Monday, October 10, 2011

Happy Brave Maverick Day!

In the United States, today, the second Monday in October, is Columbus Day, a holiday recognizing the landing of Christopher Columbus on the shores of the New World. On October 12, 1492, Columbus arrived landed on the island now known as San Salvador, in the Bahamas. Many celebrate the day as the discovery of America. A popular, though erroneous, belief is that Columbus flaunted common thought that Earth was flat, venturing out across the western waves to prove that the planet was, in fact round, and he is often held up as a model of how one man with conviction can prove not just popular opinion, but science itself, wrong.

Portrait of a "brave maverick".

In fact, cranks of all stripes tend to bring up Columbus to support their fringe ideas, secure in the belief that they will be vindicated. Perhaps if they knew a little more about Columbus, they might not be quite so eager to compare themselves to him.

There are actually a lot of similarities between Christopher Columbus and modern day purveyors of crackpot notions. They both display a certain misunderstanding or poor grasp of the science of the day. They tend to glom on to ideas that may not necessarily be supported by facts. There is a certain self-absorption that they are right and that all others are wrong, motivated by greed and self-aggrandizement. And they may seek to dupe wealthy and/or influential people into backing them, financially and politically. Finally, they ultimately prey upon and exploit others for their own gain.

Some Background

First we need to set the scene. Columbus tried shopping his idea of a shorter route to the Orient by traveling west, rather than the known route south around the tip of Africa, a journey fraught with dangers, not least of which were the storms of the southern seas. He tried going to the Portuguese court several times, whose experts rejected his plans, judging his calculations to be too low. He also tried Genoa and Venice, but found no support there. He tried England, as well, but found support from the crown of Spain before an invitation from Henry VII came. Spain had just conquered the only remaining Muslim stronghold on the Iberian peninsula, Granada. A financially strapped Spain needed an edge over their European rivals for trade with the Far East, and Columbus offered them that hope. In April 1492, he finally received the funding he had been searching for to find a faster route to the Far East by sailing west. The only problem was that he was wrong.

Misinterpreting the Science

Columbus' first mistake was that he got his measurements wrong. And not just a little wrong, but woefully, horribly wrong. Rather than using the well-established and remarkably accurate calculations of Eratosthenes, made in the 3rd century BCE. Columbus made several errors in this regard. In calculating miles per degree of longitude, he incorrectly thought that the Arab mile of Al Ma'mun was equivalent to the Roman mile. This basic error threw off all other calculations he made. For example, using his numbers, he stated the Earth had a circumference of 30,200 km, rather than the actual 40,075 km. He also overestimated the size of the Eurasian landmass. Scholars of the day accepted Ptolemy's estimate of approximately 180º. Columbus used a much larger estimate of 225º and compounded the error by his belief that Japan was much further from China than it really was, leading to a calculated distance from the Canary Islands to Japan to be about 3,700 km instead of the actual roughly 19,000km.

If there hadn't been any land where the Americas are, it is very likely that Columbus and his crews would have been lost at sea, condemned to starvation, thirst and endlessly roaming the waves. Eventually, their ships would have run aground or befouled some other vessels, long after all hands had died. It was only by an accident of geology that Columbus and his crews survived and gained fame.

In similar fashion, purveyors of nonsense often misinterpret current science, abusing things like quantum mechanics or even using quaint notions of biology that are easily countered by facts. Their notions are often opposed by experts in relevant fields, and quite rightly, though these cranks may, by accident, stumble upon something that may actually prove useful or valid. But it is not through anything they did correctly; rather, they just happened to be in the right place at the right time, like finding a $20 bill on the ground.

Patronage and Greed

Columbus did not have the resources himself to fund his expedition, so he needed backers. He didn't hold fundraisers or bake sales. He didn't sell products that actually had some value. Instead, he went to powerful and influential individuals with an idea. The royals of Portugal, the merchant-princes of Genoa and Venice, the king of England and the king and queen of Spain were all his targets. He promised them a shorter route to the East, presenting no evidence to support his convictions other than arguments by assertion. In return, he wanted funding for his voyage, but he didn't stop there. The final contract between Columbus and the crown of Spain named him Admiral, Viceroy and Governor of any lands he discovered and conquered and become Spanish nobility. His children would also attain those titles after him. He also wanted 10% of all trade revenue from any of the lands he should discover.

Many, if not all, of those "brave mavericks" out there court fame and fortune, sometimes finding powerful patrons, such as Oprah Winfrey or Prince Charles, to elevate them to public attention. They may gain investors based on nothing but promises, like the free-energy company, Steorn, which continues to promise and promise and promise, but presents no results, all the while raking in money from investors. They sell books, cure-alls, supplements and so on.


Which brings us to the final bit: exploitation. Columbus saw great opportunity in the native populations he conquered. In the first several days after discovery, he wrote:
It appears to me, that the people are ingenious, and would be good servants...I could conquer the whole of them with fifty men, and govern them as I pleased.
In fact, he went on to take many natives as slaves. He took their gold and resources and is reputed as being something of a tyrant in his governorship, even toward Spanish colonists. He began an era of oppression in which native peoples were dispossessed of their lands and belongings, their freedom and, through war and disease, their lives.

Cranks, likewise, abuse their marks. They part the unwary from their money, selling dubious products. As Columbus preyed upon the kindness and general good will of the natives, purveyors of woo prey upon the emotions and hopes of those dealing with health issues, grievous events and so on. Their own profit and self-interests come before their victims, before people who deserve far better. Because of those who buck the system, convinced that their ideas have value despite all science and reality to the contrary, other people suffer. Those with health issues, some potentially fatal, end up spending precious time and money on purported cures that do nothing but give false hope, where they may have otherwise had a much improved chance of survival. Those who grieve for lost loved ones are parted from their money, as are those who want an easy fix or free energy. In the end, the only one who truly profits is the one perpetrating the scam.

A Day of Celebration

So, here's to all of the brave mavericks out there. A day to celebrate woeful ignorance and abuse of science, self-aggrandizement and the exploitation of others. When you choose to compare yourself to Christopher Columbus, keep in mind what you're really comparing yourself to: an opportunist in it for himself, horribly ignorant and callous toward others. By a happy chance, you might happen upon something that's actually useful, but you'll still be wrong and others will still suffer for it. Cheers!

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