Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Circular Argument

James has found a contemporary example of someone promoting the flat-earth myth: that prior to Columbus, people -- particularly Christians -- thought the earth was flat. Of course, pretty much everyone after Aristotle (4th century BC) knew that the earth is round, at least in Europe. Since Christianity was based in Europe from the 1st century AD onwards, it's absurd to claim that Christians or Christianity denied the sphericity of the earth. Admittedly, there were a few examples of flat-earthers, just as there are a few examples today, but nobody took them seriously. This story was used for propaganda purposes in the 19th and 20th centuries, usually by secularists or atheists, to illustrate how foolish and ignorant religion is. The example James found, however, may the beginning of a new trend: someone trying to prop up the accomplishments of medieval Islam by contrasting it with the foolish flat-earth Christians. The author is Jonathan Lyons, and his book is ironically entitled House of Wisdom. It's too bad he doesn't augment his academic reading with Cracked.

The best (well, only) book I've read debunking this silliness is Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians by historian Jeffrey Burton Russell. It's an extremely short book, less than 80 pages, but has over 200 detailed endnotes; so you have no excuse for not reading it. Russell points to some disturbingly recent examples of actual historians arguing for the flat earth myth, such as Daniel Boorstin in his book The Discoverers. Russell argues that there were only five Christian writers in late Antiquity who affirmed a flat earth, and none from the Middle Ages.

I fortunately grew up knowing that this storyline that "Columbus proved the earth is round" was bogus, and I thought pretty much everyone else knew it too. I suspected that anyone who seriously thought otherwise essentially got their knowledge on the subject from Bugs Bunny cartoons. ("The Earth is-a round! Like-a my head!" BONK "She's flat like-a your head.") But never underestimate the power of ignorance, particularly among the educated.

Update (28 Feb): Humphrey has two recent posts on the flat-earth myth. This one deals with the Columbus story, and this one deals with Cosmas Indicopleustes, the flat-earther par excellence, who had no influence on either his contemporaries or the Middle Ages. As Russell points out, he wasn't even translated into Latin (and so made accessible to western Europe) until the early 18th century.

1 comment:

jacob longshore said...

You could add, to make the refutation palpable, Eratosthenes' calculation of the earth's circumference - that's in pretty much any geometry textbook. (I must add: you've got more patience than I do when addressing these matters, mefriend.)