Afternoon Inquisition

AI: Wait, you believe WHAT?

Sometimes humans just blow me away with their ability to do the seemingly impossible. Landing shit on Mars, for example.

Other times, humans blow me away with their ability to believe in things that are actually impossible.

Like how many people believe that if you die in your dream, you die in real life.  It never occurs to any of those people that you can’t know what someone was dreaming about if they died before they could tell you.

Or that hologram stickers give you special powers despite having had them stuck to every piece of paper you got back from your teacher in 3rd grade and still ending up not-especially powerful… because it wasn’t on a bracelet, I guess? What the hell is wrong with people?

I guess I should be more sensitive considering it was only a week ago that I discovered that the “purple cloud” chemical they put in pools to tell if you’re peeing in them is actually not really a thing. It does seem silly now that I think about it… but… STILL. I can’t be the only one who thought that was real! And shut up.

What totally incorrect “interesting tidbit” drives you crazy that people believe and continue to spread? Are there any factoids you believed that you look back on and are like “man… man that was dumb”?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 3pm ET.

Elyse

Elyse MoFo Anders is the bad ass behind forming the Women Thinking, inc and the superhero who launched the Hug Me! I'm Vaccinated campaign as well as podcaster emeritus, writer, slacktivist extraordinaire, cancer survivor and sometimes runs marathons for charity. You probably think she's awesome so you follow her on twitter.

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100 Comments

      1. Of course I had to look up the purple cloud on Snopes, and they make a good point, which I’ll paraphrase generously thus: for every kid who heard this and was prevented from ever peeing in the pool by fear of embarrassment, there was at least one kid who immediately started peeing in every pool they got in, hoping to see the magic purple cloud and blame it on another kid.

    1. Plausible to develop, but not really when you think about actually implementing a way to turn pool water cool colors, gross out other kids, and the pressure put on middle-aged women to NEVER EVER LAUGH while swimming.

      1. Well, that, and isn’t urine chemically very similar to sweat? I imagine it’d be difficult to develop a chemical that reacted with one and not the other, given the variability in urine composition. And the last thing you want is for vigorous swimmers or hot people looking like their whole bodies are peeing.

        Scratch that, I bet there’s a NSFW website dedicated to precisely that.

    1. The Great Wall of China can’t even be seen from Low Earth Orbit. Surprise, surprise, but when you build a wall out of materials available locally, it kind of blends into the background. You can, however, see the landing strip at Kennedy Space Center, which is a wide white concrete strip in the middle of a green nature preserve. Amazing the powers of contrast.

      Also, the Great Wall of China make cover a lot of territory, but it isn’t very wide, only about 16 ft. That landing strip at Kennedy is 300 ft across, and still only looks like a thin white line in a green field. (There’s a picture of it in The Dream is Alive. I can’t find one online.)

    2. People making that claim are trying too hard. There are, in fact, about six man-made objects, at the very least, that can be seen perfectly well on the moon.

      They’re the descent stages of the Apollo Lunar Modules.

  1. Funny you should mention this. I was just noticing that this is the first time in about five years that I haven’t had to tell someone, “No, Mars will not look as big as the Moon this August.”

  2. I bet about a hundred Skepchick readers with chemical knowhow just started thinking about ways to make the purple cloud real!

    A mate of mine once suggested that there ought to be a gaseous version for use in shopping malls…

        1. I must be the one in 10,000 but only because I never heard this myth until about a year ago. But I would have totally tested it if I had. (I assume that’s why the other 9,999 know it’s a myth.)

          About the hologram thing, MicroSoft puts one on every Windows CD. ‘Nuff said.

          1. I should have said “many” instead of “they”, my bad but it was written at 5 am.

            I was hoping to hear from the uber-Skeptic hero who as a child totally did test it and proudly told everybody in order to debunk the myth.

            I admit to JAQing here!

  3. Here’s two that came up during the Curiosity Landing party at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago.

    I was trying to find out if Curiosity’s descent stage was a true rocket or a propellant jet. A rocket seemed like it would endanger the rover hanging below, but I wondered if a propellant jet could generate enough thrust to do anything. However, if it were a rocket, it would have to be hypergolic, because you can’t ignite a flame in the oxygen-poor atmosphere of Mars. And if it were hypergolic, is it like the space shuttle’s OMEs, which combine two fuels that are hypergolic in combination, or do they store one fuel and paint the other on the inside of the nozzle as many deep space probes do?

