Twelve Things Your Friends Might Believe But You Should Not
There are an uncountable number of myths, urban legends, and misconceptions that many people "know" are true. Common sense might even back them up, and if your mother said it was true, why doubt her?
Being a skeptic means going beyond acceptance of "common knowledge" and looking into the actual evidence. I've put together a list of twelve commonly-held beliefs that aren't backed up by the evidence. Make sure you pass them on to your more credulous friends.
- There was no War of the Worlds mass panic. Orson Welles' entertaining radio tale of an alien invasion was reported by many media outlets as causing riots, suicides, and a public fearing for its safety. Instead, almost no one heard the show, and of those who did, most were not fooled into believing it was an actual situation. While there are some anecdotal accounts claiming that, in some isolated locales, police and media phone banks saw an increase in volume during the program, there is no significant evidence to believe that the media hype of mass panic was real.
- US President John F. Kennedy did not claim to be a jelly doughnut in Berlin. The term Berliner was a common word for a jelly doughnut, and when Kennedy used the indefinite article ein, some claimed that his phrase stated that he was a popular breakfast item. However, Kennedy's phrase, "Ich bin ein Berliner," was exactly correct and, in the figurative sense of his statement, clearly stated what he meant.
- Ostriches do not stick their heads in the sand. Everyone knows this imagery, often used to demonstrate the futility of trying to hide or avoid a problem. Unfortunately, this myth-which-passes-as-truth has not been observed in nature. Instead, the idea that ostriches hide their heads in holes likely comes from a sentence in Pliny the Elder's writing that stated "...they imagine, when they have thrust their head and neck into a bush, that the whole of their body is concealed."
- Houseflies do not have a 24-hour lifespan. Though they certainly don't live to be what we would consider a ripe old age, the common housefly enjoys 15-30 times the longevity that this myth states. Perhaps the misconception is based on studies done in households possessing flyswatters, leading to early deaths for those so "studied." Which leads into the next myth...
- People did not commonly expect to die in their 30s in the last few hundred years. This myth is widespread and feeds all sorts of moral and cultural relativistic arguments. The problem is the confusion between life expectancy at birth and life expectancy after a certain age. The reduction in infant and childhood mortality has significantly changed life expectancy statistics toward older ages. However, once a person reaches, say, the age of five, or ten, life expectancy immediately rises into the 50s or 60s. Much of the improvement in life expectancy is due to reducing early deaths, not in substantially prolonging the lives of those who survive childhood.
- Chewing Gum does not stay in your stomach for seven years. If you've ever chewed your gum to a tough, rubbery finish, it is easy to imagine that it was too tough to break down inside your stomach. Your digestive juices have no such lack of imagination, however, and the flavorless rubber mass you just swallowed will be out of your system in just a few days.
- Blondes (and redheads) are not becoming extinct. Despite the common wisdom that says that these recessive genes are being passed down less and less over the generations, there is no evidence of this happening in a way leading to the disappearance of those characteristics. As with other recessive genes, the prevalence may be reduced over time with selective pressure, but to date, any claims of such an effect on blonde and red hair are likely more hoax than science.
- There are more than five senses. This myth is a bit more nuanced in that there isn't a consensus on what exactly constitutes a stand-alone sense. However, there are clearly several which don't fit into the Aristotolian-named and well-known five, including a sense of balance, acceleration, pain, heat and cold sensitivity. How about the sensing of the passage of time? While not all of these 'sixth senses' might be well-agreed upon, it is clear that the five senses we all know do not cover all the ways our body can receive information about the world around us. Which seques into...
- Your tongue can detect more than four flavors. Many people have never heard of the flavor profile known as "umami" but most everyone has experienced it when eating cooked meat or soy sauce. Umami is a term that came out of Japan to classify the experience of eating foods that contain glutamates which break down during cooking, fermenting, or ripening. The next time you take a bit of a ripe tomato, a succulent prawn, or rich seaweed, you're tasting the savory profile that is umami playing across your tongue. Speaking of tongues...
- Taste buds for salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami are not grouped on your tongue. The iconic map of the tongue has likely been shown to everyone in the US at some point, clearly demarking the four regions of taste profiles, broken up to be clearly seen as separated. The truth is that the receptors on your tongue can change shape and respond to all the flavor profiles. Some people are more sensitive to certain flavors in certain groups of receptors, but in general, the abiity to taste salt (and the other flavors) is distributed fairly evenly across your tongue.
- Being sucked into space will not cause you to explode. It also will not boil your blood. Despite this common misconception, frequently used in science fiction movies and books, your body is perfectly capable of staying in one piece while you quickly become unconscious and die, alone in the emptiness of space. Wait, did I say space is empty, because...
- Space is not empty. There are multitudes of particles of mass and energy out there in the gaps between things big enough to measure. Radiation, subatomic particles, even hydrogen atoms, and that list doesn't include the extraordinarily short-lived things called virtual particles. The next time you're travelling through the space between stars, fret not: You're not really alone.