6 Science Myths that Really Grind My Gears

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My mom is a science teacher, so I grew up with a pretty low tolerance for anti-science BS. Back in fourth grade it was telling people about daddy long legs, now it’s crusading against the anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, and creationists. Though I didn’t ultimately choose a scientific field to study or work in, you don’t have to be a scientist to be scientifically literate. I wish people got as mad about scientific illiteracy as they do about poor grammar—and this is coming from an editor. Split infinitives aren’t affecting our government and legislation, people, nor are they killing people like the anti-vaccination movement. So here’s Scientific Literacy 101:

1.) “You only use 10% of your brain!”

What inspired me to write this whole thing was an ad on Spotify for the movie Lucy, in which Scarlett Johansson taps into the other 90% of her brain. Not only is the “10% of your brain” trope tired, *cough*Limitless*cough*, but laughably inaccurate. You need all of your brain to function properly, and as college students who have pulled all-nighters before exams know, it is a very high-maintenance organ. Think of it this way: if you got a head injury, the doctor wouldn’t say, “Well, at least it’s on a part you don’t use” (unless he was Dr. Spaceman from 30 Rock). So use 100% of your brain and stop spreading this lie.

2.) “There’s mercury in vaccines!”

I am LIVID about the lengths people go to argue out of vaccines. There is an older generation alive today who can remember people dying young from diseases now preventable by vaccines, and in third-world countries, children walk several miles to receive the very vaccines that proud, stupid first-world parents turn down for their children. WHY. WHY.

Okay, off the soapbox before I burst a blood vessel. The most commonly-used argument against vaccines is that they contain thimerosal (US spelling), which contains mercury. First of all, the CDC, WHO, and other organizations do studies over and over and over again finding that vaccines have no concrete connection to autism—remember, this is time they could be spending researching how to cure ebola, which is having an outbreak right now, or HIV, or cancer—plus, thimerosal has been taken out of vaccines given to children under 6 in the US and other countries. If it seems that autism diagnosis rates have gone up, the relationship with vaccines is correlation, not causation. Doctors have gotten much, much better at recognizing the signs of autism since it was named in 1943, and while the CDC has not found a definite reason for the rise in autism diagnoses, they HAVE found–and, I reiterate, over and over again–that vaccines are not the cause.

3.) “Daddy long legs are the most poisonous spiders!”

I get really sad when I hear adults say this. It’s like you guys don’t even watch Mythbusters. First of all, “poisonous” refers to something that secretes toxins, like a poisonous frog or caterpillar. “Venomous” refers to something that injects venom when it bites you, like a snake or spider. But daddy long legs are scavengers. They have no need to kill anything by injecting it with venom like spiders do. So, in theory they can bite because they have a mouth, but then again, so can you, and you’re not venomous (. . . to my knowledge).

4.) “GMO organisms are the same as domestic animals!”

There are a lot of misconceptions surrounding GMO organisms which I won’t get into, but here is one that comes up a lot: “There’s no difference between the genetic modification of corn and the selective breeding we do to dogs, cats, and horses.” Eh . . . there is a huge difference. Genetic modification is artificially inserting genes into an organism while selective breeding is expediting the process of natural selection. When you breed dogs, you find the ones with the most desirable traits for that breed, and you don’t breed the dogs that don’t have those traits. It’s more or less what the dogs would do in the wild if the dogs themselves found these traits desirable rather than the dog breeder. Genetic modification is artificial. If we genetically modified dogs, we’d be putting bioluminescent jellyfish DNA into the dogs to make them glow in the dark. (If that sounds outlandish, Mayo clinic scientists have already done that with cats.)

5.) “The left ring finger’s vein leads directly to the heart!”

This is an old myth that I’ve seen circling Pinterest on the “wedding” boards with a caption like “aww!” Hate to be a buzzkill, but all veins have to lead directly to the heart. If your whole body had to rely on just your left ring finger to carry ALL the de-oxygenated blood back to your heart, you definitely would not live long enough to see yourself getting engaged.