    The expert brought in to answer questions, a planetarium educator rather than someone associated with the project, told me that it carried liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. Um, no. That won’t work.

    (It turns out it’s a propellant jet running on pressurized hydrazine.)

    Then someone behind me asked why NASA always used radio to communicate with Earth, and couldn’t they find something that would operate at the speed of light. It was actually kind of painful to watch the educators try to explain that radio was the fastest way to communicate and not make the guy feel like an idiot.

  4. Lots of people in the South believe the blue tails of immature skinks are poisonous. It’s completely not true. I’ve even seen it repeated on the Jacksonville Zoo website. People swear their cat died after eating a tail that came off a lizard they were chasing. Some people also think adult skinks with the red head will sting you with their tail and call them scorpions just to remind themselves.

  5. “You shouldn’t skip breakfast because your body will go into ‘starvation mode’ and you’ll get fatter.”

    Or, my new favorite…

    “You shouldn’t drink anything with Splenda in it because your body will go into ‘starvation mode’ and you’ll get fatter.”

    m-/

  6. Isn’t it funny how pervasive childhood myths can be?

    There was one around in the sixties about chewing gum wrappers, if you collected the full set of letter codes you would get a free carton of gum.

    Everybody knew this, in every school I went to.

    Years later, someone actually achieved the impossible, sent in his wrappers, and received back a formal letter from the boss of Wrigley’s explaining that it was a myth.

    I learned something valuable the day I saw that letter.

    1. How lame of them not to send that person a free box of gum! They were right explaining it was myth, of course – but they should have decided to make it true. After all, they can afford it, and that kid showed incredible commitment to their brand.
      On the other hand, the learning effect may have been greater this way. :)

  7. While on a “back to nature” camping trip, my sponser for the group solemnly informed me that cicadas never moult until August first. Because the human calendar is so-oooo imporant to cicadas. They mark off the days in anticipation.

  8. Where to begin? That licking a phone has a greater chance of being harmful than eating feces because of bacterial content(I´m serious!)?

    On the pool-thingy: You could mix in industrial bleach. This would react with the ammonia in the uriantor´s urine, create highly toxic fumes and kill them.

  9. I can’t recall what podcast I was listening to (it may have been Skeptically Speaking), but I just found out that there are no specific sections of taste buds on the tongue. You can taste everything everywhere! My mind was blown!

      1. I guess they try to minimize the choking hazard by making the strings break easily and individually knotting each of the beads, but that just means the kid has to break the thing and work harder to pick off each of the beads and eat them. Small challenge, really. I’m just utterly shocked at how viral these things have gone. They’re everywhere, and while they’re sort of cute (when I first saw a couple I thought it was a new–although unsafe–baby fashion trend), they’re complete CRAP! They even contradict themselves all over the place. One site will say the lighter amber has better healing properties, while the next says go for the darker. Ridiculous.

  10. I’ve been generally skeptical for a while, maybe always, but since I’ve been getting into skepticism online and on podcasts, I’ve just decided that anything I’ve long believed but have no definitive source for is likely to be false.

    One I love is that you eat a pound of dirt in your life. I have no idea if this is true, or how you would even know, given all the crap we accidentally ingest, and the vague term “dirt”, but I love it because a friend of mine at a company picnic, upon being informed that his 4 year old daughter was eating dirt looked over, saw her with a cup of runny mud and dirt all around her mouth, just shrugged and said: “Meh, you’ve got to eat a pound of dirt before you die anyway.” He may have made it up on the spot, but I try to take it as parenting advice.

    1. That is fantastic parenting right there, and I don’t mean that sarcastically. It’s good for kids to eat dirt. I hadn’t heard the eating a pound of dirt thing but surely a pound is a good start to a healthy immune system, no? :)

        1. You can (and people do) get lead poisoning from eating dirt.

          There are many animals that eat specific kinds of dirt for the minerals. There are caves that elephants have dug over the centuries in digging out minerals to eat for their sodium content.

          The expression I always heard was a peck of dirt (a peck is 1/4 of a bushel).

        2. Lead poisoning is very possible, especially in areas with older buildings.

          Also e. coli from animal poo.

          Plus there’s insecticides, fertilizers…

          While it’s true you shouldn’t protect your children from all things dirty, I can’t get behind the “let them eat dirt” thing… but that’s not to pretend that my kids haven’t eaten more than their fair share of dirt pounds.

