List of common misconceptions  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

This list of common misconceptions details various ideas described as widely held by the general populace, but which are fallacious or flawed.

Examples include the fact that eskimoes having an inordinate amount of words for the word 'snow', the Victorian Era being very prudish to the point that they covered their piano legs with embroidery to hide them from view and the fable that the adoption of adult content by VHS led to the demise of its competitors.

Contents

History

  • The belief that gunpowder, even though it was a Chinese invention, was first used for war by the Europeans is a misconception. The Chinese used flamethrowers and gunpowder arrows for military purposes from the 900s AD onward.
  • Paul Revere was not the only American colonist who rode to warn the Minute Men of the British before the battle of Lexington and Concord of the American Revolutionary War. The story of Paul Revere is largely based on the poem "Paul Revere's Ride", written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1860 (see Paul Revere's Ride).
  • Christopher Columbus's efforts to obtain support for his voyages were not hampered by a European belief in a flat Earth. In fact, sailors and navigators of the time knew that the Earth was spherical, but (correctly) disagreed with Columbus' estimates of the distance to India (see Flat Earth). If the Americas did not exist, and Columbus had continued to India (even putting aside the threat of mutiny he was under) he would have run out of supplies before reaching them at the rate he was traveling. The intellectual class had known that the earth was round since Ancient Greece.
  • Christopher Columbus was not the first person to discover North America. In fact, Native Americans were the first people to discover North America. Also several Vikings discovered America before Columbus did.
  • Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation did not immediately free all American slaves, just those in the rebelling area (i.e. most of the South). Since that area did not recognize the power of the Federal government, few slaves were freed by the Proclamation.
  • Napoleon Bonaparte (pictured) was not especially short. After his death in 1821, the French emperor's height was recorded as 5 feet 2 inches in French feet. This corresponds to 5 feet 6.5 inches in modern international feet, or 1.686 metres, making him slightly taller than an average Frenchman of the 19th century. The metric system was introduced during his lifetime, so it was natural that he would be measured in feet and inches for much of his life. His nickname, "le petit caporal", adds to the confusion, as non-francophones mistakenly take petit literally as meaning "small"; in fact, it is an affectionate term reflecting on his camaraderie with ordinary soldiers.
  • During World War II, King Christian X of Denmark did not thwart Nazi attempts to identify Jews by wearing a yellow star himself. Jews in Denmark were never forced to wear the Star of David. The Danish government did help most Jews flee the country before the end of the war.
  • Italian dictator Benito Mussolini did not make the trains run on time. Much of the repair work had been performed before Mussolini and the Fascists came to power in 1922. Accounts from the era also suggest that the Italian railways' legendary adherence to timetables was more myth than reality.
  • It is believed that the phrase "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche" ("Let them eat cake") was not said by Marie Antoinette, but by another French Queen consort Anne of Austria during the civil war of the Fronde. Also, Jean-Jacques Rousseau recounts the anecdote (with "pastry" in place of "brioche") in the 6th book of his Confessions three years before Marie Antoinette joined the court at Versailles in 1770.
  • The German crowd witnessing John F. Kennedy's speech in Berlin in 1963 did not mistake Ich bin ein Berliner to mean "I am a jelly doughnut.".
  • Cinco de Mayo (May 5) is not Mexico's Independence Day. It is a regional holiday primarily celebrated in the state of Puebla, and commemorates the Mexican victory over the French in the Battle of Puebla.
  • The Spaniards did not conquer the Aztecs with a "hundred men and a handful of cannons". Although Cortes only brought with him (approximately) 400 soldiers, 100 sailors, and about 10-20 horses, the conquest of the Aztec was a complicated affair which included thousands of natives who allied themselves to Hernán Cortés.
  • George Washington did not have wooden teeth. According to a study of Washington's four known dentures performed by a forensic anthropologist from the University of Pittsburgh (in collaboration with the National Museum of Dentistry, itself associated with the Smithsonian Museum), the dentures were made of gold, hippopotamus ivory, lead, human and animal teeth (including horse and donkey teeth).

Politics

  • Al Gore never said he invented the Internet, though he did state that "During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet"(emphasis added)
  • Prime Minister Tony Blair never said that he remembered sitting behind the goal at St James Park watching Jackie Milburn play for Newcastle United. As Milburn retired from football when Blair was four years old and seating wasn't introduced until the 1990s it was suggested that he lied about it, in an interview in December 1997 with BBC Radio 5 Live, to boost his working class credentials. However he was misquoted, saying his time as a supporter came just after Milburn.
  • Prime Minister Gordon Brown never claimed to be a fan of the Arctic Monkeys nor that he wakes up to them. He did say that if they were playing on the radio it would certainly wake him up.
  • Peter Mandelson never mistook mushy peas for guacamole. The mistake was made by a young American researcher working for the then Labour leader Neil Kinnock who mischeivously attributed the mistake to his colleague Mandelson.

