Sunday, November 4, 2012

20 Misconceptions That People Still Believe

From radio hosts to teachers to text books to school kids to email forwards to motivational speakers. The same tried and true tales come out that are meant to prove a point - except many of them are completely wrong. These 20 cases are all common misconceptions that continue to be bandied about, despite having been proved wrong over and over - and no matter how many times we point them out, people still believe them.

20. Albert Einstein struggled at school
It’s a great myth told by many a parent of struggling child: “Johnny has trouble with math, but that’s okay, Albert Einstein failed it!” Look, there are many celebrities who floundered academically. Musicians and artists especially. Einstein? Einstein was a whiz at physics and mathematics from an early age, despite what Ripley’s Believe Or Not would have you believe. When asked about the claim, Einstein responded “I never failed in mathematics. Before I was fifteen I had mastered differential and integral calculus.” He was constantly beyond his classmates, and was generally an excellent student.

19. JFK said he was a donut
When talking to West Berlin during the Cold War, JFK announced with solidarity to the gathered crowds “Ich bin ein Berliner” - ”I am a Berliner”, a statement which was met with roaring and applause. However, in the wake of the speech an odd myth popped up: that they were laughing at JFK because he called himself a donut. See, there’s a German donut that’s known as a Berliner, and the argument is that his speech was grammatically wrong, and should have said Ich bin Berliner, and using ein made it sound like he was a donut. Which is completely off. Berliners don’t even call the donut that, they call them Pfannkuchen, and his grammar was fine. It’s just an attempt to pick apart an incredible speech.

18. Cops have to tell you they are one if you ask
File this under things to not believe if your dealer tells you them. A police officer does not have to tell you they are one if asked directly. Think about it for a second, what sense would that even make? So asking a hooker if she’s an undercover officer won’t stop you from being caught in that sting. If it did, there would be no such thing as a drug bust, as all undercover agents would be found out very easily. What entrapment actually is, is when they get you to commit a crime you wouldn’t do normally. Like saying “hey kid, break this window!” and then arresting you for it. That’s entrapment.

17. The flavor map
“No, see, you can only taste flavors with certain parts of your tongue, so if it’s too bitter, just taste it with the tip!” The whole flavor map of the tongue thing? Complete BS. There are no areas of the tongue that only taste certain things, and this map misses out the deliciousness of the fifth taste type - umami. Every part of the tongue tastes every type of flavor. This misbelief sprung up from a mistranslated German article from 1901, and has been conclusively disproven since at least 1974 - yet you still see it bandied about constantly - especially by wine drinkers.

16. Searing seals in the juices for a better steak
Searing makes for badass steaks. I’m not going to even question that. Short bursts of extreme heat create delicious crunchy outer layer - but there’s a much repeated belief that it somehow “seals in the juices” creating better, softer, moister meat. Wait, you think that searing a steak magically makes it impermeable? No, what actually happens is that the Maillard reaction creates the brown crust which is just really delicious, and makes it taste better. That’s it.

15. You can’t microwave metal
If you can’t microwave metal, why do some of them have metal trays inside? Metal isn’t inherently bad for microwave ovens, it’s just insanely dangerous in some forms. In general, it’s better to completely avoid it, but if you understand what’s going on there are ways. The trick is that you need to prevent arcing in the metal, which are the lighting bolts that shoot around and blow stuff up - something usually associated with metal coming to a very sharp point. That’s why fork tines are especially bad. You can buy metal objects specifically designed to be microwave friendly.

14. Science can’t explain how Bumblebees fly
This gets busted out every time someone tries to shill some crappy psuedo-science, quantum entangled, homeopathic remedy for anything. “But, but,” they cry “science can’t explain how bumblebees fly!” Which is completely wrong, and scientists have been able to accurately and completely describe the methods for decades. The story originates in the 1930s, where a book used the fact that then current theories couldn’t account for the aerodynamics of some insects as a way to show that more research was needed. We’ve known how they fly for decades, and it’s not even vaguely a mystery anymore. Short answer? They fly like helicopters, they have “reverse-pitch semirotary helicopter blades” for wings.

