real history. It's a funny system, that you learn the myths as a child and learn the facts as an adult, but that's the one we've chosen.

Maybe we just think children can't handle the truth, maybe it's part of the process of filling childrens minds with propoganda so they will grow up to be red blooded americans, I can't say for sure. It does seem silly though to have to relearn history as an adult because they don't teach the truth in grade and highschool.

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