The fallacy that the earth was flat
Published: Thursday, February 28, 2008
Updated: Tuesday, November 20, 2012 16:11
No. 4. We've all heard it before: "A long time ago people thought the Earth was flat." Usually people are referring to the middle ages or around the time of Galileo, Keplar and Copernicus. There has also been a myth circulating around that Christopher Columbus thought he was going to sail right off the edge of the Earth. The "Earth was flat" is B.S.
Some textbooks actually say that Christopher Columbus thought that he would sail off the edge of the Earth. I actually learned this (though not surprisingly, since I did go to public school) but unfortunately this is inaccurate. There is no historical evidence to suggest this at all.
This myth began because of Washington Irving's fantasy titled "The Life and Voyage of Christopher Columbus," published in 1828. Irving is also known for starting certain myths about Santa Claus, but we won't get into that. Many people mistook the novel to be an actual historical account of Christopher Columbus. Irving is responsible for inventing that image of Columbus as a simple mariner in front of a dark crowd of inquisitors and theologians who apparently thought that the world was flat. Irving is also responsible for the idea that Columbus discovered America and actually landed on America as we know it, when actually most of his sailing was done in the Canary Islands and he never even landed in North America. We won't go into the actual history of Columbus because he wasn't exactly a saint (if you haven't noticed, there is a reason why we don't celebrate Columbus Day anymore).
How did these myths get into our textbooks? Well, around the turn of the 20th century, there was a man named Andrew Dickson White (best known as the co-founder of Cornell University), which brings me to the fallacy of the day: red herring. The red herring fallacy is committed when you say something irrelevant in order to turn attention away from the argument. For example, "Did the girlfriend who dumped you for a real man get accepted to chiropractic school?" Anyway, White wrote a book called "History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom" in 1896, in which the thesis was basically that religion and science have been in conflict with each other through the ages and that clergy generally ignored science. He just made up a bunch of examples that have little or no historical evidence. This includes the flat earth myth as well as the idea that clergy generally opposed Darwin's work. Interestingly, Darwin's work (evolution) was more readily accepted back then than it is in America now (which is both funny and tragic).
If you need any more proof that people have always, or at least through most of the Ancient world believed, in the spherical Earth, Eratosthenes (276 -194 BC) calculated the circumference of the world with the assumption that the Earth was round, not to mention that sailors talked about the ships coming over the horizon.
This, of course, is not to say there haven't been conflicts between science and religion, as the conflict between geocentricism and the heliocentric model has actual historical merit.
What's really funny is this group called the Flat Earth Society. This organization, to this day, believes the Earth is actually flat, something that wasn't even believed in the middle ages. The contemporary flat Earth movement was started by Samuel Rowbotham (1816-1884), who based his beliefs on the literal interpretation of certain passages in the bible. People in the Flat Earth Society deny that we landed on the moon (but that's another article altogether).
The fact that I may have given arguments to Christians makes me die a little inside. I can just see it now: an atheist arguing against a theist, the theist making terrible claims and then the atheist saying, "People used to think that the Earth was flat!" In which case the theist smugly says, "Well actually…" But as they say, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and that has become ever clearer from reading some of the comments I'm getting for my other articles. Cheers!
Ken Ueda is a senior math, physics and philosophy major. He can be reached for contact at firstname.lastname@example.org.