List of common misconceptions

Translations of this material:

into Belarusian: Список популярных предубеждений. 0% translated in draft.
Submitted for translation by Phil-Gunner 01.06.2011
into Russian: Список распространённых заблуждений. 66% translated in draft.
Submitted for translation by dgl 23.02.2011


This list describes fallacious ideas and beliefs that are documented and widespread as well as the actual facts concerning those ideas, where appropriate. Inclusion criteria are as follows: a misconception's main topic must have its own article; the misconception must have reliable source(s) which assert that it is a common misconception (or synonym thereof); the misconception and its reference(s) must be present in the topic article; and the misconception must be modern rather than ancient or obsolete.


1 History

1.1 Ancient to early modern history

1.2 Modern history

2 Legislation and crime

3 Food and cooking

4 Science

4.1 Astronomy

4.2 Biology

4.2.1 Evolution

4.3 Chemistry

4.4 Human body and health

4.4.1 The senses

4.4.2 Skin and hair

4.4.3 Nutrition, food, and drink

4.4.4 Human sexuality

4.4.5 The brain

4.4.6 Disease

4.4.7 Miscellaneous

4.5 Mathematics

4.6 Physics

4.7 Psychology

5 Sports

6 Religion

6.1 Book of Genesis

6.2 Buddhism

6.3 Christianity

6.4 Islam

7 Technology

7.1 Inventions

7.2 Transportation

8 See also

9 References

10 Further reading


See also: List of misquotations

Ancient to early modern history

In ancient Rome, Romans did not build rooms called vomitoria in which to purge themselves after a meal.[1] Vomitoria were the entranceways through which crowds entered and exited a stadium.[2]

There is no evidence that Vikings wore horns on their helmets.[3][4]

There is no evidence that iron maidens were invented in the Middle Ages or even used for torture, despite being shown so in some media, but instead were pieced together in the 18th century from several artifacts found in museums in order to create spectacular objects intended for (commercial) exhibition.[5]

Christopher Columbus's efforts to obtain support for his voyages were not hampered by a European belief in a flat Earth. Sailors and navigators of the time knew that the Earth was spherical, but (correctly) disagreed with Columbus's estimate of the distance to India, which was approximately 1⁄6th of the actual distance. If the Americas did not exist, and had Columbus continued to India, he would have run out of supplies before reaching it at the rate he was traveling. Without the ability to determine longitude at sea, he could not have corrected his error.[clarification needed] This problem remained unsolved until the 18th century, when the lunar distance method emerged in parallel with efforts by inventor John Harrison to create the first marine chronometers. The intellectual class had known[6] that the Earth was spherical since the works of the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle.[7] Eratosthenes made a very good estimate of the Earth's diameter in the third century BC.[8][9] (See also: Myth of the Flat Earth)

"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe

Contrary to the popular image of the Pilgrim Fathers, the early settlers of the Plymouth Colony in present-day Plymouth, Massachusetts did not dress in black, wear buckles, or wear black steeple hats. According to Plimoth Plantation historian James W. Baker, this image was formed in the 19th century when buckles were a kind of emblem of quaintness. This is also the reason illustrators gave Santa Claus buckles.[10][11][12][13]

Marie Antoinette did not actually use the phrase "let them eat cake" when she heard that the French peasantry was starving due to a dearth of bread. The phrase was first published in Rousseau's Confessions when Marie was only 10 years old and most scholars believe that Rousseau coined it himself, or that it was said by Maria-Theresa, the wife of Louis XIV. Even Rousseau (or Maria-Theresa) did not use the exact words but actually "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche" ("Let them eat brioche [a rich type of bread]"). Marie Antoinette was a very unpopular ruler and many people therefore attribute the phrase "let them eat cake" to her, in keeping with her reputation as being hard-hearted and disconnected from her subjects.[14]

George Washington did not have wooden teeth. According to a study of Washington's four known dentures by a forensic anthropologist from the University of Pittsburgh (in collaboration with the National Museum of Dentistry, itself associated with the Smithsonian Museum), the dentures were made of gold, hippopotamus ivory, lead, and human and animal teeth (including horse and donkey teeth).[15]

The signing of the Declaration of Independence did not occur on July 4, 1776. The final language of the document was approved by the Second Continental Congress on that date, it was printed and distributed on July 4 and 5,[16] but the actual signing occurred on August 2, 1776.[17]

The United States Constitution was written on parchment, not hemp paper.[18] It is likely that drafts of the document were written on hemp, since a large portion of paper at the time was made from the material.[19]

Modern history

Napoleon on the Bellerophon, a painting by Charles Lock Eastlake depicting Napoleon I, who was taller than his nickname, The Little Corporal, suggests.