Cooking

  • Searing meat does not "seal in" moisture, and in fact may actually cause meat to lose moisture. Rather, meat is seared to create a brown crust and to add a rich flavor via the Maillard reaction.
  • Unopened mussels are not bad for your health.
  • All true tea, including black, green, and white teas, come from the Camellia sinensis plant. Herbal "teas", such as those made from chamomile, peppermint, or rooibos, usually contain no tea.
  • When cooking with alcoholic beverages, the alcohol does not completely evaporate (or 'burn off' in common terminology); the amount remaining depends upon the cooking method used.

Law

  • Entrapment law in the United States does not forbid police officers from going undercover, or from denying that they are police. It is a common misconception among persons engaged in low-level crime that if an undercover police officer is asked, "Are you a cop?" that they must reveal themselves to avoid entrapment.

Science

Astronomy

  • While in a low orbit (an altitude of about 185 km), a viewer of good eyesight can see portions of the Great Wall of China (pictured here in a satellite image) from space. It isn't, however, unique in that regard. From such a height, a multitude of land features and man-made objects are visible, including: highways, ships at sea, dams, railroads, cities, fields of crops, airports, and even some individual buildings. As to the claim that it is the only man-made object visible from the Moon, this is completely false. None of the Apollo astronauts reported seeing any man-made object from the Moon, and certainly not the Great Wall. The Great Wall, while massive, is comparatively thin, no wider than 10 feet (3 meters) along most of its length. Moreover, the colour of the Great Wall is very similar to that of the soil around it, making it hardly distinctive. The misconception is believed to have been popularized by Richard Halliburton decades before the first moon landing. (See Great Wall's visibility from space.) These words from Herbert Giles' 1912 work, The Civilization of China, "...and which has been glorified as the last trace of man's handiwork on the globe to fade from the view of an imaginary person receding into space." may be intended merely to say it is big (and also seems to be a quote from an earlier time). From here it is one small step for man to say it is visible from the moon.
  • Modern spacecraft returning from space do not suffer a communications blackout. While the heated atmosphere in front of the spacecraft prevents direct communication with Earth, and in the early days of the space programs of the world indeed meant that no communication was possible during reentry, systems like the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System have removed this problem.
  • There is no dark side of the Moon; every part of the Moon's surface (save perhaps deep craters near the poles) is illuminated by the Sun roughly half of the time. The phrase uses the word "dark" in the less-frequent sense of "unknown" or "obscure" to refer to the far side of the Moon, which because of tidal locking is never visible from Earth.
  • Black holes, unlike the common image, do not act as cosmic vacuum cleaners any more than do other stars. When a star evolves into a black hole, the gravitational attraction at a given distance from the body is no greater than it was for the star. That is to say, were the Sun to be replaced by a black hole of the same mass, the Earth would continue in the same orbit. Due to a black hole's formation being explosive in nature, the object would lose a certain amount of its energy in the process, which—according to the mass–energy equivalence—means that a black-hole would be of lower mass than the parent object, and actually have a weaker gravitational pull.
Only when one is close to a black hole (within the radius of the body which formed it) will the gravitational attraction become greater than the parent body's. One can check this by a thought-experiment: if we are inside a star, some of the star's mass is located in the other direction from us than the centre-of-mass, and thus will attract us away from the centre-of-mass, reducing the gravitational effect. On the other hand, if we replace the star with a black hole, there will be no such reducing effect, as the total mass is in the centre-of-mass, thus always in one direction.
  • When a meteor lands on Earth (after which it is termed a meteorite), it is not usually hot. In fact, many are found with frost on them. A meteor's great speed during reentry is enough to melt or vaporize its outermost layer, but any molten material will be quickly blown off (ablated), and the interior of the meteor does not have time to heat up because rocks are poor conductors of heat. Also, atmospheric drag can slow small meteors to terminal velocity by the time they hit the ground, giving the surface time to cool down.
  • The North Star, Polaris, is not the brightest star in the northern hemisphere night sky. The brightest star is Sirius, with an apparent magnitude of -1.47 (Polaris in comparison is 1.97, barely making the top-50 brightest stars list). Its importance lies in its proximity to the north celestial pole, meaning its location in the sky currently marks North.
  • Seasons are not caused by Earth being closer to the sun in summer than in winter. Rather, they are caused by Earth's tilted axis. In July, during Northern Hemisphere summer, Earth actually reaches its furthest distance from the sun, but the northern part of the planet is tilted towards the sun, giving longer days and more direct sunlight; in winter, it is tilted away. The seasons are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere, which is tilted towards the sun in January and away from the sun in July (note that if distance from the sun dictated the seasons, it would be impossible for them to differ by region in this way). The tropics do not have substantial seasonal variation in sunlight.
  • Liquids will generally freeze when exposed to space, such as in the movie Mission to Mars. A hard vacuum greatly lowers the boiling temperature of most liquids. This causes heat energy to be boiled away until the liquid freezes.
  • The lunar phases are not caused by the Earth's shadow (lunar eclipses, by contrast, are). Instead, as the Moon orbits Earth, we see its illuminated half from differing angles in relation to the Sun.
  • The human body can survive the hard vacuum of space unprotected, despite contrary depictions in much popular science fiction. Human flesh expands to about twice its size in such conditions, giving the visual effect of a body builder rather than an overfilled balloon. Consciousness is retained for up to 15 seconds as the effects of oxygen starvation set in. No snap freeze effect occurs because all heat must be lost through thermal radiation or the evaporation of liquids, and the blood does not boil because it remains pressurised within the body. The greatest danger is in attempting to hold one's breath before exposure, as the subsequent explosive decompression can damage the lungs. These effects have been confirmed through various accidents (including in very high altitude conditions, outer space and training vacuum chambers).

