One of the things that I loved the most when I was a kid was learning about the world. With a bright and eager gaze, I’d gobble down new and interesting facts about the world. Though, now that I’m a grown-up (at least theoretically, on paper; I’m still a six-year-old at heart), I’m sad to learn that some of the fun facts I was so amazed by are actually false. Oh, they’ll capture your attention all right. It’s just a pity there’s not a kernel of truth to them.
Our fact-loving team here at Bored Panda has collected a whole host of fun ‘facts’ that, unfortunately, are anything but. They’re lies! Open up your eyes, Neo– errr I mean, dear Readers! Have a read through some of the most common bits of trivia that actually aren’t true and let us know which ones you really believed in (the one about seeing the Great Wall of China from space got me, I’ll admit).
While these false facts might seem completely innocent, it’s been shown that we tend to believe that which is repeated the most. That’s concerning for obvious reasons because it means that fake news and conspiracy theories can spread like wildfire if left unchecked and if you believe everything blindly. All it takes is constant re-pe-ti-tion.
I spoke about the illusory truth effect, propaganda, cognitive bias, good and bad news sources, and media literacy with Lee McIntyre. Lee is a published author and a Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University. He was kind enough to give Bored Panda some fantastic insights into how to separate the signal from the noise and how much constant repetition affects what we perceive to be the truth. You can read my full interview with him below.
NASA didn’t spend millions developing a pen that could be used in space while the Soviets simply told their cosmonauts to use pencils. NASA’s mechanical pencils of choice cost $128.89 each, and the public wasn’t pleased when they found out where their tax dollars were going. In addition, the flammability of pencils and the tendency of their tips to break off and float away made the switch to pens imperative. The Fisher Pen Company invested $1 million to design the “AG-7 ‘Anti-Gravity’ Space Pen,” but “none of this investment came from NASA’s coffers.”
The agency was hesitant to purchase the product, but after extensive testing, they decided to buy 400 of them. A year later, the Soviets placed an order for 100 space pens. The two dueling agencies “received the same 40 percent discount for buying their pens in bulk. They both paid $2.39 per pen instead of $3.98.” So while NASA was looking for an alternative writing utensil when the space pen came along, they neither overlooked the possibility of using pencils nor invested an absurd amount in the invention of the product.
Humans don’t swallow eight spiders a year on average while they sleep. Arachnid experts speaking to Scientific American said that such a claim “flies in the face of both spider and human biology.” Spiders “regard us much like they’d regard a big rock,” since we’re so comparatively huge that we’re “really just part of the landscape” to them. Additionally, the vibrations of a sleeping human (snoring, breathing, and the beating of a heart) are terrifying to spiders. As far as humans go, even if the rare brave spider does wander across your face whilst you snore, you’d most likely feel it there and wake up before it crawled inside your mouth.
The fact that bees can fly doesn’t violate the laws of aviation, and it isn’t a scientific mystery. If bees flew like airplanes, then yeah, their flight would be impossible. But they don’t fly like airplanes. They fly like bees. The opening narration of Bee Movie informs us that a bee shouldn’t be able to fly, because “its wings are too small to get its fat little body off the ground.” But like so much of Bee Movie, this is complete nonsense. The myth may have originated with entomologist August Magnan, who in the 1930s noted that “a bee’s flight should be impossible.” But Magnan didn’t know that bees flap their wings back and forth instead of up and down, a motion that creates “mini-hurricanes” that help lift the bee upward.
“Repetition is important in making us believe things, whether they are true or not. There is a cognitive bias called the ‘illusory truth effect’ which is when we are repeatedly exposed to false information over and over and, over time, it begins to seem more plausible,” Lee from Boston University told Bored Panda. He noted that scientists have known about this for decades, but the idea goes back to antiquity.
“Social psychologists have known since the 1960s that repetition works, for truth or falsity. In fact, this idea goes back to Plato who said that it didn’t hurt to repeat a true thing. And of course, for falsehood, this was one of the main propaganda tactics in Nazi Germany, where Hitler’s propaganda minister understood the ‘repetition effect.'”
