Myths, Misconceptions and Misunderstandings

In late 2012, applied mathematician Samuel Arbesman released an intriguing little book called ‘The Half-Life of Facts’ in which he seeks to explain why a lot of the information that we all thought we knew is continually being disproven. It’s an interesting read, but the central premise should really come as no surprise. After all, science is based upon a continued quest for the refinement of knowledge, in which no theory, no matter how precious, is allowed to become immune to refutation.

Still, there remains a stalwart group of pseudo scientific ‘facts’ that possess the peculiar ability to survive intact, even in the face of new contradictory evidence. So in the spirit of public service, and with the hope of helping to cleanup mankind’s collective meme pool, here’s a list of some of science’s most common misconceptions.


5) Bulls are enraged by the colour red

This myth is so prevalent it’s even become the basis for a common British idiom. We’ve all seen images from traditional Spanish bullfights, in which the matador uses his cape (or muelta) to goad the unlucky bull into charging, and the fact that the cape is nearly always red makes it easy to assume that the colour is vital in provoking the animal.


However bulls, like all cattle, are dichromatic. They have only one visual pigment in the red part of the spectrum, which allows them to distinguish blue from other colours, but makes it impossible to separate red from green. The real reason that bulls charge at the cape is down to its movement, along with their own inherent bad temper. Still, the red cape persists because it offers the matador a practical means of hiding any bloodstains whilst also providing a theatrical appeal for interested observers.


4) A penny dropped from a great height can kill…

A misconception that seems to persist because nobody wants to take responsibility for putting it to the test. Fortunately MythBusters have done the job for us, clearly demonstrating that a penny dropped from the top of tall building cannot kill someone passing below. The aerodynamics of the coin makes this impossible as terminal velocity is reached at between 30-50mph, which might cause a bit of a sting, but provides insufficient energy to penetrate the human skull.


3) Vitamin C helps to ward off the common cold…

This belief has been around ever since Vitamin C was first synthesized in 1935. One of the earliest proponents was Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling, who advised his readers to take 1,000mg of Vitamin C a day to protect against colds. Whilst the current recommended dose is significantly lower, approximately 60mg, the basic association remains unchanged.


However, a meta-study from Helsinki University has shown that, in the vast majority of cases, the preventive powers of Vitamin C are so slight that supplements are not worth the time or expense. Still, there’s even worse news for those taking Vitamin A and E, which have recently been linked to an increased risk of premature death.


2) We only use 10% of our brains…

Several people have been suggested as the source of this common misconception, including the mighty Albert Einstein. Whatever its origins, it’s easy to see why the myth persists. After all, which of us wouldn’t find comfort in blaming our own shortcomings on unexploited grey matter?


Unfortunately, the competing evidence is pretty conclusive. Numerous neuroimaging studies have clearly shown that we use virtually every part of our brain during daily tasks, and that even basic memory drills require over 35% brain activity.


1) Carrots can help you to see in the dark…

Like all good rational red herrings, this has just enough of a basis in fact to make it believable. Carrots are rich in beta-carotene, which can be converted to vitamin-A, the precursor of 11-cis retinal. 11-cis retinal is, in turn, one of the vital components of rhodopsin, the biological pigment in retinal photoreceptor cells. As such, vitamin A may well help to boost poor eyesight at normal light levels, but it does nothing to improve one’s ability to see in the dark.


The myth rose to prominence in WWII when Britain needed a way to explain the success of RAF pilots during nighttime engagements without revealing the use of their new radar technology. Thus, various pieces of propaganda were released through the Ministry of Food stating that the pilots’ skill was down to an increased consumption of carrots. As well as fooling the Germans, it also encouraged the British people to grow more vegetables at a time when rationing had made other sources of food extremely scarce.

So those are our top picks from a long list of popular scientific misconceptions. If you disagree, or if you have your own personal favourites, then please let us know in the comments section.


Paul Blakeley

Paul has an MSc in Reproductive Biology, and is currently dabbling in a bit of writing and website design…If someone would like to give him a job, that would be lovely.

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  1. David Bradley

    How bizarre…I had a book published last November revealing dozens of “facts” to be fictions – Deceived Wisdom. Hadn’t even heard about this one from Arbesman. My name should link to the appropriate page on my site. Do let me know if you’d like a copy for review…




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