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30th March 2012

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Vicious Myth Buster

The Great Wall of China is not visible from space

Wikimedia Commons

Though the Great Wall is, admittedly, pretty big (it runs for over 1,500 miles), there’s no way you can see this structure from space.

You can’t even see the Great Wall from low orbit. No astronauts have reported seeing human-made objects from space. Although this statement was probably hyperbole made to explain how enormous the Wall is, the fact remains: you can’t see the wall after clearing 180 miles of atmosphere.

On the contrary, it’s the little things that you can spot, like city lights at night.

Dropping a penny from the Empire State Building is not deadly

Field trips to the Empire State Building are almost always accompanied by this warning: don’t drop a penny off the top. Even a penny can kill a person from here.

A falling penny’s terminal velocity maxes out at 50 miles per hour. As seen on the show Mythbusters, a penny won’t pick up enough speed to crack a human skull. Wind resistance makes this impossible event even more unlikely. The worst case scenario from a penny dropped from a great height is a slight sting.

We do not use just 10% of our brains

Lifehacker

This myth, particularly popular among psychics, is widespread and has been used in advertising campaigns and popular culture for years. And while only a small number of our brain’s neurons are actively firing at any one moment, that doesn’t mean the rest of our brain is just sitting around.

Brain imaging research shows that just about all of our brain is used over the course of a day. Brain function isn’t extremely localized: different parts of the brain handle different functions, and this is spread throughout the brain — there is no 90% of unused gray matter lying around up there.

Dogs don’t sweat by salivating

Some people think that dogs sweat through their tongue — that when you see them panting, drooling, that’s like a human dripping with sweat.

In truth, dogs have sweat glands all over their body. They sweat primarily through their footpads. When they are panting, they are helping to regulate body temperature, much like we do.

Human beings do not have only five senses

Jamie Davies via Flickr

Sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing: these are not our only senses.

Although scientists disagree on the exact definition and number of senses, some of the others listed include: a sense of balance, acceleration, pain, body position, and relative temperature. There’s even senses of time, itching, hunger, and blood carbon dioxide levels, just to name a few — and there are up to 20

Alcohol does not make you warmer

Global Jet via Flickr

Drunk co-eds will attest that they are able to walk around in the dead of winter in only a t-shirt or a skirt, provided they keep drinking. Same goes for skiers on the mountain tops.

Sadly, while alcohol may make one feel warmer, drinking actually makes us colder over time.

Alcohol dilates our blood vessels, forcing our blood closer to the surface of our skin and closer to the nerve receptors — that’s the feeling part. The reality sets in when cold air steals this heat, which originally was stored safely in our cores. Hypothermia may ensue.

Bulls are not enraged by the color red

Wikimedia

The matadors of Spain — and anywhere else, for that matter — wave red capes in an effort to enrage bulls for entertainment purposes. People have since drawn the conclusion that the color must anger the bull.

But bulls are color blind. Being dichromats, it isn’t the color of the cape that bothers them, but the movement of the fabric. This incites the bull to charge.

Humans did not evolve from chimpanzees

Skeptics of evolution might say there’s no way humans evolved from chimps — and they would be right.

A misunderstanding of evolutionary theory has given way to the idea that humans came from modern-day primates. Actually, both humans and chimps are said to have evolved from a common ancestor. Millions of years ago, this ancestor split into two separate lineages, eventually becoming apes (like chimps and gorillas) and hominids, the precursor to human beings.

Hence our close relation to, but not evolution from, modern day chimps.

You can put birds back in their nests if you have to

audreyjm529

Rumor has it that you can’t touch baby birds or eggs that have fallen from the nest, or their mother will reject them as “tainted” by the smell of your human-ness.

While messing with a nest may cause a mother to temporarily flee, this is due to visual cues, not smell. But even so, birds are limited in their olfactory sense and can’t differentiate human from bird. Putting a bird or egg back in the nest — if the bird is supposed to be there — will not lead to rejection.

People are encouraged to put baby birds back in their nest, when possible.

Hair and nails do not continue to grow after death

Somewhere along the way, a rumor was started that hair and nails continue to grow after death — leading to nightmares worldwide of opened caskets featuring foot-long fingernails and mountains of hair.

Hair and nails only look like they have grown after death. The skin around these areas begins to lose water and shrink, giving the hair and nails the appearance of having grown. The fact is, when you’re dead, not much is going to be happening growth-wise.

Vaccines do not cause autism

A 1998 paper by scientist Andrew Wakefield reported a connection between vaccinations and autism in children. The report set off a vaccination scare that lasts to this day.

Since that time, critics have pointed out that the experiment was “a small case series with no controls, linked three common conditions, and relied on parental recall and belief." For whatever reason, Wakefield’s work was fraudulent, and the paper was eventually retracted. Subsequent investigations have found no evidence linking autism and the MMR vaccine.

Goldfish actually have long memory spans

helgabj via flickr

The play Dying Goldfish features a line of dialogue that helps propagate this common myth: “A goldfish has a memory of only thirty seconds, so when it’s dying it thinks it’s been dying all its life.” Some even thought the goldfish memory span to last only several seconds.

In reality, goldfish have a memory span of up to three months. They can be taught to follow a routine and can tell time. Even high school students have gotten in on the action of disproving this myth.

You cannot get warts from toads

The story goes that touching a toad — unlike kissing a frog — can give humans warts.

There are a few problems with this myth, the first being that the bumps on a toad are not warts, they’re just bumps. Secondly, humans can only contract warts from the human papillomavirus (HPV), not from animal diseases.

A possible source of this myth is that some toads have poison glands that make humans break out in a rash that looks like warts. But just remember: they’re not.

Waking sleepwalkers does not harm them

As seen in various films and TV shows, waking a sleepwalker can lead to disastrous (or, depending on the film, hilariously disastrous) results.

But waking a sleepwalker from their dream will leave them momentarily disoriented or confused, that’s all. There is no real danger in waking them up. In fact, sleepwalkers can sustain injuries if they continue to walk around. You’ll be doing them a favor by shaking them out of it.

Sharks can get cancer

The book Sharks Don’t Get Cancer by I. William Lane is, believe it or not, the source for this erroneous rumor.

Sharks have strong, complex immune systems that include an angiogenin inhibitor in their cartilage. This, however, does not prevent carcinomas from developing in sharks. There are instances of tumors in sharks on record. This myth has led to a decrease in shark population and the use of shark cartilage for cancer prevention treatment, which doesn’t work.

Dairy does not increase mucus production

CitySip

People with colds are known to avoid dairy products, like milk, in an effort to decrease their mucus production.

However, there is no scientific evidence to support this idea. It’s suggested that this is psychosomatic, as people associate drinking milk with a similar-feeling coating of the tongue and throat.

Men don’t think about sex every seven seconds

Men think about sex plenty: according to popular myth, they think about sex every seven seconds. If you tell men that, they might even answer “That sounds about right.”

Unfortunately, the closest anyone can get to a real statistic is that men fantasize about sex at least once a day. Then again, maybe only 54% of men do that. Face-to-face sex surveys are unreliable in uncovering the true number, and its not clear if this number will ever be truly quantifiable. 

Either way, the seven seconds myth probably overstates the frequency of this event.

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