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Jul 2009
July 24, 2009

The World is Flat

No One Else Reads Your E-mail and Other Tales of Fiction as Fact

"In 1492, he sailed the ocean blue." More specifically, on the evening of August 3, 1492, (according to Wiki) Christopher Columbus departed from Spain with three ships, the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria.

Now we all know why Chris took that famous voyage, don't we? Of course! He was trying to prove that the world was round, right? WRONG!

"What do you mean, wrong? Everyone knows that Columbus was trying to prove that the world was round at a time when the whole world believed that the world was flat? My parents were taught that in school, and so was I and so were my kids."

In fact, it is written right there in most every grade school text in America. That must mean it's true.

Sorry, but that is wrong, wrong, wrong. Prove it, you say? Can't; wasn't there. I'm old, but not that old.

But, again, according to Wiki, at the time that Columbus made his famous voyage, it was widely recognized in Europe and elsewhere around the world that the world was round. In fact, as early as the 4th century Greek philosophers hypothesized that the world was round.

Want more proof? The oldest existing terrestrial globe was made by a guy named Martin Behaim in Germany in – get ready for it – 1492. Columbus didn't get back to Spain until March 1493. When Behaim made his globe, for all he knew Chris and the boys had tumbled off the end of the earth.

So, why do we all think that Columbus set sail to prove that the earth was round? Can it be from a Bugs Bunny cartoon? Nope, not Bugs Bunny. But almost.

In 1828, Washington Irving (yes, the same guy who wrote The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle) wrote a book called The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. The book, which is often referred to as a biography of Columbus, was in reality a mixture of fact and fiction. Now Irving was a bit of a rock star in his day. Sort of the Bono of the 1800s. In fact, according to Wiki, he is credited with using the term "Gotham" to describe New York City. (And you thought it was Batman who came up with that one!) Wiki also claims that Irving coined the term "the almighty dollar" and claims that his book on Columbus was widely popular in both the United States and Europe and would have 175 editions before the end of the 19th century.

It was in this book that Irving popularized the idea that Columbus had difficulty obtaining support for his plan because Europeans thought the Earth was flat.

Now when Bono tells you that Europeans thought the world was flat . . . well, doggone it, they thought the Earth was flat! And if a rock star like Irving tells you that Columbus and Queen Isabella were the only ones smart enough to know better, well, doggone it, you believe him. In fact, you believe him so much that you start to teach your kids that this is fact. Yes, it was Washington Irving, a fiction writer, who was largely responsible for the myth that spawned an entire section of the grade school history curriculum. Makes you wonder about everything else you learned in school, doesn't it?

Well, apart from that somewhat sad commentary on public education in this country, you might be asking:  "So what?"

Come on, if you have read any of my other stuff, you know I am going to make some strained connection to labor and employment law. Well, here it is.

Over the course of my career I have spent a little time in "legal" proceedings. Sometimes in court, sometimes in arbitration and sometimes with government agencies like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. During those proceedings, one side, we'll call them the "bad guys," often spends a lot of time trying to prove that something someone – we will call them the "good guys" – innocently wrote means something it does not.

You see, when we send the e-mail, or write the disciplinary notice, or draft the review, we don't think about who else may read it, do we? When is the last time you sat down to rip someone on e-mail and asked yourself, "Now, what will the jury think of this?"

Never? Really? Time to start having that conversation with yourself.

Irving might be an extreme example of fiction becoming fact, but he is not the only example, and history should surely be our guide. So, the next time you are sitting at your desk about to start punching keys, and you think it would be a really good idea to tell your boss you "Need to get some fresh blood into the organization," think again.

I wonder if Irving really thought he would be changing history, too.

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