Napoleon I (Napoleon Bonaparte) (pictured) was not particularly short,[20] and did not have a Napoleon complex. After his death in 1821, the French emperor’s height was recorded as 5 feet 2 inches in French feet. This corresponds to 5 feet 6.5 inches in modern international feet, or 1.686 metres.[21][22] There are competing explanations for why he was nicknamed le Petit Caporal (The Little Corporal),[23] but few modern scholars believe it referred to his physical stature.

According to Time magazine there is a common misconception among Americans that Abraham Lincoln freed the American slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863.[24] The Proclamation did not cover the 800,000 slaves in the slave-holding border states of Missouri, Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland or Delaware, pertaining only to areas within rebelling states that were not under Union control. Since those states did not recognize the power of the federal government, most slaves were not immediately freed as a direct result of the Proclamation. Regions in the South that were under Confederate control when the Proclamation was issued ignored its dictum, so slave ownership persisted until Union troops captured further Southern territory. Immediately affected regions were Tennessee, southern Louisiana, and parts of Virginia.[25] It was only with the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 that slavery was officially abolished in all of the United States. Thirty-six of the United States recognize June 19 as a holiday, Juneteenth, celebrating the anniversary of the day the abolition of slavery was announced in Texas in 1865.

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini did not “make the trains run on time”. Much of the repair work had been performed before Mussolini and the Fascists came to power in 1922. Accounts from the era also suggest that the Italian railways’ legendary adherence to timetables was more myth than reality.[26] Mussolini's trains were subject to frequent labour disruptions due to his conflict with labour unions.

During the German Invasion of Poland in 1939, there is no evidence of Polish Cavalry mounting a brave but futile charge against German tanks using lances and sabres. This seems to have its origins in German propaganda efforts following the Charge at Krojanty in which a Polish cavalry brigade surprised German infantry in the open and charged with sabres until driven off by armoured cars. While Polish cavalry still carried the sabre for such opportunities, they were trained to fight as highly mobile, dismounted infantry and issued with light anti-tank weapons.[27]

During World War II, King Christian X of Denmark did not thwart Nazi attempts to identify Jews by wearing a yellow star himself. Jews in Denmark were never forced to wear the Star of David. The Danes did help most Jews flee the country before the end of the war.[28][29]

John F. Kennedy's words "Ich bin ein Berliner" are standard German for "I am a Berliner".[30][31] An urban legend has it that due to his use of the indefinite article ein, Berliner is translated as jam doughnut, and that the population of Berlin was amused by the supposed mistake. The word Berliner is not commonly used in Berlin to refer to the Berliner Pfannkuchen; they are simply called Pfannkuchen.[32] In other parts of Germany, though, the term "Berliner" actually also is used for the product in question, so there is a grain of truth in the myth.

According to various polls, between 20 to 24% of Americans incorrectly believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim.[33] The White House describes Obama as a "devout Christian" who prays every day.[34]

Legislation and crime

Entrapment law in the United States does not require police officers to identify themselves as police in the case of a sting or other undercover work.[35] The law is specifically concerned with enticing people to commit crimes they would not have considered in the normal course of events.[36]

It is frequently rumored that the expression "rule of thumb", which is used to indicate a technique for generating a quick estimate, was originally coined from a law allowing a man to beat his wife with a stick, provided it was not thicker than the width of his thumb.[37] In fact, the origin of this phrase remains uncertain, but the false etymology has been broadly reported in media including The Washington Post (1989), CNN (1993), and Time Magazine (1983).[38]

It is often asserted that knife attacks are more dangerous than an attack with a firearm ("knives are more lethal than guns").[39] While self-defense instructors often make a point of emphasizing that a knife attack may very easily result in death,[40] there is no statistical evidence that knife attacks are more likely to result in death than an attack with a handgun. A 1968 study claimed that gun attacks are five times more lethal than knife attacks. This figure has since become a controversial point of dispute in gun politics. A review of several studies published in 1983 concluded that lethality of wounds from handguns is between 1.3 and 3 times higher than lethality of wounds from knives.[41]

Food and cooking

Roll-style Western sushi. Contrary to a popular myth, sushi can contain any number of raw ingredients, including vegetables and other non-meat products.