At the core of the illusory truth effect lies the idea that if you repeat a falsehood over and over and over again, people will eventually begin to believe it. Lee noted that researchers like Lisa Fazio continue to work on this.
Walt Disney did not create Mickey Mouse. His close friend and collaborator Ub Iwerks did, though he was “denied credit” for creating this major piece of pop culture history. Iwerks came up with the character in 1928, after Disney lost the rights to his “first hit character,” Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. When Disney “kept on making up bigger and bigger whoppers to stretch the Mickey Mouse creation story,” up to and including claiming he was the one who came up with him, Iwerks quit Walt Disney Studios, embittered by his friend’s behavior. In 1940, a decade after he left, Iwerks returned. He and Disney rekindled their friendship and worked together until Disney’s death in 1966.
Orson Welles’ 1938 radio play War of the Worlds didn’t cause mass hysteria in the United States. You may have heard that millions of Americans were tricked into thinking that aliens had invaded Earth, but in reality, “the supposed panic was so tiny as to be practically immeasurable on the night of the broadcast.” Newspapers covered the story gratuitously, hoping to strike a blow against radio, the popularity of which had carved into their profits. But very few people actually tuned into the broadcast, and even fewer earnestly believed what they were hearing. Multiple anecdotes about the panicked reactions of the public (including suicide attempts and hospitals treating multiple listeners for shock) were later disproven.
Despite the fact that his name has become synonymous with “angry short man,” Napoleon Bonaparte was actually of average height for the time period in which he lived.
His contemporaries described him as being 5’2″, but the French measured height differently back in the day, so he was actually around 5’5″. That made him just “an inch or so below the period’s average adult male height.” The popular perception of the diminutive general probably came in part from the successful work of the British cartoonist James Gillray, whose mocking caricatures of a “tiny Napoleon” were so popular that Napoleon himself said that Gillray “did more than all the armies of Europe to bring me down.”
The fact remains that the illusory truth effect works in real life, even if we’re aware of it. It’s a very humbling experience for everyone. “I understand cognitive bias, yet last election season I kept seeing signs for the same candidate running for local office around my town. I thought, ‘Wow, I guess everyone is voting for her.’ It turns out I was just walking my dog in the neighborhood where she lived, and her friends and neighbors had up lots of signs! So I fooled myself.”
I wanted to get Lee’s take on how best to approach news stories and facts. On the one hand, we need to have open yet scientific minds. On the other hand, we simply don’t have enough time to be skeptical about each and every tidbit of info. So we have to balance between the two extremes and focus on finding accurate sources of information.
“It would be exhausting to fact check every single news item we hear. In fact, insisting on this degree of skepticism is something that demagogues use to get us to be cynical, because when we doubt that it is possible to know the truth—even when it is staring us in the face—we are riper to their manipulation. So I’d say the best thing with news is to do a little investigation into finding a reliable source,” Lee explained to me.
Sharks can get cancer. The myth that they cannot is perpetuated partly by people trying to sell shark cartilage as a cancer treatment, even though it’s been proven to be ineffective. As one shark researcher put it, “Sharks get cancer. Even if they didn’t get cancer, eating shark products won’t cure cancer any more than me eating Michael Jordan would make me better at basketball.” The marketing of shark cartilage as a cancer treatment both misleads patients and results in more sharks being killed by humans.
Yellowstone isn’t overdue for an eruption. It’s had three major explosions in its existence (2.08, 1.3, and 0.631 million years ago), and if you average out those numbers, that means an eruption every 725,000 years, meaning we’d still have a good 100,000 to go. But that number is based on such little data that it’s “basically meaningless.” A volcano doesn’t operate like a fault line, and the accumulation of liquid magma and pressure necessary for an eruption “does not generally happen on a schedule.” Because of that, it can’t be overdue.
NASA confirms that The Great Wall of China “frequently billed as the only man-made object visible from space” can’t actually be seen from the final frontier. Although the fact was debunked by Chinese astronaut, Yang Liwei, the textbooks were never changed, and will often still claim this as true.