Health

Image:Taste buds.svg
A "tongue map" showing zones which taste bitter, sour, salty and sweet. In reality, all zones can sense all tastes.
  • Different tastes can be detected on all parts of the tongue, with slightly increased sensitivities in different locations depending on the person, contrary to the popular belief that specific tastes only correspond to specific mapped sites on the tongue. The original "tongue map" was based on a mistranslation by a Harvard psychologist of a discredited German paper that was written in 1901.
  • People do not use only ten percent of their brains. This myth is thought by some to have emerged after the discovery of glial cells in the brain, or it could have been the result of some other misunderstood or misinterpreted legitimate scientific findings, or even been the result of speculation by self-help gurus.
  • There is no single theory that satisfactorily explains myopia—in particular, studies show that "eyestrain" from close reading and computer games does not explain myopia. There is also no evidence that reading in dim light causes vision to deteriorate.
  • Shaving does not cause hair to grow back thicker or coarser. This belief is due to the fact that hair that has never been cut has a tapered end, whereas, after cutting, there is no taper. Thus, it appears thicker, and feels coarser due to the sharper, unworn edges.
  • Hair and fingernails do not continue to grow after a person dies. Rather, the skin dries and shrinks away from the bases of hairs and nails, giving the appearance of growth.
  • There is no cure for split ends or damaged hair. Shampoos and conditioners that advertise themselves as being able to reverse damage or reduce split ends are incorrect. Scientifically, the only way to cure split ends is by a simple haircut. Once the cuticle of the hair shaft is split, it can often still grow split, but can never be mended. Haircare products can be used to soften the texture by using fillers that attach to the hair shaft, making the hair appear healthier.
  • In spite of reports of successful non-surgical techniques for penis enlargement, there is no known scientific study that has demonstrated the efficacy of such techniques, other than surgery.

Biology

  • The indigenous people of North America can grow facial hair, contrary to the misconception that they cannot.
  • Warts on human skin are caused by viruses that are unique to humans (Human papillomavirus). Humans cannot catch warts from toads or other animals; the bumps on a toad are not warts.
  • Koalas are not bears. They are not even placental mammals; they are marsupials.
  • Some bats use echolocation to navigate while flying in darkness. Bats are not blind, however. Their eyes are small and poorly developed, but they are still capable of sight, particularly long-range, and in fact can be severely disoriented by excessive light.
  • The claim that a duck's quack doesn't echo is false, although the echo may be difficult to hear for humans under some circumstances.
  • The notion that goldfish have a memory of only three seconds is completely false. They have been trained to navigate mazes and can recognize their owners after an exposure of a few months.
  • Lemmings do not engage in suicidal dives off cliffs when migrating. They will, however, occasionally, and unintentionally fall off cliffs when venturing into unknown territory, with no knowledge of the boundaries of the environment. The misconception is due largely to the Disney film White Wilderness, which shot many of the migration scenes (also staged by using multiple shots of different groups of lemmings) on a large, snow-covered turntable in a studio. Photographers later pushed the lemmings off a cliff.
  • Mammal blood is bright red or scarlet when oxygenated and a darker red when not oxygenated. It is never blue. Veins appear blue through the skin because of Rayleigh scattering, the same effect responsible for the blue sky. However some other animals, mostly sea creatures, like the horseshoe crabs, have copper based blood, which appears blue.
  • The claim that individuals with a different number of chromosomes can never produce viable offspring is false—Przewalski's Horse, for example, can produce viable offspring with the common horse, despite a different number of chromosomes. Such hybrids are also common in plants.
  • An earthworm does not become two worms when cut in half. An earthworm can survive being bisected, but only the front half of the worm (where the mouth is located) can survive, while the other half dries out or starves to death. If one cuts the worm too close to the saddle (the fat pink section where all of the worm's vital organs are located) then the worm may die. On the other hand, species of the planaria family of flatworms actually do become two new planaria when bisected or split down the middle.
  • According to urban myth, the Daddy Long-Legs Spider (Pholcus phalangioides) is the most venomous spider in the world, but it is harmless to humans because its fangs cannot penetrate human skin. This is false as Pholcus phalangioides can pierce human skin, however, the toxicity of this spider's venom has just a weak effect on insects, let alone humans. It is likely this myth arose because some pholcidae actually prey upon and eat other spiders, including the black widow spider. In addition, there is also confusion regarding the use of the name Daddy Long Legs, because Harvestmen (order Opiliones, which are not spiders) and crane flies (which are insects) are also commonly referred to as Daddy Long Legs.
  • It is sometimes claimed that half, or more than half, of all humans who were ever born are alive today. The claim itself is poorly defined, as there is no definite starting point for the human species. However, even adopting conservative values regarding the origins of humanity, a significantly lower proportion of the human population is currently alive. See also World population: Number of humans who have ever lived.
  • Plants do not metabolize carbon dioxide (CO2) directly into oxygen (O2). Light-dependent reactions capture the energy of light and consume water, producing high-energy molecules and releasing oxygen as a by-product. Light-independent reactions use the high-energy molecules to capture and chemically reduce carbon dioxide, producing carbohydrate precursors and water. See Photosynthesis.
  • Monkeys are not apes, and apes are not monkeys, but both are simians and primates. Simian taxonomy is somewhat complex and has historically been revised, but phylogenetic studies of the evolutionary relationships among these taxa have shown that both apes and old world monkeys are members of the parvorder of catarrhini, which together with the platyrrhini parvorder constitutes the simiiformes infraorder.
  • The common cold is not caused by being cold or wet. It is caused by a virus of the rhinovirus family. Being cold or wet may weaken your immune system, making it easier to succumb to the virus.