Searing meat does not "seal in" moisture, and in fact may actually cause meat to lose moisture. Generally, the value in searing meat is that it creates a brown crust with a rich flavor via the Maillard reaction.[42][43]

Mussels that do not open when cooked may still be fully cooked and safe to eat.[44]

Some cooks believe that food items cooked with wine or liquor will be non-alcoholic, because alcohol's low boiling point causes it to evaporate quickly when heated. However, a study found that some of the alcohol remains: 25% after 1 hour of baking or simmering, and 10% after 2 hours.[45]

Sushi does not mean "raw fish", and not all sushi includes raw fish. The name sushi refers to the vinegared rice used in it. Sushi is made with sumeshi, rice which has been gently folded with rice vinegar, salt, and sugar dressing.[46] The rice is traditionally topped by raw fish, cooked seafood, fish roe, egg, and/or vegetables such as cucumber, daikon radish, and avocado. The related Japanese term sashimi is closer in definition to "raw fish", but still not quite accurate: Sashimi can also refer to any uncooked meat or vegetable, and usually refers more to the dish's presentation than to its ingredients. The dish consisted of sushi rice and other fillings wrapped in seaweed is called makizushi, and includes both "long rolls" and "hand rolls".

Microwave ovens do not cook food from the inside out. Microwave radiation penetrates food and causes direct heating only a short distance from the surface. This distance is called the skin depth. As an example, lean muscle tissue (meat) has a skin depth of only about 1 centimetre (0.39 in) at microwave oven frequencies.[47]

Placing metal inside a microwave oven does not damage the oven's electronics. There are, however, other safety-related issues: electrical arcing may occur on pieces of metal not designed for use in a microwave oven, and metal objects may become hot enough to damage food, skin, or the interior of the microwave oven. Metallic objects that are designed for microwave use can be used in a microwave with no danger; examples include the metalized surfaces used in browning sleeves and pizza-cooking platforms.[48]

Swallowed chewing gum does not take seven years to digest. In fact, chewing gum is mostly indigestible, but passes through the digestive system at the same rate as other matter.[49]



A satellite image of a section of the Great Wall of China, running diagonally from lower left to upper right (not to be confused with the much more prominent river running from upper left to lower right). The region pictured is 12 × 12 km (7.5 × 7.5 miles).

It is commonly claimed that the Great Wall of China is the only man-made object visible from the Moon. This is false. None of the Apollo astronauts reported seeing any specific man-made object from the Moon, and even earth-orbiting astronauts can barely see it, but city lights are easily visible on the night side of Earth from orbit.[50] The misconception is believed to have been popularized by Richard Halliburton decades before the first moon landing. Shuttle astronaut Jay Apt has been quoted as saying "…the Great Wall is almost invisible from only 180 miles up."[51]

Black holes, unlike their common image, do not act as "cosmic vacuum cleaners" any more than other stars.[52] The collapse of a star into a black hole is an explosive process, which means, according to Mass–energy equivalence, that the resulting black hole would be of lower mass than its parent object, and actually have a weaker gravitational pull.[53] The source of the confusion comes from the fact that a black hole exists in a space much smaller but orders of magnitude more dense than a star, causing its gravitational pull to be much stronger closer to its surface. But, as an example, were the Sun to be replaced by a black hole of the same mass, the orbits of all the planets surrounding it would be unaffected.

Seasons are not caused by the Earth being closer to the Sun in the summer than in the winter. In fact, the Earth is actually farther from the Sun when it is summer in the Northern Hemisphere. Seasons are the result of the Earth being tilted on its axis by 23.5 degrees. As the Earth orbits the Sun, different parts of the world receive different amounts of direct sunlight. When an area of the Earth's surface is oriented perpendicular to the incoming sunlight, it will receive more radiation than it will when it is oriented at an angle to the incoming sunlight. In July, the Northern Hemisphere is tilted towards the Sun giving longer days and more direct sunlight; in January, it is tilted away. The seasons are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere, which is tilted towards the Sun in January and away from the Sun in July. In tropical areas of the world, there is no noticeable change in the amount of sunlight.[54][55]

Further information: Effect of sun angle on climate

It is not easier to balance an egg on its end on the first day of spring.[56] In fact, the ease or difficulty of balancing an egg is the same 365 days a year. This myth is said to originate with the egg of Li Chun, an ancient Chinese folk belief that it is easier to balance an egg on Li Chun, the first day of spring in the Chinese calendar. In Chinese Li means setup/erect, Chun spring/egg. Setup spring is a Chinese solar term, literally interpreted as erecting an egg for fun. It was introduced to the western world in a Life article in 1945, and popularized once again by self-titled "urban shaman" Donna Henes, who has hosted an annual egg-balancing ceremony in New York City since the mid-1970s.[57][58][59]


Bombus pratorum over an Echinacea purpurea inflorescence; a widespread myth holds that bumblebees should be incapable of flight.

The claim[60] that a duck's quack does not echo is false, although the echo may be difficult to hear for humans under some circumstances.[61]

DNA is not made of protein.[62][63] DNA is instead a nucleic acid. DNA and protein are closely interrelated, however. DNA is always accompanied by proteins in the chromatin of plants and animals.[64] See protein biosynthesis for DNA's involvement in assembling protein. See DNA replication for enzymatic proteins' involvement in assembling DNA.