    2. My mother told me that when I first became mobile, the level of dirt in all the pot plants in the house declined precipitously.

      I’d guess that 450g of dirt is too low a value, but I can’t even begin to think of a research program which would provide an accurate measurement.

    1. A teacher told me that one. I’d say the biggy for me is that a teacher is not a know all bank of knowledge and that they are humans who are subject to misconceptions like the rest of us.

  11. This maybe doesn’t count… but I grew up convinced that matter was made out of little colored balls orbiting each other on tracks, and connecting to each other like Tinker Toys. You know, like the pictures of atoms in the science books.

  12. I’ve had to explain how being just bumped into a higher tax bracket in the United States doesn’t mean you’re all of a sudden going to be making less money than if you stayed under the threshold. I’ve even seen experienced finance writers & journalists make this mistake in recent years.

    1. Oh geez, me too. SO many people don’t seem to understand that tax brackets are MARGINAL. Of course, many of them also think that the US government can take social security trust fund earnings and use them for whatever.

      1. Fox Sports reiterated a talking point brought up by Breitbart.com regarding the taxation of US Olympic athletes. They reported that the medal prize money PLUS the valuation of the medals themselves would equal a massive tax burden on Olympians. First they used Michael Phelps as an example who would be paying around 35% marginal tax noting that he could probably manage it due to his wealth from other sources…then they used the same figure to cast sympathy for another Olympian who makes much less wouldn’t be able to pay such a figure!

        This ignores the fact that the money from winnings (and the value of the medal if included at all) would be taxed as INCOME and that someone who didn’t earn in the top bracket wouldn’t pay the same as Michael Phelps. But why let facts get in the way of manufactured outrage. In fact, Congressman Marco Rubio is hard at work trying to fix this nonexistent problem.

    1. I think it depends on how many chestnuts you eat before swimming. A handful of chestnuts and you’re probably fine, but if you eat several pounds of them you’ve possibly adversely affected your buoyancy. You should probably wait until you pass/puke up the chestnuts, or some part of your digestive system bursts and you die a rather agonizing and mildly embarrassing death.

    2. I genuinely believed that you would cramp up and die from the pain if you so much as dipped a toe in water after eating. As a kid, I really thought there was some chemical reaction that happened when your stomach was full and you got wet.

      I believed that but I didn’t buy the God story. Who knows how my brain works.

  13. Up until recently, I firmly believed that the Alan Moore graphic novel, The Killing Joke, was originally not meant to be canon in the DCU, and only was incorporated (with the resultant paralyzation of Barbara Gordon, the subsequent rise of Oracle, and the New 52 mess) after strong positive fan feedback to the story itself (which was quite good, aside from it’s frustrating Women in Refrigerators aspect).

    I’ve since learned that this was just a rumor, and in fact, the actual story behind that particular element of the book was… well, even more disturbing. So, yeah, geek shame for me for not knowing the real scoop.

    1. “”I asked DC if they had any problem with me crippling Barbara Gordon – who was Batgirl at the time – and if I remember, I spoke to Len Wein, who was our editor on the project…[He] said, ‘Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch.’ It was probably one of the areas where they should’ve reined me in, but they didn’t.””

      Gee…

      Sharon Packer wrote: “Anyone who feels that feminist critics overreacted to [Gordon’s] accident is advised to consult the source material … Moore’s The Killing Joke is sadistic to the core. It shows Gordon stripped and mutilated, with before, during, and after photos of the attack displayed before her bound and gagged father, the police commissioner. She is more than merely disabled.”

  14. “If you die in your dream, you die in real life.”

    But if you reword it as “The only way to die in your dream is to die in real life” it becomes more plausible. Your brain never stops working, short of death. If you ‘try’ to die in your dream, after your attempted dream death your mind is still working and you notice you’re not dead, so your dream death failed. (Well, you could dream events leading to your death followed by dreaming you have wings and a harp and are sitting on a cloud.)

    Your third grade teacher’s holographic stickers don’t count – you need special ones made with Quantum. Quantum can do anything.

    Wear your ‘purple cloud’ ignorance as a badge of honour – it shows you never performed the experiment.

  15. I was staggered to learn that there is no such phenomenon as very young children holding their breath until they turn blue and pass out in order to scare their parents. Apparently the kids who do this don’t do it voluntarily – it’s a genetic problem that causes them to be unable to breathe when they get very upset. So even more scary for them as for their parents.

