What an interesting question! I've made a list of popular myths,
fallacies, misconceptions and legends, but please click on the links
for more details and to expand the list.
1) THE EARTH IS FLAT
Summary by Jeffrey Burton Russell for the American Scientific
"It must first be reiterated that with extraordinary few exceptions no
educated person in the history of Western Civilization from the third
century B.C. onward believed that the earth was flat."
2) WETSUITS WORK BY TRAPPING A LAYER OF WATER BETWEEN YOUR SKIN AND THE SUIT
"Fact: The insulating in a wetsuit is done by the gas trapped in
bubbles in the neoprene. Water conducts heat very well. The less of it
you get in your suit, the better!"
3) CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS PROVED THAT THE EARTH WAS ROUND
"Even in 1492, educated people knew that earth was a sphere, they
didn't think the earth was flat. What Columbus thought was that
sailing west would give one a shorter route from Spain to India ---
and he was wrong about that."
4) THERE WERE CAVEMEN DURING THE TIME OF THE DINOSAURS:
"By the time the earliest humans evolved, the dinosaurs were extinct
for more than 60,000,000 years."
5) SEASONS ARE CAUSED BY HOW CLOSE EARTH IS TO THE SUN:
"This sounds reasonable, but distance between the earth and the sun
plays a very minor role in our temperature. Earth is actually closest
to the sun in January. And if the distance to the sun was what caused
the seasons, the northern and southern hemispheres would have
identical seasons. (We don't. August = summer in Connecticut, but
winter in Australia.) The real cause of the seasons is the tilt of the
earth's axis. In August, the northern hemisphere leans towards the
sun, in February, it leans away from it."
6) THE HUBBLE SPACE TELESCOPE WORKS SO WELL BECAUSE IT'S CLOSER TO THE STARS
"Hubble is closer to the stars than you ? it orbits 353 miles above
the earth's surface. But that doesn't make much difference. The sun is
about 93,000,000 miles away. The next closest star, Proxima Centauri,
is roughly 25,000,000,000,000 miles away --- and many things Hubble
observes are much farther. A few hundred miles doesn't make that much
difference. The reason Hubble can see things that earth-bound
telescopes can't is because of the atmosphere. A telescope on earth
has to look through a thick layer of air. That may not seem important,
but when looking at objects in space, it can be like rubbing grease on
your glasses and trying to read. Outside the atmosphere, Hubble has no
7) ONE CAN SKATE ON ICE BECAUSE THE PRESSURE OF THE SKATE CAUSES THE ICE TO MELT
"It is often claimed that one can skate on ice because the pressure of
the skate causes the ice to melt, thus dramatically reducing the
friction between skate and ice. While this makes a good story, it is
not quite correct. If one takes the skater to have a mass of 75 kg
(weight of 165 lbs), and the skate to be 3 mm wide and 20 cm long, one
can calculate that entire gravitational force exerted on the area of
one skate is only a pressure of about 12 atmospheres. While one can
imagine that the force is concentrated in a somewhat smaller area, the
effect of pressure alone is clearly enough to shift the melting
temperature of the ice by at most a few tenths of a degree. Since
common experience is that ice skating is possible even when the
ambient temperature is well below the normal freezing point, the
pressure induced lowering of the melting point clearly does not
explain this every day observations."
8) RAINDROPS ARE SHAPED LIKE TEARDROPS
"The artistic representation of raindrop as presented by popular
culture is that of a teardrop. Actually, real raindrops bear scant
resemblance to this popular fantasy (except after they have ceased to
be raindrops by splattering on a window, say). It may seem too easy a
target to single out the Weather Channel for criticism for their
shoddy representation when virtually everyone from advertisers to
illustrators of children's books do likewise. Yet, I would like to
think they could be held to a higher standard as they attempt to
convey the image of purveyors of accurate information."
9) THE REASON CLOUDS FORM WHEN AIR COOLS IS BECAUSE COLD AIR CANNOT
HOLD AS MUCH WATER VAPOR AS WARM AIR
"And therein lies the origin of the myth. The temperature of a cloud
droplet or ice crystal will be (nearly) the same as that of the air,
so people imagine that somehow the air was to blame. But, if the
(other gases of the) air were removed, leaving everything else the
same, condensation and evaporation would proceed as before (the air
was irrelevant to the behavior). To assign the behavior of water to an
invented holding capacity of the air is like assigning your life's
fortunes to an invented influence of the constellations (and as we all
know, nobody does that anymore)."
