Stop Making Stuff Up

Just because some made up stuff has been around a long time, doesn’t automatically make it better than stuff that was made up more recently. And thus XKCD tackles the widely-held but mistaken idea that people in Columbus’ time typically thought the world was flat, while Columbus was a lone voice insisting that it was round.

Unfortunately, this idea had a long opportunity to circulate widely, before the advent of Snopes.

But while it is bad to make stuff up and then claim it is history, or science, making stuff up is not itself bad. Indeed, sometimes it is wonderful, and the Tolkien allusion in the comic suggests that its creator would agree.

Myths and fantasies are only problematic when we don’t realize what they are, even though we could and should.

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  • Keika

    It’s been a hot summer down here in Texas, so I dipped my metal spoon in my pint of Blue Bell ice cream and left it there for about thirty seconds. The spoon froze and when I used it to put some ice cream in my mouth, the metal stuck to my lower lip. I didn’t think it would do harm to pull it out of my mouth and when I did, it took a hefty layer of lip skin with it. It’s easy now to say ‘myth’ without a lower lip.

  • Nick Gotts

    By using him simply as an example of relatively harmless pseudo-historical myth-making, the cartoon still does Columbus far too much honour! He managed to convince himself, and the Spanish monarchs, that the eastern edge of Asia lay just 3,000 miles west across the Atlantic, although there were much more accurate estimates available; if the Americas hadn’t been there, he and all his crew would have died of thirst. He claimed to the end of his life that he’d reached Asia, although practically no-one else thought so by then. Most important, he was a thief, slaver, torturer, child abuser and mass murderer.

    • arcseconds

      It’s the biggest mistake made good that I know of. He made a massive underestimation of the size of the Earth, and lucked out and ran into a continent before he ran out of provisions and died. Now, not only is he credited as the discoverer of the continent, he’s also credited with proving the Earth was round!

  • Susan Burns

    Here is a myth; ancient people thought the flat earth was held up with pillars.

    Job 26:7 He stretcheth out the north over the empty place, [and] hangeth the earth upon nothing. (Job is most ancient book of Bible.)

    Here is another myth: hair shirt was for repentance (at least before 70 A.D.).

    Evidence of hair shirt found at Catalhoyuk. I doubt that the eschatology of sin and redemption to gain admittance to afterlife was so well developed in neolithic.

    • David Evans

      On the other hand:

      Job 9:6 Which shaketh the earth out of her place, and the pillars thereof tremble.

  • arcseconds

    I gotta say though, this is a great example of why I frequently find xkcd rather repellent.

    This guy probably doesn’t know any better. But instead of quietly correcting him, we get a sarcastic, sanctimonious, smarter-than-thou drama performance, complete with passive-aggressive (*sigh*)s.

    And we’re supposed to find this funny…

    (I suppose I don’t know that this guy hasn’t been corrected on this matter before, in which case this kind of behaviour might be accepted as being out of exasperation, but xkcd doesn’t have too much in the way of continuity, does it?)

    (The notion of combining the myths of Eärendil and Columbus is, I admit, quite clever and amusing, I’m not saying the author has no talent. It’s just a pity the strip seems so devoted to stroking people’s egos, frequently by belittling others)