We as a species would still be lumbering around in caves if it weren’t for the glory of the scientific method, the collection of techniques used to determine the validity of a particular hypothesis based on measurable and empirical evidence. Although the scientific method wasn’t identified and written down back in the Stone Age, our ancestors were implicitly using it to create the building blocks of a sedentary society like fire, the wheel and tools with sharp edges. Literally every aspect of our modern, educated and connected society would be totally and completely impossible to establish without the scientific method. In layman’s terms, science is super duper awesome, you guys. Unfortunately, the vast majority of us have very little experience or appreciation for the sciences. The average person in the western world has a white-collar job that involves phone calls, emails, caffeine addiction, and – if you made your career choices with a healthy dose of subconscious self-loathing – maybe a spreadsheet sprinkled in for good measure.
This leaves us in a weird position as people. We all use devices and methods created using the scientific method on a daily basis, but very few of us have any idea how they work. This leaves most people in the vulnerable position of being susceptible to the most insidious of misinformation; science myths. We don’t know enough to disprove the piece of information we’re encountering, but it sure is wrapped in scientific lingo so it must be true! Pop culture – especially pre-internet pop culture – is rife with misinformation that’s been habitually repeated so often that most of us accept it as fact. Here are 10 of those common science myths.
10. Unprotected Exposure to Outer Space Means Instant Death
To be fair, this one is almost true, but decades of bad Hollywood science fiction has given us the wrong impression. How many movies have you seen where the astronaut’s glass helmet cracks while they try to get their last words out, only to have the cold vacuum of space turn them into instant popsicles. Open space doesn’t work quite like that. Scientists estimate that a human being can survive 15-30 seconds in open space – if they’ve exhaled all the oxygen from their lungs before exposure. If not, then their lungs will burst instantly. If you empty your lungs, then you’ll have a nice half-minute to contemplate your life before you freeze to death. Yay space!
9. The 5 Second Rule
As many of us long suspected, the age old ‘5 second rule’ was nothing but maternal propaganda designed to combat the wasting of food in the hands of young children across the world. The ‘5 second rule’ is the belief that it takes at least 5 seconds for bacteria on the floor to make its way onto a piece of dropped food. If you can retrieve the food off of the floor in less than 5 seconds, then it’s still good to eat since no bacteria has had time to make its way onto the surface of the food. The hard truth is that any contact at all, even for 1 second, is enough for floor bacteria to get on your food. The even harder truth is that there are already millions and millions of bacteria on virtually all the food we eat to begin with – so why worry about dropped food? If it isn’t covered in grime, just eat it dude.
8. Pennies Dropped From Skyscrapers Are Deadly
If you’ve been to the top of the Empire State building in NYC, you’ll remember the fences they have around the top to prevent people from looking over or throwing anything over the side. The urban legend is that they installed so many fences to stop people from throwing pennies of the side of the building, because pennies dropped from that height can reach lethal speeds and kill pedestrians on the street. Science is going to have to shoot this one down too. Pennies aren’t aerodynamically designed, so they don’t pick up that much extra speed when falling through the air (at least at that height). While a penny you dropped from the top would probably really hurt – at least enough to ruin someone’s afternoon – it definitely wouldn’t kill them on impact.
7. Lightning Never Strikes Twice
Most people aren’t familiar with the inner mechanics of lightning strikes, but we have heard the expressions ‘lightning never strikes twice’ or ‘trying to bottle lightning’. Both expressions allude to the fact that certain things in life only happen once, much like how lightning will never strike the same spot twice. The truth is, lightning can hit the same spot numerous times. Lightning is usually concerned with hitting the highest point in any given storm zone. Most major skyscrapers get hit by lightning multiple times a year. So much for that metaphor.
