A month ago , I asked for your thoughts about the greatest blunders of all time. I was thinking of blunders from long ago, especially “a list that considers only past human blunders, removed from the passions of the present day.” I observed, “My special interest lies in blunders where large numbers of people… have believed that things are one way, where the passage of time has proven otherwise. I believe such a list might help remind us of our own fallibility, as a species…”
I got only five nominations. (I imagine the rest of you are simply reluctant to nominate your own blunders. But hey. All of us have done things we’d rather our children not hear about.) As for the rest of you, I’m grateful for your nominations, even if they do imply that blame lies elsewhere than ourselves. The five I received are certainly food for thought.
One was, “Founding Fathers missed huge by not imposing term limits.” According to a recent Rasmussen opinion poll, 74% of Americans now favor term limits, with only 13% opposed.* One could argue the jury is in: the verdict being that the founding fathers should have imposed term limits. That said, with the average length of service in the U.S. House being 13.4 years, we obviously elect half of our representatives to seven or more consecutive terms. And Michigan voters have sent John Dingle back to Congress for over fifty-seven years, even longer than his father’s decades of service before him. Do they feel differently about term limits in Michigan? If the founding fathers’ failure to impose term limits was a great blunder, don’t the American voters make a far greater blunder every two years when they send these perennial office holders back to Washington, year after year? I mean, it’s at least arguable that the Founding Fathers were right in failing to impose term limits. But who can deny the hypocrisy when an electorate that favors term limits (that means us, folks) does what they themselves would prohibit? Millions of Americans today are either wrong in favoring term limits, or wrong in re-electing the same Congressmen over and over again – and surely wrong by doing both simultaneously. At least if measured by the number of people involved, the blunder we commit today strikes me as greater than that committed by a handful of wigged men in 1789.
A second nomination: “Y2K has to be in the top 20?” That one sure brings a smile to my face. You remember the “experts” predictions of the global catastrophe we’d see when all those computers couldn’t handle years starting with anything but a 1 and a 9. Then, when the time came, nothing happened. I don’t know of a single problem caused by Y2K. If judged by the certainty of the so-called experts, and the size of the gap between the predicted calamity and what actually transpired, Y2K clearly deserves recognition.
But compare Y2K to other predictions of doom. There can be no predicted calamity greater than the end of existence itself. A glance at Wikipedia’s article, “List of Dates Predicted for Apocalyptic Events,” includes 152 dates that have been predicted for the end of the world. And they haven’t been limited to freakish fringes of society. Standouts include Pope Sylvester II’s prediction that the world would end on January 1, 1000, Pope Innocent III’s that it would end 666 years after the rise of Islam, Martin Luther’s prediction that it would end no later than 1600, and Christopher Columbus’s that it would end in 1501. (When that year ended successfully, he revised his prediction to 1658, long after he’d be dead; he apparently didn’t want to be embarrassed again). Cotton Mather’s prediction of 1697 had to be amended twice. Jim Jones predicted the end in 1967 and Charles Manson 1969. My favorite on Wikipedia’s list dates from May 19, 1780, when “a combination of smoke from forest fires, a thick fog, and cloud cover” was taken by members of the Connecticut General Assembly as a sign that the end times had arrived. (It’s my favorite because it may help explain why the founding fathers saw no need for term limits.) But fully half of the Wikipedia list consists of predictions made since 1900. Over twenty-five have been since the Y2K blunder. The recent predictions include one from a recent Presidential candidate (Pat Robertson) who predicted the world would end in 2007. And though not yet included by Wikipedia, last month’s solar eclipse brought out yet more predictions of the end of the world – never mind that only a tiny fraction of the earth’s surface was in a position to notice it. (Would the world only end across a thin strip of North America?)
We can laugh at Christopher Columbus, but what of the fact that the list of doomsday prophecies continues to grow, despite how often the doomsayers have been wrong? Measured by the enormity of the subject matter and the apparent widespread lack of concern about being “twice bitten,” man’s fondness for predicting when the world will end as a result of some mystical interpretation of ancient texts strikes me as a bigger blunder than Y2K – and unlike Y2K, it shows no sign of going away.
A third nomination: “The earth is flat.” The archetypal human blunder. Months ago, while struggling to think of other blunders as egregious, I was led by Google to a Wikipedia article on “the flat earth myth,” which I assumed was exactly what I was looking for. But to my dismay, I read that the “flat earth myth” is not the old belief that the world was flat; rather, it is the current, widely-held belief that people in the Middle Ages believed the earth to be flat! I’d spent a lifetime feeling proudly superior to the ignorant medieval masses. Was it me, after all, who was wrong?
My discovery reminded me of the difficulty of ranking human error. The article asserted that throughout the Middle Ages, the “best minds of the day” knew the earth was not flat. The “myth” was created in the 17th Century, as part of a Protestant campaign against Catholic Church teachings, accelerated by the fictional assertion in Washington Irving’s popular biography of Christopher Columbus that members of the Spanish court questioned Columbus’s belief that the earth was round. Gershwin’s unforgettable, “They all laughed at Christopher Columbus…” etched the myth forever in our minds. The article quotes Stephen Jay Gould: “[A]ll major medieval scholars accepted the Earth’s roundness as an established fact of cosmology.” The blunder wasn’t a relic of the Middle Ages, but an error of current understanding based on a post-enlightenment piece of popular fiction!
