Skepticism

4.15 Afternoon Inquisition

Today’s question comes to us courtesy of last week’s Comment o’ the Week winner, Eliza! Take it away, Eliza:

Once upon 1984 I, age 5, had the following exchange with my mom:

“It must be harder to be a commercial actor than a show one.”

“Why’s that?”

“They have to do it all over again the same exact way lots of times
every day. The people on the shows do it once. Maybe again another day
if people liked it.”

Managing a straight face she explained recording and reruns without
making my embarrassment sting. That is until my stepfather howled
about it. “Well how would I know?” I protested storming off to doodle
him being carried away by a flock of neon songbirds.

I had a point. I’d never seen a VCR. My TV world consisted of five
channels. I knew the news was live and actors were pretending and had
a sketchy idea of how the signal came from the tower to the rabbit
ears. I was just missing one key bit of info. Once added, that bit
opened my eyes. It sparked my curiosity.

What was your “Ohhh!” moment? And if you were always the smartest
smartypants tell me about that time in the life of your “friend.”

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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48 Comments

  1. As a child my parents were very open and honest with me about sex.
    But sometimes I still got confused.

    I was in 2nd grade when I heard someone talk about a condom. I went home and asked my mother.

    She explained that a condom was like a balloon that the man put over his penis so that his sperm couldn’t get into the woman.

    I knew words like penis and sperm…and I also knew that penises got bigger before sex… but s a 7 year old I had never seen a balloon that wasn’t blown up all the way.

    Let your imagination go where mine went.

    After about 20 mins of wide eyed shock my mother figured out why I was hyperventilating and set the record straight..

  2. I remember when I thought radio DJ’s were also the ones doing the singing.

    I think my “oooh!” moment came when I told my sister once “I like this DJ!” during a favorite song on the radio. She laughed at me and then explained that the radio DJ’s were playing recordings of musicians.

    So… yeah. How old was I? Hopefully only 5 or 6.

  3. When I was five, I found a packet of seeds in the house. It said something like “Use in 1972” on it.

    My mother told me to throw them away, as they were probably too old to germinate.

    “No!” I protested. “Let’s just wait until 1972 comes again next year!”

  4. These are good!!

    Before I got the birds n’ bees chat my kid logic told me that because my birthday was exactly six months after my mom’s birthday, and the same was true for my best friend and her mom, that women just automagically had babies on their half birthday during certain years.

    The math did not work out when my brother was born and after a few days of doubting he was really related to me, I finally had an epiphany about sample sizes.

  5. A friend of mine was describing a theoretical cosmic cataclysmic event which would be “a wave of energy moving at the speed of light, destroying everything in its path”.
    I said, “Man! I bet that would look cool coming at you!”
    He stared at me and repeated very slowly “at the speed of light”.
    I don’t think he ever looked at me again without seeing a giant “Idiot” stamped on my face.

  6. I have two webbed toes on each foot (the “index” and “middle” toes, webbed up to the first joint, and the technical word is “syndactyly”). When I was very young, the only other people whose toes I’d really seen were my parents and my sister, all of whom were older than me. Somehow I got the idea that webbed toes were something that everyone had but you grew out of, like baby teeth.

    Then, one day when I was maybe four or five, I was in a store and saw a woman carrying a barefoot one-year-old without webbed toes. Click.

    Of course, this “Oooh!” moment simply proved how super-cool and special I was. Unfortunately, I later had to deal with the heartbreaking realization that I would never know the joy of toe-socks. Sigh….

  7. I remember believing that people died because no one was looking at them. It took my mom explaining that I did not need to come into her room every 10 minutes to keep her alive to make me understand that life wasn’t dependent on my observation. I was really young at the time probably 3 or 4. In fact, having death explained to me is one of my earliest memories.

  8. After learning that people breath in oxygen and exhale carbon-dioxide I remember being deathly afraid that the oxygen would run out. In fact, since I was smart, I *knew* it would eventually run out, I just didn’t know when.

    I lived in fear until several months later when we learned that trees do the opposite and so replenish the oxygen. I went home to my home to my mom and casually remarked : ‘I got some good news at school today – we’re not all going to die’, I’m sure she was relieved.

    Then again she was the one responsible for my initial confusion about reproduction. Mom explained to me that when a man and a woman are in bed together the man’s seed comes out of his penis and goes into the woman’s tummy where a baby grows. She either didn’t explain or was unclear about the insertion bit.