10) THE GREENHOUSE EFFECT IS CAUSED WHEN GASES IN THE ATMOSPHERE
BEHAVE AS A BLANKET AND TRAP RADIATION WHICH IS THEN RERADIATED TO THE
The correct explanation (as offered above) is remarkably simple and
easy to understand, namely:
"The surface of the Earth is warmer than it would be in the absence of
an atmosphere because it receives energy from two sources: the Sun and
But don?t ever teach nonsense by claiming that the radiation is
trapped, or that the atmosphere reradiates, or that the atmosphere
behaves as a greenhouse (or parked car), or that greenhouse gases
behave as a blanket."
11) WATER AND OIL REPEL EACH OTHER
"This explanation almost universally leads students (and even some
professional chemists) to believe that individual water and oil
molecules repel each other, or at least attract each other very
weakly. Nothing can be further from the case! An individual oil
molecule is attracted to a water molecule by a force that is much
greater than the attraction of two oil molecules to each other."
12) THE WATER IN A SINK (OR TOILET) ROTATES ONE WAY AS IT DRAINS IN
THE NORTHERN HEMISPHERE AND THE OTHER WAY IN THE SOUTHERN HEMISPHERE.
CALLED THE CORIOLIS EFFECT, IT IS CAUSED BY THE ROTATION OF THE EARTH
"The direction of rotation in draining sinks and toilets is NOT
determined by the rotation of the Earth, but by rotation that was
introduced earlier when it was being filled or subsequently being
disturbed (say by washing). The rotation of the Earth does influence
the direction of rotation of large weather systems and large vortices
in the oceans, for these are very long-lived phenomena and so allow
the very weak Coriolis force to produce a significant effect, with
13) THERE ARE SEVEN COLORS IN THE RAINBOW
"Fact: There are as many colors in the rainbow as the eye can see. Red
and blue are prominent because they mark the edges of the bow, and
yellow-green usually stands out because the sun is brightest in that
color. But rainbows, like sunlight, contain a continuous spectrum that
does not neatly divide into red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo,
14) THE GROUND CAN OPEN UP DURING AN EARTHQUAKE
"A popular cinematic and literary device is a fault that opens during
an earthquake to swallow up an inconvenient character. But
unfortunately for principled writers, gaping faults exist only in
movies and novels. The ground moves across a fault during an
earthquake, not away from it. If the fault could open, there would be
no friction. Without friction, there would be no earthquake. Shallow
crevasses can form during earthquake induced landslides, lateral
spreads, or other types of ground failures. Faults, however, do not
gape open during an earthquake."
15) CALIFORNIA WILL EVENTUALLY FALL INTO THE OCEAN
"The ocean is not a great hole into which California can fall, but it
is itself land at a somewhat lower elevation with water above it. It?s
absolutely impossible that California will be swept out to sea.
Instead, southwestern California is moving horizontally northward
towards Alaska as it slides past central and eastern California. The
dividing point is the San Andreas fault system, which extends from the
Salton Sea in the south to Cape Mendocino in the north. This 800 mile
long fault is the boundary between the Pacific Plate and North
American Plate. The Pacific Plate is moving to the northwest with
respect to the North American Plate at approximately 46 millimeters
(two inches) per year (the rate your fingernails grow). At this rate,
Los Angeles and San Francisco will one day (about 15 million years
from now) be next-door neighbors, and in an additional 70 million
years, Los Angeles residents will find themselves with an Alaska zip
16) NUCLEAR EXPLOSIONS CAN START OR STOP EARTHQUAKES
"Scientists agree that even large nuclear explosions have little
effect on seismicity outside the area of the blast itself. The largest
underground thermonuclear tests conducted by the United States were
detonated in Amchitka at the western end of the Aleutian Islands, and
the largest of these was the 5 megaton test code-named Cannikin that
occurred on November 6, 1971 that did not trigger any earthquakes in
the seismically active Aleutian Islands. On January 19, 1968, a
thermonuclear test, code-named Faultless, took place in central
Nevada. The code-name turned out to be a poor choice because a fresh
fault rupture some 4,000 feet long was produced. Seismograph records
showed that the seismic waves produced by the fault movement were much
less energetic than those produced directly by the nuclear explosion.
Locally, there were some minor earthquakes surrounding the blasts that
released small amounts of energy. Scientists looked at the rate of
earthquake occurrence in northern California, not far from the test
site, at the times of the tests and found nothing to connect the
testing with earthquakes in the area."
17) ANIMALS CAN PREDICT EARTHQUAKES
"Changes in animal behavior cannot be used to predict earthquakes.
Even though there have been documented cases of unusual animal
behavior prior to earthquakes, a reproducible connection between a
specific behavior and the occurrence of an earthquake has not been
made. Because of their finely tuned senses, animals can often feel the
earthquake at its earliest stages before the humans around it can.