“Look for an organization that does investigative journalism (and doesn’t just repeat information from other sources), double sources its quotations, discloses conflicts of interest, etc. Once we’ve found that we can relax a bit and trust the reporting behind the stories. Do we still need to be on guard? Yes. Even The New York Times can make mistakes. Or individual reporters can have biases. But that doesn’t mean ‘all sources are equal.'”
Media literacy, according to Lee, is essential moving forward. “There are various sources for media literacy that can help. They teach this to KIDS in Finland! It’s easy to learn. Is the story copyrighted? Is it dated? Is there a byline? Are other stories by the author solid? Is it published in a source that has been reliable in the past? Does it seem plausible— if not then you can do some research,” he listed the questions we should be asking ourselves as we evaluate an article, the news source, and the journalist.
“Will we get fooled sometimes in doing this? Yes. But we’re going to get fooled sometimes anyway. It’s analogous to how scientists form their beliefs. They are skeptics, but they also—at some point when the evidence is sufficient—give their assent. Scientists deal with warrant, not ‘proof.’ They are what philosophers call ‘fallibilists.’ You give your belief to things that are well-sourced with evidence, while always holding out the possibility that if further evidence comes to light that contradicts your belief, you should give it up because you might be wrong.”
Benjamin Franklin didn’t publicly or seriously advocate for the turkey to be the national bird of the United States. According to the Franklin Institute, Franklin “defended the honor of the turkey against the bald eagle” in a private letter to his daughter, but his pro-turkey leanings didn’t go any further than that. In the letter, Franklin criticized the design of the bald eagle on the Great Seal of the United States, pointing out that it resembled a turkey. He then went straight for the bald eagle’s jugular, writing that it is, “a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly…[he] is too lazy to fish for himself.” The noble turkey, in comparison, is “a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America. … He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage.” Ultimately, Franklin kept his reservations about the honor of the eagle out of the public sphere.
Isaac Newton didn’t discover gravity because an apple bonked him on the head. Rather, he witnessed an apple falling and wondered why objects always fall down instead of up or sideways, a thought that inspired his Law of Universal Gravitation. When he saw the apple drop, Newton was in the orchard of his childhood home, Woolsthorpe Manor. He had been studying at Cambridge University, but the school was temporarily closed due to an outbreak of the bubonic plague.
Walt Disney’s body is cryogenically frozen. His biography states that after he died from lung cancer complications in 1966, his body was cremated in Glendale, California. Mental Floss reported that the rumor likely got started because the president of the Cryonics Society of California told the Los Angeles Times that Walt Disney Studios had inquired about the process.
Although Walt was not cryogenically frozen, people remembered the association of Walt Disney with cryonics, and the rumor persisted.
Earlier, I had a chat with Lee about why so many people fall for conspiracy theories. We spoke specifically about Flat-earthers—people who believe that Earth is flat and that the idea of it being a planet is a hoax perpetrated at the highest possible institutional levels. Though some Flat-Earthers try to ‘prove’ their ideas to the general public, they don’t stand up to rigorous scientific analysis.
“They are to be commended for actually trying to test their hypothesis, but of course they don’t understand at all how science actually works. Specifically, they are ignorant of gravitational pull. One of their main arguments was that if the Earth was spinning the water would fall off. Do they not understand that gravitational pull comes from the center, is based on mass, and works on water too?” Lee told Bored Panda earlier.
The right side of the brain is responsible for creative skills. People think that personalities whose right side of the brain is more developed tend to have good creative skills. And those who have their left side of the brain dominating tend to have better analytical and logical skills. However, recent research has completely destroyed this myth. Scientists analyzed the work of 1,011 brains. The participants were between 7 and 29 years old. They didn’t find any signs of left or right hemisphere domination.
According to a survey from 2013, around 65 percent of Americans believe that we only use 10 percent of our brain. But this is just a myth, according to an interview with neurologist Barry Gordon in Scientific American. He explained that the majority of the brain is almost always active.
