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10 False Science Facts Everyone Knows

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Me, jump off a cliff? Where’d you get that about half-baked, crazy idea? That’s one of those cool science facts that just is not true. BMJ/Shutterstock

We all love fun science facts. But, in these days of “fake news,” when amazing science facts are treated as fiction and myth is repeated as scientific fact, how certain are any of us that the “facts” we know to be true actually are true?

When spouting off hazy facts, there’s no better retort to a skeptical audience than calmly explaining that it’s not just true — it’s one of those cool science facts that you learned in science class.

Cool scientific facts and scientific discoveries, after all, can forgive a host of sins when it comes to interesting facts. Sometimes it even works. Your taste buds really do only last a week or two before being shoved aside for new ones and you taste food with new buds [source: Chudler]. Rice has more genes than a human being [source: Graham]. Lemmings are pathologically suicidal. It’s science, folks.

But hold your rodents. Because some of the fun science facts we have heard, internalized and spread are straight up bogus myths. To start with, our little lemmings friends got a rap for clinical depression based on a “documentary” by Disney that completely fabricated the mass suicide of lemmings by cliff-plunge idea [source: Woodford].

In fact, lemmings, like polar bears and all sorts of other wild animals, go through population explosions, followed by migration and dispersal. The footage Disney provided of lemmings jumping to their deaths? Totally staged.

Of course, not all our false science facts were created on a film set. Read on for some extremely common misconceptions that those who study biology, medicine, physics and meteorology just can’t seem to shake.

10: Flu Shots Give You a Mild Case of the Flu

Yeah, your arm might be sore after you get your flu shot, but it’s certainly not going to give you the flu. Image Point Fr/Shutterstock

There’s nothing that raises the hackles of medical professionals like trying to explain to them the interesting “fact” that you don’t want the flu shot because you don’t want the flu.

Try it sometime. Tell your friendly public health worker that you won’t get the shot, thank you very much, because all your co-workers “got the flu” after their vaccine. They will not appreciate this amazing scientific fact, we promise.

Then watch them turn a shade of purple as they explain through gritted teeth that while your co-workers might’ve felt a bit off after their shot — or might’ve become infected with the flu before the vaccine took effect — they did not get the flu from the shot and this is “fake news.”

The body can experience some really mild symptoms from the vaccine that are a distant shade of actual influenza. (Think muscle soreness or mild fever, and chalk them up to the body creating antibodies in response to the vaccine.)

You also can still get the flu if you’re infected within a two-week period of the vaccination, or if you simply get an infection other than seasonal influenza [source: CDC]. But you are unequivocally not going to get the flu from the flu shot.

9: The Big Bang Theory Explains Where the Universe Came From

Artist rendering of what the big bang might have looked like as our solar system was created. © Mark Garlick/Science Photo Library/Corbis

Have you ever heard (or said yourself) something like this: Out of nothing, there was an astoundingly large explosion and — ta-da! — the universe was created.

Unfortunately, that’s not actually what the big bang describes. Rather, it tries to explain the expansion of the universe. It doesn’t say how the universe came to be but what the universe did to become gigantic.

Although most of us envisioned the big bang as an explosion at least worthy of a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, we were wrong about that as well. Sure, the not-even-microscopic center of everything inflated to an easily discernible size in less than a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second — but no fireballs or clouds of thick smoke were engulfing muscled heroes who might’ve been around to dive out of the way [source: Khan].

8: Milk Helps You Grow Big and Tall and Strong

Is drinking milk going to make her taller? Not necessarily. Ronnachai Palas/Shutterstock

We’ve heard it from moms, dads, teachers, doctors and — perhaps most tellingly — the dairy industry.

Want to be strong and tall, and boast the strongest bones and body on the block? Drink your milk.

As a 5-foot-tall (1.5-meter-tall) weakling who was forced to drink milk every day of her adolescence, it does strike me that this science “fact” is either A) not foolproof or B) an indication that without help from calcium, I might’ve topped out at 4 feet 2 inches (1.3 meters) with broken fingers from moderately strenuous piano practice.

