Sunday, April 29, 2007

Doggerel #76: "They Once Thought the Earth Was Flat!"

Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

A lot of woos out there like to try to paint skeptics as being like flat Earthers: People who vigorously deny some new idea and cling to the ways of the old world or some crap like that. The problem with their characterization is that it's more like a description of woo: Relying on superficial observations for all their conclusions while rejecting all detailed, controlled, and just generally rigorous observations and experiments.

Take a moment to put aside your knowledge of the Earth's shape. Look around. The ground looks pretty flat, right? (Well, I live in East Texas, so it pretty much is, but you people who live in hilly/mountainous areas just go with it.) If you wander around for long distances, you don't feel any change in the direction "down" is. If you don't take any detailed measurements, it's not all that hard to conclude that the Earth is flat.

Now, take a look at Eratosthenes: He didn't just trust the general impressions he saw: He took detailed measurements and performed appropriate calculations. Aristotle also noticed some evidence that the Earth wasn't flat: As you went south, southern constellations rose higher above the horizon. That was quite early on, and the evidence since grew. That's the key: evidence. The evidence that all those scholars gathered went against the predictions you would expect from a flat Earth.

All of this is pretty much another take on the Galileo Gambit, trying to assume his mantle without evidence, and attempting to change the subject from a discussion of the evidence into an unjustified claim that we're opposed to new ideas by using one bad "new" idea as an out-of-context example. An idea that has no evidence for it, maybe even some evidence against is not on equal ground with one that has strong evidential support. Ideas are supposed to be treated according to their merits. That's what fairness means. We aren't supposed to support any crazy idea just because someone proposes it with a straight face.

Evidence is what matters, and skeptics like us went along with the round Earth because it had the most evidence going for it. That's what science means. Treating all ideas as equal is what "journalism" is.


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The Ridger, FCD said...

Alas, to wear the mantle of Galileo it is not enough that you be persecuted by an unkind establishment, you must also be right.
—Robert Park

Bob said...

What's the turtle resting on?

An Anonymous Coward said...

That's easy. It's turtles all the way down!

Bronze Dog said...

It's a sea turtle. It doesn't rest on anything: It swims!

Bob said...

But why only three or four elephants? Is that a scale model? I wouldn't be surprised if it was on display at a creationist museum or a creation science fair. Surely it takes more elephants than that!

Bronze Dog said...

It's not a model. It's a cake.

Rhoadan said...

Clearly the makers of the cake were unaware of the discovery of the Fifth Elephant.

Clearly your brother needs an education. Not recognizing the great turtle A'Tuin on whose back rests the Discworld. Hmmph.

Bob said...

"It's not a model. It's a cake."


Pseudonym said...

By the way... since Eratosthenes, almost exactly no educated person has believed that the Earth was flat.

Part of the problem is that Americans used to (possibly still are, I don't know) be taught a really odd story about Christopher Columbus. For those who haven't had the pleasure, the story goes that Columbus set sail because he believed the Earth was round when everyone else believed it was flat.

This story is almost wholly fictitious. It dates from the 19th century age of "manifest destiny" nationalism, when Americans were searching for a founder figure who wasn't British.

If you're going to mount a "well people used to believe that" argument, at least pick something less than 2500 years old, please.

Tom Foss said...

Well, and furthermore, the real story about Chris Columbus is nowhere near as flattering. I'm not talking about wiping out whole island nations, I'm talking about the impetus for his journey.

See, Chris Columbus (as I recall) managed to come up with his own figure for the circumference of the Earth, which was considerably smaller than the one used by most scientists at the time. He ended up thinking, based on this calculation, that Europe and the Indies weren't all that far apart. Of course, no one was stupid enough to fund his foolish journey, until he hit up Ferdinand and Isabella.

So Chris set sale and ended up confirming the scientists' calculations as to the Earth's size. Not only was the planet larger than he thought, but there was a whole freaking continent in between Europe and India.

So, far from being the visionary who believed the world to be round, Chris was a poor mathematician who lucked his way into a new continent.