  16. “Shaving makes your beard hair grow faster.” I didn’t really think about it at all until someone told me that this isn’t true, and then I thought about it. Shaving is just cutting the hair, and cutting the hair doesn’t affect its growth rate. If it did, the hair on top of my head would be growing crazy fast right now. This is just confirmation bias, as growth rate of beard hair starts out slow, but gets faster with age. People could easily attribute this to shaving, when it’s really just puberty.

  17. “Like how many people believe that if you die in your dream, you die in real life. ”

    Good news if anyone was worried about a “Nightmare on Elm Street” event. Does this also rule out the senerio in “The Matrix”?

    Anything dealing with astrology ranks as one of the top things that people appearently believe and continue to spread that annoys me.

    A comprehensive list would be far too long for this format that I’ve heard people proclaim that irk me.

    As for what I used to believe, nothing really dumb comes to mind.

    1. Aaaaagh. When I was a teenager I was interested enough in astrology to actually DO it – work out people’s charts and tell them what they ‘meant’ (I hasten to add that no money ever changed hands!). Once I wised up I thought that having this background would be a trump card in gently explaining to people how it’s a load of tripe. Not a bit of it; in my experience, if someone takes it seriously they are simply impervious to being persuaded otherwise.

      1. Painful memories, huh?

        I actualy sort of have a similar feeling, except that it delt with illegal drugs.

        After watching an episode of “Bullshit!”, I realized how wrong I was, and felt I was a real jerk for the stuff I believed in and argued about.

        Not sure if it fits into the context of this subject matter.

  18. I know many older people in the rural south who still believe in healing “by the signs.” It is explained more thoroughly in the Foxfire Books, but basically, different signs of the zodiac are associated with different properties, and each sign is associated with a different part of the human body at different stages of the lunar cycle. It is a mistake to have a medical procedure on a certain part of the body when the wrong zodiac sign is in that part of your body. For example: My parents scheduled an appointment for my brother to have his wisdom teeth removed on a day when water signs would be “in the head.” My grandmother became distraught and insisted they move the appointment to a time when water signs would be in his knees or feet instead. Doing it at the wrong time, she believed would cause more bleeding, more pain, and a longer recovery.

      1. Rabbit hole: I check out the Snopes spider article. The author who made it up is not only referenced but the magazine, article, and page number are footnoted. Ooooh, sweet. Google search on: ‘Holst, Lisa Birgit. “Reading Is Believing.”‘ … all I get are blogs about people who could not find Holst, the article, or the magazine “PC Professional.” And of course there are youtube videos of people documenting their journey of trying to find Holst and the article and coming up empty. Nothing like a mystery to entertain you on your lunch break…especially if it’s about spiders, dark nasty spiders that are constantly watching me, stalking me, hunting me down because they know I know their secret that they don’t want the world to know which is a knowledge to knowledgablely knowing no one could handle to knoweth it.

          1. BUT DON’T YOU SEE!!! The spiders got into Snopes! The planted false information to lead us away from the true malignant horrorible truthy secret arachnid agenda…poltergeists…that what I thought at first, but no, oh no, poltergeists aren’t real, they don’t exist, but spider controlled happy hominid homunculi!?! They are our masters working us from within! They are the eight-legged Gepetto we are the mammalian Pinocchio! No need for the tinfoil hats, bring me tinfoil antacids!

  19. Of those, I think the one I learned most recently was total BS was the one about the tongue and taste buds. That was almost 5 years ago.

    I’m not even going to list all the dumb things I believed as a kid. Kids may often be naive, but a list like mine is just too damn embarrassing. It doesn’t help matters that I was raised by a community of extremely credulous YECs

    – Pool pee indicator color, plus alarms triggered by the indicator indicating pee.

    – Glass is liquid

    – Betta fish normally live in tiny puddles/containers, and prefer them and will do JUST FINE in them. Forever. Which turns out to be about a week.

    – Backmasking is real. So is moviemakers splicing in single frames saying stuff like”EAT MORE POPCORN”, and “WORSHIP SATAN” during your movies. And both will make you do what they say to do.

    – You eat a pound of dirt in a lifetime. (BS, the amount of residual soil, bugs, and stuff you accidentally eat by intentionally eating food is likely more than a pound)

    – It’s OK to go without seatbelts if you cram enough people into the car.

    – Momma birds won’t take their babies back if you have touched them.

