Friday, October 10, 2014


cover story

Exposing common misconceptions, one myth at a time

“Don’t believe everything you hear,” says an old adage, and that just might be the best advice you’ll ever get. With the (both intentional and unintentional) prevalence of misinformation around us, many of the things that make their way to our eyes and ears aren’t rooted in reality. Accounts are misrelated, facts are manipulated, data is misquoted, and sometimes incidents play a game of Chinese whisper before they make their way to our ears, getting distorted along the way. All too often, the truth is the casualty.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that there are many commonly held myths and beliefs that simply aren’t true, but since they have been relayed to us repeatedly, we haven’t stopped to challenge them.

Here’s a look at some such misconceptions. Brace yourself, and delve right in.

Human beings use only ten percent of their brains
Possibly just those who still believe this myth. The tagline for Luc Besson’s new film Lucy reads, “The average person uses 10% of their brain capacity. Imagine what she could do with 100%.” Gee, I don’t know, maybe she could point out how ridiculous the premise of this movie is? The undisputed fact is that large portions of our brain do not remain unused. The brain is a complex organ, and any injury or disease that causes damage to even a relatively small part (let alone 90%) of it can have devastating effects on a person’s wellbeing. To perform the many functions we continuously do to survive, all parts of the brain are active during the course of a day, with certain areas more active than others depending on our actions. So while the notion of harnessing our 90% unused mental potential may sound promising, it is entirely unreal.

There is blue blood in veins
Au contraire. That is nothing but a myth. Have you ever seen blue blood? No? That’s because there is no such thing. Human blood is always red, although its shades may vary. Oxygenated (arterial) blood is bright red, while deoxygenated (venous) blood is dark red. But if you try to spot your veins on, for instance, your hands or wrists, their colour might confuse you. If blood is red, then why exactly are veins blue? Well, they aren’t. They just appear to be because of light diffusion and perception. Only blue light penetrates the skin all the way to the veins, so this is the colour that is reflected back. Mystery solved!

Lemmings are suicidal
Hold the Prozac – the lemmings would like to tell you that they’re doing just fine, but thanks for your concern. The small furry creatures are best known for committing mass suicide, but, despite what Walt Disney wants you to believe, the rodents don’t jump off cliffs to embrace death en masse. A rise in population density sometimes forces groups to migrate, and during the process many might drown when the waters they traverse test their physical capabilities; while they can swim, exhaustion may strike if they try to cross large bodies of water. The suicidal behaviour that is depicted in the 1958 Disney documentary White Wilderness was staged, and the fabricated scenes perpetuated the myth that has no basis in actual lemming behaviour.

The Great Wall of China is visible from outer space
Only if you have a powerful telescope. The Great Wall of China is often cited as the only man-made object visible with the unaided eye from space, but that isn’t accurate. It is very hard to see (and even harder to distinguish) the Great Wall from Low Earth Orbit with the naked eye, a task made even more difficult by the fact that it is the same colour and texture as the area surrounding it. And the Wall definitely isn’t visible from the Moon, as is often claimed. It is estimated that a viewer would need to have 17,000 times better vision than normal to see the Wall from the Moon.

Strawberries are berries
It’s right there in the name: strawBERRY. And it’s a fallacy. Yes, that’s right, strawberries are liars. A berry is “a fruit produced from a single flower and containing one ovary”. A strawberry, on the other hand, forms from a flower that has many ovaries, and is an “aggregate accessory fruit”, which means its fleshy part is derived from the receptacle that holds the ovaries and the aggregates merge into a single fruit. So what are some actual berries? Grapes, avocados, bananas, tomatoes, and watermelons! Who knew?

Sitting close to a television is dangerous for your health
Only if you’re still using a 1960s General Electric television, in which case you probably have bigger problems than this myth! According to Live Science, in the late ‘60s, GE sold a batch of faulty TV sets that emitted as much as 100,000 times more radiation than is considered safe. Sitting a few feet away from these units and restricting viewing to an hour or so minimised the adverse effects of the x-ray emissions, and the defective units were promptly recalled and repaired. But the myth lingered on, with people perpetually suspicious of the effects this radiation was having on their health and especially eyesight. Cathode ray tube TVs emitted low levels of x-ray radiation that was not dangerous for viewers, and modern LCD and plasma screens don’t give off any radiation at all. Concentrating on any screen for hours can, however, cause eyestrain, so don’t forget to blink!

