“Chronological Snobbery”

The modern mind cannot bear the thought that people who lived far before the twentieth century could have gotten anything right about science. Even the Encyclopedia Britannica perpetuated the myth of a flat-earth cosmology: “Before Columbus proved the world was round, people thought the horizon marked its edge. Today we know better” (1961). The people of Columbus’ day knew better.

A 1983 textbook for fifth-graders misinformed students by reporting that Columbus “felt he would eventually reach the Indies in the East. Many Europeans still believed that the world was flat. Columbus, they thought, would fall off the earth.”[1] A 1982 text for eighth-graders said that Europeans “believed . . . that a ship could sail out to sea just so far before it fell off the edge of the sea. . . . The people of Europe a thousand years ago knew little about the world.”[2]

In the 1988 edition of Atlas of the World we read, “In the Middle Ages the earth was thought to be a flat plain surrounded by waters, with Jerusalem at its center and Paradise somewhere in the Far East. Then, in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, Europe’s conquest of the sea revolutionized man’s knowledge of his planet and helped to give Europe a new supremacy in world affairs.”[3]

In fact, the Pythagoreans of the sixth century B.C. taught that the world was spherical and Aristotle proved it by observing “during an eclipse that the earth casts a spherical shadow on the moon.”[4] Venerable Bede (673-735), monk of Jarow and “the Father of English history,” maintained “that the earth is a globe that can be called a perfect sphere because the surface irregularities of mountains and valleys are so small in comparison to its vast size.” He specifies that the “earth is `round’ not in the sense of `circular’ but in the sense of a ball.”[5] Historian Edwin Scott Gaustad confirms the historical and scientific record that the earth was believed to be ball-shaped: “Cartographers drew it so; astronomers reckoned it so; mariners intended to prove it so.”[6]


[1] America Past and Present (Scott Foresman, 1983), 98. Quoted in Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth, 3.**
[2]** We the People (Heath, 1982), 28-29. Quoted in Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth, 3.**
[3]** Joseph L. Gardner, ed., Atlas of the World (Pleasantville, NY: The Reader’s Digest Association, 1988), 56.**
[4]** Richard Shenkman, Legends, Lies, and Cherished Myths of American History (New York: William Morrow, 1988), 13. [5] Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth, 20.**
[6]** Edwin S. Gaustad, A Religious History of America (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 3.