Physics

  • The Coriolis effect does not determine the direction that water rotates in a bathtub drain or a flushing toilet. The Coriolis force is relatively small; it appears over large scales (like weather systems) or in systems such as the Foucault pendulum in which the small influence is allowed to accumulate over time. In a bathtub or toilet, the flow of the water over the basin itself produces forces that dwarf the Coriolis force. In addition, most toilets inject water into the bowl at an angle, causing a spin too fast to be affected by the Coriolis effect.
  • Gyroscopic forces are not required for a rider to balance a bicycle. The stability of a bicycle is mainly a result of its geometry and the rider's ability to counteract tilting by steering.
Image:Equal transit-time NASA wrong1.gif
An illustration of the equal transit-time fallacy.
  • It is not true that air takes the same time to travel above and below an aircraft's wing.<ref>Incorrect Lift Theory</ref> This misconception, illustrated at right, is widespread among textbooks and non-technical reference books, and even appears in pilot training materials, and is based on the Bernoulli effect. If this were truly the case, there would be no lift generated by the wings and the plane wouldn't fly.
  • Airplanes flying long distances between two places usually take less time flying west-to-east than east-to-west, not because of the earth's rotation directly, but because airplanes at higher altitudes tend to benefit from natural air currents called jet streams.
  • Some textbooks state that electricity within wires flows at nearly (or even exactly) the speed of light, which can give the impression that electrons themselves move almost instantly through a circuit. The electrons in a typical wire actually move on the order of centimeters per hour (much slower than a snail). The random thermal motions of the electrons are much faster than this, but still much slower than light, and with no tendency to occur in any particular direction. It is the electrical energy or electric field which travels almost at the speed of light. Imagine a hose which is full of water and connected to a closed faucet. When the faucet is turned on, water begins coming out of the other end of the hose almost immediately; the speed of the pressure wave which starts the water in the hose moving is analogous to the speed of the electrical signal. But it takes much longer for the water entering the hose at the faucet to transit the entire hose; the water itself, analogous to the electrons in a current-carrying wire, moves along the hose much more slowly than does the information that the faucet has been opened. In alternating current, as used in wall outlets, the direction of current alternates rapidly (50 or 60 times per second), and in this case, the electrons stay in about the same place the entire time (on the filament inside a light bulb for instance), while vibrating back and forth over a very small distance.
  • The blue color of lakes and oceans is not only a reflection of the blue sky. Water looks blue because water is blue; the water molecules do absorb some light, and they absorb red frequencies more than blue. The effect is small, so the blue color only becomes obvious when observing layers of water many meters (or more) thick. (This effect is noticeable to a lesser amount in white-painted swimming pools.) In salt water or mineral-laden fresh water, the color of dissolved minerals can also be seen. Sky-reflection does play a role, but it is not the only factor.
  • Some believe that the sky looks blue because it reflects the color of the ocean. The sky actually looks blue because the color of air varies with the viewing angle to the illumination source. Sunlight reflected (scattered) from the air is of shorter wavelengths toward the violet end of the visible spectrum, while the remaining transmitted sunlight has longer wavelengths of the red end of the spectrum. In fact, the sun appears reddish in the evening because the transmitted sunlight has lost much of its blue wavelengths because of scattering, leaving only the long wavelength red light to reach the observer. This phenomenon is referred to as Rayleigh Scattering.
  • Astronauts in orbiting spacecraft do not experience true "zero gravity". They accelerate along with the spacecraft. Because strong gravity in an accelerating free-fall environment is not easily detected, conditions of free-fall will simulate a "zero-gravity" non-accelerated environment. NASA refers to conditions with low G-force acceleration as microgravity. Earth's gravitational effects are very strong at the low orbit altitudes used by the space shuttle (about 85% of gravity at Earth's surface.) Gravity falls off rapidly as one leaves the Earth's surface, but one can never completely escape the gravitational pull of the Earth (or any other mass in the universe) even at vast distances, though the effect may be negligible. A free-fall situation can be more properly called "simulated zero-gravity" since the accelerated bodies are actually under a strong gravitational pull. Simulated zero gravity can be experienced in any near-freefall situation, including extremely fast elevators (that only simulate reduced gravity) and skydiving (near-real simulation of zero gravity for a short time). Astronauts ride inside free-falling airplanes for training (see Vomit Comet).
