We are gullible people, as we painfully learned over the course of the 2016 election cycle. Even the wackiest of claims, repeated often (and loud) enough, will often become “true.”
And while many misconceptions are trivial, some perpetuate ignorance and can lead to harm.
The very nature of Wikipedia, which relies on the general public to keep its entries accurate, would seem a likely place for the perpetuation of misconceptions. However, if there are any pleasant surprises of the Internet age, it was the realization that a public-produced, and -policed online encyclopedia will be surprisingly accurate, fair, and ridiculously up-to-date. (And if you want a particularly bizarre meta experience, read the Wikipedia entry for Wikipedia.)
One particular page on Wikipedia that I find fascinating, as someone interested in mythology, human gullibility, and misinformation, is their entry called List of Common Misconceptions.
The list is divided into sections: History, Science, Sports, etc., and even the most self-assured will find something that they did not know.
Some notable entries (the below examples are truncated — see the Wikipedia entry for full explanations):
- The forbidden fruit mentioned in the Book of Genesis is commonly assumed to be an apple, and is widely depicted as such in Western art, although the Bible does not identify what type of fruit it is.
- The historical Buddha was not obese.
- The Buddha is not a god.
- The Immaculate Conception is not synonymous with the virgin birth of Jesus, nor is it a supposed belief in the virgin birth of Mary, his mother.
- Nowhere in the Bible does it say exactly three magi came to visit the baby Jesus, nor that they were kings, rode on camels, or that their names were Casper, Melchior and Balthazar.
- The word “jihad” does not always mean “holy war”; literally, the word in Arabic means “struggle”.
- A fatwā is a non-binding legal opinion issued by an Islamic scholar under Islamic law [it does not mean ‘death sentence’]
- Vaccines do not cause autism.
- The word theory in the theory of evolution does not imply mainstream scientific doubt regarding its validity.
- Humans did not evolve from chimpanzees or any other modern-day primates.
- Evolution is not a progression from inferior to superior organisms, and it also does not necessarily result in an increase in complexity.
- Evolution does not violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
And some more entertaining entries:
- In ancient Rome, Romans did not build rooms called vomitoria in which to purge themselves after a meal.
- There is no evidence that Vikings wore horns on their helmets.
- Contrary to the popular image of the Pilgrim Fathers, the early settlers of the Plymouth Colony in present-day Plymouth, Massachusetts did not dress in black, wear buckles, or wear black steeple hats.
- Marie Antoinette did not actually use the phrase “let them eat cake.”
- George Washington did not have wooden teeth.
- The signing of the Declaration of Independence did not occur on July 4, 1776.
- Entrapment law in the United States does not require police officers to identify themselves as police in the case of a sting or other undercover work.
- Swallowed chewing gum does not take seven years to digest.
- It is commonly claimed that the Great Wall of China is the only man-made object visible from the Moon. This is false.
- Lemmings do not engage in mass suicidal dives off cliffs when migrating.
- The notion that goldfish have a memory span of just a few seconds is false.
- Bats are not blind.
- It is a common myth that an earthworm becomes two worms when cut in half.
- Poinsettias are not highly toxic.
- Sharks can actually suffer from cancer.
- It is not harmful to baby birds to pick them up and return them to their nests.
- Bulls are not enraged by the color red, used in capes by professional matadors.
- Eating less than an hour before swimming does not increase the risk of experiencing muscle cramps or drowning.
- The Coriolis effect does not determine the direction that water rotates in a bathtub drain or a flushing toilet.
- A penny dropped from the Empire State Building will not kill a person or crack the sidewalk.
- George Washington Carver did not invent peanut butter.
- Thomas Crapper did not invent the flush toilet.
- Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb.
- Henry Ford did not invent either the automobile or the assembly line.
If we have learned anything in 2016, it’s that you can’t believe everything you hear, read, or see. With this realization, it’s important that we re-acquaint ourselves with checking our sources. It’s important that, when faced with extraordinary claims, that we require extraordinary evidence.
If only Facebook, Twitter, and crazy uncles were required, like Wikipedia editors, to adhere to reasonable source guidelines, perhaps we’d be in a different place today.