Another sub-myth I want to dismantle as well: the misconception that veins are “blue” and the blood in the veins is blue but turns red when you bleed because of the oxygen in the air. The blood in veins is dark red; your skin makes them appear blue. So really “blue bloods” like Prince William have the same color blood we all do . . . not that you’ve imagined what Prince William’s blood looks like, you psychopath.

6.) “Chemicals are bad for you!”/”Natural is good for you!”

The hippies and I can agree on a lot of things, but this is where they lose me. (We also have differing views on employment and hygiene.) While it’s admirable to live a healthy lifestyle, not everything produced in nature is “good” for you and not everything produced in a laboratory is “bad” for you.

Here are some “natural” things that are lethal to humans:
Toadstool mushrooms
Rhubarb, uncooked
Nightshade berries
Puffer fish liver
Australia. Just, Australia.
Bee venom/peanuts/gluten/tree nuts/shellfish/any number of things a person can be allergic to
Water, if you drink too much

Here are some “chemicals” that are good for you:
Antidepressant medications
Insulin you inject, if you’re diabetic
Vaccines (aha!)
Disinfectants
The adrenaline in an Epi-Pen if you do come across something you’re allergic to
Plus, note that the scientific definition of a “chemical” is literally anything and everything that is matter. The computer you’re reading this on is a chemical. You’re a chemical. Are you trying to live a you-free lifestyle?

To be clear, I’m not saying you shouldn’t have a healthy skepticism of mass-produced pharmaceuticals. Side effects are no joke. But blanket statements help no one and forcing your beliefs on others can not only be annoying but potentially dangerous. Your friend on Zoloft is also managing his depression with a healthy diet and exercise (most therapists recommend this), so when you share “Anti-depressants are everything that’s wrong with the world” articles from naturalbeliefs.net or whatever, it’s downright insulting, making him feel like something is even more wrong with him because he isn’t “doing enough” to manage his depression. Forcing your naturally carnivorous cat to eat a vegan diet can kill it. Do your research from reputable sources (scientific journals, doctors, registered nutritionists, etc.) rather than a “natural” blogger talking out of her ass.

Here’s a bonus one: that anything scientific can be a “belief,” i.e. “I don’t believe in evolution,” “I don’t believe the earth is older than 6,000 years.” Evolution and the Earth’s age are facts, or things that have been verified by repeated experiments, and beliefs may or may not be true, but they just feel right to you. To quote the Wikipedia page for Plato’s Theatetus, emphasis mine: “The relationship between belief and knowledge is that a belief is knowledge if the belief is true, and if the believer has a justification (reasonable and necessarily plausible assertions/evidence/guidance) for believing it is true.”

Essentially what you’re saying when you say “I don’t believe in evolution” is “I feel like evolution may or may not be true,” and then you get pissy when scientists present you with facts about evolution. To get them off your back, show the scientists that you understand the concept of evolution and why someone would experiment on it repeatedly. Whether you “believe” it after you are presented with the facts is your business AND YOUR BUSINESS ALONE, FOR THE LOVE OF FAILING SCIENTIFIC EDUCATION ACROSS THIS COUNTRY.

This is why it irks me when someone claims all of science is wrong when a scientist has tested a widely-known fact and shown it to be wrong: A.) congratulations on never being wrong in your entire life, including now, and B.) science itself only works if people have the humility to admit they’re wrong after they face the facts. This is the mark of a smart person, scientist or not: You are open-minded, curious and willing to try to see where the other side is coming from. You don’t dig your heels. You cite reputable sources. You’re not afraid to be wrong. Dumb people are not always people who are wrong all the time, but are also people who always insist that they are right. As Neil deGrasse Tyson said in a tweet, “Never presume that just because you disagree with an idea that you must be correct.” Also, and good Lord, does everyone across the American political spectrum need to remember this:

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