Meanwhile, the Flat Earth Society lives on to this day. Their website, at theflatearthsociety.org, “offers a home to those wayward thinkers that march bravely on with REASON and TRUTH in recognizing the TRUE shape of the Earth – Flat. “ Most of them, I think, are dead serious. But wait. Which is the greater blunder: that of the medieval masses who saw their world as a patchwork of coastlines, rolling hillsides, mountains, valleys, and flat, grassy plains? Or that of the experts, the major scholars who “knew” in the Middle Ages that the earth was a sphere? The earth is not a sphere at all, we now know, but a squat, oblong shape that bulges around the equator because of the force of its spin. Or is that error, too? Need we mention that spheres don’t have mountains and valleys? Need we mention that the surface of the earth, at a sub-atomic level, is anything but curved? Aren’t all descriptions of the earth’s shape simply approximations? And if we can accept approximations on the basis that they serve a practical purpose, then is the observable general flatness of the earth today any more “wrong” than a medieval scholar’s belief in sphericity? Who really needs to know that the atoms forming the surface of the earth are really mostly air? The “wrongness” in our concepts of earth’s shape isn’t static, but evolving.
The oldest of the historical blunders nominated for WMBW’s top ten list have an ancient, scriptural flavor.
The first: “The number one thing that went wrong with humanity [was] when the first man said to another, ‘I think I heard god last night!’ and the other believed him.”**
The second comes from a different perspective: “The greatest blunder had to be Eve eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, having been tempted to be like God, deciding for herself what is good and what is evil. Every person [becomes] his own god. The hell of it is, everyone decides differently, and we’re left to fight it out amongst ourselves.”**
The other three nominators thought that Y2K, belief in a flat earth, and failure to impose term limits should be considered for a place somewhere on the top ten list. (Actually, Y2K’s sponsor only suggested it belonged somewhere in the top 20.) But the two “religious” nominations were each called the biggest blunder of all. (One was “the number one thing,” while the other “had to be” the greatest blunder.) What is it about belief in God that prompts proponents and opponents alike to consider the right belief so important, and holding the wrong one the single greatest blunder of all time?
If you believe in God, though He doesn’t exist, you’re in error, but I don’t see why that error qualifies as the greatest blunder of all time, even when millions suffer from the same delusion. I remember seeing an article in Science Magazine a few years ago, surveying the research that has attempted to determine whether believers tend to act more morally than non-believers. Most of the studies showed little or no difference in conduct between the two groups. For those who don’t believe in God, isn’t it one’s conduct, not one’s belief-system, that is the best measure of error? For them, why does belief even matter?
If you don’t believe in God, though He does exist, you face a different problem. If you believe as my mother did – that believing in God (not just any God, but the right God, in the right way) means you’ll spend eternity in Heaven rather than Hell – it’s easy to see why being wrong would matter to you. If roughly half the people in the world are headed to eternal damnation, that’s at least a problem bigger than term limits.
But there is a third alternative on the religious question. If you’ve looked at the WMBW Home Page or my Facebook profile, you may have noticed my description of my own religious views – “Other, really.” One of the main reasons for that description is pertinent to this question about the greatest blunders, so I will identify its relevant aspect here: “If God exists, He may care about what I do, but He’s not so vain as to care whether I believe in Him.” My point is not to advance my reasons for that belief here, simply to point out that it may shed light on why many rank error on the religious question so high on the list of all-time blunders, while I do not. Many believers, I think, believe it’s critically important to believe, so they try hard to get others to do so. Non-believers react, first by pointing to examples of believers who’ve been guilty of wrongdoing, and eventually by characterizing the beliefs themselves as the reason for the wrongdoing. In any case, the nominations concerned with religious beliefs were offered as clearly deserving the number one spot, while our “secular” nominations were put forward with less conviction about where on the list they belong — and that difference may have meaning, or not.
In my solicitation, I acknowledged the gray line between opinion and fact. To some believers, the terrible consequences of not heeding the Word of God have been proven again and again, as chronicled throughout the Hebrew Bible. To some non-believers, the terrible consequences of belief have been proven by the long list of wars and atrocities carried out in the name of Gods. Whichever side you take, the clash of opinions remains as strong as ever.
So, what do I make of it all? Only that I’d hoped for past, proven blunders which might remind us of our great capacity for error. Instead, I discover evidence of massive self-contradiction on the part of the current American electorate; a growing list of contemporaries who, as recently as last month, are willing to predict the imminent end of the world; my own blunder, unfairly dismissive of the past, fooled by a piece of Washington Irving fiction; and a world as divided as ever regarding the existence of God.
To this observer, what it all suggests is that there’s nothing unique about the ignorance of past ages; and that an awfully large chunk of modern humanity is not only wrong, but likely making what some future generation will decide are among the greatest blunders of all time.
Sic transit gloria mundi.
** I’ve done some editing of punctuation in both of these nominations: I apologize if I’ve thereby changed the submitter’s meaning.