The lines on a red Solo cup aren’t there to measure the correct servings of liquor, wine, and beer. A representative from the manufacturers, the Dart Container Corporation, told that, “The lines on our Party Cups are designed for functional performance and are not measurement lines. If the lines do coincide with certain measurements, it is purely coincidental.”
He pointed out that after visiting the Flat Earth International Conference in 2018, he debated some conspiracy theorists and they kept asking for unspecific proof that they’re wrong. “Most of them just said ‘proof’ and I said ‘proof of what?’ They couldn’t be specific. This shows that their beliefs weren’t really based on evidence in the first place,” he said.
Lee explained to Bored Panda that after spending an hour face-to-face with Flat-Earthers, he came to the conclusion that the vast majority of them truly believe that the Earth is flat in their heart of hearts.
“Some are stronger in that belief than others, but I didn’t catch one person who seemed like they were just trolling. At one session I heard many Flat Earthers talk about losing family members, getting kicked out of their churches, losing jobs… who would do that for fun? These are hardcore science deniers,” Lee said.
Albert Einstein never flunked a math class as a child. When the adult Einstein was shown a newspaper article claiming he had, he replied, “Before I was 15, I had mastered differential and integral calculus.” While Einstein achieved high grades throughout his childhood education, he “hated the strict protocols followed by teachers and rote learning demanded of students” at the schools he attended. The math class myth may have originated with the fact that Einstein did fail the entrance exam to Zurich Polytechnic the first time he took it, when he was still a year and a half from graduating high school and hadn’t learned much French (the language in which the exam was administered). And, for the record, he did well on the math section, but struggled in language, botany, and zoology. He later graduated from high school and gained admittance to Zurich Polytechnic in 1896.
The 25th frame affects human subconsciousness. In 1957, James Vicary did an experiment; he secretly flashed, at a third of a millisecond, the words stimulating people to eat popcorn and drink a certain beverage onto a movie screen. According to his words, right after the end of the movie, the sales of both drastically increased. But the American Association of Psychology disproved the effect of the 25th frame. In 1962, Vicary himself admitted the falsification of experimental results.
Different tongue parts. There are not different sections of the tongue for each taste: bitter, sour, salt, sweet and umami (savoury/meaty).
“As hard as it might be to accept, there are people who believe this stuff and are willing even to put their lives on the line for it! One rocket guy crashed trying to prove Flat Earth. They aren’t pretending.”
Conspiracy theories are nothing new. They’ve been around far longer than most of us realize and they’re an indication that there’s chaos. “Conspiracy theories have been around since Nero in the Roman Empire. They pop up in times of turmoil or mass unrest when people try to make sense of the world, but can’t,” Lee said.
Lightning can and does strike the same place twice. The Empire State Building gets struck 25 times a year on average. And speaking of lightning striking once and coming back for more, one unlucky fellow by the name of Roy Sullivan was struck by lightning seven times. That’s the most lightning strikes any one person’s ever survived.
Don’t touch baby birds. If there’s one thing everyone knows about baby birds, it’s that you’re not supposed to pick them up. If you do, the mother bird will smell the residue of your stinky human hands on her baby, and leave the piteously crying chick there to die, right?
Wrong, says Miyoko Chu, a biologist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “Birds don’t have a very strong sense of smell,” she said, “so you won’t leave a scent that will alarm the parent.”
In fact, contrary to what our parents may have told us, most bird parents are unlikely to abandon their chicks over a little human fiddling. “Usually, birds are quite devoted to their young and not easily deterred from taking care of them,” Chu said.
Shaving thickens hair. No – shaving hair doesn’t change its thickness, color, or rate of growth. Shaving facial or body hair gives the hair a blunt tip. The tip might feel coarse or “stubbly” for a time as it grows out. During this phase, the hair might be more noticeable and perhaps appear darker or thicker – but it’s not.
“Flat Earth is in some ways just a run-of-the-mill conspiracy theory. They’ve all grown in popularity because beliefs (even fringe beliefs) are reinforced by peer approval, and that is now readily available on the internet. Virtually all of the Flat Earthers I met were converted based on YouTube videos. Some then went to the conferences. After that, they were ‘down the rabbit hole.’”
