Top 10 Urban Legends Debunked
Urban legend is a form of modern folklore consisting of apocryphal stories believed by their tellers to be true. As with all folklore and mythology, the designation suggests nothing about the story’s factuality or falsehood, but merely that it is in non-institutional circulation, exhibits variation over time, and carries some significance that motivates the community in preserving and propagating it. Urban legends have been around forever, as fear of the unknown gets spun into macabre tales that proliferate with each person who hears them. With the advent of e-mail, these urban legends spread across the nations within hours. People love a good tale, especially ones that have a moral, as all urban legends do. Here are a few of those urban legends that we always seem to hear about, in one variation or another.
1. Money for Forwarding E-mails
You receive an e-mail from Bill Gates where he states that he has developed software to trace forwarded e-mails and will reward all those who forward this specific e-mail with $1000, as long as the e-mail ultimately gets forwarded to 1,000 people. First of all, rationally speaking, why would Bill Gates, one of the richest men in the world, be contacting you directly? Secondly, how in the world is he supposed to send you this $1,000 without an address? Thirdly, there is absolutely no e-mail tracing software that currently exists so it is absolutely impossible for this to be true.
2. The Great Wall of China is only Man-made Object Visible from Moon
The claim that it is visible from the moon was probably an attempt to find a concise way of conveying the grand scale of the wall to people who had never seen it and of asserting the triumph of man’s mastery of the vastness of nature.
The claim that China’s Great Wall is the only man-made object that can be seen from the moon with the naked eye is one of our more tenaciously incorrect “facts,” a bit of erroneous speculation which was spawned decades before we had the means to demonstrate it true, and which continues to have currency despite having long since been proved false. Some less specific versions of the Great Wall claim maintain it is the only man-made object that can be seen from “space,” but although the term “space” is rather non-specific, it is not difficult to show the Great Wall claim to be false for any reasonable definition of the term.
If we take “space” to mean a low Earth orbit such as the one traveled by the Space Shuttle roughly 160 to 350 miles above Earth, the Great Wall claim fails twice. First of all, it’s not the only object visible from that distance: NASA’s Earth from Space photographic archive (particularly the Human Interactions section) shows that pictures taken from low orbit reveal human-built structures such as highways, airports, bridges, dams, and components of the Kennedy Space Center. Secondly, even though other objects are visible at this distance, according to Shuttle astronaut Jay Apt, the Great Wall is barely discernable, if not invisible.
“We look for the Great Wall of China. Although we can see things as small as airport runways, the Great Wall seems to be made largely of materials that have the same color as the surrounding soil. Despite persistent stories that it can be seen from the moon, the Great Wall is almost invisible from only 180 miles up!”
3. NASA Experiments with Sex in Space
Fictitious document attributed to NASA and circulated on the Internet in 1995 detailed purported experiments in which astronauts performed sex acts in outer space. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration disputed a French science writer’s claim that American astronauts conducted sex experiments while orbiting the earth in the space shuttle in 1995. Kohler’s book focused primarily on alleged experiments conducted by cosmonauts in the USSR space program, but asserts that the United States pursued similar research. The experiments were videotaped, the author says, and the tapes subjected to rigorous analysis.”One of the principal findings was that the classic so-called missionary position, which is so easy on earth when gravity pushes one downwards, is simply not possible,” he said in an interview.
“It’s one of those urban myth things,” NASA spokesman John Ira Petty told MSNBC News. Another NASA spokesman labeled the Internet text “fraudulent.” Yet another stated, “We are not, have not and do not plan to conduct any sex experiments.” Unfortunately for Kohler, who has built his entire case around evidence contained in the mysterious NASA document, there’s no evidence that it exists apart from references in another Internet text purportedly summarizing the document, ” NASA Publication No. 14-307-1792.” The zero-G sex experiments weren’t conducted, Kohler claims, until 1996. Oops!
4. We use Only 10% of our Brain
The myth is not simply a static, misunderstood factoid. It has several forms, and this adaptability gives it a shelf life longer than lacquered Spam. In the basic form, the myth claims that years ago a scientist discovered that we indeed did use only ten percent of our brains. Another variant is that only ten percent of the brain had been mapped, and this in turn became misunderstood as ten percent used. A third variant was described earlier by Craig Karges. This view is that the brain is somehow divided neatly into two parts: the conscious mind which is used ten to twenty percent of the time (presumably at capacity); and the subconscious mind, where the remaining eighty to ninety percent of the brain is unused. One reason this myth has endured is that it has been adopted by psychics and other paranormal pushers to explain psychic powers. On more than one occasion I’ve heard psychics tell their audiences, “We only use ten percent of our minds. If scientists don’t know what we do with the other ninety percent, it must be us used for psychic powers.
The argument that psychic powers come from the unused majority of the brain is based on the logical fallacy of the argument from ignorance. In this fallacy, lack of proof for a position (or simply lack of information) is used to try to support a particular claim. Even if it were true that the vast majority of the human mind is unused (which it clearly is not), that fact in no way implies that any extra capacity could somehow give people paranormal powers. Brain imaging research techniques such as PET scans (positron emission tomography) and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) clearly show that the vast majority of the brain does not lie fallow. Indeed, although certain minor functions may use only a small part of the brain at one time, any sufficiently complex set of activities or thought patterns will indeed use many parts of the brain. Just as people don’t use all of their muscle groups at one time, they also don’t use all of their brain at once. For any given activity, such as eating, watching television, making love, or reading, you may use a few specific parts of your brain. Over the course of a whole day, however, just about all of the brain is used at one time or another.
