10 Most Contagious Misconceptions
When an entire sea of people tells you the same thing over and over again, you tend to take it as fact – even when you haven’t seen for yourself that it’s true. This is how we gain a lot of information: someone else – a teacher, parent, or peer – tells us something is true. We trust them, so we believe them. We don’t question them much, because they’ve been seemingly right about so many other things. If we tested everything we were told, it would take a long time to learn anything.
Even in the scientific community, fact and fiction can easily be confused as new theories struggle to overtake old ones we’re all used to believing are true. When religion and science mingle, they tend to clash, as do myth and reality. As smart as many people are, even the smartest often latch onto misconceptions and never learn the real truth, or, if they learn it, they disregard it. Our brains are wired to pay attention to information that affirms what we believe and to toss out what doesn’t .This is why so many of us are lifelong conservatives or liberals. It’s why so many of us can hold cognitively dissonant beliefs at the same time (Americans are famous for holding contradictory beliefs, defying basic logic).
Here are some of the most pervasive misconceptions in our culture:
10You Need Eight Glasses of Water a Day to be Healthy.
How many times have you tried to fill up a huge water bottle and drink the entire thing or two of them in one day, just because people are telling you that you need eight glasses of water a day? The belief that you need this much water a day for good health simply has no science that supports it.
The origin of this myth may be in a 1945 Food and Nutrition Board recommendation that said people need an average of 2.5 liters of liquids per day. The problem was, readers latched onto this statement without reading on. The recommendation went on to say that most of this water could be found in prepared food.
So many people are carrying around water bottles these days, and sales of bottled water continue to increase. In truth, though, you don’t need to worry so much about being dehydrated. Your body alerts you to drink long before you need to stress out over it.
Science hasn’t proven that you need eight glasses of water, but it is clear that the amount of water you need depends on a variety of factors including your weight, activity level, clothing, and environment. The amount of water you need on a hot day, for instance, is going to be different than how much you need in January.
If you’re worried about how much water you’re getting in, ask yourself, Am I thirsty? If you are, take a drink. It’s as simple as that.
9Evolution is Just a “Theory,” Which Means Mainstream Scientists Doubt It.
You’ll hear opponents of evolution pull this one a lot—the general definition of “theory” implies doubt or insecurity, but in fact, a scientific theory holds a lot more weight than that. Let’s boil it down: evolution is defined as “a change in allele frequencies over time.” We can observe this as an indisputable fact. Here’s another definition: a scientific theory is a “coherent group of general propositions used as principles of explanation for a class of phenomena.” In other words, a scientific theory is a set of principles that explains observable phenomena in nature. Theories are self-consistent and useful.
Evolution is a theory just like gravity is a theory—we can easily observe it and naturally accept it on a daily basis. Evolution, then, isn’t a theory in the basic sense of the word – it’s an incontrovertible fact. Organisms have changed (AKA evolved) during the history of our planet.
Scientific American took a handful of misused scientific terms and explained where we were getting it wrong. Here’s their explanation for “theory”:
A scientific theory is an explanation of some aspect of the natural world that has been substantiated through repeated experiments or testing. But to the average Jane or Joe, a theory is just an idea that lives in someone’s head, rather than an explanation rooted in experiment and testing.
It might be confusing at first glance, but scientific theories can be facts, too. As paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould put it, facts and theories in science are never certain, because science is always open to being proven wrong with more evidence. That’s the essence of science and what makes it different from religion: scientific fact changes as we learn more; religion stays the same. Gould said scientific facts like evolution are “confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.” In other words, if you’re still calling evolution “just a theory,” you’re taking stubborn to a whole new level.
8The Color Red Makes Bulls Mad.
If we say “bull,” what sort of image will come to mind? Most likely, you’re thinking of a bull scratching its hoof into the ground, leaning forward in anger, and about to run as fast as it can, charging the matador through his red cape. You understand why the bull is charging – red makes it angry! Right? Nope.
We can shut this one down really fast, despite the prevalence of bulls seemingly angered by the color red across cultures. Bulls are color-blind to red. They don’t even recognize the color.
Still, we’ve all seen the bulls, particularly in Pamplona, charging at muletas, or matadors’ red capes. It’s not the color but the movement that irritates the bulls. Muletas are not red to irritate the bulls – they’re red as a symbol of splatters of blood during bullfights.
Famous for debunking myths, the MythBusters tested this one out in 2007. They started with three unmoving flags – red, blue, and white. The bulls charged each one, regardless of color. Next, they tried the same thing with dummies of the same colors. Once again, the bulls charged each one. Lastly, they tested the myth with a smart experiment. A person dressed in red stood still while two others dressed in other colors moved around. The bull chased the moving cowboys and left the other, in red, alone. In short, it’s movement that gets a bull going – not color.