So if such ludicrous conspiracy theories can worm their way into people’s minds, it’s no wonder that seemingly innocent ‘facts’ about science, history, and the natural world also find a spot in our hearts. No matter how ‘fun’ they might be, it’s still our duty to separate the wheat from the chaff, even if we still want to stay kids at heart.
Twenty women accused of being witches were executed during the 1692 Salem Witch Trials, but none of them were burned at the stake. That isn’t to say they didn’t have a rough time. Nineteen of the victims were hung on Gallows Hill, and the twentieth, an elderly man named Giles Corey, was pressed to death with stones after he refused to plead either guilty or innocent. In addition to those executed, “more accused sorcerers died in jail while awaiting trial.” This misconception probably originated with the fact that burning witches at the stake was a “disturbingly common practice” during European witch trials.
The “X” in “Xmas” has nothing to do with “taking the Christ out of Christmas.” In fact, it literally means “Christ.” In Greek, “the word Christos (Christ) begins with the letter ‘X,’ or chi.” The abbreviation isn’t a modern or secular invention; it’s been around since 1021 as “XPmas,” later further shortened to “Xmas.”
There is no record of Queen Marie Antoinette of France ever having said the words “Let them eat cake.” The myth goes that when told French peasants did not have enough bread to feed themselves, she replied callously, “Let them eat cake.” History.com claimed that Lady Antonia Fraser, author of a bestselling biography of the French queen, believed that “the quote would have been highly uncharacteristic of Marie-Antoinette, an intelligent woman who donated generously to charitable causes and, despite her own undeniably lavish lifestyle, displayed sensitivity towards the poor population of France.”
Bagpipes are Scottish. They were prevalent in the Middle East centuries before Western Europe.
Black holes. Not really “holes,” but rather hugely dense objects with massive gravitational pull.
The myth that a sleepwalker should be left alone stems from an ancient belief that the soul leaves the body during sleep, and if a sleepwalker is woken up they will be a body without a soul. Metaphysical reasoning aside, the presumption that sleepwalkers will exhibit wildly disturbing behavior when awakened is largely unfounded. Although some people may become aggressive, researchers have found that most of the time sleepwalkers are simply confused, disoriented, scared, or embarrassed. Waking a sleepwalker should be done as gently as possible to avoid such responses.
Ninjas never wore black. The darkest color they ever wore was blue (during nighttime). Mostly they wore the inconspicuous clothing of peasants, merchants, traveling priests, etc.
“Irregardless” is a real word. The fine folks at Merriam-Webster wrote a whole article defending its existence. They point out that other major dictionaries include it as well, and that the word meets its criteria for inclusion because lots of people use it, it’s been around for a long time, and it has a “specific and identifiable meaning (‘regardless’).” The fact that it’s considered awkward or unnecessary doesn’t matter, since it is “not a dictionary’s job to assess whether a word is necessary before defining it.”
Twinkies definitely don’t last forever. In fact, their shelf life used to be only 26 days, though it’s currently around 45. Though the snack cakes have a reputation for being unnatural, they’re made of “mostly flour and sugar” and their rate of decay “is absolutely typical of all processed foods.” The NPR Science desk kept one for 18 months to observe its supposed invincibility, and they wrote of their findings, “The subject shows no signs of disintegrating — or of still being edible: It’s now hard as a rock.” So if you were planning on including Twinkies in the pantry of your doomsday bunker, you should probably take your business elsewhere.
The Mexica people (known as “Aztecs” post-conquest) didn’t believe that Hernando Cortés and the other conquistadors were gods. Francisco López de Gómara, Cortés’s secretary and a man who had never been to Mexico, came up with that story in 1552. In de Gómara’s version of history, Cortés was seen as “a god named Quetzalcoatl, who long ago had disappeared in the east.” But there is no evidence that the myth of Quetzalcoatl existed before the Europeans’ arrival, and the Mexica responded to the “technology gap” between them and Cortés’s forces with “intelligence and savvy rather than wide-eyed talk of gods.” The story both glorified the Europeans and alleviated their guilt by recasting them as returning gods rather than invading conquerors.
