Monday, January 14, 2013


“Sincerity -- if you can fake that, you've got it made.” 
-George Burns

The list of things people believe to be true which are simply falsehoods is pretty extensive, but most don't rate a full length post in themselves.  For example, Mount Everest isn't actually the tallest mountain on earth - its the highest point on earth, but several islands are effectively taller mountains (like Mauna Kea, which is 50% taller than Everest at 33,465 feet from the sea bed).  Mother birds won't abandon a baby bird that you touch, few birds have any real sense of smell to begin with.  Glass is not actually a slow-moving liquid, those old rippled glass panes were like that to begin with because making glass is not easy.  And so on.
So without delay, here are a bunch of other commonly believed things which are absolute falsehoods, and why:
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) used to be a common additive to food, and still is used in some places, especially Chinese food.  MSG enhances flavor and has a distinct taste which is very nice, but several articles and word of mouth spread the idea that it causes migraine headaches.  Certainly some people are actually allergic to the stuff and it can be deadly to them.  However, there's no reliable evidence that MSG is actually  harmful or causes headaches in human beings.  Several well-conducted studies show there is no correlation between MSG and migraines.
Metal can be used in a microwave; for instance browning sleeves on hot pockets and other frozen microwave foods have metal in them.  If there are no sharp edges or points, the metal can generally be used, and will function as a heater.  Its just a bad idea in almost all cases.
Cooking with various alcoholic beverages does retain some of the alcohol.  Even after 2 hours of cooking, food will retain trace alcohol (5% remains), but most will have boiled off.
Gringo did not originate as a corruption of the lyrics "Green grow the lilacs" or "Green go home!" in the Mexican-American war.  It seems to have been a derivation of the word "Griego" or "greek" in Spanish as a generic term for foreigner.
Black Holes do not exponentially increase in gravity and suck everything in for light years.  This is a pretty common misconception continually portrayed in film and fiction.  A black hole, scientists believe, has the same density and gravitational pull as the star from which they think it originated.  Again, all of this is speculation to begin with, but the theory goes like this: a star implodes, collapsing to unbelievable density so that its former gigantic size is reduced to miniscule.  The gravity is the same, only the size has changed.
Meteorites often are quite cool when they hit.  Yes, the friction of air across their surface in reentry does make the outer layer heat up, but they are often so cold in space that this outer layer of heat rapidly dissipates and many are found with frost on them.
Napoleon was not unusually short.  The confusion comes from revolutionary France's toying with measurements of all sorts, and for a time they had a different system of inches and feet (longer).  He is listed as being 5'2, but his actual height was around 5'5, which is pretty much average for the time (even if its a bit short today).  His nickname "Little Corporal" seems to be affectionate rather than descriptive; it was used long after he was promoted beyond corporal.
Roman meals did not include eating until vomiting was induced, so you could eat more.  Not only do few people even want to consider eating after vomiting, but there's scant historical evidence of any such behavior - and that only considered awful and limited to some very odd people.  The "vomitorium" was not a set of troughs to upchuck into, rather an entryway which would "vomit" spectators into a seating area.
Medieval people did not tend to die at 30, despite that being the life expectancy.  The problem comes with how life expectancies are determined; they are averages.  So many children died very young that they pulled down the average age that people died at.  A medieval person who survived childhood to age 25 could be expected to live into their 60s.  If abortion was factored into life expectancies, I suspect we'd see the numbers plunge to nearly 30 in the west today.  Life expectancy does not equal lifespan.
Iron Maiden is a particularly iconic medieval horror, there's no evidence they were ever used in medieval periods.  In fact, it appears that they were fakes cobbled together in the 18th century for display out of various other devices.  There is no online source of this, but plenty of scholarship and several books about it and how it was created for display.
Vikings didn't wear horns on their helmets.  No viking helmet has ever been found with such a device, no imagery or illustration from the time shows any such helmet.  It seems to have originated with a performance of Wagner's opera  Der Ring des Nibelungen in 1876.  Sorry, Hagar the Horrible.
Marco Polo didn't bring pasta back from the court of Kublai Khan, it was already in his home town.  He does describe essentially lasagna in his memoirs, but in a manner that indicates he was familiar with it.  Small surprise, since Durum wheat had been imported into Italy and Sicily in the 7th century by Libyan conquerors and pasta was already known to the locals.  This myth appears to come from the Macaroni Journal, published in the US to promote and sell pasta in America (again, from books).
Hemp was not the material the US Constitution was written on, it is parchment.  It is likely that they used hemp for scratch paper and early draft.
Sharks do get cancer.  That myth came from a book intended to sell shark cartilage as a cure for cancer, and is a flat out falsehood.  However, shark cartilage does seem to help a lot with common arthritis pain.
Bats are not blind.  Some have excellent vision and don't even use echolocation.  Bats also rarely have rabies (.5%), are not rodents, and almost never, ever get tangled up in anyone's hair.
Lightning will strike more than once in a single spot; that's why its a bad idea to be the highest point in a storm.  Tall buildings such as the Empire State building are struck dozens of times a year.  A "single" strike of lightning sometimes consists of many, many arcs over and over on the same spot in an instant of time.
Well that's good enough for now.  There are scores more, including the fact that Wikipedia isn't completely worthless as a research tool; its just lousy to use as a primary source.  Check the links and use their data for your research.  Consider Wikipedia a link compiler, not an encyclopedia for most subjects.
This is part of the Common Knowledge series: things we know that ain't so.


pdwalker said...

