AI: General Ignorance

Hey all!  Have you missed me? I had to give up my regular Friday Afternoon Inquisitions due to my life being taken over by an evil presence called ‘work.’ But I missed you guys so I thought I’d sneak in here while Chelsea wasn’t looking and post an AI for today

Lately, @phlebas and I have been overdosing on the British show QI (Quite Interesting), which is a panel show hosted by Stephen Fry.  In it, Stephen poses obscure, difficult or seemingly obvious questions to four comedians with inevitably hilarious results. They award points for correct or funny (or quite interesting) answers and take away points for “answers which are not only wrong, but pathetically obvious.”

It’s a great show and I have found myself time and time again answering the ‘pathetically obvious’ answer, just like Alan Davies on the show. I am always surprised at the number of things that I assumed are fact that are not (Alexander Graham Bell did *not* invent the telephone?) as much as thrilled with learning things I never knew about at all (The Chinese, not the Scots, invented whiskey!?) So, I ask you guys:

What did you assume to be true and later found out was not? What did you never think was true and later found out actually was?

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


Maria D'Souza grew up in different countries around the world, including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Kenya and it shows. She currently lives in the Bay Area and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

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  1. When I was little, my older brother told me that centipedes are poisonous, and I was terrified of them. I later found out that my brother was lying about that, just like he lied about everything he told me. I later found out that some centipedes actually are poisonous! The ones I am likely to encounter are harmless though.

  2. I always assumed, from high school onwards, that Catherine the Great really did meet her demise while “gettin’ boned” (the technical term) by a horse.

    It wasn’t until significantly later, sometime after the advent of Wikipedia, that I discovered this was untrue.

    I still prefer the fictional history, not least because it’s more fun to imagine history teachers trying to skirt past the fact that one of Russia’s most famous leaders got smushed by a love-horse.

    PS: Smushed by a Love-Horse would have been a far better show than Touched by an Angel

  3. I too have been watching vast amounts of QI which is the most addicting TV show ever. I will add, however, that QI’s fact checkers are not foolproof. The earth really does have one moon. Not two (from season 1), or four (from season 2). I think on the telephone question they trotted out Meuchi who more likely than not invented nothing like a telephone.

    What did you assume to be true and later found out was not?

    I had to relearn practically all the history I was taught before college starting with Columbus “discovering” America. I also had to unlearn a few assumptions I had made about my first wife. Enough said.

    What did you never think was true and later found out actually was?

    Cold air can promote the spread of viruses.

  4. What did you assume to be true and later found out was not?

    Butter is good for burns.
    Women have 1 more rib than men.
    Women don’t like sex.
    You will go blind if you don’t stop.
    Women don’t fart.
    You will grow hair on your palms if you don’t stop.
    It makes Jesus cry and kill kittens. Just stop it for crying out loud.
    Comet the Superhorse was a horse that survived the explosion of Krypton.
    She won’t get pregnant if she is standing up.
    It’s tastes bad if she is on her period.
    Moss only grows on the north side of trees.

  5. The process of distillation may have been developed in China, but that’s not the same thing as saying they invented whiskey, any more than they invented vodka or brandy. Besides, it was the Irish who invented whiskey. ;)

  6. I, for one, did not know Phill Jupitus a) existed, and b) was so goddamn funny.

    As for the show, we found out just last night that if you cut an earthworm in half, you have one dead earthworm instead of two live earthworms. I had believed the earthworm thing since I was teeny.

  7. @phlebas: we found out just last night that if you cut an earthworm in half, you have one dead earthworm instead of two live earthworms

    This is your fault for cutting lengthwise.

  8. I assumed, from reading Larry Niven, that superconductors were also thermal superconductors (like superfluid helium sort of is). The person who corrected me on this knew I must have got it from Larry Niven. :-(

  9. When I visited Meteor Crater in Arizona, I was absolutely certain it was the result of a bomb test. Because I was fifteen and I knew everything. Even now, it’s hard to admit just how wrong I was.
    It does, though, help me understand how people can grip so tightly to beliefs that are so, so wrong and be unable to see anything else. Kind of.

  10. @davew: Look, no one specified. Half is half, whether it’s straight across, lengthwise, or at 45-degree angles.

    But my skepticism did not allow me to think a worm would survive if you bored out the center, like some disgusting core sample.

  11. @Gabrielbrawley: no, Kentuckians invented stealthy ways to goat-fuck in public, and used the drunken stupor from too much whiskey drinking as their legal excuse in court.

    Umm…the fact that my father’s side of the family resides in Kentucky is sheer coincidence. What was the AI question again?