Cracking your knuckles will give you arthritis. This was probably told to you by people who can’t stand the sound of bones popping, cracking your knuckles or other body parts will not give your arthritis. Dr. Robert Klapper, an orthopedic surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and co-director of their Joint Replacement Program, explained on the hospital’s site that there is no harm to cracking your knuckles. “The noise of cracking or popping in our joints is actually nitrogen bubbles bursting in our synovial fluid,” he wrote. “It does not lead to arthritis.”
It takes seven years for your body to digest a piece of gum. Actually, gum will pass right through you and leave your body within a matter of hours or days. According to Healthline, the ingredients in gum can’t be digested at all, so your body will move it along and pass it as a bowel movement.
Charles Darwin said that humans come from monkeys. In reality, Darwin never stated the fact that humans come from monkeys directly. In his work On the Origin of Species, Darwin only said that monkeys, apes, and humans must have a common ancestor because of our great similarities compared to other species.
Eating rice doesn’t make birds explode. Birdseed expands more than uncooked rice when soaked (40% versus 33%), so if bursting birds were a problem, we’d already know about it. Besides, lots of birds eat uncooked rice “all the time with no ill effects,” because their stomachs aren’t hot enough for the grains to absorb much liquid. So don’t worry about our avian friends too much the next time you find yourself at a wedding with a handful of grain.
The biblical forbidden fruit is an apple. In the Old Testament, it is said that the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was an apple. It is likely that the theory about Adam and Eve eating an apple appeared because of the translation of the Bible into Latin, which was done in the 4th century. The Latin word “malum” can be translated as “apple” or “evil.” So the forbidden fruit could be anything from pomegranates to figs to something abstract.
Wolves howl at the moon. There is no direct connection between a full moon and wolves howling. Howling is a way of communication between wolves, and they lift their heads to make the sound spread better. Wolves can howl in complete darkness as well. However, due to the fact that moonlit nights are usually windless, it’s simply easier to hear the howling. Moreover, it’s impossible to see a howling wolf when the moonlight is not there.
Toads cause warts. No, there are no amphibians that give you warts. This myth has been around for a long time and is probably related to the fact that many frogs and toads have warty looking bumps on their skin. These are glands and do not secrete anything that can cause you to have warts!
Paul Revere didn’t yell “The British are coming!” on his midnight ride through colonial Massachusetts. First of all, Revere’s mission was a stealth operation that needed to be conducted “as discreetly as possible,” and there is nothing less discrete than a man on horseback screaming about imminent doom. Then there’s the fact that at the time, the American colonists still thought of themselves as British, so Revere’s supposed warning would be nonsensical at best. What he may have said is that “the Regulars” (British soldiers) were en route, but either way, he didn’t yell about it.
This morbid fact of hair and fingernails continue to grow after death is not true, but the truth is much more horrifying. BBC reported that “nerve cells die within three to seven minutes” after death, proving that they stop growing. However, the skin around the hair and fingernails retracts after death, due to dehydration, making them appear longer. Funeral directors will apparently heavily moisturize the fingernails to prevent this sight.
Alcohol warms up the body. Not only does alcohol not raise the body temperature, but it can also drastically increase the loss of body warmth. The thing is that a nip or 2 actually causes your blood vessels to dilate, moving warm blood closer to the surface of your skin, making you feel warmer temporarily.
Bats are blind. No, bats are not blind. Bats have small eyes with very sensitive vision, which helps them see in conditions we might consider pitch black. They don’t have the sharp and colorful vision humans have, but they don’t need that
Caffeine dehydrates you. Not really. The diuretic effect of caffeine is offset by the amount of water in a caffeinated drink. Drinking caffeine-containing beverages as part of a normal lifestyle doesn’t cause fluid loss in excess of the volume ingested. While caffeinated drinks may have a mild diuretic effect — meaning that they may cause the need to urinate — they don’t appear to increase the risk of dehydration.