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January 08, 2006

Sunday Sermonette: Ferdinand Magellan

Sorry guys, I screwed up the Sermonette.

The Church says that the earth is flat, but I know that it is round, for I have seen the shadow on the moon, and I have more faith in a shadow than in the Church. -- Ferdinand Magellan

Thanks to all the readers who wrote in to set me straight on this one--Magellan probably never said anything of the sort. The roundness of the earth was already well-established in his day.

Check out these superior Sermonettes from Revere and Eli. Or nominate your own.

Anyway, here's my repeat attempt:

The desire to be right and the desire to have been right are two desires, and the sooner we separate them the better off we are.The desire to be right is the thirst for truth.On all accounts, both practical and theoretical, there is nothing but good to be said for it. The desire to have been right, on the other hand, is the pride that goeth before a fall. It stands in the way of our seeing we were wrong, and thus blocks the progress of our knowledge.

--W.V. Quine and J. S. Ullian, The Web of Belief Random House, New York, 2nd edition, 1978, p.133


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Maybe the earth is shaped like a pie. I don't know if I'd want to risk falling off the edge based on the shape of a shadow. It's safer to just trust authority.

That was poor scholarship on Magellan's part, wasn't it? I don't think the shape of the Earth was ever a matter of formal doctrine, but surely the Church would always have known about the work of Aristarchus and Ptolemy. Maybe there was a brief time when classical astronomy had been forgotten, but it would certainly have been well known, at the very latest, by the time of the classical revival in the 13th century.

you heathen, you

Wikipedia on the flat Earth in history.

That said, we shouldn't assume uniformity of knowledge, or even uniformity of what was espoused by Church officials. Our intellectual history of the time is uneven, to say the least.

I thought a round earth was actually mandated by church doctrine. In Dante, at least, hell was at the center of the earth, which was at the center of the universe. Purgatory is a mountain on the opposite side of the globe from europe. Heaven is beyond the sphere of the fixed start.

(I haven't read the wiki article eli linked to so if this is redundant, my apologies.)

This is all a myth. Magellan could not have said that because the church never believed the earth was a flat disc (though the Babylonians did). They did, however, officially believe in a geocentric universe (which is irrelevant to navigation); I think in many people's mind, one "mistake" has been conflated with the other.

It is worth noting that at the time of Magellan's voyage, no one had heard of the Copernican heliocentric theory, except Copernicus.

For an interesting counterpoint - here is an interesting view from a 15th century Mariner who did know the earth was round:

Sorry. Looks like I completely screwed up this week's Sermonette.

I'm still not taking any chances.

What about those of us who are never wrong?

Oh. Um.

I see.


Excellent find. Quine said it; and I agree. That doesn't happen very often. ;)

Soon I'll be forced to retract, when science proves that Dean Esmay flipping out was only the second funniest blog post ever.

Quine and Ullian sure make some of the ups and downs of my life make sense.

Thanks Lindsay


Quine and Ullian sure make some of the ups and downs of my life make sense.

Thanks Lindsay


So is the earth is flat or not? I am so confuse...

Thats not the way I would put it but its close enough.

well i feel kinda dumb. i've got a tshirt with that "magellan" quote that i've worn for years. i should've realized there was something incongruous about this being said in the 16th century. anyway i was educated catholic, i should have the right to argue back with inaccurate and erroneous statements.

It still freaks me out that Hogan's ghost blogs here.

I think the quote originated with Galileo.

You're not the only one to have been wrong about this one, Majikthise. I had coincidentally written about just this topic on January 12 in a post at Skeptic News called Flat out wrong! Medieval Dogma and the Shape of the World, where I discuss a talk that I had given 2 years earlier that included the flat earth claim and how I had just recently learned that it was a myth. I don't like having given out false information, so now I'm faced with the dilemma of how to correct it. I've written a blog post about it and ran it as an article in our local skeptics' group newsletter, so hopefully that offsets the original misleading talk.

I applaud the ready willingness to own up to a mistake which is widespread on the Internet. I have seen this quote in some forty sites and have taken pains to point out the error. For the most part, site owners unhesitatingly made the necessary correction and attributed the words to real author, Robert Green Ingersoll. The words are found in the fourth paragraph of his essay "Individuality" which was published in 1873.

The process of rectification is a herculean task but not impossible.

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