    So I had this mental picture of a couple asleep while the mischievous little seeds crawl out of his penis and hop across the bed to the unsuspecting mother-to-be, wiggle their way in and stealthily implant themselves. Made me glad I was a boy.

    Mercifully I forget who disabused me of this notion.

  9. When I was talking about what I’d learned in Health class and my mother told me that, no, marijuanna isn’t addictive. It was a “ohh, adults don’t always tell the truth.”

  10. I’m a) the smartest smartypants, and b) not that surprised when I discover a misconception I’ve had.

    My one big “Ohhh!” moment though is related to English not being my first language. I first heard and made an internal translation of the Beatles’ From Me To You as a kid, and didn’t really revise it as I got better at English, until it suddenly struck me at the age of 21 that the word “long” in “I’ve got arms that long to hold you” was a verb, not an adjective.

    You’d think that “I’ve got lips that long to kiss you” would have clued me in, but I just thought that was just another weird Beatles’ LSD “grandma why are your teeth so big” line.

    It amused me a lot when I suddenly realised how much more sense the lyrics make when you actually understand them.

  11. Hmmmm…..does it count if they were just misconceptions you had as a child? How’s this….

    Girls urinated from their butts

    Babies came out of the mother via the mouth.

    When lying down, and you have need to expell gas, never do so lying face down, that’s farting in God’s face (I went to a fundie school as a kid)

    Looking at your penis is evil

  12. I never cared much for the metric system. When people would tell me “5 kg” or “18 meters”, none of it mattered much to me. Who cares? Tell me in inches and miles.

    Then, when I was about 7 months pregnant, I was taking a childbirth class, and we were shown exactly how big a circle with a 10 cm diameter was.

    I cried.

  13. When I was a kid, I had this vague notion that things didn’t really exist until I’d heard about them. I became aware of the existence of hairspray at around age 8 or so. I was thirteen when I saw the John Waters movie of the same name, and I was really confused when it suggested that they had access to the styling product in 1962, since I assumed it had only been invented five years earlier.

  14. When my son asked where people came from, I told him that a long time ago, monkeys kind of turned into people.

    I would like to thank the public school system of South Carolina, and also state that I now know that this is not true.

    God created everything 6,000 years ago.

  15. My “friend” who I will refer to by the initial “I” grew up under the false premise that people always wanted honesty. For years, I didn’t understand why people thought I was tactless or rude.

    The great “oh” moment came when my…I’s father had a woman stay the night. The next morning, I commented that father’s bed needs new box springs if they are going to keep doing that because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to sleep. Following the talking to and brief punishment, I learned that people wanted lies. I haven’t been completely honest since.

  16. Mine was where babies come from. Well, not so much where they came from (I already knew that) as how they came out.

    Until I was four I just always assumed that they were cut out, cesarean style, because, you know, what other way was there? One day I was watching a tv show with mum, in which a big fuss was being made about a woman having a c-section for some reason, and I asked mum why all the fuss. That’s when I was informed how they usually enter the world. ‘Oh’.

  17. I remember realizing that a cigarette or cigar”ette” was a small cigar.

    @SkepLit:

    I was in school one day when a friend said “after sitting on the couch for 5 min. inertia had set in so I just couldn’t be bothered”.
    Another friend of ours replied “inertia doesn’t ‘set in’ it just is”.
    Your story reminded me of that.

    But my favorite story like this happened to a bunch of us hanging around the gym discussing what our dads used to do for a living (we were about 25 at the time). One guy just blurted out “my dad was Batman”. Apparently his dad had told him this lie when he was really young and he believed it. Being a kid he stopped thinking about it and never challenged the idea as he got older so on a subconscious level he still believed it. It wasn’t until he blurted it out that he really thought about it. He realized his error very quickly when we all started laughing.
    That was a very funny night.

  18. Mine feels kind of lame, now, but I’ve had this in my mind lately. I remember when I was learning basic math, I never would trust anyone that if 3 + 5 = 8, then 5 + 3 = 8, too. The same with multiplication. I had been taught arithmetic by memorization, and not what the numbers represented, so if I hadn’t been told 4 + 2 = 2 + 4, I didn’t believe it until I’d counted it out on my fingers and realized that yes, it is. When I suddenly figured out how the numbers could represent things, and not just arbitrary counting, it made much more sense, especially multiplication and geometry.

