Everybody’s Wrong!

Many bats, like this leaf-nosed one, see quite well.

We had a particularly stimulating FULL CONTACT TRIVIA contest at the bar last weekend.  Because too many showed up to play at our table, I ended up on a team playing against another team that included my wife and my mother.  Our two teams tied for first place!  We played a Sudden Death Overtime of seven questions.  I won by one point in the category of “colors” by guessing the color of the three-point ball in Snooker (green).  I’m a lucky guesser.

We enjoy getting into heated arguments with the judges over minor variations in how we answer questions or how questions are phrased.  When in the category of “Middle East” the name of the current president of Syria was asked, no one was given points for “Assad”.  You had to have written “al-Assad”.  For us super-nerds, these miniscule details provide satisfying opportunities for nuclear nitpicking.  Under “Movie Villains”, you had to supply the FULL name of the computer in 2001 (1968).  Just saying HAL is too easy.  The full name is HAL 9000.

After the game I began thinking about the thousands of interesting facts and stories people believe that all happen to be wrong.  These misconceptions become part of what shapes our view of the world as we grow up.  They range from inspiring fairy tales about historical figures to mis-quotes to false notions about measureable scientific and mathematical phenomena.  It’s amusing to wonder what it is about our minds that encourages us to hold on to disprovable, mistaken ideas.

There’s hardly any original material in the rest of this post.  I love to read books and articles about this sort of topic.  I stole every damn one of these from other authors.  All I contributed was my choice of which to relate to you and how, but I still think you might like reading them.  Here are ten of my favorite potential entries for Wrongopedia.

1.)  Albert Einstein failed math in school.   Perhaps this sort of lie helps people deal with their jealousy over not being geniuses.  Einstein not only did not fail math, he was several years ahead of the school curriculum in his own self-study.  He didn’t fail any other classes either.  Because he had exceptional skill in math and science and only average knowledge in other subjects, he barely missed being able to start University studies at age 16.

2.)  Marie Antoinette, when informed her subjects were unable to obtain ordinary loaves of bread during a shortage said, “Let them eat cake”.  Marie had the misfortune to be a very unpopular sovereign when she grew up, but Rousseau published this phrase back when she was only ten.  He either invented it himself, or Maria-Theresa, the wife of Louis XIV, may have said something similar.  It’s also a case of poor translation.  The quote in French is Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.” (“Let them eat brioche.”) Brioche is a fancy kind of bread.

3.)  Marco Polo introduced pasta to Italy, having brought it back from China.  Actually, Arabs from Libya introduced it during their conquest of Sicily six hundred years before Marco Polo’s journeys.  Ad men representing food companies, who wanted to increase pasta sales in the U.S, made up this story.  Curse you, Don Draper!

4.)  The Great Wall of China is the only man-made structure visible from space.  This was originally stated in Ripley’s Believe It or Not and/or by Richard Halliburton many years before we were capable of space travel.  The truth is, you can’t see ANY man-made structures once you are a mere couple hundred miles above ground.  You have to be up 1200 miles to maintain Earth orbit.  From that distance, the massed lights from large population centers are visible on the night side.  Aside from that, you can only see larger features like continents, oceans and weather systems.

5.)  Half of all marriages end in divorce.  People really do have problems understanding statistics.  This misunderstanding comes about by comparing the number of marriages each year to the number of divorces.  However, there are a small number of people who marry and divorce repeatedly.  That skews the curve.  If you take out the Elizabeth Taylors, Mickey Rooneys and Larry Kings of the world, it’s easy to see that about one marriage out of four will end in divorce.  Most people stay married.

6.)  Lightning never strikes twice in the same spot.  Really?  How come each of the tallest buildings in big cities get struck dozens of times every year?

7.)  Use of the spelling “Xmas” is an attempt to remove Christ (to x him out) from the word Christmas.  Sorry to disappoint you fans of secular conspiracy theories, but monks in Great Britain began using this spelling in the 11th Century.  Religious hermits like symbolism.  To them, “X” represented the cross upon which Jesus was crucified.  It was a way to remind people of the superior importance of Easter in Christianity.

8.)  Lemmings perform a kind of mass suicide when migrating.  This one is Walt Disney’s fault.  Some of their award-winning “nature documentaries” are about as accurate regarding animal behavior as “Reefer Madness” is about marijuana.  The myth was created during the filming of White Wilderness (1958).  Though the narration describes migratory lemmings leaping off a cliff into Arctic waters, it was shot at the Bow River near downtown Calgary.  They used a non-migratory species of lemmings that didn’t want to jump, so they forced them to by using a rotating turntable to push, or when that failed, they just threw them in the water from off-camera.

9.)  When humidity is 100%, it’s raining.  100% humidity = fog, not rain.