  12. Hi there!

    When the film: “Rudy” came out, I had heard that the “based on a true story” part was a complete fabrication, that it was a fictional story and that no such person had ever existed. I used to sneer at the TV every time they’d showed the trailer, since the narration said something: “When people tell you thaat dreams don’t come come true … you tell them about RUDY”. To which I’d add: “Because it’s a completely fictional story about some kid who never existed and never played for Notre Dame … oh yeahhh”.

    It wasn’t until much much later that I found out that there WAS a Daniel Ruettiger, who went to Notre Dame and did play in one game, despite being a not-very-athletic kid with a lot of heart. Of course, Hollywood being Hollywood, there were a lot of changes to the story, they glamorized the story like whoa, and it probably bears little resemblance to what actually happened. But as far as it being BASED on a true story, it certainly was. I’m still not a huge fan of the film, it’s schmaltzy and corny, but I feel like I gave it kind of a raw deal by openly mocking the trailer every time it was shown. :(

    Actually, my favorite story about that movie is that the film’s “bad guy” is a coach who, in real life, was one of Daniel Ruettiger’s biggest supporters. But when Hollywood came around looking to make an epic tale about Rudy, he told them to go ahead and make him the BAD GUY. So they did.

    I’m certain that that last tidbit is true because I read it from Cracked Magazine online. I mean, if you can’t believe an august source of information like THAT …

  13. @phlebas: But my skepticism did not allow me to think a worm would survive if you bored out the center, like some disgusting core sample.

    Yeah, my plan to make a million earthworms with a food processor didn’t turn out too well either. On the other hand my Costco pâté business is flourishing.

  14. Until last March, I always thought that yellow or green boogers meant you had a booger infection. Turns out, you just need to blow your nose more, and maybe drink more water because your boogers are just dense.

  15. I’ve been wrong about alot of things but its not always bad. I used to think Narwhals weren’t real, but they totally are! How fuckin awesome is that!

  16. Going outside with your hair wet on a cold day will make you sick.

    I still believed that one until fairly recently. But mom loved me and just wanted me to wear a hat!

  17. And in double checking the commonly held belief that sugar causes hyperactivity in kids (slowly coming to let go of that one)… Poinsettias aren’t actually poisonous!

  18. @Nicole: wow, i did not know that actually. this AI is turning out to be a fantastic thread of uncovering answers to random info. starting to feel four percent smarter :) and just added QI to near the top of my xmas wishlist

  19. I use to think that was true. Apparently the army did some research which was very faulty and put this in a report around WWII and because it was repeated in basic training for decades it became universally accepted.

    Some other things I thought were true but are not; all that crap about self esteem being soooo very important for success and the need to adapt curriculum to specific learning styles and that we go through identifiable end of life or grief stages …., all garbage, made up or psudo-science.

    Does anyone know if QI is avalable on line?

  20. The meaning of the word “nonplussed.” My mother always used it in the sense of being unhappy with a situation. “After he said that, I was definitely nonplussed.” It wasn’t until I was 39 that someone pointed out to me that the word means “surprised.”

  21. @Teeter: Where are you watching it? BBC america? Online? (please say online)

    You can see clips on YouTube.:

    I’m watching it on DVD myself. I have a region-free DVD player (findable on Amazon or ebay for $70 or so) and ordered the discs from The shipping is unbelievably cheap. I got the first season, shipping included, for $16. Also my US password worked on the UK site which is handy, but also a little disturbing.

  22. @Gabrielbrawley:
    “Women don’t like sex”

    Discovering the women do like sex was an absolute revelation to me at 19. I’d not even formed the idea that women don’t like sex in my head as an actual concept or something that I’d ever verbalised.

    It was only when my then girlfriend pointed out to me that she liked sex that I realised that the idea of women actually enjoying sex had never even entered my head. And it was a completely novel concept to me. A true paradigm shift.

    Until that point, if I’d been pushed I probably would have said that “nice girls don’t do sex, they don’t enjoy it and only submit to men’s desires in order to have children” and “sex is something men do to women”. It’s hilarious to look back but I can clearly remember the world-changing implications of my girlfriend’s “new information”.

    In my defense I think quite a lot of 19 year olds (when I was 19) pretty much thought the same thing.

  23. Oh, where to begin….

    FDR died in Hot Springs, AR cheating on his wife.

    Going outside with wet hair makes you sick.

    CTG died from too much horsing around….

    You lose a lot of your body heat through your head.

    Eating before bed makes you fat.

    Dragonflies sting.

    Touching/looking at your winkie is a sin.

    Junior high boys ALWAYS think of girls.

    Being yelled at and called names by your gardians is normal. the “loving family” is just the act everyone puts on.

    Parents only read bedtimes stories to children on TV.

    Stuff that I didn’t believe, but turned out to be true….

