Columbus was wrong

 Does it matter?

February 1998

Not a generation ago, one of those things that everybody knew was that "they all laughed at Columbus" for believing the Earth to be round. We usually got the story in grade school, and if we missed it there we could have picked it up almost anywhere else. Few of us had occasion anytime during the rest of our lives to learn whether there was any truth to it. I got lucky and discovered sometime in my late teens that it was a myth.

The story found fertile intellectual ground when it was planted in the late 19th century, at which time it fed the equally misguided American myth of rugged individualism. It is worth noting some points that were generally left out of the legend.

Before Aristotle's time, the Greeks had figured out that the earth was round. In the following centuries, through the intellectual stagnation of the Roman and Medieval periods, this was one discovery that was never lost. It remained known to everyone with any schooling, and very likely the idea reached many people without formal education. The legend overlooks that. It supposes that until Columbus came along, it had never occurred to anyone to question the common observation that, at a casual glance, the world does look flat -- wherever the surface is level, at any rate. The legend also ignores the issue of why Columbus thought differently. He somehow knew that everybody else was wrong about the shape of the world -- but how did he know that? We're not told.

Having made his discovery, by whatever means, the legend then has him spending several years trying to convince The Establishment that he is right and they are wrong. They of course won't listen at first, but he is sufficiently persistent that his efforts eventually are rewarded. So he sets sail and stumbles across the Americas, believing that he has arrived somewhere in the vicinity of India. Upon his return, all the experts who had declared him wrong now admit he was right.

However, if Columbus failed to reach the Orient by sailing west, then he failed to prove that the Earth was round. Even in the legend, Columbus never realizes that he has discovered a new world—but everyone else does, though. Having admitted that they were mistaken and he was right about the Earth being round, the experts now confidently (and correctly) ignore him while he insists he has been sailing in Asian waters.

What is wrong with all this, aside from its being untrue? Is the legend not, after all, still a good inspiration for visionaries and others who should be encouraged to defy conventional wisdom? Well, compared with his legend, the real Columbus wasn't much of a role model, it's true. But the legend really isn't much better as an inspiration for truth-seekers. Let's examine some of the implications of the story.

1. You don't have to be logical to be right.

The myth is that Columbus set out to prove the world was round. To accomplish that, he had to reach Asia by sailing west. He did not reach Asia, and he had no good reason to believe he had. So, he failed to prove what he was trying to prove. Taking the legend at face value, he was wrong when he said he had proved his point. Nevertheless, the legend credits him, against all logic, with having been right all along.

This is a grievous error to be teaching our kids. No good can come from defying logic.

2. If you know you're right, but the experts are all against you, you just gotta hang in there. Keep believing in yourself, even if nobody else does, and you'll eventually win.

Well, it's all right to admire heretics for the courage it takes to defy conventional wisdom, but heretics don't become heroes unless they win. Nearly all of them lose, actually. Columbus's disagreement with the experts of his day had nothing to do with the shape of the world. It concerned the size of the world, and it so happened that the experts were right.

Both Columbus and his adversaries assumed, having no evidence to the contrary, that there was nothing but ocean between the west coast of Europe and the east coast of Asia. Nobody was warning him that he would reach the edge of the world and fall over the side. They were warning him that his ships would run out of provisions before he got halfway across the ocean, and he and his crew would therefore starve to death.

But, for no reason besides coincidence, the American continents happened to be about as far west of Europe as Columbus thought Asia was. If they had not been, he would have had to turn back and return to Spain a failure—which in fact he was about to do when a lookout spotted one of the Bahamian islands and changed history.

Columbus was, undeniably, courageous and persistent, and because of those qualities was rewarded with honor and wealth—but also, and above all, he was so rewarded because he was one of the luckiest men in all history.

3. Just because the experts all agree about something doesn't make them right.

Yes, but it doesn't make them wrong, either. And in this instance, the experts were right. Columbus expected to make landfall in Japan. It's on the same latitude as Spain, so he could expect to get there by heading due west. The question was: How far west did he have to sail? More to the point: How long would he have had to remain at sea?

In the 15th century, nobody knew exactly how far it was from Spain to Japan, in either direction, but the experts had some good estimates. They figured that a trip around at world at Spain's latitude would be something like 19,000 miles. Then, if you knew how far east Japan was from Spain, a simple subtraction would tell you how far west it was. The eastern distance was very uncertain in 1492, but again some reasonable estimates were at hand. The experts figured Japan to be about 6000 miles east of Spain. If they were right, that meant there was something like 13,000 miles of ocean to cross for a westward voyage—there being no land in between that anyone knew about.

Columbus disagreed with the experts on two points. First, he believed the equatorial circumference of the Earth to be only 18,000 miles. If that were so, then a circumnavigation at Spain's latitude would be somewhat less than 14,000 miles. Second, he believed the eastward distance to Japan to be nearly twice was it actually was—more than 10,000 miles. As a result, he calculated the westward distance to be a little over 3,000 miles.

Columbus was not just making up his own theory about how wide the Atlantic Ocean was. He was relying on experts of his own choosing. His specific reasons for believing them need not concern us here. The point is that he was mistaken. No, the experts are not always right; but this time they were.

The legend does get one point right. The experts did tell Columbus, "It can't be done," and they were wrong about that. They had a good reason for their mistake, though, and Columbus had a totally wrong reason for questioning their judgment. Recall that everyone assumed the Atlantic Ocean was empty between Europe and Asia. Furthermore, it really was quite impossible for anyone in 1492 to sail across 13,000 miles of open sea. It would have taken, assuming favorable winds the whole way, on the order of eight to nine months. A few years after Columbus, Magellan's crew nearly starved during only a three-month trek across the Pacific between South America and Guam. No ship of that time could carry enough food and fresh water to sustain its crew much longer than that. Without a landfall somewhere, a six-month voyage was impossible, let alone a nine-month sail.

But, the ocean between Europe and Asia is not empty, and so ships going across it don't need provisions for nine months. That is what Columbus discovered, and why he became something of a hero to his contemporaries. He himself never understood that, because he actually was as pigheaded as we're supposed to think his adversaries were.

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