Let’s ignore anecdote and stick with evidence-based study. Some scientists and nutritionists have argued that the U.S. dairy guidelines are overwhelming: three cups (0.7 liters) of milk or equivalent dairy (like yogurt or cheese) a day for anyone older than 8 [source: IDFA]. Researchers at Harvard and Cornell have both noted that increased milk intake didn’t correlate to higher bone strength. However, be aware that plenty of conflicting studies do indicate calcium increases bone health [source: Kelly].

Some researchers even argue that Americans, with their high dairy diet, are actually victims of weaker bone structure due to the blood and tissues pulling calcium from the bones to counteract the high acidity in the animal protein of dairy in the human body.

Important to note? Nobody claims drinking milk will make you taller.

7: The Coriolis Effect Controls the Way Your Toilet Flushes

Now is that bowl in the Northern or Southern Hemisphere? NothingIsEverything/Shutterstock

As Jane Austen would say, it’s a truth universally acknowledged that the Coriolis effect determines the way water particles move in a flushed toilet.

Perhaps she wouldn’t be discussing toilets, what with Georgian era manners and all that. Point taken. But if Austen were alive today, she’d probably be like the rest of us and assume the Coriolis effect — which says Earth’s rotation affects how we see the movement of certain objects — influences the direction of our toilet water. The idea is that planetary rotation causes the water particles to spin clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere, counterclockwise in the Southern.

Of course, you’re starting to get the idea — this is another inaccurate science fact. In reality, the Coriolis effect isn’t going to make any difference when the force of the flush is so strong. Even the shape of the bowl needs to be accounted for [source: Scientific American]. Coriolis can noticeably affect giant things in Earth’s atmosphere, such as the Gulf Stream, but not smaller phenomena like curveballs or flushing toilets [source: Boyd].

6: There Is No Gravity in Outer Space

Juggling isn’t such an awesome party trick in microgravity. NASA

If you’re like me, one of the scariest things about space is the fun science fact that gravity doesn’t exist there. If you fall out of the International Space Station — admittedly, a strange thing to happen, but just go with it since you can’t contradict my personal solar system phobia — you don’t hit anything. Your human body just floats, forever, dead or alive, until you bump into an alien planet filled with mean birds. (Another phobia. Don’t judge.)

But good news for those of us who fear our clumsiness would cause a literal trip into outer space: Gravity does exist in space! We’re not saying that previous astronauts were faking weightlessness. Rather they were experiencing microgravity, or gravity that’s quite weak in comparison with what we experience on the Earth’s surface.

It exists in spacecraft orbiting the Earth’s surface somewhere in the solar system because the spacecraft are literally kept in orbit by the Earth’s gravity, which still exerts a power hundreds of miles from the planet [source: Glenn Research Center].

Just as you previously thought, if an astronaut were to slip on a banana peel in the space station, she definitely would not fall down. Instead, we’re saying that microgravity is making her human body fall at the same rate that everything else is falling, around each other. Hence the floating effect.

5: Lightning Never Strikes in the Same Spot Twice

We’ve been a bit misinformed about those bolts. pasphotography/Shutterstock

We all know that the absolute safest thing you can do in a storm is predict where lightning will hit and then immediately run as fast as you can to every other spot in the world and wait out the storm patiently. Invincible. Forever. Because when lightning strikes, each flash only strikes in one place.

Doesn’t sound right, does it?

The thought that lightning doesn’t strike twice is lovely sentiment when grandpa is doling out folksy wisdom and fun science facts, but please don’t rely on Gramps in a thunderstorm. In 2003, scientists found that lightning doesn’t just strike one place when it hits Earth. On average, it hits 1.45 places at a strike [source: Goddard Space Flight Center].

The scientists extrapolated that your chances of being hit by lightning was actually 45 percent higher than the number of flashes, because it does hit in 0.45 more places.

And oh yeah, lightning definitely strikes the same place twice. Sometimes even thrice. Just ask the Empire State Building.