This feeds the myth that the animal knew the earthquake was coming.
But animals also change their behavior for many reasons, and given
that an earthquake can shake millions of people, it is likely that a
few of their pets will, by chance, be acting strangely before an
18) DURING AN EARTHQUAKE YOU SHOULD HEAD FOR THE DOORWAY
"That?s outdated advice. In past earthquakes in unreinforced masonry
structures and adobe homes, the door frame may have been the only
thing left standing in the aftermath of an earthquake. Hence, it was
thought that safety could be found by standing in doorways. In modern
homes doorways are no stronger than any other parts of the house and
usually have doors that will swing and can injure you. YOU ARE SAFER
PRACTICING THE ?DROP, COVER, AND HOLD? maneuver under a sturdy piece
of furniture like a strong desk or table..."
19) FLU SHOTS CAN CAUSE THE FLU
"This is an utter impossibility because the virus in the shot is not
live. Scientists create a new flu vaccine each year in order to
protect people against the strains most likely to be circulating that
season. The target viruses, two types of influenza A and one type of
influenza B, are grown in chicken eggs but are killed before being
processed to create the shot. The nasal spray vaccine, introduced in
2003, contains a weakened live virus and is approved for use in
healthy people, ages 5 to 49."
20) IF YOU UNDRESS IN WINTER, YOU'RE MORE LIKELY TO CATCH A COLD
"Colds are caused by viruses, not exposure to chilly temperatures. In
pursuit of this evidence, ?scientists have done every possible mean
thing to people,? says G. Edgar Folk, Ph.D., professor of physiology
at the University of Iowa, in Iowa City, including exposing subjects
to frigid air and soaking their feet in cold water. ?Still, they don?t
come down with a cold.? That is, unless they come in close enough
contact with another person infected with a cold and pick up the
virus. But that happens in any temperature. People get more colds in
winter than in summer, experts say, not because they?re out in the
cold more but because they spend more time indoors, where viruses
21) HAIR GROWS BACK DARKER OR THICKER AFTER IT HAS BEEN SHAVED
"The part of the hair we style is already dead. The living sections
lie below the surface of the scalp. Cutting or shaving the extreme end
of the dead section isn't going to have an impact on the parts that
are alive. Go forth to shave and trim as much as you like ? you will
not be affecting the intrinsic nature of your hair."
22) BRUSHING IS GOOD FOR YOUR HAIR
"Forget what you heard about a hundred strokes before bedtime, because
brushing pulls out hair that wasn't ready to be molted quite yet,
breaks healthy hairs, and scratches the scalp. Use a brush for styling
only; not to "exercise" the scalp."
23) THOSE WHO GO SWIMMING LESS THAN ONE HOUR AFTER EATING WILL BE
TAKEN BY A CRAMP AND DROWN
"Whether oxygen-deprivation stomach cramps are real or not is open to
debate, as is whether they can be brought on by eating right before
engaging in strenuous activity. What's not in doubt, however, are the
lack of deaths associated with swimming right after eating ? there
hasn't been so much as one drowning attributed to this, not even a
near drowning. For something that was supposed to be fatal if you so
much as dipped a toe, this particular old wives' tale proved to be a
24) ONE VOTE FALLACIES
In 1645, one vote gave Oliver Cromwell control of England.
In 1649, one vote caused Charles I of England to be executed.
In 1776, one vote gave America the English language instead of German.
In 1845, one vote brought Texas into the Union.
In 1875, one vote changed France from a monarchy to a republic.
In 1923, one vote gave Adolf Hitler leadership of the Nazi Party.
In 1941, one vote saved Selective Service - just weeks before Pearl
Harbor was attacked.
25) The Great Wall of China is the only man-made object visible from the moon.
"'The only thing you can see from the moon is a beautiful sphere,
mostly white (clouds), some blue (ocean), patches of yellow (deserts),
and every once in a while some green vegetation. No man-made object is
visible on this scale. In fact, when first leaving earth's orbit and
only a few thousand miles away, no man-made object is visible at that
Additional Links of Interest:
ASTRONOMY - MISCONCEPTIONS
"This list is a work in progress. We are using it to build a library
of (mis)information and categorize the location of the proper science.
Click on the linked misconceptions to see the scientific explanations
of these common mistakes courtesy of a number of informative online
Facing the truth about some of our best but tallest tales
by Guy Rocha, Nevada State Archivist
URBAN LEGENDS by category
Setting the Record Straight
Unusual, unique, and uncommon facts about a diversity of subjects
Some Myths from History Exploded
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