Anonymous said...

Tom Foss said: So, far from being the visionary who believed the world to be round, Chris was a poor mathematician who lucked his way into a new continent.

All this is from memory, but it was even worse than that. Chris used one of three circumferences in use at that time, but not the most popular one (and not the one that scientific measurements were supporting). Despite the overwhelming evidence, it appears he never recognized throughout his life that he did not find India. Nor did he allow himself to think of the new continent in terms of new trade opportunities, but tried desperately to exploit "India" for its known products, which were nowhere to be found. One of his trips brought back a shipload of useless rock, not the valuable ore he believed it to be. Financially, he was a wreck.

His navigation was excellent, though, despite not realizing what continent he was on. His distances, speeds, and mapping were bang-on, in a time when nav aids were nonexistent - the sextant was yet to be invented. But his business sense and grasp of the obvious sucked, and so Vespucci got the naming rights.

Pseudonym said: If you're going to mount a "well people used to believe that" argument, at least pick something less than 2500 years old, please.

Hmmmm. "People used to believe that people used to believe the world was flat." Has a nice ring to you, doncha think?

Ryan Michael said...

For those who haven't had the pleasure, the story goes that Columbus set sail because he believed the Earth was round when everyone else believed it was flat.

This may have just been me, but I remember being told it was Magellan who discovered the world was round. Chris was given credit with discovering America.

I recall specifically how pissed my 5th grade teacher got when I called her out on the fact that Erik the Red had been traipsing about North America 500 years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

Fun fact - when we were given an assignment to write a play, I remembered Mrs. Grimshaw's ignorant ass and wrote my play about Erik the Red. Man, I was a dick even at age 10...

Empty Promises said...

Blogger: That's an odd ideal for a journalist to ascribe to. You don't treat ideas as equal, you just report truthfully, because the reader will weigh the ideas analytically, not as equal, or at least that's what we hope for.

Commenter: If Columbus thought he was in India he would have called them Hindus, India wasn't called India when he discovered America. He called them In Deos because he thought it was paradise.

Tom Foss said...

Do you have a source, promises?

I do: Columbus's 1493 letter announcing his discovery: "AS I know you will be rejoiced at the glorious success that our Lord has given me in my voyage, I write this to tell you how in thirty-three days I sailed to the Indies with the fleet that the illustrious King and Queen, our Sovereigns, gave me, where I discovered a great many islands, inhabited by numberless people; and of all I have taken possession for their Highnesses by proclamation and display of the Royal Standard without opposition."

I can't speak for Italian, but your claim makes no sense in Latin or Spanish. From Latin, "in deos" translates to "into/toward gods"--that's plural, mind you. If he were saying "in god," it would be "in deo;" none of that means "in paradise." The word for "God" in Spanish is "Dios," not "Deos."

It's entirely possible that "India" wasn't called "India" in 1492, but I see no evidence of that. In either case, Columbus was, according to his own writing, searching for the East Indies, India itself notwithstanding, and thus the name of the Indians.

But this smacks to me of the same roundabout mythical rationalization as "Fornication Under Consent of the King" and "Ship High In Transit."

Tom Foss said...

Scratch that. From later in the letter:
"As for monsters, I have found no trace of them except at the point in the second isle as one enters the Indies, which is inhabited by a people considered in all the isles as most ferocious, who eat human flesh. They possess many canoes, with which they overrun all the isles of India, stealing and seizing all they can."

Ball's in your court.

Tom Foss said...

Sorry for the triple-post, but I've found a bit more information. The Straight Dope has a page on the claim, and the Oxford English Dictionary traces the use of "India" to describe "A large country or territory of southern Asia, lying east of the river Indus and south of the Himalaya mountains (in this restricted sense also called Hindustan: see HINDUSTANI); also extended to include the region further east (Farther or Further India), between this and China," as far back as 893 C.E. in English, with roots in Latin and Greek, apparently going back as far as Alexander the Great.