Celebrities: They're just like us, except people actually care what they have to say. It's like a superpower: If enough actors say we should donate to Darfur, we'll send money without even finding out what that is. But with that great power comes great responsibility -- when a couple of celebrities insist that vaccines cause autism, childhood disease outbreaks follow a few years later.
Famous people have been accidentally etching bullshit into the public consciousness since, well, as long as famous people have existed. For example ...
6The Jersey Devil Myth Was Started By Ben Franklin
The Jersey Devil is kind of a less-famous Bigfoot -- a humanoid reptilian cryptid with a fearsome appearance that lives in the Pine Barrens of South Jersey. Sightings go back centuries, and it's such a cultural staple that the New Jersey pro hockey team named themselves after it.
"We are proud to be named after such a magnificent, graceful creature!"
The myth goes that a woman was very pissed about being pregnant with her 13th kid and decided, "You know what? I hope it's a ding-dang devil." Well, her wish came true: A hooved, horned, tailed, winged devil flew right out of her undercarriage and took off into the woods, where it was reported to have killed cattle, frightened ministers, and left mysterious tracks that dogs refused to follow. Just like the old saying goes: Speak of the devil, and he'll come shooting out of your birth canal.
Who do we have to thank for this? None other than Benjamin Franklin.
As Cracked has previously mentioned, Franklin had a lively rivalry with a local New Jersey politician and publisher, Titan Leeds. Leeds made for quite the easy target, as he was a proponent of astrology and backed the unpopular local governor. In his usual "ain't I a stinker" way, Franklin attempted to smear Leeds by writing a joke article claiming a monster was born to the Leeds family. It wasn't the classiest display, and in an unfortunate coincidence, the Leeds family had some disabled members, and one was born in the same year as that eventually attributed to the Jersey Devil.
"Whoa whoa whoa, I'm not saying all disabled people are monsters. Just the one!"
The myth of the "Leeds Devil" persisted in the region and various supposed sightings cropped up over the years. Joseph Bonaparte, the former King of Spain and Napoleon's brother, claimed he saw the creature while out hunting.
"Then the foul demon assumed a human voice and said, 'I'm not a monster!
I'm a human being with a disability, asshole!'"
Everyone kind of forgot about it for a while, but in 1909, there was a sudden spike in popularity thanks to a huckster trying to draw attention to his museum. He resurrected the myth and renamed Franklin's monster the "Jersey Devil" (the original dispute with Leeds now forgotten). Soon, sightings were being printed in newspapers everywhere as factual occurrences. The Philadelphia Zoo offered a $10,000 reward for the creature's capture, which allegedly remains up for grabs to this day.
Warner Bros. Television
"I AM A PERFECTLY PLAUSIBLE ORGANISM DAMN YOU."
And that, friends, is how a petty political squabble with one of America's Founding Fathers turned into a centuries-long monster myth. Franklin, through the magic of his words, summoned a powerful force that, once unleashed, cannot be killed. That force is called Bullshit, and its dark powers are not to be trifled with.
5The Hollow Earth Theory Was Invented By Edmond Halley (Of Halley's Comet Fame)
Some people think the world is hollow and contains other Earths inside it. Those people include at least one former president -- in the 1820s, President John Quincy Adams funded an Arctic expedition to try to find the entrance to this subterranean kingdom (they didn't). Still, the theory persists to this day among people who have no idea how planets work.
This one came from Edmond Halley. The comet guy. The year was 1692, and Halley was an astronomer who liked to pal around with Isaac Newton. (Halley is the reason Newton bothered to publish his groundbreaking text on physics, Principia, instead of just shoving it in his desk and going back to eating mercury.) So all in all, Halley was a smart guy who knew solid science when he saw it.
As long as the science was billions of miles away and not right under his goddamn feet.
After doing important work in astronomy (nabbing his very own personal comet in the process), Halley noticed that compasses sometimes had inaccuracies. In order to explain variations and inconsistencies in compass readings, Halley proposed that the Earth we lived on was just an outer shell, and that there were one or more concentric layers of inner-Earths surrounding a central core Earth, each separated by their own atmospheres. These concentric planetary layers rotated at different rates, he said, which created different magnetic fields, which is what confused the compasses. You have to admit it's clearly the simplest solution to that problem.
Oh, and there was also maybe an advanced civilization within the Earth, glowing lights, and seeping gas that created the aurora borealis. That too.
So much for the Heaven's Gate guy being the biggest nutjob ever associated with comets.
A few science fiction writers picked up this theory and ran with it, adding their own assertions that other scientists had proven this theory to be sound (they had not). Four centuries and a few hopeful scientists and explorers later, lots of educated people still buy this hilariously stupid theory. Well, shit, now we're wondering if that comet is real.