13. Daddy longlegs are the most poisonous spiders
Here’s how the myth goes, as repeated by schoolkids and lazy radio hosts the world over: daddy longlegs are the most poisonous spiders in the world, but their teeth and jaws are so small that they can’t pierce human skin, so you’re perfectly safe. There are a bunch of problems with this one. Firstly, there’s no “daddy longlegs” species. Different bugs are called this all over the world. The most common is probably Pholcus phalangioides, which can bite you, and will leave a little burning sensation for just a couple of seconds, as it is venomous. There are even non-spider insects who share this name and are tarred with the same rumor.

12. Glass is a liquid
If you’ve ever been to a really old building and noticed how the glass in windows is warped and wobbly, one of the common explanations is that glass is actually a super-viscous liquid, and over the course of hundreds of years, it has drooped in its frame, and if given enough time it will pool on the ground. Which is nothing but bullshit. Glass is an amorphous solid. The reason that old glass is thicker at the bottom than the top? Early manufacturing was imperfect, so the panes tended to be larger on one side than the other. Installing this larger side on the bottom of the frame is more stable than putting it at the top, so that’s how it was generally done.

11. You need eight glasses of water a day
A myth that the peddlers of bottled water would love to have us believe. The fact is, we don’t need eight glasses of water a day. This is a misunderstanding of an old piece of research that said we need eight glasses of fluid a day, and that it can come from water, or any liquid (including juice, coffee and sodas) and from food, too. Our body is incredibly adept at absorbing liquid from everything we consume, not just water, and everything we ingest will help keep us hydrated. Even though coffee makes you pee, you still absorb more than you lose. Just drink when you’re thirsty, and you’ll be fine.

10. Sugar makes kids hyper
Feeding your kids sugar doesn’t make them hyper, them being kids makes them hyper. There’s no evidence whatsoever that there’s a link between sugar and hyperactivity. Through double blind studies - even of kids with ADHD or “sugar sensitivity” - it’s impossible to tell the difference between those with a sugary diet and those with none. The more likely culprit is that events that tend to have lots of sugar are also ones where kids are more likely to get really excited - carnivals, birthday parties, Halloween and the like. Kids are just spazzes like that.

9. Homosexuality is unnatural
It always pisses me off when people describe being gay as “unnatural.” Unnatural? If it’s unnatural, why is it incredibly common in the animal kingdom? Here’s a partial list of just some - SOME - of the animals which exhibit same sex attraction/mating/cuddling/whatever. Bears, giraffes, elephants, rats, lions, cats, cheetahs, dolphins, dogs, chicken, emu, penguins, frogs, lizards, rattlesnakes, black swans, gulls, ibises, vultures, pigeons, bonobos, sheep, macaques, and so on and so forth. There are plenty more, and I haven’t even got into insects. If you don’t like gay people, that’s on you. Just don’t try and blame it as being “unnatural” when nature is full of it.

8. If you drop a penny from the Empire State Building, it’ll kill anyone it hits
A penny dropped from the top of the Empire State Building will reach its terminal velocity of around 30-50 MPH as it descends, and as it weighs just a single gram, it will definitely not have enough power to do any damage. Yeah, it might sting a bit, or even leave a bit of a welt, but I doubt it would do anything more permanent than a nasty bruise and an awesome story. A roll of pennies, on the other hand, would have a much higher terminal velocity, and with a significantly greater mass would probably do some real damage.

7. Aeroplanes generate lift due to “equal transit time”
This is one that actually is in many textbooks, and a prime example of why you should trust wikipedia for everything. Yes, everything. Even that. The wrong explanation is that the wings of an aeroplane have more surface area on the top than the bottom, but that the air takes the same amount of time to cover both, so this generates a pressure differential and then lift. Why it actually works is remarkably complex, but part of it is easy to demonstrate. Next time you’re in a car, stick your hand out the window. Tilt your hand to 45°, palm facing down/the direction you’re travelling. The force of the air pushing against your palm will generate lift, forcing your hand skyward. Holy shit, you just disproved a textbook!