    There’s no such thing as time. Parents never were children. People never get old, they either are, or they aren’t. Nothing ever changes. People never die. Tomorrow will be the same as yesterday. (that was when I was real young)

  24. @Gabrielbrawley: That women fart, burp, belch, have body hair (body hair!), wear huge thousand-wash-grey knickers 99% of the time, get drunk, throw up and by & large are not the greco-roman marble goddesses of our imagination but we still find them attractive. That was a suprise.

    @infinitemonkey: Yeah, all families are fucked up really. It’s a big charadé that everyone’s happy.

  25. Can we just go ahead and nominate this whole thread for Comment of the Week?

    I feel so much smarter, so my ex blaming the farting on the dog wasn’t true. Of course I should have known since we never had a dog.

  26. I was very young (6 or so) and we were on a cross country family driving vacation and I wanted to visit Hollywood. My dad didn’t want to so he told me it burned down. Until I was 18 or so, I always thought it was awesome the way they’d built it back up again after the fire. :D

  27. When I was 14, one of my mother’s mates got wrapped up in the shallow-end of woo. She had tried out ear-candles herself, and thought they were great. She brought a few over to show mum and I.

    I went into the exercise with what I *thought* was a skeptical attitude. Mum went first with candle #1, and I went second. I at the end, I had much more wax in my candle than mum had, which lined up with the fact that cleaning wax out of my ears was more of a chore for me than it was for my mother. It was enough to convince me that ear candles work.

    Only a year ago did I read an article by Vicky Hide of the NZ Skeptics that explained that the wax in the base of the candles tests positively as a match against the wax of the candle itself.

    Fortunately, I’d never had a ‘second’ candling after the first.

    The weird thing was that after I saw the amount of wax in the base of the candle, I swear I felt that my ear cavities felt different. Lighter. Sound seemed clearer too.

    I know enough now about placebo effects and the ways in which the brain can screw with itself to understand those phenomena… But it did offer a very interesting insight into how easily someone can be fooled into thinking woo is real.

  28. when I was 5 or 6 (-ish) my older brother convinced me that the large dust bunnies along the baseboards were actually bees in disguise, waiting to sting me if I got too near or tried to squish them.

  29. @russellsugden:

    The myth that women don’t like sex is an important issue in feminism, and it’s especially important to me. So many feminist issues are tied to this belief, from trivial to really serious. I guess I won’t go into a long rant right now, but I’m glad you figured it out it isn’t true.

  30. @James Fox: Adapting the curriculum to learning styles, or the way it’s delivered? Because I can attest to the fact that people learn in very different ways and the only way for some kids (and adults) to get it is to teach things in different and/or specific ways.

    And while my “evidence” is merely anecdotal, I do recall learning in various classes and such that research has shown this to be true.

    Anyway, something I always thought was true? I, too, had older siblings that scared me into thinking that millipedes were deadly, only to discover in recent months (when they invaded our house) that they aren’t.

    I also used to think that my dad was both infallible and fair. I’ve since discovered that he is racist and bull-headed.

    Things I thought never were true only to discover they are?

    Spinach is delicious.

    Skeptics and atheists are not evil. (Who knew?)

    My mother was right.

  31. I always thought it made sense that you would get better gas mileage by keeping the tailgate of your truck down.

    Click and Clack did a pretty thorough take down of that in there column 6 or 7 (or 10) years ago. And a couple of years ago Mythbusters has also showed it to be false.

    Interestingly, Click and Clack went into a lot more science than Mythbusters.

  32. @catgirl: I wish I could convince others that this is not true. I’ve seen several studies done about it, and am convinced, but people sitll perpetuate the myth.

    This leads to *kids* thinking they should be hyper after they eat sugary things, which makes them act like loons. I’ve told my students that sugar is no excuse for acting like a jackass (in kid-friendly terms, of course), but how do you undo 6+ years of hearing, “Don’t eat that, it’ll make you bounce off the walls!”

    *sigh* Self-fulfilling prophecy.

  33. @JimB:

    Interestingly, Click and Clack went into a lot more science than Mythbusters.

    Mythbusters may briefly refer to theory, but the show is all about empirical verification. Click and Clack never (so far as I know) test anything expirementally, and they are usually dealing in areas where the expiremental cofirmation is sorely needed. All in all, I would say that Mythbusters do what they do better than Click and Clack do what they do.

    After all, Mythbusters actually created about 25 cents worth of industrial diamond using an entire truckload of ANFO. ;-)

  34. pciszek:
    I actually agree with you on this.

    But in this one Click and Clack, they cited some wind tunnel experiments that car makers were doing. And went into the bubble of air that is formed in the truck bed.

    And then a few years later when Mythbusters covered it I got to tell the wife and kids and this is why…

    Mythbusters even did a followup, where they found that the type of tailgate didn’t matter. Those mesh screens work as well as a solid tailgate.