  • While the Earth's north magnetic pole is near the geographic north pole, it is in physics terms a south magnetic pole. By accepted convention, a compass needle is a magnet whose north-seeking end is termed the "north" end of the magnet. Therefore, because magnetic poles are attracted to their opposites, the compass needle points to the magnetic south pole of the Earth's magnetic field. The Arctic pole is a south-type pole, while the Antarctic pole is a north-type pole. The poles have undergone geomagnetic reversal in the past, the last being the Brunhes-Matuyama reversal of 780,000 years ago. Earth also has a more complicated magnetic field than one might get from a simple dipole. The earth has a strong overall dipole which is superposed on a weaker quadrupole, as well as higher-order magnetic moments. Not only have the magnetic poles moved to opposite geographic poles in the past, but they also drift around more or less randomly, presumably because of the movements of the molten nickel-iron alloy in the Earth's core.
  • When floating ice melts, it does not raise the water level (Archimedes' principle). However ice such as glaciers rests on rock, and is held above water: releasing it, or melting raises the level of the water that it is dropped in. The predicted threat of rising sea levels due to global warming is mainly due to the detachment or melting of inland ice, such as that on Greenland and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in Antarctica, the melting of glaciers, and the thermal expansion of seawater. Melting of sea ice in the Arctic makes a tiny contribution, by lowering the global average salinity (and therefore the density) of seawater.
  • The melting of Antarctic ice is not predicted to be the largest cause of rising sea levels in the near future. Complete melting of the Antarctic ice sheet would be the largest of all potential contributions to sea level change. At worst, the partial melting of Antarctic ice is predicted to be only the fourth-largest potential contribution to sea level rise by the year 2100 (−170 to +20 mm), after thermal expansion of the world's oceans (+110 to +430 mm), melting glaciers (+10 to +230 mm), and melting Greenland ice (−20 to +90 mm).
  • A Crookes radiometer or "light-mill" (pictured) does not turn by radiation pressure. In fact, it turns in the opposite direction from what one would expect due to radiation pressure. The correct explanation is essentially that molecules of gas in the partial vacuum inside rebound from the vanes of the radiometer, transmitting a different force depending on the temperature of the gas (rebounding more forcefully from the black, hotter side of the vanes).
  • Introductory science courses often teach that the period of a pendulum is independent of its amplitude (this is called isochronism), and students often mistakenly believe that is precisely true. It is only approximately true (due in fact to the small angle approximation), and only for small amplitudes, for which a pendulum approximates simple harmonic motion
  • It is not true that a nozzle (or a person's thumb) on the end of a garden hose makes the water squirt farther because the same amount of water gets forced through a smaller opening. The rate of flow of water through the hose is not a set constant; in fact, putting one's thumb over the end of the hose reduces the rate of flow. What is constant is the water pressure at the source. When water is flowing, the pressure decreases the farther from the source one gets due to friction between the water and the pipes it's flowing through. The faster the water moves through the pipe, the greater is the friction that cuts down pressure at the output end. A thumb over the end of the hose decreases the flow rate, so the pressure goes up and the water squirts farther.<ref>Epstein, L.C. Thinking Physics. San Francisco: Insight Press. ISBN 0-935218-06-8</ref>
  • Putting a teaspoon in the neck of an opened bottle of champagne will not help it retain its fizz. The misconception may arise from the fact that few people have two bottles of champagne open and unfinished at the same time to perform an accurate comparison. and likely suffer from subjective validation bias.
  • It is not true that paper can be folded in half a maximum of seven, eight, ten, or indeed any selected number of times. However there is a loss function associated with each fold, and a practical limit of seven or eight folds for a normal sized (letter or A4) sheet of writing paper is reasonable. A football field-sized sheet of paper was folded in half eleven times on episode 72 of Mythbusters.
  • It is not true that a mirror reverses left and right. It actually inverts front and back.<ref name="European Journal of Physics"> Plane-mirror inversion</ref> The left and right sides of a person's mirror image seem to be reversed because we are actually accustomed to everyone else's left and right being reversed when they turn around to face us. If, instead of rotating on the spot to face us, people instead flipped over into a handstand, we would see their left and right remain the same, but their top and bottom being reversed from our own. The mirror image faces us without its left and right or top and bottom being reversed in this sense, which is why it is the reverse of what everyone else sees when they look at us. Another way to understand this is the following. The misconception arises because one compares the image in the mirror to an object already 180° rotated around a vertical axis on the plane of the mirror, and then notices a left-right reverse. However, if one takes this (subconscious) rotation also into account, the rotation plus the left-right reverse together actually mean a front-back inversion.