  19. Oh, there are so many. A favorite is a double whammy involving optical illusions and pneumatics.

    When I was about 4 or 5, my father was a mechanic who worked on, among other things, pneumatic braking systems. One day, we were driving to a restaurant, and he decided to tease me by pointing to a small aircraft that was in the process of landing at a nearby airport.

    Given the placement, speed, and relative angle of the plane, it appeared to be standing still. My dad asked “how does it do that?” In a stunning display of kid-logic, I piped in with “duh. Air-brakes!”

    After he pulled over and finished laughing, I learned about how air brakes worked and what they really are. I also learned that things are not always as they appear, and that the mind can play tricks with what we see.

  20. I used to pronounce commercial “commartial” My mother would always chuckled at me but when I would ask her what was funny she wouldn’t tell me. One day my father laughed out loud and corrected me. When my mother heard me say it correctly she asked me about the change and I told her about the episode with my dad and how I did not appreciate the humor she was having at my expense. She seemed genuinely sad, telling me that she thought it was really cute. I was a teenager by now and it dawned upon me that it was probably the only thing left that reminded her of when I was a little kid. I wanted to change back but it was too late. Some things just can’t be undone.

  21. When I was very, very little, probably around 3, I thought that roads and sidewalks, any paved surface, existed to cover up big, gaping holes in the earth. Like there were yards and grass and trees and then these giant holes that had to be paved over in order to keep people from falling in. I was really, really relieved when I learned otherwise. I think maybe I had seen some sort of earthquake imagery somewhere? Can’t imagine where else I’d have come up with that freaky idea.

    The other, slightly embarrassing, story is when I was a bit older, about 6 or 7. My family was at the zoo, and after reading one of the informational signs, I proudly explained to my parents that the animals’ names were “Dung” and “Urine.” After they stopped laughing, I got the skinny on scientific terms for bodily excretions.

  22. @Elyse:
    That made me laugh.

    When I was about 5, I remember asking my grandma if maybe Jesus, Buddha, the Hindu gods, and other gods outside the Christian tradition could all be the same. Maybe God just appeared to different people in a way that would jive with their culture. This made a lot of sense to me. I mean, he *is* God!
    She responded that I was wrong because those were pagan gods. I asked how she knew that and she said, “They just are!”
    I wonder if that first crack in my Christian beliefs was loud enough for her to hear.

  23. My brother and I thought they did the “Wizard of Oz” every year over and over…. until the third year we were old enough to figure it out (we still debate on who said “wait, Dorothy is the SAME!” and put it all together). We were close in age and very very young! (The Wizard was only shown on tv once a year).

    My brother and I shared a room when we were young, and I remember when he lost a tooth and we were expecting the tooth fairy. We were both imaging a pirates hoard of GOLD. He got 50cents. We were bummed.

    He (for his GO Joes, they were large in the old days) and me (for my Barbies) used old time sanitary napkins for mattresses. Those lovely thin ones had not been invented!

  24. OK I work at a preschool. It’s Montessori so kids often work with a teacher one on one.
    One game we play is “find something that starts with this letter” with a child. Now in Montessori we work with letter SOUNDS. But I was a new and untrained. So I said to the child “find something that starts with the letter L” (but I said the letter name not sound). The child brought me a toy elephant. I tried again and said “find something that starts with the letter R”
    An orange.

    It was then I figured out why teaching your young child letter SOUNDS makes more sense than the name of the letter….

  25. This is actually one of my earliest memories, but when I was about 3 or 4 I saw a skull half submerged in soil on the cover of a National Geographic magazine. When I asked my mother what type of animal it belonged to she told it was a “person’s head bone” (or words to that effect).
    It had never occurred to me before that people actually died…though a recently dead pet taught me that animals sure did.
    I remember I wasn’t traumatized at all. My immediate (internal) reaction was more along the lines of: “People DIE??? Oh, of course people die…How could I have been so stupid?!”
    My embarrassment at not knowing was much more profound than sudden realization of my impending doom…

  26. The one I always think of is the day I realized that it doesn’t rain everywhere at the same time, noticing that it was raining on one side of the house but not the other. I remember this making a big enough impression on me that I drew a picture of it. I must have been 6 or 7 at the time.