6. NASA spent millions inventing the space pen, while Russians used pencils
The story goes a little like this. NASA astronauts found their pens wouldn’t work in space, having trouble getting the ink to the tip in microgravity. So they spent years and billions of dollars developing the space pen. The Russians used pencils. It’s also completely false in every aspect of the story. The Fisher Space Pen with its pressurized ink canister was developed privately, and then sold to Russia and NASA. Prior to that, both sides used pencils and grease pencils to write, but pencils are actually a horrible idea in 0g. Broken off bits of graphite and shavings of wood can float away, lodge inside of electronics, start fires, and destroy missions. Using space pens has probably saved lives and billions of dollars. It’s not a story of government overspending.

5. Thomas Crapper invented the flush toilet
Humans have been shitting in holes for their entire existence, but the invention of the flush toilet changed all that. As any schoolkid knows, Thomas Crapper invented the flush toilet, so saying crapper isn’t a bad word, so I shouldn’t get into trouble! Unfortunately, he didn’t. The flush toilet was invented by Sir John Harrington in 1596. Crapper did make it better, though. Nor was his name the reason crap was used as a word for feces, that was older too. Sorry kids, saying crap is still a bad word.

4. Napoleon was short
The popular image of Napolean is that of a belligerent midget, yelling orders to offset his perceived inferiority for being so damned short. Which is nonsense. Napoleon was 5 foot 2 inches - in French feet. That’s a measure substantially larger than current ones. By current measurements, he would be 5 feet 6.5 inches, or 1.686 metres. While a bit on the small side by current views, in the 1700s that was pretty normal. This misconceptions comes from the affectionate nickname “the Little Corporal”, assumed to come from his closeness with his troops.

3. You can see the Great Wall of China from the moon
Another misconception that seems to never die is the oft cited fact that the Great Wall Of China is visible from the moon/space. Even as a kid I knew this made no sense, and I can’t believe people still think it. The wall is only 10 meters wide at its thickest point. If we could see 10 meter resolution from the moon, every building on the planet would be visible. In fact, there are no man-made objects visible from the surface of the moon, though the lights from cities are plain to see. For comparison, to see the wall from the Moon, you’d need to be able to see an individual human hair, two miles away. Objects have to be at least 70 miles wide to be seen unaided from the Moon.

2. Christopher Colombus’s contemporaries thought the world was flat
The popular myth told to children is that Columbus had trouble raising funds for his trip west because his contemporaries believed the world was flat, and that he would sail off the edge. That’s ludicrous. The real reason he had trouble was because he was a moron on a suicide mission that just happened to hit land. We’ve known the Earth was round since Ancient Greece, and have had a pretty good estimate of its size since about then. Every sailor in the world knew it, just from sailing out far enough that the curvature of the Earth was visible. Columbus stupidly believed that the Earth was much smaller than it actually was, and that by sailing west from Europe he could circle the globe and hit India, thus saving the long overground treck. His numbers were completely wrong, and if he hadn’t lucked into landing on another continent, his entire fleet would have died.

1. We only use 10% of our brains
What? Just…what? How does this make sense? Why would we have these horrible lumps of grey flesh in our heads if we didn’t use them? Our brains make human birthing one of the hardest in the animal kingdom. It’s the reason we give birth to our babies far more prematurely than most other animals, and have to rear them for years before they can even walk - because if they developed any more in the womb, their heads would be too big for birth. The fact that we’ve had relatively accurate brain maps for decades should prove this fact wrong. How in the world would it make sense that we use less than the entire thing - barring brain injury? Sorry Tony Robbins, we don’t have 90% of our brain’s power left to unlock.

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