Wednesday, April 13, 2016

My arch-nemesis...two common history myths

Regular people have nemeses who are, you know, other people. My nemeses are certain bad arguments or stories which pop up over and over.

Yesterday I was particularly annoyed when I heard two of the most common myths from history three times in one day--the worst offender being in a Disney show where one was shared by an alleged history teacher! For the other, I found myself yelling, "NOOOOOOOOOOO!!" like Luke when he found out Vader was his father (spoiler alert), because these myths ruined what was otherwise one of the most interesting radio interviews I've ever heard.

Please, please...take a few moments to read the following and educate yourselves. Maybe we can stop the spread of Bad History.



Myth 1:  "Everyone thought the earth was flat, only Columbus proved them wrong."

So, so bad.

  • People have known the Earth was round since at least 500 years before Jesus, with Pythagorus in ancient Greece.
  • Early Christians widely held to a spherical earth, although there were some exceptions (most notably Augustine)
  • The idea that Columbus had difficulty because people thought the earth was flat is not from history, but from Washington Irving, the author of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
  • The reason Columbus had difficulty with support for his mission is because he was very stupid and very wrong!! Everyone agreed the Earth was round...however, he made a unit conversion error. When calculating the size of the Earth, Columbus wrongly thought the arabic mile and the Roman mile were the same distance. Because of this math error, Columbus thought the earth was 25% smaller than it was!
  • So when Columbus tried to get backers for his trip to India by sailing West, everyone said...you're crazy. You'll never make it that far. They were right. Columbus just got lucky and there happened to be an unknown continent in the way! (This is why Native Americans are called "Indians," because he happened to think he was in India!)

Columbus was no visionary. He was arrogant, bad at math, a slaver, a rapist, and only famous because he was lucky.  If Columbus had not accidentally stumbled onto an unknown continent, he would be remembered--if at all--as a foolish man who got his entire crew drowned because he did math poorly.







Myth 2:  "Galileo was imprisoned for teaching the the sun was the center of the universe."


This one I heard twice yesterday. It shows up in pop culture all the time, as an example of the establishment hating new ideas. It even if often repeated by scientists, including Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

Galileo Galilei was a Catholic who believed the Bible was true when properly interpreted, that God created and ordained everything in the heavens and on earth, and wrote at the end of his life, "To the Lord, whom I worship and thank, that governs the heavens with His eyelid, to Him I return tired, but full of living."

There are many things that are often wrong about this myth. Let's denote them one at a time.


  • It was Copernicus--not Galileo--who put the sun in the center of the solar system. This was done in his book On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres, which was published in 1543...21 years before Galileo was even born.


  • Copernicus' work was not controversial because of Science vs. Bible. Copernicus' work was very controversial at the time of Galileo, though Scripture was only thrown in as an argument on the back end. The two main arguments against it were:  (a) it undermined the teachings of Aristotle, whose philosophy was very popular at the time; and (b) it predicted stellar parallax, which no telescope at the time could detect. (It would be 1837 before the first parallax could be detected.)  (In fact, the main religious argument was not Scriptural, but Reformational: according to the complaint made against him to the Roman Inquisition, was that Galileo's work seemed "too Protestant", willing to reinterpret the Bible with new information and fresh eyes rather than accept what the Catholic Church had already told them.)
  • Galileo was not on trial because of his support of Copernicus. The Inquisition never formally banned Copernicus' work (though they ceased publication), and the Church's stance was that the book was a possibility not a fact. Most astronomers saw it as false but useful--like a good fable. Galileo was just fine until 1632 (almost a hundred years after Copernicus published!). He then wrote a pro-Copernicus book in which he took the Pope's publicly-stated views and put them in the mouth of the village idiot of his tale. This is why Galileo was in hot water! Not only did he make the Pope look bad, but he also fed into the Pope's paranoia that his position was at risk (as convincingly shown by Dava Sobel).
  • Galileo never went to prison.  Galileo was not in a dungeon (despite the works of the artist Murillo); at age 69, he was placed under house arrest, and lived at his villa for the remaining 9 years of his life. His 'harsh punishment' was being ordered to read a Psalm each day. He was allowed to continue writing, and published one of his most important works at this time. 


So it is absurd to say that Galileo was imprisoned for teaching that the sun was the center of the universe. It is partly factually wrong, and partly a slanted truth.

This is not a tale of "Science vs. Bible" or "People Hating Change"--there were extremely good scientists (like the best astronomer in the world, Tycho Brahe) who pointed out that the theory was useful but lacked scientific evidence--evidence which wouldn't come for 200 years.

No, this is a tale of the corruption of power--that the Pope would stop publication of a book, and put a former friend under house arrest, because they dared to embarrass him publicly.




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