  27. I demand evidence. I was that way even as a child.
    When I was a young child, back in the 50’s, we lived 2 streets over from an amusement park. The park opened about the first week of april. The last week of march the workers at the park would get the park ready for the opening. I could see the some of the rides from my backyard and saw the ferris wheel and roller coaster running and I told my mother this. She told me that they woere getting the park ready, but I needed evidence so I went over to the park, crossing a very heavily travelled thoroughfare, which I was not supposed to cross alone. I went into the park and saw the men working but no people on the rides so I then believed what my mother said so I started home only to run into my mother. She took me back home and I told her she was right. What I got out of the experience was not being able to go the park for the next 6 weeks. Live and learn.

  28. About 14 years ago I got divorced and moved from a bland little suburb to an apartment complex in a very busy part of Atlanta. I had no idea what a sheltered existence I had led up until that time, when I was 37. One day I went out to the communal mailbox and saw a poster with a composite drawing of an armed robber and the warning BOLO (Be on the Lookout).

    Then a couple of weeks later, I saw a new poster with the same warning but a different picture and a different set of offenses (this time it was rape).

    For an embarrassingly long time I was under the impression that some guy named “Bolo” was running around wreaking havoc in our area, and wondered, if they knew his name, why was it taking the police so long to run him down?

  29. Just thought of another one (and will probably fill several pages if I keep thinking, so I promise to stop after this).

    In elementary school, one of my classmates moved away, and a week later, a new kid joined our class. And so, for years, I thought that if you moved to another town, the person whose house you moved into would have to move into your old house, like a direct trade.

  30. One more, please? If I come back again, just hit me with a stick.

    I grew up in a little suburb where the houses were on small lots, quite close together. One summer night I was outside in the back yard with my father and was playing with a flashlight.

    My father cautioned me, “Never point that flashlight up at the sky. An airplane pilot might think this is a runway and try to land in the yard!” Naturally, I believed him and it was years before I could ever bring myself to point a flashlight upward at night.

  31. I had a similar belief to @Liza‘s… I thought that when a radio station played music, the musicians were actually playing there, in the studio. I guess this belief came from not having any music-playing device at home other than the radio.

    I still remember the time when I switched stations in the middle of a song and hit the same musician playing in a different station…

  32. My Eureka moment occurred when I figured out where a tree comes from — ie where the biomass that makes a tree comes from.

    I’m embarrassed to say I was 45 at the time. That’s what comes from not taking Grade 11 biology.

    Actually I’m not embarrassed. There’s nothing wrong with being ignorant per se. Learning should be a lifelong modality. Stupidity is a different thing — not trying to understand.

    “There’s no such thing as a stupid question”

  33. Volly: when I first moved to the states I spent several months vaguely wondering who these Asian guys “Ped Xing” and “Veh Xing” were and why there were signposts around town with their names on.

  34. I did not understand deities as a very young kid (I was actually pretty convinced that most things in the world had a naturalistic origin and explanation), and I’m completely serious about that. My family was Catholic and everything too, and I still didn’t get the concept for a long time.

    Eventually, my cousins were able to explain that to me that the world was “created” (in a metaphorical sense that I understood, not in a Creationist sense), but I had reasoned at that time that it had to have been a bunch of people because everything was far too complex for one person to have made it all. So I guess I was, for a little while, polytheistic. I reasoned that the Christian god that was being explained to me must have been the king of all the other gods, not merely the only god.

    It took me a while after that to figure out the entire notion of monotheism.

    And then it took a long time after that for me to realize that I was right in first place, and I’m still trying to figure out why I didn’t just stick to that train of thought I had as a kid (an argument could be made that cultural pressure is a strong motivator).

    What’s interesting is that during the intervening years of my atheism, I had always secretly held a high regard for atheist thinking, and writing.

  35. I was three or four and driving around town with my mom. This was back in the day when three or four year olds could sit in the front seat still. Anyway I said to her, “I’ve figured out why there are slits between the road and the sidewalk at intersections.” She said, “Really why?” I said, “So the women working down there can see out and know when to change the red light to green for the cars to go.” To her credit she didn’t laugh but explained the slits were for water drainage and how the lights worked on a timer.

    She used to tell me, “There is no such thing as a dumb question.” And despite being very religious never stifled my curiosity about science.

  36. @Kaylia_Marie: Blasphemer. Toe-socks are the most awesome thing ever invented for feet. I can wear socks AND still use my toes to pick things up.

    @ topic of thread:

    My greatest ‘ah-ha’ moment. When I was very young – I was very trusting, sharing, honest, and ect… (no.. really.. I was… I actually gave another kid my own toy once because he looked sad and didn’t have a toy of his own). Then one day, going to a new school, the kid in front of me on the bus turned around and introduced himself. When I put my hand out to shake his he grabbed it, pulled me in, and started beating me and laughing to himself about how ‘scared’ I was and how I wasn’t even fighting back.