5. Santa Claus was invented by Coca-cola
In the 1930?s, Coca-cola was looking for ways to spread their burgeoning empire during the winter months – traditionally slow for soft drink sales. They hire Haddon Sundblom, a highly regarded commercial illustrator who proceeded to create a series of images of Santa Claus that associated him with coke. His drawings became a regular annual sight for the coca-cola corporation which helped to spur on the idea that they had conceived the image.
In fact, the red-suited jolly man was already a well established depiction of Santa Claus by the 1920s. The New York Times reported this in 1927: A standardized Santa Claus appears to New York children. Height, weight, stature are almost exactly standardized, as are the red garments, the hood and the white whiskers. The pack full of toys, ruddy cheeks and nose, bushy eyebrows and a jolly, paunchy effect are also inevitable parts of the requisite make-up.
6. Hercules, World’s Biggest Dog (Photo)
Emailed image of a gargantuan dog named Hercules, purportedly the Guinness Record holder for World’s Biggest Dog. And it said:
Hercules was recently awarded the honorable distinction of Worlds Biggest Dog by Guinness World Records. Hercules is an English Mastiff and has a 38 inch neck and weighs 282 pounds.
With “paws the size of softballs” (reports the Boston Herald), the three-year-old monster is far larger and heavier than his breed’s standard 200lb. limit. Hercules owner Mr. Flynn says that Hercules weight is natural and not induced by a bizarre diet: “I fed him normal food and he just grew”…. and grew. and grew.
It is true that back in 2001, Joe Flynn, the owner of a 282-pound English mastiff named Hercules ( see photo), was told by the Guinness World Records folks that his was the world’s “heaviest” dog at the time. This is not that animal. Thanks to some clever Photoshop manipulation, the dog pictured above (which actually appears to be a Neapolitan mastiff, not an English mastiff as claimed) looks roughly twice its natural size. It’s an obvious hoax. February 2, 2010: A harlequin Great Dane named ‘Giant George’ is the current Guinness World Record holder.
7. Walt Disney’s Body is Cryogenically Frozen
The rumor tells us that Disney, who was well known for being a technical innovator, had his body put into a vat of liquid nitrogen upon his death so that he could be re-animated (har har) when scientists discovered the means. Some versions of the tale even tell us that Walt?s cryo-vat is hidden under the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction in Disneyland!
Sorry to tell you, this is entirely false. On December 15, 1966, Walt Disney died of complications from the treatment he was receiving for lung cancer. Following Disney?s wishes, his family had him cremated (they have since confirmed this fact) and his ashes were interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, which you can visit to this day.
8. HIV Syringe
In Dallas, a woman sat down at a movie theater and felt something prick her. She looked down to find a syringe sticking straight up out of the seat with a note attached that said, “You have just been infected with the AIDS virus.” The e-mail states that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) confirmed these reports. First, HIV cannot live outside the human body for more than a few minutes so the chances of somebody contracting AIDS from a needle sitting in a seat are slim to none. Secondly, the CDC issued official warnings stating they had never confirmed these alleged reports. With the onset of HIV and AIDS, people’s fears got the better of them, resulting in yet another in a string of urban legends.
In 2007 and 2008, a slightly revised version of the hoax claiming that someone was seen placing HIV+ blood in tomato sauce packets at a Wimpy restaurant circulated in South Africa.
9. Hair Grows back Coarser after it has been Shaved
As much as we shampoo it, style it, cut it, and fret over it, hair continues to be a mystery to us. We speculate on its nature, especially its propensity for sprouting in our middle years in places we didn’t want it to, even as it disappears from locations where we would much rather it had stayed put. We wonder if it continues to grow after we die. (It doesn’t.) And we worry that shaving or cutting it will make hair grow back thicker or darker or coarser. This belief probably stems from the perception that short hair seems to be tougher than longer hair. Hair expert Philip Kingsley recommends thinking of a bamboo cane: a long cane flexes easily, but the same cane cut short feels harder and tougher. Another reason for the belief resides with the naturally finer ends of uncut hair: compare the end of a long-lived hair with that of a hair recently cut or shaved, and you’ll see the one is thicker than the other. That could lead the less-than-careful to conclude that the whole of the hair’s shaft became thicker as a result of the hair’s being cut (which it didn’t) rather than to realize that shaving or cutting results in a blunt termination, whereas natural outgrowth concludes in a tapering.
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.
10. A Tooth Left in Coke will Dissolve Overnight
As per the claim, a tooth left in a glass of Coca-Cola will dissolve overnight. I don’t know of anyone who hasn’t heard the rumor that too much Coke rots your innards, and as they say:
Proof of this can be determined by dropping a baby tooth into a glass of it, then going back the next morning to find most of it eaten away. If Coca-Cola can dissolve a tooth overnight, imagine what it must be doing to your teeth, not to mention your stomach and digestive tract!
All such claims ignore a few salient points. A glass pf coke can’t dissolve a tooth or a nail, or a penny, or a piece of meat overnight. It contains acids such as citric acid and phosphoric acid which will eventually dissolve items such as teeth given enough time than one night, but so do plenty of other substances we commonly ingest such as orange juice. The concentration< of acid in these products is so low that our digestive systems are easily capable of coping with it with no harm to us. The idea that any substance which can dissolve teeth must therefore damage our teeth if we drink it is nonsensical. We don’t hold drinks in our mouths for days at a time — any liquids we drink simply wash over our teeth very briefly, and our teeth are further protected by their enamel coating and the ameliorating effects of saliva and the mucous membranes in our digestive system.