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Obama, Columbus, and the flat earth
March 19, 2012 - Stephen Browne
Last Thursday President Obama gave a speech at Prince George’s Community College in Largo, Maryland to defend his energy policy.
Obama criticized his Republican opponents by comparing them to flat-earthers, "Let me tell you something. If some of these folks were around when Columbus set sail they must have been founding members of the Flat Earth Society. They would not have believed that the world was round."
This is not the place to debate the merits of the government's energy policy, or if there should even be one. Among other things, it strikes me as kind of weird that so many people with no scientific or engineering background have such passionate convictions about technological issues.
It's that Columbus thing! This is a bit of a bee in my bonnet. The president was merely repeating a common myth still taught to school children for rhetorical effect. But for the last time, PEOPLE IN COLUMBUS' TIME DID NOT BELIEVE THE EARTH WAS FLAT!
Educated people had known the earth was a sphere for centuries before Columbus. Common sailors knew it too, they could see the evidence every time they approached a shore from out at sea and saw mountains and structures come into view from the top down.
Not only did they know the earth was round, they knew how big it was. Eratosthenes of Cyrene (c. 276 B.C. - c. 195 B.C.) the third chief librarian of the Great Library in Alexandria, very ingeniously measured the circumference of the earth around 240 B.C. to within 2 percent error.
That was why some at the Spanish court had objections to funding Columbus' plan to sail to "the Indies" westward. They didn't believe he'd fall of the edge of a flat earth. They knew it was round and it was a loooooong way west to Asia.
Scholars who know this have assumed Columbus just underestimated the size of the earth. However, it is at least plausible that Columbus had an idea there was land to the west a lot closer to Europe than China or India. That in fact he knew he was headed for someplace else entirely.
For one, "the Indies" was used as a general term for everything in the world that wasn't Europe, Africa, or China. Documents from the early Spanish colonization of the Philippines refer to the native Filipinos as "Indians."
For another, we don't talk about it much in history and anthropology, because in the past pre-Columbian contact theories have been used by some pretty vicious racists to explain why American Indians of Central and South America had civilizations technologically at least equal to the classical Greeks, and far more populous. But evidence of sporadic contact between the Old World and the New for centuries is pretty convincing. Among other things, there are pre-Columbian statues and wall frescoes that appear to show bearded white men and black Africans. Seafaring men had at least heard rumors of lands to the west for a long time before Columbus.
And there is some speculation that Columbus may have visited Iceland at some time in his life. If so, he could not have avoided learning about the Vineland Saga about Viking voyages to lands west of Greenland.
So please Mr. President, no more "Columbus discovered the earth was round."
And by the way, your predecessor Rutherford B. Hayes didn't say about the telephone, “It’s a great invention, but who would ever want to use one?”
Hayes in fact installed the first telephone in the White House.
Note: A really great book about fallacious quotes, one of whose authors I knew slightly, is:
"They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, and Misleading Attributions" by Paul F. Boller Jr. and John George. http://www.amazon.com/They-Never-Said-Misleading-Attributions/dp/0195064690/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1332179639&sr=1-1
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