5 Scientific Misconceptions People Believe For Extremely Dumb Reasons
A bunch of our fumbling, confused knowledge of science comes because we kind of just guess what the truth is, going with whatever seems to make sense. That's a little dumb, but it's no one's fault, and it's easily fixed by just learning the truth later on.
On the other hand, some misconceptions have actual, specific, traceable origins. To fix those, we'd have to go back in time and sternly correct those responsible, with our fists. And to do that, we must first invent time travel, which requires even more science, so let's get on the road to fixing science by clearing those misconceptions up for you.
We Think Neanderthals Are Hunched Because The Very First One We Found Was
Neanderthals, so says popular belief, were our idiot cousins, or an inferior species that we gloriously stamped out. We picture them as these dumb, hunchbacked creatures, gorilla-like counterparts to Homo sapiens. We triumphed as the superior humans because of our superior posture, which showed we had discipline and attended better schools.
But if you happen to have been browsing the latest in paleontological literature, you'll see that, hey, Neanderthals had the same posture as humans. Better than some humans, the ones who text a lot. What gives?
The problem: The popular idea of a Neanderthal comes from the very first reconstruction of a Neanderthal, back in 1912. That reconstruction happened to have been based on a rather geriatric specimen—he might have been in his sixties, which was considered pretty elderly 60,000 years ago. The skeleton was called "La Chapelle-aux-Saints," but today, we often just call it "The Old Man." The Old Man was also missing a bunch of its teeth, so we're lucky that anthropologists who saw him didn't also insist all Neanderthals needed dentures.
Not only that, but La Chapelle-aux-Saints suffered from osteoarthritis, lordosis, Baastrup disease, and kneasels, only one of which is a made-up disease we slipped in there. All of these gave him an unrepresentatively bad posture even for someone his age. Plus, it turns out that the man behind the famous reconstruction, Marcellin Boule, deliberately depicted his Neanderthal with bad posture even beyond what the skeleton suggested, to conform to the existing narrative of a missing link between humans and apes.
The latest evidence on this comes from new analysis of Neanderthal remains, but the basics of Boule's reconstruction were debunked just a few decades after he made it, long before most of us were born. It's kind of ridiculous that the image he created persisted. Neanderthals weren't hunchbacks. Though even if they were, we're sure they'd be capable of great heroics and would appreciate Paris architecture.
Cutting Open Only Poor People Was A Bad Idea
Yeah, we know about ancient people by studying dead bodies, and for hundreds of years, dead bodies were our main source for info on current anatomy too. Dissection was good fun for all involved but came with limitations. The bodies were not always of the highest quality, and in fact, this was why they were turned over for dissection. Executed criminals wound up on the dissection table as a final indignity, to punish them. Later, doctors often got their hands on the indigent dead. Based on all these, they made conclusions about what human organs are like in general.
Then in the 19th century, doctors discovered that many patients had tiny adrenal glands, compared to what was normal. They dubbed this deficiency "idiopathic adrenal atrophy." It appeared a very common disease. Really, it seemed like every single wealthy patient they examined suffered from it. Because eventually, doctors realized these glands weren't atrophied at all. Instead, doctors just had a mistaken baseline idea of what adrenals are like. They'd based their knowledge on enlarged adrenal glands, from poor people whose glands had swelled from a life of stress.
Poverty had the reverse effect on other organs. Thanks to bad nutrition, a lot of dissected bodies had shrunken thymus glands, making doctors underestimate the normal size of the thymus. Then around 1830, doctors investigating why so many children die in their cribs (a mystery still unsolved today) discovered something notable about many of the dead babies -- they all had enlarged thymuses. Enlarged compared to those from the cadavers, anyway; in reality, their thymuses were perfectly normal.
Doctors dubbed this condition "thymic asthma," and figured any infant with an organ so big was at risk of suffocating. By the 20th century, doctors came up with a treatment: shrinking the thymus, using radiation. It's safe to say that this did not protect any babies from the dangers of an enlarged thymus, as none of them really had an enlarged thymus to begin with. But as these babies grew up, an estimated 10,000 of them died of thyroid cancer that the treatment had induced.
Black Widows (Generally) Don't Eat Their Mates
Two arachnids are famous for their sexuality: the daddy longlegs (named by someone very horny) and the black widow spider. The black widow, we all know, will kill and eat her mate right after sex. It may not sound like the healthiest relationship, but scientists were ready to accept the idea. "What a way to go, right?" they said to one another, winking and exchanging high-fives.
The truth is, yes, the female black widow will lash out at the male right after mating. But the truth is, that's standard operating procedure for spiders in general, but not black widows in particular. Some spiders even do eat their mates after sex (male Australian redbacks seem to relish this, pumping more spider juice into their mates right up to getting their heads ripped off). But with most black widows, when the female peers murderously at the male post-coitus, the male simply ... hops away. This is a pretty easy move to evolve.
With one black widow species, we've rarely observed cannibalism, and with all the other species in America, we've never observed cannibalism. Never observed it in the wild, at least. The black widows got their gluttonous reputation because we observed caged specimens eating their mates. Caged males tried to hop away, as their instinct normally and reliably instructs them, but they couldn't get to safety because they were caged.