    And to get this back on topic. I think I owe a lot of my skepticism to that Click and Clack article.
    I mean it was so obvious that leaving the tail gate down would increase gas mileage. ;-)

  35. What did you assume to be true and later found out was not? :
    Someone once told me Sarah Jessica Parker was hot….then I saw her.

  36. I was shocked to learn recently that there are people who think narwhals are fictional.

    Apart from that, I’ve tended to place all the things I learn in the “might be true/false unless I find confirmation” position. That way I can be uncertain about the validity of a statement unless I can back that statement up (this doesn’t always work, and sometimes backfires, but it tends to be the safest position to take imho).

  37. To be fair, it’s just possible that Mythbusters’ budget is fractionally larger than Click’n’Clack’s.

    I used to believe the whole orthodox-Jews-sheet-with-the-hole-in-it thing.

    Actually the list of things I used to believe but know better about now because of snopes/skpedic/wikipedia etc. is approximately the size of the internet.

  38. I was an incredibly gullible child (critical thinking skills came to me late) so I believed all sorts of absurdities, including, but not limited to astrology, and my Dad convinced me that, while I didn’t like eating ham, I certainly liked the taste of piggy.

    *hangs head in shame*

    I was about 5, to be fair.

  39. @csrster:

    On the revers of that, I used to think it was a myth the Mormons wear “magical” underwear. It turns out that some of them actually do wear special undergarments.

  40. When I was a kid, there was a plaque on our kitchen wall that read “It ain’t what I don’t know; its what I know that just ain’t so that gets me in trouble.”

    I guess I was programmed at an early age to hold conclusions tentatively. Over the years, I have held several of the beliefs mentioned above that I now know to be false.

    Today will be a good day if I find out that something I know just ain’t so.

  41. @catgirl: On the reverse of that, I used to think it was a myth the Mormons wear “magical” underwear. It turns out that some of them actually do wear special undergarments.

    I think it’s a pretty good sign that if you think your invisible, omnipotent buddy cares about your skivvies or your nosh then a careful reexamination is seriously overdue.

  42. @Vengeful Harridan (Elexina):

    Really? I didn’t know it was on Law & Order even though I watch two of the three fairly regularly. I know that at least some Mormons wear special undergarments because I know some Mormons who wear them. They’re more “sacred” than “magical”, though.

  43. Narwals are a lie, they just cut horns off unicorns and glued them to whales to perpetuate the myth. Everyone knows that.

    I believed the head heat loss thing. I can’t think of anything original to add, however.

  44. I suppose the increased brain-use-percentage has reduced the amount of heat-loss through the top of your head.

    Then again, I can see how a bunch of freshly shaven army recruits would lose substantially more heat through the top of their head than a person with a full head of insulation …

  45. I’m surprised no one here mentioned the old “you only use 10% of your brain” myth. I believed that one for years and continue to tell my community college students that it is completely false. Some of them (about 10%, maybe?) persist in believing this myth. I usually point them to or some other myth debunking website for confirmation.

    I think this one persists because many of us want to believe that human beings have great potential for smarts. On the flip side, it could also be used to explain the lack of brains we see from a great percentage of the population on a regular basis.

    @Expatria: “Smushed by a Love-Horse would have been a far better show than Touched by an Angel” – COTW

  46. I always used to use the word ‘peruse’ to mean skim over a text, book, essay etc etc. When I looked it up in the dictionary one time i see the following description – to read thoroughly and in detail………….WHAT!!!!!!!!

    Almost every English speaking person uses this word to mean the exact opposite of what it’s supposed to. Weird.

  47. I’m going to try to stick to things I learned as an adult or at least an adolescent, since if I listed childhood beliefs I’ve learned were lies we’d be here all day.
    Ditto on the “most of your body heat lost through your head”.
    Halloween candy is regularly poisoned by strangers.
    Insects feel pain.
    Pursuant to “women don’t enjoy sex”: men can’t be bothered to care about their female partners’ sexual pleasure, and it’ll take some effort to make them take responsibility for birth control.
    School is always either boring or difficult.

    Stuff I didn’t think was true but is:
    There is a use for Tarot cards, as long as you don’t think they know something you don’t.
    Marijuana really does make things taste better.
    You can get an endorphin high from eating sufficiently spicy food.
    The difference in shape between women and men’s bike saddles matters, although I still suspect it matters more for men than women.

  48. Post #71 – @exarch:
    I suppose the increased brain-use-percentage has reduced the amount of heat-loss through the top of your head.

    Post #73 – @Garrison22:
    I’m surprised no one here mentioned the old “you only use 10% of your brain” myth.

    And yet I did, a mere two posts above yours …

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