Twelve More Things Your Friends Believe But You Should Not

Following the first post called Twelve Things Your Friends Might Believe But You Should Not, here are twelve more tidbits that refute what many believe is "common knowledge."

  1. The bra was not invented by a man named Titzling. Despite the delicious tempting irony that the name of an inventor should so wonderfully match his invention, this myth originated in a satirical book by Wallace Reyburn called Bust-up: The Uplifting Tale of Otto Titzling and the Development of the Bra. The true origins of the bra are a little less certain given that breast-supporting garments have been around for centuries. The first patent identified as a brassiere was granted in 1913 by Mary Phelps Jacob, though earlier versions of the idea had been around for some time.
  2. The Great Wall of China is not the only man-made structure visible from space by the naked eyeThis claim is wrong for several reasons. "Space" is largely open to interpretation, but typically means "from orbit." Astronaut Jay Apt makes clear that the Great Wall is barely visible, if at all, from an orbiting shuttle, though other objects, such as roads and airport runways, are sometimes visible. Additionally, cities and other large composite structures can easily be seen, including the Almeria greenhouse complex and the Kennecott Copper Mine.
  3. Alcohol does not kill brain cells. Despite the prevailing wisdom that drinking alcohol can destroy neurons in the brain, scientific studies have found little to support this claim. While alcohol certainly affects brain chemistry, especially under the influence of moderate to heavy amounts, the reports of the death of brain cells has been greatly exaggerated. Alcohol can affect the dendrites at the end of neurons, though, which alters the way the neurons communicate. Alcoholics can develop Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome which can destroy neurons, but this condition is caused by a deficiency in thiamine, not the direct effects of alcohol on the brain. Speaking of brains...
  4. You do not use only 10% of your brain. This surprisingly widespread myth has its roots (perhaps) in a wide variety of explanations and has been egged on by the recent movie Lucy, but the science behind the utilization of the brain offers no evidence that this claim holds water. Brain scans show that all areas of the brain are active at some point, some more than others, and what is being utilized depends greatly on what you are doing. Evolution tends to disfavor producing organs which are significantly beyond utilization advantages, and there is no reason to suspect that 90% of our brain just sits there, waiting to be discovered as the seat of ESP, telekinesis, or any of the many other claimed 'powers' which are said to exist in the idle neurons.
  5. There are not more humans alive today than have ever died. This idea depends a lot on how you define "human" and how long you think we've been around. Assuming that modern humans have been around at least 40,000 years, estimates put the number of dead humans in the tens of billions, perhaps in the 60 billion range, an order of magnitude more than the Earth's current population. That's a lot of seeing dead people. You'd think there would be ghosts everywhere with that many departed underfoot, which leads us to...
  6. Ghosts do not cause flashlights to turn on and off. Setting aside a moment whether or not there are ghosts, the well-known "evidence" found often on ghost tours is that such spirits can communicate by turning on and off a flashlight. This feat is explained by tour guides as a way to tell if a ghost is present and wants to talk. However, the effect of a flashlight turning on and off without human intervention is a well-understood result of the physics of specific flashlight designs. Heating and cooling elements in the flashlight can cause it to cycle for long periods of time without being touched. How about one more about ghosts...
  7. There was not a ghost in the movie Three Man and a Baby. The early-Internet grapevine went nuts around 1990 when someone discovered in one scene what was claimed to be a ghost of a young boy who had died in the house sometime before. Naturally, this "proved" that ghosts existed... until skeptics pointed out that the "spirit" in the scene had a much more reasonable explanation. What looked like a ghostly boy was instead a cardboard cutout of one of the film's stars, Ted Danson. The prop was to be part of a minor plot line in the movie but was cut out at some point. 
  8. Dropping a coin from a skyscraper cannot kill someone. The basic myth goes like this: drop a penny (or, sometimes, larger coins) from the Empire State Building and the resulting fall could strike a pedestrian and kill her. This, however, defies the laws of physics, ignoring the concept of terminal velocity. In a vacuum, it might be possible to kill someone from such a drop, but coins dropped under normal conditions accelerate only to a point which is well under that needed to create enough force to do significant damage. Certainly, it might leave a welt or a bruise, and perhaps an extreme case where someone gets hit in a particularly vulnerable soft spot it might be possible to cause serious damage, but this myth fails the tests of freshman-level Physics under all but the most unusual of circumstances.
  9. Lightning can strike the same place twiceThis misunderstanding can leave someone feeling safe when darting under the cover of a recently-struck tree, but the truth is that whatever conditions led the lightning bolt to "choose" to strike a particular place could lead to a second strike as well. This is well documented on buildings and natural objects both, and the installation of lightning rods can demonstrate this multiple-strike effect quite easily. 
  10. Vikings probably did not wear horns on their helmets. We've all seen the ferocious headgear of the Viking hoards, curving, solid horns rising menacingly from the top of helms. Even the NFL's Minnesota Vikings features the display on their emblem. No evidence exists that the Norse warriors had such decoration on their skull protection. This myth may date back to Wagner's "Der Ring des Nibelungen" in 1876 where a costume designer produced horned helmets for the Viking characters. While there is some scant evidence of other cultures wearing horns or other animal decorations on their helmets, there appears to be no proof that the Vikings were one of those groups. On the subject of other things that didn't happen in history...
  11. Columbus and his contemporaries did not believe the world was flat. Despite the romantic idea that Columbus sailed over the ocean blue to find that he lived on a sphere rather than a plane, the explorer certainly was well aware of the shape of the planet when he left. As long ago as the days of Ancient Greece there were many who had already determined the size of the sphere within a reasonable margin, and navigators had known about the spherical shape of the oceans for centuries. While it is possible that uneducated folks held flat-earth beliefs, certainly no ocean-faring ship's captain had any such misconception.
  12. Napoleon Bonaparte was not particularly short for his time. This myth is so prevalent, there's even a complex named in its honor. Even during his own time, he was called the "Little Corporal" which may have contributed to the misperception, along with enemy propaganda. The French commander likely stood between 5'5 and 5'7, a perfectly normal height for a man in France during that era. Some of the confusion came from the difference between British inches and French inches. By French standards, Napoleon's height was around 5'2 which easily confused those unaware of the longer French units.