Evolution

  • Biological evolution does not address the origin of life; for that, see abiogenesis. The two are commonly and mistakenly conflated. Evolution describes the changes in gene frequencies that occur in populations of living organisms over time, and thus, presupposes that life already exists. Evolution likewise says nothing about cosmology, the Big Bang, or the origins of the universe, galaxy, solar system, or Earth, although the term 'evolution' in the sense of a slow unfolding is used to describe such processes, e.g. Stellar Evolution, Cosmic Evolution.
  • The word "theory" in "the theory of evolution" does not imply doubt in mainstream science regarding its validity; the words "theory" and "hypothesis" are not the same in a scientific context (see Evolution as theory and fact). While "theory" in conventional usage tends to denote a "hunch" or conjecture, a scientific theory is a set of principles which, via logical induction, explains the observations in nature. The same inductive inferences can be made to predict observations before they are made. Evolution is a theory in the same sense as the theory of gravity or the theory of relativity.
  • It is misleading to claim that evolution is completely random. Normally, the random results of genetic mutation are filtered by ontogeny, natural selection, and other non-random mechanisms. On the other hand, some evolutionary changes result from genetic drift, which is random.
  • Humans did not evolve from monkeys or from any current non-human apes.<ref>Human are themselves apes, biologically speaking.</ref> Rather, they believe that humans and other modern simianschimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, baboons, etc.—all share a common early ancestor. It is believed that humans are more closely related to modern fellow apes than to monkeys, and humans and other apes share a later common ancestor that lived around 7 million years ago in the late Miocene epoch. However, fossil discoveries of "recently" (as in, only millions of years ago) extinct species are, in the experience of paleontologists, rarely direct ancestors of living species (cf. missing link).
  • The process of biological evolution is not necessarily slow. Millions of years are not necessarily required to see speciation (a change in characteristics of a kind of organism, typically rendering offspring infertile with the previous species). Indeed, it has been observed multiple times under both controlled laboratory conditions and in nature.
  • Speciation does not happen within a single organism: a chimpanzee cannot be born a chimpanzee and turn into a different species within its lifetime. Evolution to a new species deals with changes to the gene pool of a population, which accumulate only over generations. Nor does speciation occur on an individual basis. It is not meaningful to speak of the first member of a new species.
  • Organisms cannot pass on acquired traits to their offspring; a bodybuilder's children are not born with bigger muscles (but see epigenetics).
  • Evolution is not a progression from "lower" to "higher", and evolution does not require an increase in complexity (see Evolution of complexity). A population can evolve to become simpler with less genetic information, and have a smaller genome—often called "devolution", but that is a misnomer.
  • The theory of evolution does posit "transitional forms", but not "endpoint forms". That is, every animal, plant, fossil that exists, is an example of a transitional form. Evolution is a continuous process that has no "goal" per se. (See also List of transitional fossils.)
  • The claim that "almost all mutations are harmful" is false. In fact, most mutations have no noticeable effect, mainly because most mutations do not occur within coding or regulatory regions of the genome. One study gives the average number of mutations that arise in a human conception to be around 128, with an average number of harmful mutations per conception of 1.3. However, most mutations that have an effect on phenotype are indeed detrimental to the organism.
  • The claim that evolution makes no meaningful predictions is not true—for example the discovery of the relationship between chromosome 2 and chimpanzee chromosomes at the end of the completion of the human and chimp genome projects was predicted, and makes meaningful sense as evidence of a common ancestor.
  • The characterization of evolution as the "survival of the fittest" (in the sense of "only the fittest organisms will prevail", a view common in social Darwinism) is not consistent with the actual theory of evolution. Any organism which is capable of reproducing itself before dying is considered "fit". If the organism is able to do so on an ongoing basis, it will survive as a species. A more accurate characterization of evolution would be "survival of the fit enough".<ref>Evolution Vs. Creationism: An Introduction. Eugenie Carol Scott, University of California Press, 2005, ISBN 0520233913</ref><ref>"Stephen Jay Gould, Darwin's Untimely Burial", 1976; from Michael Ruse, ed., Philosophy of Biology, New York: Prometheus Books, 1998, pp. 93-98.</ref>

Earth science

Linguistics

  • The Inuit do not have a large number of words for snow. One Eskimo-Aleut language studied had four unrelated root words, but because it is a polysynthetic language, in which sentences are formed by compounding words, one can use these roots to create an infinite number of "words" about snow. By comparison, English has many unrelated root words for snow as well: snow, sleet, powder, flurry, drift, avalanche and blizzard.