4: Summer Is Hotter Because You Are Closer to the Sun

Some places in the world experience summer from June through September, thanks to the angle of the sun’s rays hitting Earth. wandee007/Shutterstock

Ah, summer! That magical time of the year when your hemisphere reaches as close to the sun as it can go, yearning for a burning hug that’s only slightly cooled by aloe vera. After a day at the beach with nothing more than one application of SPF 15, you might be cursing our planet for tipping you so close.

Because hey, we all know that’s what summer is — we’re leaning closer to the sun! In the winter we’re leaning away from the sun. Voilá! SCIENCE.

Totally inaccurate and misunderstood science.

We are right in one respect: The sun is super hot. Yet at 93 million miles (150 million kilometers) away, it’s not so hot that a little lean this way or that matters to us beach or ski bums. It’s not the proximity of your hemisphere to the sun that makes summer warm and winter cold; it’s the angle that the sun’s rays hit us. In the summer, the sun’s rays hit right on us. In the winter, the sun’s rays are slanted down, away from us [source: Library of Congress].

3: People’s Nails Keep Growing Longer After They Die

Think you’re going to boast fingernails like these when you die? Think again. Jason Kempin/FilmMagic/Getty Images

You won’t achieve luxurious locks or manicured fingernails upon death.

A persistent myth states that all sorts of biological functions occur in our human cells for days or even months after death. There’s some cool science truth to that. Think about the fact that for an organ transplant to occur, the organ can’t immediately and utterly fail. Instead, the cells can thrive for hours after the more profound expiration of life.

Glucose ceases to be produced upon death, however, which does affect some new growth in human cells. That means that fingernails and hair — which rely on glucose for production — stop growing pretty much immediately [source: Hammond].

But do know this fun science fact: Because the skin retracts when dehydrated, it can absolutely appear that the fingernails are longer on a dead person or that more visible stubble is present, looking, for all intents and purposes, that hair and nails have been growing all along.

2: Sugar Makes Kids Hyperactive and Wild

Are they just burning off energy, or are they riding a sugar high? Liderina/Shutterstock

A lot of us can bring to mind the specific horror of watching a swarm of 8-year-olds devour cake, ice cream and candy at a birthday party. It’s not just the fear of rotten teeth or upset stomachs; it’s the much deeper — much harder to treat — concern of the dreaded sugar rush. The one that causes manic bursts of activity. The one that leads to tantrum-filled crashes. Fun science fact or total fiction?

While it might feel inevitable, the truth is that there’s no real link between sugar and hyperactivity in youngsters [source: Wolraich]. In fact, one 1994 study showed that mothers who thought their children drank a sugary drink were convinced the kids were hyperactive, despite receiving a placebo. The mothers who thought the kids drank sugar were observed, and it was noted that they hovered and scolded their children more than mothers who were told their children received a placebo [source: Hoover].

1: Vitamin C Can Ward Off the Common Cold

Though a “cool science fact” firmly believed around the world, downing vitamin C won’t stop the average human body from getting a cold. That is an amazing scientific fact. antpkr/Shutterstock

When it comes to the common cold, fake “cool scientific facts” are in overdrive — thanks, in part, to how common it is. Since a cold is so easy to catch — and so difficult to relieve — everyone and their cousin seems to have a theory about how to get (or avoid) the sniffles. So let’s jump in and debunk all the “amazing facts” we know about colds.

First off, stop taking large doses of vitamin C. While it’s super for you if you’re a sea captain in the 18th century at risk of scurvy, there has been no conclusive test proving it’s helping you prevent a cold, though it can have an effect on the duration and severity of cold symptoms in the average human body.

In fact, 1 to 2 grams per day of vitamin C were shown to result in an 8 percent reduction in duration of colds for adults and a 14 percent reduction in children [source: NIH]. So, it won’t prevent the common cold but might help dry up some nasal secretions after the fact.