7That Jerk Marie Antoinette said “Let them eat cake.”
History’s difficult. It’s so easy to rewrite, and is rewritten so often, that who knows what’s truly fact? There’s a rumor that’s been going on for a very long time. Supposedly Marie Antoinette was notified that the French peasants were starving due to a bread shortage. She responded with, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche,” meaning “Let them eat cake!” In truth, she never said so, but she had such a bad reputation (as hard-hearthearted and aloof) people attributed the quote to her.
Many historians are sure that Antoinette wouldn’t say this based on her character. Although she lived a lavish and spoiled life as queen, she was a smart woman who donated frequently to charitable causes and showed sensitivity towards France’s poor.
What’s more is that this quote had been attributed to royalty in the past – decades before, Marie-Thérèse, Spanish princess and wife of King Louis XIV, was accused of saying let the French people eat “la croûte de pâté,” or the crust of the pâté.
Marie Antoinette wasn’t even queen yet when such rumors were already floating around in regards to other royals.
6Mormons are Polygamists.
If you witness anyone with a prejudice or vendetta against Mormons, they’ll probably throw around one accusation more than any other: “Mormons are polygamists! The men can have as many wives as they want!” In a society where monogamy is the norm, this can be pretty upsetting. The truth is, though, most Mormons aren’t really polygamists anymore.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (The LDS) no longer practices polygamy, though it was historically practiced. Now, the LDS excommunicates members that practice polygamy. The only Mormons who do still practice polygamy are people who refer to themselves as Mormon fundamentalists, and they are not accepted by the LDS.
As the President of the Church Gordon B. Hinckley said:
This church has nothing whatever to do with those practicing polygamy. They are not members of this Church… If any of our members are found to be practicing plural marriage, they are excommunicated, the most serious penalty the Church can impose.
The reason so many people believe Mormons still practice polygamy is the FLDS Church, or the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. These people do still practice polygamy and frequently struggle with the United States government because of the illegality of their practices. They are a highly secretive sect of Mormonism and have been disowned by the LDS.
In short, the chances that your Mormon neighbors are practicing polygamy are very, very low. Most just don’t.
5Columbus Discovered the Land Now Known as the United States.
We’ve got a holiday dedicated to him, and if you ask the ordinary person on the street, they’ll say Columbus is famous for discovering America. Wrong.
Columbus took four trips that began in 1492 during which he landed in the Bahamas, Hispaniola, and the Central and South American coasts. He never reached North America which was, of course, inhabited already by Native Americans. Not to mention, Leif Erikson had reached Canada about 500 years before Columbus took his voyage. Taking it even further back, people had been on the continent at least 50,000 years ago – what we’re really talking about is the first European to “discover” the Americas.
Columbus wasn’t the triumphant explorer many imagine him to be. As the Encyclopedia Britannica put it,
The more recent perspective [on Columbus], however, has concentrated on the destructive side of the European conquest, emphasizing, for example, the disastrous impact of the slave trade and the ravages of imported disease on the indigenous people of the Caribbean region and the American continents.
In the 400 years that followed Columbus’s arrival, as many as 100 million people could have died from massacres and disease.
Columbus did not discover America. Rather, he jumpstarted a terrible history of genocidal colonialism that killed entire populations and their cultures.
4The Buddha was Obese and Buddhists Worship Him as a God.
People love to buy the fat, laughing Buddha statuettes in little trinket shops as a sign of their cultural openness or spirituality. What they’re really buying, though, isn’t the prominent Buddha of Buddhism at all.
His name’s Budai, and he’s a 10th century Chinese folk hero. Budai is still a cool guy in his own right. His name means “cloth sack.” This is because he carries a Mary Poppins-style sack that never empties and always holds precious things like candy and rice plants. His duty is to protect the weak, poor, and children by taking their sadness away.
The Buddha, as in the man who Buddhism is based around, wasn’t obese at all. Actually, the Buddha’s life began in royalty (he was probably a chubby little boy pre-enlightenment) and he left that life for a monk’s life of extreme asceticism, meaning self-discipline and avoidance of all indulgence. This resulted in a nearly starved man. What the Buddha discovered was it was not hedonism or asceticism that brought happiness, but the Middle Way, or moderation. The ideal image of the Buddha, then, is a man who is not fat or starved but somewhere in between.
Another misconception is that the Buddha is a god. He himself said he wasn’t. Some even argue Buddhism is a philosophy rather than a religion, since its founder isn’t a god or supernatural being at all. The Buddha was a teacher full of insight and wisdom who encouraged his followers to find their own way.