Culture

Religion

  • Albert Einstein did not believe in God in a "personal" sense and discounted the existence of a creator. Einstein was, in fact, a rationalistic pantheist and follower of Baruch Spinoza. Many people misinterpreted his words in public, to which Einstein himself responded by saying: "It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it."<ref>Einstein quotes</ref>
  • The phrase "separation of church and state" does not occur in the U.S. Constitution. It was first used in a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut, reassuring them that religious minorities (such as Baptists) would be protected under the Bill of Rights. His expression "wall of separation between church and state" was a description an intended effect of the First Amendment's Establishment and Free Exercise provisions, not a quotation therefrom.<ref>Jefferson's Letter to the Danbury Baptists</ref>
  • Agnosticism is not necessarily an either/or proposition. Since it addresses the certainty of one's claims, it is reconcilable with both belief and nonbelief. This is why agnostic theism and agnostic atheism are consistent views.

Judaism and Christianity

  • Nowhere in the Bible is the fruit eaten by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden referred to as an apple. The fruit is called the "fruit of the tree" (that is, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil), and neither the fruit nor the tree is identified by species. In Middle English, as late as the 17th century "apple" was a generic term for all fruit other than berries but including nuts.<ref>Apple at the Online Etymology Dictionary</ref> However, also in continental European art from that period representing the Fall of Man the fruit is often depicted as an apple.
  • In the book of Genesis, the serpent in the Garden of Eden is not explicitly identified as being Satan. This is teaching made by later Christians. Additionally, Satan is never explicitly given the name Lucifer ("light bearer") in the Bible. That name comes from the Vulgate (Latin translation) of a prophecy in Isaiah 14:12, which some Christians interpret as referring to the fall of Satan from heaven.
  • Although Christians and Jews agree that the Ten Commandments are ten in number, they are not explicitly separated from each other in the original text. Thus the interpretation of the precise text of each commandment differs between Christians and Jews, and between Christian groups (see this chart for example).
  • The term Immaculate Conception does not refer to Jesus's conception by the Virgin Mary (see Virgin Birth of Jesus), but rather to the Roman Catholic teaching that Mary herself was conceived without the stain of Original Sin. (See also Blessed Virgin Mary.)
  • Nowhere in the Bible is Mary Magdalene ever referred to as a prostitute. Before her seeing the risen Jesus, the only other mention besides the listing of her name is the mentioning in Luke 8:2<ref>Luke 8</ref> that she had been possessed by seven demons. In fact there are several sinful women mentioned in the gospels, one of whom is "caught in adultery." Pope Gregory conflated this woman with Mary Magdalene in one of his sermons and thus propagated this mistaken idea. This misconception may be caused by the fact that Magdala, where Mary Magdalene hailed from, was infamous for prostitution.
  • The canon of the New Testament was not selected by Constantine at the First Council of Nicaea. Constantine did not personally have a vote on the council, and the canon had been settled mainly by common consent among the clergy from the early second century. Furthermore, the council did not consider the matter of canon in its proceedings. (See Development of the New Testament canon.)
  • Nowhere in the Bible does it say exactly three wise men came from afar on camels to visit "Baby Jesus"<ref>Snopes: 3 Wise Men</ref> It was assumed that there were three of them because three gifts are described. The Greek word "magos" could mean wise men or sorcerers, but not kings.

Hinduism

  • Hinduism is not one distinct religion, but was considered to be so since at least AD 1323, as attested by South Indian and Kashmiri texts,<ref> David Lorenzen, Who Invented Hinduism? New Delhi 2006, pp. 24-33; Rajatarangini of Yonaraja</ref> and increasingly so during the British rule. Since the end of the 18th century the word has been used as an umbrella term for most of the religious, spiritual, and philosophical traditions of the sub-continent, excluding the distinct religions of Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism and Islam. Despite this, many traditions considered "Hindu" today draw their validity from core texts called the Vedas, though in various degrees; some traditions assert that their own texts supersede the Vedas. The traditions that reject the Vedas are considered nastika (heterodox), as opposed to astika (orthodox). Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma are now seen as trinity; that is, highest in the order of Hindu Gods (See Astika and Nastika). Nastika is often translated as "atheist", though it does not exactly correspond to the English word.
  • Throughout most traditions, the Bhagavad Gita is not equivalent to the Christian's Bible in level of scriptural authority. It is considered Smriti (that which is remembered) which is a class of scripture lower in rank than Shruti (what is heard), containing the Vedas. The Bhagavad Gita, though, is considered the most popular.<ref>Heart of Hinduism: Hindu Sacred Books</ref>
  • Hinduism is considered a family of religions and as such has no concept of God universal to all astika sects. Hinduism is thus not strictly polytheistic across all sampradyas (traditions), but can be pantheistic or panentheistic, or be distinctly henotheistic or monotheistic.

