Easier access to information on the internet has become a double-edged sword. With so much misinformation around, it’s time to clear up a few things.
One would think that in the age of the internet, where most facts are just a quick Google search away, we would be less susceptible to believing and spreading fictitious information. Especially now that ‘Fake News’ has become a hot topic, common misconceptions should be getting debunked on massive scale – but alas, it is not the case.
Some scientific ‘facts’ have become so ingrained in our day-to-day thinking that we forget to ever question them, until we encounter a list debunking them on the internet.
1) “It’s just a theory”
The phrase ‘It’s just a theory’ is commonly uttered when someone is proposing a far-fetched or non-scientific idea about how something supposedly works, such as creationists when they argue that evolution is “just a theory”. Although that is true, the misconception here lies in what most people define a theory to be.
In scientific circles, the word ‘theory’ refers to an idea formed on the basis of collected evidence, and using the scientific method. This means that when you hear about a scientific theory – such as the theory of evolution, or the theory of gravity – there is a lot of evidence to support this. In contrast to this, a hypothesis is simply an idea which is to undergo testing via the scientific method, and is therefore more closely related to how the word ‘theory’ is used in our day-to-day lives.
This fallacy needs to be eradicated, as it stifles attempts of a rational conversation with someone who doesn’t ‘believe in science’ – whatever that means.
2) “People only use 10% of their brain”
This myth has been the foundation of several Hollywood movies, such as Limitless, but doesn’t hold up to scientific scrutiny. Although there is no definitive answer to where the myth came from, it may have its origins in the writings of American psychologist William James who wrote that “we are only making use of only a small part of our mental and physical resources”.
To explain the myth’s durability over the years, neurologist Barry Gordon says it stems from peoples conceptions about their own brains – using our own shortcomings as evidence for the brain’s untapped potential.
Although its functionality is not yet fully understood, we are pretty certain that we use all of our brain. Making up roughly three percent of our body weight, and consuming roughly 20% of our energy the brain is a remarkable biological machine, whose compact size doesn’t allow for idle parts.
3) “Goldfish only have a 3 or 5 or 7 second memory”
This popular myth likely originated as an attempt to explain why goldfish don’t get bored swimming around in glass bowls. It turns out that they do.
Extensive research on goldfish and the memory capacity of fish in general has shown that goldfish can “readily learn to swim over a barrier in a shuttle box, upon a light signal to avoid a mild electric shock”, according to a paper submitted to the National Academy of Sciences.
Next time you see a fish swimming around in its tank, just remember that there’s a lot more going on in its mind than most people think.
4) “Vitamin C helps to fight the flu”
At the first signs of a cough or a blocked nose, many instinctively reach for food and drink high in vitamin C – orange juice, ginger and lemon tea are seen as standard household treatments.
However, there is no scientific evidence to support the notion that vitamin C makes us better, and only shaky evidence suggesting vitamin C helps to prevent the common cold. According to one study, consuming large, daily doses of vitamin C very slightly shortened cold duration — by 8% in adults and by 14% in children.
However, this doesn’t mean that our trusted go-to medicines are of no use, since the scientific studies focused on vitamin C in isolation. Drinking hot drinks during a cold has the potential to reduce subjective symptoms, as well as providing us with a feeling of comfort – it’s doubtful this habit will be going out of fashion anytime soon.
5) “Don’t touch a baby bird when it’s fallen from its nest, because the mother will reject it!”
Did you ever see a baby bird on the ground and wanted to help, just for someone to tell you that the birds mother will reject its baby if you touch it?
It is a common belief that birds and other animals can smell our human odour, which causes them reject their young. Animals feel a strong attachment to their offspring, and only in exceptional circumstances would choose to abandon young in which they’ve invested so much time and energy.
A mother bird can choose to abandon her nest in response to disturbance, but will usually relocate its young as well. So next time you see a baby bird in need, don’t hesitate to help!
6) “Eating chocolate gives you acne”
This fictitious claim probably comes from parents trying to get their children to eat less chocolate, which is a good thing for many reasons, of which acne is not one.
Although the link between chocolate and acne is still a matter of scientific debate, we are sure that chocolate per se doesn’t cause acne. Certain kinds of food can raise the odds of developing skin conditions, and lactose intolerance is fairly widespread with people often unaware they are affected by it.
So, although diet may play a role in the development of acne, claiming that chocolate causes it is too far fetched.
7) “Earwigs will climb into your ears”
Most children and some adults are terrified of earwigs, thinking that these mean looking insects crawl into your ears and lay eggs there.
Who can blame them? The name of the insect contains the word ‘ear’ in several different languages besides English. Ohrwurm, literally means earworm in German. Perce-Oreilles literally means piercer of ears in French. Danish, Dutch, Hungarian, Portuguese, Romanian, Turkish and Russian terms for earwig also contain the word ear).
It is an ancient myth whose origin remain unknown and, although earwigs and other insects accidentally climbing into people’s ears is not unheard of, it is very unlikely to happen. They will definitely not try to lay eggs in there.
8) “Seasons are caused by the earth’s distance from the sun”
Earth’s elliptical orbit around the sun is commonly used to explain the origin of our seasons, with winter occurring when the earth is further away and summer occurring when it is closer to the sun.
However, thinking about this in more depth, it doesn’t make any sense since an elliptical orbit would cause two winters and two summers a year. In addition, it doesn’t explain why different parts of the globe experience different seasons at different times.
Instead, seasons are caused by our planet’s slight tilt on its own axis. This results in half of our planet being exposed to more sunlight for half of the year, and the other half receiving more for the second half of the year, which is what we observe. As the northern hemisphere (North and Central America, Europe, northern half of Africa, and Asia) experiences summer, the Southern hemisphere (southern half of Africa, Oceania, and south America) experiences winter.
9) “Dogs and cats see the world in black and white”
Most of us will remember being told that our furry friends see the world in black and white. It turns out that this is also not true.
Cats’ eyes have three types on cones, just like humans, but see fewer colours as a result of the way these are distributed in the eye. Nonetheless, cats as well as dogs have been shown to perceive colours, albeit with less richness of hues.
Dogs have a blue-yellow visual system meaning they are not able to distinguish between red, yellow, green and orange, but it is unclear whether they are unable to pick up these colours, or whether their brain simply perceives them differently. In any case, considering how much time we spend in the presence of our beloved pets it is helpful to know that their world is colourful after all.
10) “Organic food is healthier than regular food, and is grown without pesticides.”
A survey conducted in the UK indicated that up to 95% of people who buy organic food do so out of the belief that they are avoiding pesticides.
Organic food is grown using organic pesticides, which can be equally as toxic to insects and humans as regular pesticides. In fact, given that organic pesticides are used more intensively than synthetic ones due to their reduced effectiveness, and that the volume of organic pesticide use in the US is not recorded, means that non-organic food potentially contains less pesticides.
The supposed health benefits of organic food also don’t hold up to scrutiny. After almost 50 years of scientific investigations, no benefits of organic vs non-organic food have been found. In addition to this, organic farming has been found, more often than not, to be equally as damaging to the environment as regular farming.
The biggest problem here is that when people read the word ‘organic’ they associate it with images of health, and ecological awareness. However, a quick look into governmental definitions of ‘organic’ shows this not to be the case at all.