10.) Martin Luther King Jr. would have opposed affirmative action.  This audacious falsehood is achieved by taking a single quote from his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, extending it waaay out of context, and doing no further research into King’s opinions on redress programs benefitting minorities.  The abused quote is:

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

To some, this is misinterpreted to mean that Dr. King did not support assistance programs based on race as a qualification.  You have to skip the whole rest of the speech for that to be an accurate interpretation.

The speech refers to many kinds of racial intolerance and injustices, and this exhortation is to dream of, and work diligently toward, a distant, better future.  Considering the full text of the speech, he might just as well have said, “one day, before they die of old age”.  He wasn’t talking about small changes achievable in a few decades.  Here’s a later Q+A to refute the argument.  In January of 1965 Alex Haley interviewed King, for publication in Playboy magazine.

Playboy: Do you feel it’s fair to request a multibillion-dollar program of preferential treatment for the Negro, or for any minority group?

King: I do indeed.

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12 Comments

Filed under humor, Thinking about thinking

12 responses to “Everybody’s Wrong!

  1. Einstein didn’t fail math?! How many times have I repeated that one?! Most of the others I knew, but clearly, I need to investigate before spreading these lies. Bats can see?!

    • Fruit bats and others like the little guy pictured hunt by sight. Don’t feel too bad, though. I’ve been wrong millions of times. I’m just not admitting what about ;) Thanks, Galen.

  2. The scary thing is that kids these days are fast growing up with the idea that everything they see and read on the internet must be true and irrefutable fact…
    …when often it’s just a point of view, the personal preference of the writer (as all recorded documents have been for the most part throughout recorded history)

    The trick is to to try and do as much research as possible and to find and include sources, multipule viewpoints and then try and form a conclusion.

    Sales people know only too well that if you tell people something often enough, in an authorative way then people start to take it on board as fact… (that’s why adverts are repetatious) The multi media of today only serves to speed up the process so we need to be more sceptical than ever in some respects.

    …it’s also a favourite control tactic that royalty, nobility, emperors, polititions, the rich, dynasties or governments have used throughout history to control the masses and keep the power play limited to a selected few.

    p.s. hand up here! I was also stung with a total misconception… bats have good sight? (the phrase ” blind as a bat” sprang instantly to mind).. ergo obviously not ALL bats have visual impairment but I assume then a few species must be?

    A case of what I might term as : “there’s no truth like a half truth?”

    • That’s a good way of putting the situation regarding bats. Some are cave dwellers. They don’t see as well as those who live in trees, but they still see. Most bats are nocturnal. They don’t particularly enjoy opening their eyes in sunlight, even though they can. The misunderstanding may be amplified because the cave dwelling bats navigate as desired by emitting high-pitched vocal squeaks and picking up the echoes with their VERY sensitive ears. It’s like sonar. Because of this, they can hunt in complete darkness. They are still able to go out of the caves though, and when they do, they navigate by sight.

      I agree with you about the difficulty of verifying history. Biography is easier, at least when we have documents. Part of it all comes down to how much people love a good story. A compelling narrative with action heroes is able to supplant boring old facts. That is the basis of politics, as well as sales. People like controversy and drama too, so lying about cherished figures is also popular. Thanks, Kiwi.

  3. Today’s SPAM of the DAY award goes to some guy selling cladding rails, who seems to have thought this was a Facebook page or sumpn’. His message was:

    “hi stevo if your still knoking around this is there contact
    and some info , they have a deal on at the mo ,say micky n said you would sort him out”

  4. What an outstanding piece of debunking. Thank you for a fascinating read that will have staying power.

    • Though it wasn’t original content so much as my cherry-picks from the actual debunkers, I will say “You’re welcome” on their behalf. Some of my favorites sources for this kind of reading are snopes.com (http://www.snopes.com/), Cecil Adams’ The Straight Dope (http://www.straightdope.com/) and books like “Everything you Know is Wrong” by Paul Kirschner and Ed Rayner’s “Debunking History”.

      …and in other news, Karen A. set up a test blog site to track my problems!

  5. Some great info in there. I’m kinda crushed about the Einstein bit, but thanks for letting me know!

    So… Lemmings do NOT commit mass suicides? Or, THOSE lemmings wouldn’t have? Why make something like THAT up??

    • My theory is that Disney decided to paste an attempt at drama into what otherwise would have been boring footage of normal animal behavior like grooming or looking for food. They’ve always been cheap, so instead of going where lemmings would really be, they faked some stuff at a river near a downtown.

      Thanks for dropping by, Matt!

  6. Everybody’s wrong about what we quote as well.
    There are a number of books on misquotes that point out that Sherman never said “War is hell;” Liberace never said “I laughed all the way to the bank;” Greta Garbo never said “I want to be alone;” and Leo Durocher definitely did not say “Nice guys finish last.”

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