The notion that goldfish have a memory of only three seconds is false.[65][66][67]

Lemmings do not engage in mass suicidal dives off cliffs when migrating. They will, however, occasionally unintentionally fall off cliffs when venturing into unknown territory, with no knowledge of the boundaries of the environment. The misconception is due largely to the Disney film White Wilderness, which shot many of the migration scenes (also staged by using multiple shots of different groups of lemmings) on a large, snow-covered turntable in a studio. Photographers later pushed the lemmings off a cliff.[68] The misconception itself is much older, dating back to at least the late nineteenth century.[69]

Bats are not blind. While most bat species do use echolocation to augment their vision, all bat species have eyes and are capable of sight.[70][71][72]

It is a common myth that an earthworm becomes two worms when cut in half. However, only a limited number of earthworm species[73] are capable of anterior regeneration. When most earthworms are bisected, only the front half of the worm (where the mouth is located) can survive, while the other half dies.[74] Also, species of the planaria family of flatworms actually do become two new planaria when bisected or split down the middle.[75]

According to urban myth, the daddy longlegs spider (Pholcus phalangioides) is the most venomous spider in the world, but the shape of their mandibles leaves them unable to bite humans, rendering them harmless to our species. In reality, they can indeed pierce human skin, though the tiny amount of venom they carry causes only a mild burning sensation for a few seconds.[76] In addition, there is also confusion regarding the use of the name daddy longlegs, because harvestmen (order Opiliones, which are not spiders) and crane flies (which are insects) are also known as daddy longlegs, and share (also incorrectly) the myth of being venomous.[77][78]

Poinsettias are not highly toxic. While it is true that they are mildly irritating to the skin or stomach[79] and may sometimes cause diarrhea and vomiting if eaten,[80] an American Journal of Emergency Medicine study of 22,793 cases reported to the American Association of Poison Control Centers showed no fatalities, and furthermore that a strong majority of poinsettia exposures are accidental, involve children, and usually do not result in any type of medical treatment.[81]

The flight mechanism and aerodynamics of the bumblebee (as well as other insects) are actually quite well understood, in spite of the urban legend that calculations show that they should not be able to fly. In the 1930s a German scientist, using flawed techniques, indeed postulated that bumblebees theoretically should not be able to fly,[82] although he later retracted the suggestion. However, the theory became generalized to the false notion that "scientists think that bumblebees should not be able to fly."

Sharks can actually suffer from cancer. The myth that sharks do not get cancer was spread by the 1992 book Sharks Don't Get Cancer by I. William Lane and used to sell extracts of shark cartilage as cancer prevention treatments. Reports of carcinomas in sharks exist, and current data do not allow any speculation about the incidence of tumors in sharks.[83]

It is not harmful to baby birds to pick them up and return them to their nests, despite the common belief that doing so will cause the mother to reject them.[84][85]

Bulls are not enraged by the color red, used in capes by professional matadors. Cattle are dichromats, so red does not stand out as a bright color. It is not the color of the cape that angers the bull, but rather the movement of the fabric that irritates the bull and incites it to charge.[86][87][88]


Further information: Introduction to evolution and Objections to evolution

Tyrannosaurus rex. Non-avian dinosaurs died out in the Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event at the end of the Cretaceous period.

The word theory in the theory of evolution does not imply mainstream scientific doubt regarding its validity; the concepts of theory and hypothesis have specific meanings in a scientific context. While theory in colloquial usage may denote a hunch or conjecture, a scientific theory is a set of principles that explains observable phenomena in natural terms.[89][90] Evolution is a theory in the same sense as germ theory, gravitation, or plate tectonics.[91]

See also: Objections to evolution#Status as a theory

A reconstruction of Aegyptopithecus, a primate—and not a monkey—predating the split between the human and Old World monkey lineages in human evolution.

Evolution does not claim humans evolved from monkeys,[92] chimpanzees[93] or any other modern-day primates. Instead, humans and monkeys share a common ancestor that lived about 40 million years ago.[94] This common ancestor diverged into separate lineages, one evolving into so-called New World monkeys and the other into Old World monkeys and apes.[95] Humans are part of the Hominidae (great ape) family, which also includes chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans. Similarly, the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees, which lived between 5 and 8 million years ago, evolved into two lineages, one eventually becoming modern humans and the other the two extant chimpanzee species.[92]

Evolution is not a progression from inferior to superior organisms, and it also does not necessarily result in an increase in complexity. A population can evolve to become simpler, having a smaller genome, but devolution is a misnomer.[96][97]

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