Suncoast Skeptics Speaker Series #1: The 'Evolution' of the Creationist Agenda

Our first Speakers Series event took place today at Selby Library and was an educational look at the attempts to thrust creationism and intelligent design into public classrooms. The video is below. We'll add notes and references very soon. Please let us know if you enjoy this talk and what subjects you would like to see in the future. Thanks again to Tyne Hopkins Venzeio for her time and efforts on this! 

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.

  1. There was no War of the Worlds mass panicOrson 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. 
  2. 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.
  3. 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." 
  4. 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...
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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...
  9. 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...
  10. Taste buds for salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami are not grouped on your tongueThe 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.
  11. 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...
  12. 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.

A Flood of Millions of Years

As part of my preparation for being on the Stratosphere Sarasota radio program last Wednesday, I brushed up on common arguments from creationists. The topic was to come up in the context of education, and though we didn't talk much about the details and descriptions of creationism, it helped to have their arguments straight before going on. 

And this ties in nicely with our first Suncoast Skeptics Speaker Series event on creationism in the classroom, which I hope you'll all attend on August 16, 2014, 1:30pm, in the Geldbart Auditorium at Selby Library in downtown Sarasota. 

MissMandiMae's blog post on the history of the Grand Canyon made me look more deeply into the creationist view. First, Mandi's thoughts:

Now, fast forward to only 5.5 million years ago. the Colorado River begins to form and flow. According to a theory formulated by geologist John Douglass, the river flowed and then pooled into an area, which is now referred to a Lake Bidahochi. This lake was larger than Lake Michigan in size and spanned over 20,000 square miles. This lake butted right up against the raised plateau of rock raised from the collision. The force of the water still pouring into the lake pushed until it began to pour up onto the plateau. It was this incredible outpouring of an expansive lake, and not just a river that carved what we see today.