Yeah, chalk this up as yet another animal misconception we got because we think animals in cages offer reliable data. No, wolves don't have alphas and betas (only ones in cages do) and no, rats don't choose cocaine over food (not if they live somewhere comfortable, where life is better than oblivion). And black widows don't eat their mates, most of the time. We're not even sure why they chose to lock black widow up. Age of Ultron had its moments, but that film made some really questionable choices.
We Think Oil Is Made Of Dinosaurs Because Of An Ad Campaign
The idea that oil comes from dinosaurs delights us to no end. "I'm burning liquefied dinos on my way to work!" you might tell yourself as you commute, making your journey feel a little more epic. Ancient dinosaurs fueling our everyday lives can make us feel like true masters of the Earth, or it can feel like the most roundabout and ridiculous possible way of tapping into what is, ultimately, solar power. And what about the whoa, dude idea that plastic dinosaurs are actually made of real dinosaurs, since plastic is made from oil?
But oil doesn't come from dinosaurs. Well, maybe some oil somewhere has traces of dinosaurs, but by and large, no, it's not dinomatter. It comes from microbes in the sea, which isn't nearly as entertaining to think about.
It makes sense that people associate fossil fuels with dinosaurs. Fossil fuels are made of fossils, right, and dinosaurs turn into fossils too? But no: Oil does not actually come from fossilized material, and the name "fossil fuel" has nothing to do with fossils. The "fossil" in fossil fuels just means "dug up" (that's also why fossils are called fossils), and we've been calling fuels that we dig up "fossil fuels" since even before we called fossils fossils.
So, the dino oil hypothesis is so intuitive that we don't really need any specific cause behind it. We have one anyway.
Barnum Brown was a paleontologist and one of the big names behind early research into dinosaurs. Among other achievements, he discovered the first T. Rex remains. The American Museum of Natural History sponsored his expeditions, and he also received support from the Sinclair Oil and Refining Corporation, with whom he collaborated in producing dinosaur educational material for schools. These materials didn't necessarily say oil comes from dinosaurs, but they did link the two in people's minds.
Then Sinclair designed as a mascot a dinosaur named Dino. Again, they didn't actually claim oil was made from dinosaurs—we imagine celebrated paleontologist Barnum Brown would have ended their partnership had they attempted such liberties. The point of the Dino campaign was just to advertise their oil as being spectacularly old. "Mellowed 80 million years," said their marketing, old as a dinosaur. Old fuel was good fuel, they suggested, the sort of compelling, meaningless claim for which advertising is so well known.
You can hardly blame people for thinking oil was dinosaur remains, cooked for millions of years underground. We still invite you to laugh at them anyway, now that you know better. Just as you might laugh at someone who, after growing up seeing ads with the Jolly Green Giant, is convinced that peas are extracted from the organs of actual giants. Which organ, we aren't sure; it'd have to be one whose size no one knows. Probably the thymus.
The Frog That Let Itself Boil To Death Had No Brain
"It's funny how we don't notice what's happening to us till it's too late," you say to your assembled audience. Picture addressing a few friends in your living room, or heroes tied to traps in your lair -- we don't know what your life's like. "When you drop a frog in water and raise the heat gradually," you continue, "it doesn't notice the temperature rising and doesn't try escaping. It just keeps paddling, blissfully unaware, until it's too late. Then it's cooked."
Though your lesson is applicable to us all, you're of course referring to the famous real experiment, in which a frog was put in water and ... uh ... what experiment was this exactly? Why would anyone try this on a frog? It was probably the French, wasn't it, cooking frogs to eat them, but avoiding killing them first for fear of sullying their hands?
Well, don't worry, we're not going to tell you this was simply a thought experiment that people falsely take literally. It really happened, and was carried out by a German scientist, Leopold Goltz, in 1869. Only, the frog who stayed in the water and slowly became schnitzel? It did so because Goltz had first removed its brain and spine. Also featured in this experiment, for comparison, was a frog with its nervous system intact. This frog became uncomfortable once the water hit 25 degrees Celsius (77 Fahrenheit), no matter how gradually temperature rose.
This experiment aimed to study sensory response. Knowing what you do, you won't be surprised to hear that the brainless frog failed to jump out of the water. But you might be surprised by what else Goltz discovered, which has been long forgotten. Though it won't flee hot water, a brainless frog will swim. It swims in seemingly purposeful ways, such as diving to escape the jar in the below diagram. A brainless frog will also move toward light, even navigating around obstacles to reach it.
All of which tells us a lot about frogs but not much about brains generally, proving that you shouldn't use frogs to explain human behavior. Sure, people are slow to rise up against injustice or censorship or Netflix price hikes, but frogs are simple creatures, governed by direct reaction to stimuli, not psychology.
By the way, though: In the experiment, even the frog with the brain didn't get out of the pot. Though it tried, the pot's sides were too slippery, so the frog found nothing firm to jump off of. But that just brings to mind another famous trapped frog parable. Y'know, the one where he swims so much he turns the cream into butter and is elected the King of the Earth (or however the hell that old yarn goes).
Top image: Amy-Leigh Barnard