Sometimes you should never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

"The cool Vikings had horns on their helmets"

(And I do have a microwave that:

- is all metal on the interior
- came with a metal stand for sitting things on but has rubber feet
- came with instructions on how to use metal in the microwave (make sure nothing touches the metal sides or is too close to the sides)

Neat! First time I had seen that.)

Anonymous said...

Hello Christopher, first time I have looked at your blog and I like the detail you go into on some topics. However, the one today on MSG left me wondering if you were a spokes person for the Glutamate Industry.

You gave the subject short shrift and your references were not up to dispelling the "common knowledge" about MSG and migraines. I happen to be a sufferer of this, yes, I will call it conspiracy, to put MSG in any prepared foodstuff simply because it increases profits for food producers. MSG is more stable, has a longer shelf life, weighs less than salt, is more concentrated in taste so it takes less to give the same flavor and is a big reason it is used as a salt-substitute, and hence also takes less space to store. It has nothing to do with being healtier. It simply costs less for the food producers to manufacture (it is synthesized and not natural), and cost savings are realized all along the supply chain.

Ajinomoto is the world's leading producer and from publicly available filed SEC information, their expansion plans include going hard after third world countries as China ramps up to supply their own population.

In the U.S., the Glutamate Industry is aligned with Universities, health organizations, and the government, USDA, FDA, etc. to give aliases to MSG, and to allow skirting of package labelling laws based on the amount of MSG contained in the food. If above a certain amount, MSG is listed, in smaller doess it can be called "spices", "natural flavorings", and many other variations.

It is a billion dollar industry and they sponsor their own research as well as donate to others to conduct research under the guise of "non-partisan" studies.

So never mind that even if 10-20% of the population suffers from MSG, with it being present in literally everything from soup to nuts, these suffers like myself have quite a chore to find food to eat that won't make them sick.

I've done my own research and have been tempted to write a book but I've seen what is done to others who have done so. It is not pretty. Until the public gives a damn, well, there isn't really much that can be done. We certainly can't expect our government and science agencies to protect us, not when the almighty dollar will motivate one American to kill another through their food supplies. As that dude in the movie Wall Street said, "Greed is good." And with our food supply greed is winning.

Christopher R Taylor said...

I tried to indicate that some people are affected poorly by MSG when I wrote "Certainly some people are actually allergic to the stuff and it can be deadly to them."

However, the best science right now indicates that for most people it is not harmful.

The idea that businesses use this stuff out of greed is a bit curious, though. MSG is used to enhance flavor, to create a more attractive and pleasant product.

Anonymous said...

Christopher, I ask you to put on your investigative hat. Be curious. Why are you so lenient to a food additive that is being put into everything. Unlike other spices where the consumer adds to suit their own taste, MSG is addictive and contributes to the obesity problem. Just like excito-toxins, aspartame and other artificial sweeteners.

And you say "most peple": as if even 10% of the US population, some 30 million people don't count for much. My bet is many people suffer effects and have not even made the connection, correlated their health and how they feel with the ingestion of MSG.

Ah, nevermind, I'm spittin in the wind talking to you.

epobirs said...

Most people who claim to be sensitive to MSG cannot pass a simple placebo test. Tell them there is MSG in food that has none and they'll start claiming symptoms. Assure them there is none in a dish and they'll consume and go off symptom free. (I did this with my sister once. She was really pissed to be forced to realize she'd bought into a myth.)

The stuff got a bad reputation because they didn't slap a cute brand name on it and instead became widely known by a scary chemical descriptor, despite the fact that all ingredients in food can be described thusly. What is food but a mixture of chemicals?

pdwalker said...

On the other hand, I live in a place right now that uses LOTS of MSG. When I say LOTS, I mean, BY THE BUCKET LOAD.

Every once in a while, when a tourist comes here and eats the local food, they suffer from MSG poisoning. They get all red, their temperature spikes and they get really, really sick.

If they stay long enough, their bodies eventually gets used to it and it no longer becomes a problem.

Steve Skubinna said...

I like to always be on the lookout for false things that everybody knows, such as "Red cars get more tickets" or "ERs are busiest at full moons" or "We only use ten percent of our brains."

Thanks for the article - some I knew, but you added a few that I hadn't (funny, I was just telling somebody yesterday about Mauna Kea).

J said...

While you are debunking common knowledge, you used bad common knowledge. Most of the heat generated when an object enters the atmosphere is due to the compression of air molecules which can't get out of the way fast enough. Comparatively, very little heat is generated by friction, it is just something we can feel if we rub our hands together, making it an easier explanation.