Islam

"It was mentioned by Daraj Ibn Abi Hatim, that Abu al-Haytham 'Adullah Ibn Wahb narrated from Abu Sa'id al-Khudhri, who heard the Prophet Muhammad saying, 'The smallest reward for the people of Heaven is an abode where there are eighty thousand servants and seventy-two houri, over which stands a dome decorated with pearls, aquamarine and ruby, as wide as the distance from al-Jabiyyah to San'a.
  • The Niqāb veil (and by extension, Burqa) is not considered by most Islamic scholars to be obligatory, but rather a voluntary show of piety, and is never mentioned specifically in the Qu'ran. The Qu'ran instructs to women to "…not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to…"
  • Allah does not refer to a Muslim, as opposed to a Christian, God. It is simply Arabic for "God". Arab speaking Christians also refer to God as Allah. Islam, Christianity and Judaism share a belief in "one god", the Abrahamic God.
  • Jihad is not an "Islamic war on the western world" but rather a verb meaning to struggle or to strive. One can have an internal jihad, family jihad, or religious jihad, which may or may not include violence towards non Muslims. A comparison may be made with the term "crusade", which is sometimes considered by Muslims to mean Western violence against Islam, when it is more often used as a metaphorical struggle; for example, "a crusade against drugs".

Paganism

Technology

Inventions

Computing

  • ENIAC was not the first digital computer; rather, it was the first general-purpose all-electronic computer. The Atanasoff-Berry Computer (ABC) and the Colossus computer were digital electronic computers but were not general-purpose, being designed for only particular applications. The partly-electromechanical Z3 was the first digital and general-purpose computer.
  • The clock rate of a CPU is not a good measure of its performance. Performance is affected by many things, especially the design of the CPU's instruction pipelines, branch prediction, memory subsystem, and caches; the number of cores; and the ability of software to take advantage of a given CPU architecture's features. This is known as the megahertz myth.
  • The .tv domain is not the domain code for television or broadcast. .tv is the Internet country code top-level domain (ccTLD) for the island nation of Tuvalu. Tuvalu created a licensing agreement with a large tech company to on-sell the domain code to consumers.

Gaming

  • Pong was not the first video game. In fact, Tennis for Two, created in 1958, was one of the first electronic games to use a graphical display. The first commercially sold coin-operated video game, Computer Space, was created in 1971 by the future founders of Atari. Fearing that Computer Space had not been popular because of its complexity, Nolan Bushnell and Allan Alcorn created Pong in 1972 after Bushnell had seen a similar game at a trade show.

Transportation

  • The ship Mary Celeste was not called Marie Celeste. Arthur Conan Doyle used the Marie Celeste spelling in his story J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement, based on the incident.
  • The first heavier-than-air craft was not flown by the Wright brothers. Human-flown gliders and kites had been flown far earlier. The Wright brothers did fly the first heavier-than-air craft capable of controlled and sustained powered flight. There is even some evidence to show Clément Ader was the first to fly a heavier-than-air craft capable of controlled and sustained powered flight in 1890<ref>Link to web site about Clément Ader</ref>.
  • Charles Lindbergh was not the first man to fly the Atlantic Ocean, although he was the first to have flown across it solo. The first flight had been done first in stages between May 8 and May 31, 1919, by the crew of the Navy-Curtiss NC-4 flying boat which took 24 days to complete its journey. The first truly non-stop transatlantic flight was made in 1919 by John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown in a modified Vickers Vimy bomber.
  • The United States Interstate Highway System was not designed with airplane landings in mind. A common urban legend states that one out of every five (or ten) miles of highway must be straight and flat to allow emergency (or military) airplane landings, but this is not the case. However, several parts of the German and later the Swiss Autobahn system were indeed designed to be auxiliary military airports, both during World War II and the Cold War.
  • The German Autobahn wasn't designed by Adolf Hitler or the Third Reich cabinet. It came into design 20 years before Hitler's reign, and was first implemented a year before he came to power.
  • Toilet waste is not dumped overboard in aircraft. All waste is collected in tanks which are emptied on the ground by special toilet waste vehicles. A vacuum is used to allow the toilet to be flushed with less water and because plumbing cannot rely on gravity alone in an aircraft in motion.

Other

  • There is no reliable scientific evidence that installing security lighting in outdoor areas actually deters crime; it may actually make crime easier to conceal. For instance, a burglar who is forced to use a flashlight is more easily spotted than one who can see by existing light.
  • Passive night vision devices do not actually illuminate an environment, rather enhancing the visibility of light reflecting off surfaces. Image enhancement night vision does not assist visibility in an environment with absolutely no light; thermal imaging would be required in this situation.
  • The idea of glass flow is a widely held misconception. The distorted glass in the windows of some old buildings, alleged to be evidence in favor of glass flow, is more likely the result of the glass making process rather than the viscosity of glass.
  • The number of megapixels in a digital camera is not a sufficient measure of image quality. The skill of a photographer, the quality of the lens, and the number, size and compression of individual pixels all impact image quality. Most viewers hold contrast, color saturation, and color accuracy to be more important than resolution.
  • Card counting in the game of blackjack does not allow the card counter to know specifically what cards are going to be dealt, and it does not guarantee positive returns to the card counter in the short term. Counting cards only allows the player to know that the remaining cards in decks will give the players an edge on the house in the up-coming hands (usually only a few percent), and so allowing the players to maximize the projected (not guaranteed) profits from this edge by betting very large amounts.<ref>Card counting 101</ref>

See also




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "List of common misconceptions" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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