How Historical Myths are Keeping Americans Stupid

As my wife and I were on our way to meet some friends for dinner last night, we were listening to Fox Across America on Sirius Radio channel 126. The host of the show (I think it was Spencer Hughes) was talking about the landing of Curiosity on Mars and how far we’ve come technologically since the 15th century. Consider that there are people alive today who were born before the Wright Brothers flew their heavier-than-air glider in 1903. In 1969, they saw the United States land men on the moon.

Then he said something that surprised me. He repeated the long-refuted myth that the people of the 15th century believed in a flat earth. I was shocked by his ignorance. If a person who hosts a talk show can be so wrong about history, then where is the rest of the nation? For decades our children’s textbooks, references works, and so-called scientists have perpetuated the flat-earth lie and much more. They’re still doing it.

For example, anyone who does not agree that global warming is man-made is akin to those who believed in a flat earth. The problem is, no one of any significance believed the earth was flat. Even the late evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould could say without equivocation that “there never was a period of ‘flat earth darkness’ among scholars (regardless of how the public at large may have conceptualized our planet both then and now). Greek knowledge of sphericity never faded, and all major medieval scholars accepted the earth’s roundness as an established fact of cosmology.”1

How and why did the flat-earth myth get started? The legend entered history when Washington Irving published his three-volume History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828). Irving, best known for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” used his fiction-writing skills to fabricate a supposed confrontation that Columbus had with churchmen who maintained that the Bible taught that the earth was flat. No such encounter ever took place. Samuel Eliot Morison, a noted Columbus biographer, describes the story by Irving as “misleading and mischievous nonsense, . . . one of the most popular Columbian myths.”2

Irving’s fictionalized account of Columbus describes him as being “assailed with citations from the Bible and the Testament: the book of Genesis, the psalms of David, the orations of the Prophets, the epistles of the apostles, and the gospels of the Evangelists. To these were added expositions of various saints and reverend Commentators. . . . Such are specimens of the errors and prejudices, the mingled ignorance and erudition, and the pedantic bigotry, with which Columbus had to contend.”3

As Medieval scholar Jeffrey Russell demonstrates in his book Inventing the Flat Earth, “It is fabrication, and it is largely upon this fabric that the idea of a medieval flat earth was established.”4

The debate in Columbus’s day was not over whether the earth was flat or round. “The issue was the width of the ocean; and therein the opposition was right.”5 Columbus had underestimated the circumference of the earth and the width of the ocean by a significant number of miles.

If people are ignorant on this easily refuted historical myth, then what else are they ignorant of? Well, we know what they’re ignorant of — mostly everything. That’s why people like Barack Obama, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi get elected.

  1. Stephen J. Gould, “The Late Birth of a Flat Earth, “ Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections in Natural History (New York: Crown, 1996), 38–52. []
  2. Samuel Eliot Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus (Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Co., 1942), 89. []
  3. Quoted in Jeffrey Burton Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians (New York: Praeger, 1991), 53. []
  4. Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth, 5. []
  5. Morison, Admiral of the Sea, 89. []