6. There’s No Gravity in Space
Let’s go back to the cold, terrifying vacuum of space, shall we? Most people believe that because astronauts can float around freely in space that there isn’t any gravity. This belief displays a serious misunderstanding of how gravity works. Gravity doesn’t just stop working once you get outside the Earth’s atmosphere – how else would we explain the Earth’s orbit around the sun? There’s tons of gravity in space, which is exactly how astronauts float around outside the ship. They get caught in the Earth’s gravity and begin orbiting around it. In virtually every area of (known) space, any given object will be caught up in a bigger object’s gravitational pull, even if it’s very weakly.
5. Brain Cells Can’t Regenerate
All those brain cells you banished using the power of alcohol from the ages of 18-24 may not be lost forever. This myth is super common since it’s actually what the scientific community believed until the late 1990s. Many of us growing up were told that brain cells don’t regenerate, and that any contact to the skull destroyed them. Many a brain cell was thought lost forever by children whose hands were controlled by older siblings who pleaded with them to ‘stop hitting yourself’ (alas, they could not). Thankfully we know now that the brain cells have more regenerative capabilities than we previously thought, so you may turn out alright after all.
4. The Dark Side of the Moon
Pink Floyd has been lying to us for decades. They won’t see us on the dark side of the moon, because such a place doesn’t exist. Sure, there is at any given moment a spot on the moon that isn’t being hit by sunlight, but that spot is constantly moving. The myth is that there’s a fixed area on the moon that is in perennial darkness, which simply isn’t true. It makes a great set-up for any conspiracies about alien moon bases, but team tin foil hat is going to have to find another myth to base their beliefs on that can’t be easily debunked with 5 minutes to kill and a Google search.
3. Diamonds Come From Coal
Although it’s definitely the inspiration, feel-good science myth of the summer – one that’s probably popped up in a thousand image macros posted to instagram by scores of people looking to change their lives – it’s still a myth. The only similarities between coal and diamonds is that they’re both made of mostly carbon. The thing is, most (living) things on this planet are made of carbon, including us. Plus, the carbon in diamonds has been confirmed to pre-date any living being on the planet, meaning the diamonds that we mine aren’t derived from coal, which is mostly ancient plant material. Coal could eventually become a diamond in millions and millions of years, but so could you. Is that more or less inspirational?
2. Milk Is Good For Your Bones
Let’s just get this out of the way; the food pyramid is a lie. It wasn’t designed to demonstrate optimal nutrition, it was designed by a group of people who aligned their corporate interests to use it as propaganda to systematically brainwash generations of Americans. If you follow the guidelines in the traditional food pyramid, your nutritional health is 2 ½ stars out of 5, at best. In fact, dairy products are pretty questionable. The argument for forcing milk on children at school lunch is that the calcium in milk is necessary for bone health. The truth is that the bioavailability of calcium in milk isn’t even that high, and that other factors (like exercise and protein/vitamin D intake) are far more important for bone health.
Woah, put down the pitchfork. This isn’t a post attacking evolution, quite the opposite. The average person has a very rudimentary understanding of evolution. You may have heard people try and argue that mermaids could be real, because ancient peoples may have spent so much time in the water that they developed gills. So…no, not at all. Ariel isn’t real, sorry, evolution doesn’t work that way. Evolution allows qualities that are conducive to procreation to propagate over time (hundreds of thousands of years). If you left humans in the ocean for generations, they still wouldn’t grow gills. Changes don’t happen in that short of a timespan, and even the changes that do aren’t always beneficial. It’s all about who can have more children to pass on their qualities. In the natural world, genes that weren’t optimized for strength and intelligence fell by the wayside. Now that we’ve separated humans from natural selection, we’ve basically altered the evolutionary process, making it very easy for stupid to slip through the cracks unscathed. Anyways, natural selection and evolution are complex processes that aren’t going to be summarized in a paragraph, but it’s important to note that chances are you don’t have a perfect understanding of it. Google is your friend, though; next stop Wikipedia to fact-check all of these assertions – because that’s what science is all about!