Since the Trump election, we have woken up to the prevalence and danger of fake news in America. Carefully designed to warp public opinion and spread by social media using high tech analytics, it has become a major threat to our democracy. Huge segments of the population no longer trust in expert opinion, even in logic. But this problem isn’t really new.
At least, the supplanting of myth for fact isn’t new. The classic example is the Medieval return to the notion that the earth is flat, thousands of years after the Greeks’ discovery that it is a sphere. The story of a renewed belief in its flatness—and of Columbus’s arguing against the ignorance of his age–is, however, also a myth. (If it interests you, you can follow it on the related blog post, the flat earth myth’s appeal.)
Even our image of Atlas holding up the earth is false. In fact, Atlas was forced by Zeus to hold up the sky, not the earth. The 2nd century Farnese statue, in which the nighttime celestial globe–covered with the constellations–seems to be solid, which may have contributed to the confusion.
So, how did false beliefs historically come to be taken as the truth—by everyone? The most obvious way for basic information to get lost is of course with the fall of civilizations: whole cities get lost, let alone their accumulative knowledge. In the case of the fall of Rome, great libraries were burned and scrolls were buried for so many centuries that knowledge of even their existence was lost. In the example of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World, the notion of the 7 Wonders remained alive, but the list itself was lost until searched out by two artists. (More on this: How two artists 200 years apart rediscovered the lost Wonders.)
Other information–often readily available–comes and goes with cultural prejudice. Take the existence and function of the clitoris, for example. For 2000 years, Ancient Greeks scholars viewed the penis and clitoris as functionally equivalent in all aspects, but this knowledge was lost until rediscovered by male physicians. In fact, the organ itself was discovered and rediscovered repeatedly over the centuries. With half the human population in a good position to attest to the organ’s existence and function, one can only assume that cultural views of gender and sexuality were to blame.
The perpetuation of such ignorance only requires that the people in possession of the information not be asked, usually due to their demeaned social position. Consider the pre-Columbian Indians, who had been worshipping at the ruined cities of their ancestors for centuries but were never asked what they knew about the builders, when Europeans “discovered” the sites. Instead the explorers–blind even to the physical resemblance of the Indians to Mesoamerican carving and painting– attributed the construction of the cities to Egyptians (who had made pyramids) or even to men from outer space.
In more recent times, biologists constructed elaborate experiments to discover the wintering over sites of the Monarch butterflies but never canvassed the local people of Central Mexico, who certainly could not have failed to notice the annual arrival of millions of butterflies and, in fact, had mythologized them as the returning souls of the dead since pre-Columbian times. (More on this at: The Bugs and Us.)