    – Hummingbirds and bumblebees can fly despite owning wings that are too small to fly. Humans could fly too if they could flap their arms fast enough (which, I allow, might be true if your body could keep from flying apart and being completely shredded by flapping your arms fast enough to break the sound barrier, much less fast enough to provide the necessary lift. I don’t think even a machine that could flap its arms like a human could survive those forces, much less reach speeds necessary to fly). In my defense, i was five when I came up with this.

    I DID know that the one about “dying in your dreams= dead for real” was BS, but that was because I die in my dreams pretty regularly. It’s no big deal.

  20. The tighter nutted fittings are the safer they are.

    This true to a point, but when you over-tighten a nut you’re creating the possibility of an abrupt catastrophic failure when something breaks. Also, if a nut is too loose the failure mode is more gradual. It will usually* begin to rattle before it comes completely off giving you a chance to catch the problem before it becomes a safety issue.

    You can ‘feel’ the proper tension of nutted fittings.

    Sure you can, if you’ve been doing up those particular parts for years and years, and you’ve frequently used a torque wrench (measures force) to confirm that you have in fact been tightening them correctly. And even then, how much sleep/coffee/emotional distress you’ve had affects the feel.

    *Not always,and not in all situations. If you work with nutted fittings buy a torque wrench, look up the proper torques and do things up right, there’s no excuse for guessing anymore.

  21. A physics PhD graduate once told me that I should start boiling water from cold instead of hot water from the tap because cold water boils faster than hot.

    He then paused for quite a long time and said “That’s really stupid, isn’t it?”

  22. I can’t believe no one mentioned that “we only use 10% of our brain” thing. I *still* hear people saying this in all seriousness, and I want to strangle them every time.

    That, and the thing about drinking two litres of water a day (or eight glasses, or half a gallon etc.).

    1. My uncle not only still believes the 10% usage of the brain myth, but also thinks that was the real “Fall” when Adam and Eve were cast out of Eden.

      I knew it had to be a myth from an episode of Bill Nye, where he states we do use all of the brain.
      I’m waiting for the right moment to set him right.

      1. This is so true.

        I learned this while my daughter was in the hospital. Every time I peed it was this red color. I was so panicked and I didn’t want to say anything to my husband because… you know… daughter in the fucking hospital.

        So, hopeful that maybe I’d cure myself somehow, I googled “red pee” or something equally awful. Beets. Fucking beets. I ate a pound of beets the day before. Why do those things have to be so goddamn delicious and then terrifying?

  23. While working outdoors a man told me I should be wearing a hat because 90% of your body heat escapes through your head. I said that was based on a flawed experiment where they covered people’s entire bodies except for their heads, so most of the heat was measured coming out of their heads. He looked at me like “duh,” and said, “yeah… because that’s where 90% of your heat comes out.”

    It also wasn’t really that cold.

  24. One of my summer interns told me in all seriousness that she believed in the Ancient Aliens hypothesis.

    I thought the purple pee indicator thing was real until about five minutes about when I read this post. (I guess I just figured none of the pools I had ever taken my kids to were using it? One of those things I’d never really considered would be worth thinking logically about to debunk!)

  25. – Oh yeah! The “10% of the human brain is all that gets used” thing.

    – Also the one where you are born with all the neurons you’ll ever have, and various activities will cause them to die sooner than others. I got told many times throughout my childhood that alcohol is always bad because even just a swallow of it kills tons of brain cells. Somehow, the alcohol I was drinking by chugging my fruit juice like a good little kid (trace amounts, yes, but if it was THAT DANGEROUS you’d think it would be mentioned) never warranted concern.

    – While I’m remembering, the one where fruit juice, even highly sweetened fruit juice, is just as good for you as a serving of actual fruit/is a healthy “whenever” drink on par with water.

    – Chewing gum staying in your gut for seven years if you swallow it.

    – Roller Coaster engineers designed the seats so that in the event of a roller coaster stalling somewhere heard to reach, the passengers can be instructed to hit a secret button on the seat or safety harness that will cause the harness to release and allow them to climb down. So don’t flail around on a roller coaster, you might accidentally hit the release button and go flying; my friend’s cousin’s teacher’s nephew’s kid did that once, and now he’s a paraplegic.

    – If you eat sushi you will get worms.

    – Blood is turns blue when the oxygen in it has been used, and this is why veins under the skin are bluish.

    – If women take weightlifting too seriously, their bodies’ hormone levels will go way off and they could even go so far as to grow a wang.

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