The scientific consensus on the formation of the Grand Canyon provides an intriguing scenario, one which throws into question our ability to comprehend the scales of time and attrition involved. Five and a half million years isn't something we can understand. It's too long, makes no sense to creatures that live only a few decades. The raw power of water moving against rock causing erosion over that time frame is immense, likely several orders of magnitude beyond what we experience in our own lives. Creationists seize on that natural reaction to insist that a timeframe of thousands of years, a range more comfortable in our daily lives, is the only answer. 

But the theory that the Grand Canyon was carved out over millions of years is not only plausible, it's supported by uranium-lead dating, the Law of Superposition, and paleontological finds. (Side note, there is controversy over the age of the Canyon, a subject I may tackle in a followup post. What is not in question is that the formation is millions of years old, not thousands.) If it was a flood, in the most generous sense, it was one which lasted millions of years.

The creationist argument goes something like... well, there isn't one cohesive argument, really. The basic premise is always that the Biblical flood created the Grand Canyon and it didn't take millions of years. There are several 'gish-gallop' style talking points that are typically ignorant (willfully or otherwise) of the actual science. Here are a few, like the Mount St. Helens analogy:

The Grand Canyon was not laid down slowly then etched out over the course of myth-ions and myth-ions of years. Rather it was carved so rapidly that the sediment was not deposited in a delta downstream. Buy a map and take a look. No river delta. The Grand Canyon was mostly carved quickly shortly after the Great Flood in a similar fashion to the "mini-grand-canyon" on the north side of Mount St. Helens. 

Naturally, science disagrees:

When Mount St. Helens erupted, one side of the caldera was blown out, and the resulting rush of water from melted snow, plus the blast of hot ash, carved out 300 feet of recently laid loose ash and sediment. area.

How about this argument?

Flowing rivers or streams, even if they meandered for millions of years, would not uniformly sweep 1,000 feet or more of material off almost all of these 10,000 square miles of the fairly flat Kaibab Limestone. Besides, meandering rivers would produce meandering patterns. Therefore, before you can excavate 800 cubic miles of rock below the rim to form the Grand Canyon, something must sweep off almost all the Mesozoic rock above—a much larger excavation project.

Note the juxtaposition of "uniformly" and "almost all." By what I know as the common usage of "uniformly," the Grand Canyon is no such thing. If by "uniformly," the author means the effect I'd expect from water erosion over millions of years, then I suppose we could agree it is. Note the lack of sources which support these claims, which tie into the 'No Delta Hypothesis.' 

Later in that same source:

Fossils are found only in the layers above an almost perfectly horizontal plane named the Great Unconformity. In the Grand Canyon, it lies about 4,000 feet below the rim and is exposed above the Colorado River for 66 miles. Above the Great Unconformity the layers are all sedimentary and almost always horizontal; below the Great Unconformity lie either basement rock or thick, steep (10°–20° slope) sedimentary layers with no fossils.

Again, this idea runs counter to a great many scientific arguments, including this one:

Stephen Meyer pointed out in response to the questioner that the "Great Unconformity" may be "worldwide" in the sense that it's found in many parts of the world. But that doesn't mean it's found everywhere. As Meyer explained, the Great Unconformity cannot be universal, otherwise we wouldn't have strata from the Ediacaran period, and we wouldn't know about Ediacaran-age fossils, such as the Precambrian sponge embryos...

The problem, of course, with this creationist argument is that it ignores what it doesn't want to acknowledge, in this case, that fossils are found older than this Unconformity, even if not in the Grand Canyon itself. If the claim is that the presence of fossils above but not below the cutoff means that a catastrophic even occurred to lay down the bones, how does one explain the Precambrian fossils we find elsewhere in the world? Geographic features are often unique, and the Grand Canyon is no different. We don't find a 'lack' of fossils below this layer in other locations, and those, as in this case, are not addressed in this one talking point.

I get tired of doing the Googling for these people. There are many more of these talking points. I saw them on signs when I went to the Creation Museum in 2009, describing, in all seriousness, the 'proof' of a flood-originating Canyon. I've seen them on blog posts, comments on videos, in debates. The problem is always a lack of understanding about the science behind the structure. The Grand Canyon's evidence points strongly toward a long-period erosion on the scale of millions of years. Each time I find a new creationist argument, it takes only a few minutes to find a scientifically-plausible explanation that doesn't require a magic critter punishing his sinners.