3Napoleon Bonaparte was an Insecure Shorty.
The belief that Napoleon Bonaparte was a short man runs rampant. Even history teachers sometimes make the mistake of claiming this, and the belief is so prominent that there’s even a psychological term named after Napoleon: the Napoleon complex, AKA short man syndrome.
According to HealthGuidance,
‘Short man syndrome’ is a condition in which a person has to deal with a feeling of inadequacy which can come from a lack of height – or a perceived lack of height. This is particularly common in men who gain a lot of confidence and status from physicality and who often gain pleasure from being able to feel physically imposing.
The Napoleon complex isn’t an official psychological condition, but it is referenced frequency in our culture. Technically, it’s an inferiority complex where someone tries to overcompensate for a perceived shortcoming.
I digress. Anyway, Napoleon Bonaparte wasn’t short at all. He was actually a little taller than the average Frenchman of his time. At death in 1821, his height was recorded as 5 feet 2 inches in French measurements, which translates to 5 foot 7. He was known as le Petit Caporal, but likely “The Little Corporal” was only a term of affection rather than a literal description.
Napoleon was also frequently seen with his imperial guard, who were chosen based on height. Around them, he probably did look short! In fact, he was just your average joe.
2We Have Five Senses.
The belief that we have five senses can be traced way back to Aristotle’s De Anima (On the Soul), which has chapters for vision, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. Today, the idea that we have five senses is just taken for granted.
But the next time you hear someone say they think they or someone else has a “sixth sense,” you’ll be able to correct them: all of us have more than six senses. Researchers estimate there are more than twenty. Senses refer to “any system that consists of a group of sensory cell types that respond to a specific physical phenomenon and that corresponds to a particular group of regions within the brain where the signals are received and interpreted.”
The senses we’re most aware of include vision, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. Others include:
- Equilibrioception: The ability to keep your balance and perceive gravity.
- Hunger and thirst: These are self-explanatory.
- Itch: It turns out that itch has sensors distinct from touch.
- Nociception: The ability to sense pain. Like itch, nociception is distinct from touch.
- Proprioception: The ability to sense where body parts are in relation to other body parts. Think the “close your eyes and touch your nose” test.
- The passing of time – yes, this is something we can sense.
The list goes on. When it comes to senses, we’ve got a lot, depending on your definition of “sense.”
1Satan Rules Hell.
So, Satan’s this evil guy who’s got red skin, fiery eyes, a pointed tail, horns protruding from his forehead, and a pitchfork in his fist. He and his minions will make your life hell (ha-ha) if God decides to send you underground for eternity.
Everyone knows this. And everyone is wrong.
As it turns out, Satan’s not in charge of hell. In fact, he’ll be tormented alongside sinners, according to Revelation 20:10:
and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.
Chances are, the common view of hell and Satan probably comes from Dante Alighere’s famous epic poem The Divine Comedy, which describes in depth the sinner’s descent into hell.
Hell in itself has been mentioned in the Bible as “the lake of fire,” a place of “outer darkness” and “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Until Satan is thrown into hell, he actually spends his time between heaven and earth where he “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (Peter 5:8).
Rumors run rampant on the playground and in middle school cafeterias, and the real world is no different – we believe all sorts of things just because so-and-so said so, and oftentimes, we’re proven wrong by science or history.
We get a lot wrong when it comes to health. We believe in all sorts of pseudoscientific claims for diet pills and miracle drugs and placebos. We fall prey to charlatans and will do anything for an easy fix. Hell, for the longest time, we thought sticking leeches on our skin could save us from the worst ailments. Many of us still believe there’s a magic number of glasses of water we need per day, but the basic truth is, it’s more complicated than that.
Science is messy, too, because we have a habit of simplifying things for our ease or agendas. It’s easy to list off five senses, but in fact, we’ve got more than you can remember without taking time to study them. Everyone, it turns out, has a sixth sense.
When it comes to evolution, it’s the religious agenda that results in misconceptions. People simply don’t want to believe that Genesis could be wrong or that the real story could be more complicated than the Biblical testimony.
Religion itself is confusing – popular images of “the Buddha” aren’t, in fact, the Buddha. The man wasn’t even a god, but plenty of people just figure he was. Buddhism, after all, is considered by many to be a religion. Maybe most amazingly, almost everyone has a view of hell that has nothing to do with what the Bible had to say; according to Christians, Satan isn’t underground – he’s floating between heaven and hell, tempting us on an everyday basis.
These are just ten misconceptions among so many. As long as there are opinions and gossip, misconceptions will thrive.