Different parts of the tongue exclusively sense different tastes
Not true. All regions of the tongue sense all taste sensations, although different parts are more sensitive to certain tastes and can better detect certain flavours. So what’s with the tongue map then? It was a theory from the early 1900s gleamed from a research on relative sensitivity to the four basic tastes (bitter, sour, salt, sweet), which was taken out of context, simplified, and disseminated. Later research disproved it (and you can simply debunk it yourself by licking some salt with the supposedly “sweet” sensing tip of your tongue), but the misconception about the tongue’s strict regional exclusivity to different tastes has persisted.

Cracking knuckles causes arthritis
Or maybe it doesn’t. So far, this claim remains unsupported. In theory, habitually cracking your knuckles (popping the air out of the synovial fluid in the joint cavity) could cause damage to the cartilage covering the joint, but studies have not found definitive proof that this actually happens. Doctor Donald Unger even won the 2009 Ig Noble prize for his research in this matter, which he conducted for more than sixty years by cracked the knuckles of only his left (and not right) hand every day, eventually developing no ailment in either hand. More comprehensive studies have found no difference in the prevalence of osteoarthritis between those who did crack their knuckles and those who did not. Although everyone agrees that the cracking sounds awful, so please don’t do it anyway!

There is a dark side of the moon
Just as much as there is a dark side of the Earth. We popularly call it “night”. The moon does not have a fixed “dark side”. From our vantage point, it has a nearside (the one we can see) and a far side (which isn’t visible from Earth, but can be seen by spacecrafts and probes). We can’t see the far side from our planet because the Moon’s rotation syncs perfectly with its orbit around the Earth, but that doesn’t mean it is “dark”. That side actually receives sunlight on a daily basis. As Pink Floyd summed up in the song ‘Eclipse’ from their seminal classic The Dark Side of the Moon, “There is no dark side of the moon, really. Matter of fact it’s all dark. (The only thing that makes it look alight is the Sun.)”

Bats are blind
Well, they would be if it weren’t for the fact that they aren’t. No species of bats are blind. Some have better vision than others, and many can see quite well. Of course bats also use echolocation (making sounds that bounce off nearby objects, giving them a sense of distance and direction), but that doesn’t mean they can’t see. So from now on, “blind as a bat” means “not blind at all”. Spread the word.

Lightning never strikes the same place twice
Tell that to skyscrapers! Lightning isn’t well versed in myths and strikes wherever it pleases, however-many times it likes. It can even strike the same spot multiple times within a single storm. Tall towers and skyscrapers are the most common targets of repeated lightning strikes, and can receive hundreds of hits per year. So lightning will almost certainly strike the same place twice. Just give it some time.

Christmas marks Christ’s birth
Symbolically, yes. Literally, no. The commemoration of Jesus Christ’s birth on the 25th of December in the form of Christmas is a widely observed holiday, but it isn’t literally Christ’s birthday. History indicates that the date for Christmas might have been popularised because it already marked pagan religious celebrations with solar connotations. As for his actual date of birth, no one really knows for sure, but it is unlikely to be on the 25th of December. Biblical verses cast doubt on the birth being in wintery December, although different explanations and interpretations have led to various speculative dates (spread throughout the year) for the event.

“Elementary, my dear Watson”
No, this phrase was never uttered by Sherlock Holmes in any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s canonical written works. Holmes did say “Elementary” and “my dear Watson”; he just didn’t say them together at the same time. The closest proximity they have is when the two phrases are uttered a few lines apart near the beginning of The Crooked Man (1893), but they appear in reverse order. That, however, hasn’t stopped “Elementary, my dear Watson” from becoming ingrained in popular culture as a line said by the beloved detective to his trusty sidekick.

Blue whales are the largest animals in the world
The jellyfish would beg to differ. Although it depends on how you define “large”. If the criterion is length, then the lion’s mane jellyfish also contends the title; their largest known specimen was 37 meters (120 feet) in length, which is longer than a blue whale and is considered one of the longest known animals on our planet. If you want to categorise by weight though, then even dinosaurs cannot compete with the mighty blue whale, which is the heaviest animal that is ever known to have existed.

- By Sameen Amer

Us Magazine, The News - 10th October, 2014 *

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