    He didn’t hurt me – didn’t even leave a bruise, but I never looked at anyone quite the same way after that day. From then on I understood, at a very deep level, that some people are just mean. Not for any reason – just mean because they can be.

    I don’t like those people.

    Hmmm.. strange.. I haven’t thought about that in years.

  37. Yikes, I really don’t understand why grownups tell their kids these joke-lies that kids then believe in for years. My grandmother did that to me once when I was six-seven years old and I think it took at least four years, maybe longer, for me to realise that she was just kidding. My grandfather has a really gorgeous singing voice, a deep baritone, and he sings with a lot of feeling. My grandmother still kind of regrets he didn’t get formal vocal training.

    Anyway, we listened to a lot of music and once she put in a tape and the singer sounded a lot like my grandfather. So I asked, “Is that grandfather?” and she said yes, and for the next few years I proudly played that tape to my friends, until the day I realised it wasn’t my grandfather at all, but Dmitry Khvorostovsky. In my defense, the tape wasn’t opera, but Russian folk songs, and their voices really do sound alike, but still, I was kind of hurt that I was allowed to entertain that misconception for so long.

  38. I taught myself to read when I was quite wee (about 3) but I thought it was an exclusively an oral experience, and I remember asking my mother why she just stared at magazine pages and never read them. There was a conversation wherein I recall her saying, “Okay, like, look at this word,” pointing to it on the page, “Do you know what it is? But shh, don’t say it! See, you read it to yourself in your head!”

  39. When I was 18 (oh, hello everyone!) I discovered I have phoneme-grapheme synaesthesia (I see colours associated with words/letters and numbers – not the fun see-colours-associated-with-sounds synaesthesia), though I didn’t know the word for it until last year when I read Oliver Sacks’ ‘Musicophilia’. Up to this point, I would frequently be confused as to why people wrote things in the wrong colour on banners and signs, but assumed they were just trying to be edgy or something; if I was to write something with colour, I’d use the ‘correct’ one (which isn’t always pretty, and really annoyed my elementary school teachers, almost as much as writing things on the left hand side of the book with my left hand, then switching to my right for the right side, or writing the words in talking bubbles coming out of the left side of people’s faces in mirror-writing – you know, the order the words would come out of their mouth).
    It never occured to me that nobody else knew these things had an intrinsic colour, until one day, I was trying to sort my class notes into duotangs, and didn’t have the right colour for each of my classes. I had always colour-coded my binders based on the colour of the subject, for ease of reference. I expressed my frustration to my roommate (first year undergrad), and her eyes went very wide as she asked me to explain what I meant by the subject’s colour. So I started to explain “well, biology is purple, but I just have this blue binder, but, you know, chemistry is blue, and I’ve got chem this term too…”. She replied that no, she did not know chemistry was blue at all. We spent the next half-hour or so with me explaining the colours of the alphabet and numbers, and it slowly dawned on me that this was a really weird thing I did. I was shaken for years wondering what else about the way I saw the world was different from everyone else.

    Of course, now as a professional scientist, I pretty much experience that feeling every time I turn on the news or overhear a conversation on the bus.

  40. At one point or another I believed the reason some balloons floated and some didn’t was some kind of trick or secret to blowing them up that other people knew and I didn’t, like how to tie your shoelaces or ride a bike. I figured I would learn it in the fullness of time, just like those other things. And in a way, I was right, although I certainly didn’t expect the “trick” to be “have access to a cylinder of helium”.

  41. @Minnie: I had the same experience, probably at 7 as well, with the sign “Giraffen stanger”, which literally means “The Giraff butts (so watch out, or you’ll get the horns”. I remember feeling very embarassed when my parents told me I got it wrong.

  42. Way late, but whatever.
    This was fairly recent, so it’s still fairly embarrassing.
    Throughout high school, I believed most of the woo-woo out there. I considered myself to be a pagan, and, yes, I believed in astrology.
    I took an astronomy class in college, and when the professor talked about the zodiac constellations and Ophiuchus .
    That knowledge made me think about everything I ‘knew’ by faith.
    And here I am. I’m still embarrassed that I used to believe in such ridiculous nonsense, but mostly I’m embarrassed that I didn’t ever stop and think about what I believed and that I wasted so much time looking for something that probably doesn’t exist.

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