Next, being out in the cold isn’t going to give you a cold (or influenza, for that matter), another fun science “fact” we’ve all been told at one time or another. In fact, being indoors is the problem. In the winter, we’re more likely to shutter ourselves inside and transmit our colds and flus much easier to those around us [source: CDC]. And while my mother might’ve tried to convince me that stepping outside with sopping wet hair would lead to the usual sore-throat-runny-nose business, that was probably no more than a bluff to get me to look presentable in public. Having a wet head will not give anyone a cold. Cool science fact.

Originally Published: Jun 29, 2014

Lots More Information

Author’s Note: 10 False Science Facts Everyone Knows

I know it’s not scientific, but the poor lemmings. Why would Disney want to create a narrative where innocent rodents were painted as pathologically morbid? Read more about the controversy that got them in hot water here.

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Sources

Ask the Experts. “Can somebody finally settle the question.” Scientific American. Jan. 28, 2001. (Sept. 21, 2022) http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/can-somebody-finally-sett/
Boyd, Robynne. “Fact or fiction?” Scientific American. June 28, 2007. (Sept. 21, 2022) http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/fact-or-fiction-south-of-equator-tornadoes-spin-in-opposite-direction/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Key Facts About Seasonal Flu Vaccine.” Aug. 25, 2022. (Sept. 21, 2022) https://www.cdc.gov/flu/prevent/keyfacts.htm
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others.” Nov. 29, 2021. (Sept. 21, 2022) https://www.cdc.gov/features/rhinoviruses/index.htmlChudler, Eric. “Neuroscience for Kids: That’s Tasty.” University of Washington. (Sept. 21, 2022) https://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/tasty.htmlFerris, Robert and Welsh, Jennifer. “35 science ‘facts’ that are totally wrong.” Business Insider. July 2, 2013. (Sept. 21, 2022) http://www.businessinsider.com/science-misconceptions-and-myths-2013-7?op=1Fresh Air. “‘Ah-choo!’ takes on mysteries of the common cold.” NPR. Sept. 13, 2010. (Sept. 21, 2022) http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129829134Glenn Research Center. “What is microgravity?” NASA. (Sept. 21, 2022) http://www.nasa.gov/centers/glenn/shuttlestation/station/microgex.html
Graham, Sarah. “Scientists Sequence Rice Genome.” Scientific American. April 5, 2002. (Sept. 21, 2022) https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/scientists-sequence-rice/#:~:text=The%20two%20blueprints%20reveal%20that,as%20many%20as%2063%2C000%20genes.Hammond, Claudia. “Do your hair and fingernails grow after death?” BBC. May 28, 2013. (Sept. 21, 2022) http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20130526-do-your-nails-grow-after-deathHammond, Claudia. “Does sugar make children hyperactive?” BBC. July 23, 2014. (Sept. 21, 2022) http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20130722-does-sugar-make-kids-hyperactiveHelmuth, Laura. “Top ten myths about the brain.” Smithsonian Magazine. May 19, 2011. (Sept. 21, 2022) http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/top-ten-myths-about-the-brain-178357288/?no-istInternational Dairy Foods Association (IDFA). “2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.” (Sept. 21, 2022). https://www.idfa.org/dietary-guidelines-for-americans#:~:text=The%202020%2D2025%20Dietary%20Guidelines%20for%20Americans,-In%20December%202020&text=The%20guidelines%20encourage%20most%20Americans,D%2C%20calcium%2C%20and%20potassium.Kelly, Alice Lesch. “The dairy debate.” Los Angeles Times. March 7, 2005. (Sept. 21, 2022) http://articles.latimes.com/2005/mar/07/health/he-calcium7Khan, Amina. “Evidence of young universe’s growth spurt is discovered.” Los Angeles Times. March 17, 2014. (Sept. 21, 2022) http://www.latimes.com/science/la-sci-cosmic-inflation-20140318-story.html#axzz2wWHpKEcSKluger, Jeffrey. “10 science myths that won’t go away.” TIME. March 7, 2014. (Sept. 21, 2022) http://time.com/15628/top-10-science-myths/
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