Ludicrous Speed: The Hollowness of the Hollow Earth Hypothesis

You know what the original Hollow Earth Hypothesis (HEH) claims about the Earth, even if you don't realize it. Remember the fundamental feature from Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth and you'll have an idea. The basic premise is that inside the planet there is a significant 'hollow' portion, a donut hole of sorts. Basic science has found significant contrary evidence for the idea for hundreds of years, especially in sesmology and gravity measurements. The Jules Verne version of this theory holds no water, so to speak, but, ironically, it is water found deep in the Earth that led me to write this post. You may have seen something about it when this news item made the rounds:

Four hundred miles beneath North America, Schmandt and Jacobsen found deep pockets of magma, which indicates the presence of water. However, this isn’t water in any of the three forms we are familiar with. The pressure coupled with the high temperatures forces the water to split into a hydroxyl radical (OH) which is then able to combine with the minerals on a molecular level.

This water, which is bound up in rock, could indicate the largest water reservoir on the planet. It is believed that plate tectonics cycle the water in and out, and the water affects the partial melting of rock in the mantle.

Dubbed a 'new ocean,' researchers have found evidence that large volumes of water are inside the planet, locked away in rock four-hundred miles beneath the United States. An amazing discovery, assuming that further research confirms the finding, and not all-together a surprising one, as some theoriests have long-speculated that such a find would happen. It lends credence to the hypothesis that water didn't solely arrive from comets but could have been present already when the planet formed around 4.5 billions years ago.

Regardless, I read articles on the discovery in June, chalked it up to 'interesting if confirmed,' and thought little more about it. Then on Facebook, I spotted an article posted by a casual friend detailing the finding, the website being Red flag:

A reservoir of water three times the volume of all the oceans has been discovered deep beneath the Earth’s surface. The finding may explain where Earth’s seas came from, and lend some interesting evidence to the Hollow Earth Theory.

Back up. Wait, what? Wouldn't the presence of something inside the Earth do a lot to provide evidence contrary to the HEH? I checked the link to the site's earlier post on the HEH, and to my surprise, the article's author has significantly redefined the hypothesis:

It’s unlikely that the earth is physically hollow – and by that I mean 3rd Dimensionally Hollow.

Ugh. Ok... go on...

... Now, what if there was a frequency or dimension that was almost invisible to us, at least with our current technology and awareness – and one that functioned almost as an inner earth. A space where the laws of physics as we know them don’t function the same. A place where the basic laws of gravity and practically everything was just a little bit different. At least enough to create a different representation of the consciousness that exists inside the planet.

So a 'Hollow Earth' has now been shifted from a physical, "3rd Dimensionally Hollow" (the Jules Verne version) to one "where the laws of physics as we know them don't function the same," altered in a way that can "create a different representation of the consciousness..." blah blah... sorry, you lost me at "3rd Dimensionally Hollow."

To summarize what Spirit Science is claiming: the discovery of a non-hollow Earth (by way of a massive volume of crystalline rock water) has provided evidence for the idea that the laws of physics are different in the middle of the planet and therefore, "hollow" in some dimension other than the normally reliable ones we know and love. 

Got it? Physics, as we understand the laws thereof, was used to detect the presence of a substance which suggests that the laws of physics don't apply to what we detected. 

Please pass the aspirin...

Some 'theorists' take the Hollow Earth idea even further, suggesting that there is more of a Dyson Sphere structure going on, where the crust covers an 'inner world' where there is no weather, no plate tectonics, and (hopefully), no Justin Beiber. Even stranger are the "concave hollow Earth" ideas which suggest that the surface of the planet is the "interior" and the universe is "inside" the spherical world. Seriously.

If you want the "Ludicrous Speed" version of a Hollow Earth, wrapped deliciously into conspiracy theories involving governments, churches, and the illuminati, and where a "complete understanding needs a fully opened mind, power of conception, and spiritual abilities" (as well as the ability to read past typos), check out the video below:

If you want more information about the Jules Verne version of the Hollow Earth, the Wikipedia article is an excellent place to start.

If you want to save yourself ten minutes of shaking your head and prefer to learn more about the consensus of planetary scientists regarding the structure of the planet, check out this video: