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Five Common Knowledge ‘Facts’ That Are Wrong

Updated on January 14, 2016


If you really want to be able to enjoy movies and television, ignorance is bliss. There are few things that can take a person out of a story faster than coming upon something that person knows is wrong. Read these ‘False Facts’ at risk to your own entertainment.

What We Know

Writers are told to ‘write what you know’. A particularly philosophic minded writer might then state a quote generally attributed to Plato’s Socrates: scio me nihil scire or I know that I know nothing. And a really knowledgeable writer would both know that quote and know that it can’t actually be found anywhere in the existing works of Plato. So if one is attempting to listen to both quotes, writing what one knows while knowing one knows nothing, all the while knowing that the we don’t even know if the quote was ever said by who everyone knows said it…well any writer might find it difficult to produce anything at all.

Of course writers should write whatever they are moved to write. Writing what you know doesn’t mean you can’t write about aliens, or ancient Romans, or high school romance if that’s the way your muse leads you.

Still, if one is going to write, or teach, or tell stories, or try to impress people at parties, a little research might go a long way. What you think you know, what you might be absolutely certain you know, might very well be not true.

Good to Know

Electricity and romance do not often mix.
Electricity and romance do not often mix. | Source

1. Shocking a Flat Line

We’ve all seen it happen. On television, at the movies, even in books. The patient is hooked up to a heart monitor. Blip. Blip. Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep. The monitor flat lines. The heart has stopped beating! Oh no! The medics rush in with the shock paddles. Clear! Zap! Still flat lining, again! Clear! Zap! Blip. Blip. Blip. And the person is saved! Likely they even jump up at this point to kiss their romantic interest and then run a marathon.

That isn’t even remotely true to real life. Shocked? I know; I was too.

What actually happens in a medical emergency. Blip. Blip. Nothing. There’s nothing for the machine to read because the heart has stopped. No electric pulse for it to read. An alarm goes off, probably before the heart stops because hearts that are about to stop generally don’t leave a person with strong vitals just before, but either way the alarm will let the medics know there’s a problem. Said medics will rush in and begin CPR. That is to say, they will begin to manual do chest compressions. They will probably also try to lower the patient's body temperature. What they won't be doing is shocking their patient.

So why do they have those paddles? Defibrillators do exist, and they are used. They are even used on patients who don’t have a heart beat! They just aren’t used on a completely stopped heart. The point of the electric shock is to stop the heart. Kind of like the ‘turn it off and on’ approach to fixing a faulty computer. If a heart isn’t beating but instead quivering, known as ventricular fibrillation, then sometimes a jolt of electricity will get it back on track. But a jolt isn’t going to do anything to help if the heart isn’t beating in the first place. And a quivering heart is going to show up on an EKG as a quivering heartbeat, not as a flat line.

So basically, flat lines don’t actually exist, and if they did, you wouldn’t shock them. And even if all of the flat lining business were true, a person who just basically died isn’t going to wake up just to kiss their romantic interest, let alone run a marathon. That person will be lucky to have escaped such medical issues as brain damage. Still, much can be forgiven for the sake of a good story…so long as the medicine at least sounds plausible.

True or False? Which of these commonly held beliefs are true?

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2. Christopher Columbus Discovered America

Every child has learned the story at school. In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Christopher Columbus was a pioneer who realized, unlike the rest of his contemporaries, that the world is round. He said he could get to India by sailing west around the world, not knowing that two great big continents would get in the way. He’s the reason we call ‘Native Americans’ ‘Indians’ because he was so certain he had reached India.

Almost none of this is true.

In the first place, Christopher Columbus obviously did not discover America if he found those ‘Indians’ already living there. But even if one amended the statement to ‘The first European to discover America’, this would not be true. Leif Erikson got there first in the 11th century.

In the second place, Pythagoras figured out the world was round in around 600 BC. He used math to figure it out. It was well known in Christopher Columbus’s time that the world was a sphere, at least by the educated. Columbus wasn’t setting out to prove this fact; what he did question was the size of that sphere, and he got it wrong. He insisted the world was smaller than we now know it to be.

What is true is that Christopher Columbus, or Cristoforo Colombo as was his Italian name, or Cristóbal Colón which was his Spanish name, did sail the ocean blue in 1492, attempting to find a Western passage to the East Indies. Over a series of four voyages, he came into contact with the Bahamas, the Greater and Lesser Antilles, South America and Central America. He claimed them for the Spanish Empire, and while he wasn’t the first to discover the Americas, he was the first European to cause lasting contact between Europe and the Americas. Whether this is something to be celebrated or not is up for debate.

According to Wikipedia, the bit about him calling the indigenous population ‘Indians’ is in fact true. So if Wikipedia is to be believed, not all of our cherished childhood history lessons are false. Just some of them.

Brain Diagram

Bonus points: label the brain part in charge of ESP.
Bonus points: label the brain part in charge of ESP. | Source

3. We Only Use 10 Percent of Our Brains

We use our brains for a lot of things. Our brains run all the systems in our body, process our senses, feel emotions, learn, make us move, remember our past, think, and plan for the future. But some people would have you believe that to do all this we only use ten percent of our brain. Some people then say ‘what could we do if we used all 100 percent?’. They use this ten percent statement to explain how some people can do amazing feats like ESP. There’s even a movie based on that concept.

What isn’t explained is why nature, or God, or however we came about would give us gigantic brains which cause all sorts of difficulties in child birth, and then only give us access to ten percent. Or why all those medical dramas that are, granted, of questionable reliability, like to show images of the brain with different bits lit up. Surely they should only have a tiny bit lit up and the rest shown as ‘all that unnecessary bit that no one uses’?

Of course the statement isn’t true. We use all of our brain. All 100 percent of it. What is true is that we use different parts of our brain at different times. At some point, a scientist said something along the lines of ‘we only use about 10 percent of our brain at any moment’ meaning that when we are using part of our brain to read this article, the parts of our brain used to play the piano aren’t getting as much use. We all use all of our brain, and if we don’t then we probably have a medical condition. If you want ESP, you’ll have to find a way with the brain you already use.

Thomas Edison Invented the Light Bulb

Most of us are taught this in school as a fact: Thomas Edison invented the light bulb in 1876. This is not true. What he did manage was to create the first practical light bulb and power source.

Alessandro Volta used electricity to make light in 1800. Humphrey Davy then created the first electric lamp. It was impractical for every day use, being too bright and too power hungry and burning out too quickly, but their work far preceded Edison's perfection of the device, and Voltra and Davy were not the only people who worked with the idea. Many scientists over the years played around with electric light.

That's not to say that Edison didn't have an important contribution. He and his team tried more than 3,000 bulb designs and tested 6,000 plants finding what worked best. He eventually patented his work. Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb. He found a way to make it better.

Paradise or Savage Wilderness?


5. 'Utopia' Means 'Paradise'

This statement is a bit tricky, because it is, in fact, true. Regardless of a word's origins, common usage and language evolution means that a word's definition is whatever the majority accepts it to be. If you are the sort of person who enjoys etymology, then you might know that 'nice' comes from the Latin for 'ignorant' while the words 'awesome' and 'awful' both break down to mean full of a feeling of awe...which can mean amazement or fear. Thus we have two similar words that are complete opposites.

So the word Utopia as found in the dictionary does mean paradise. The original 'Utopia' as referenced in the fictional book by Thomas More does not mean paradise. So in that sense, the 'truth' that has even taken in the dictionary is actually false.

In the year 1516, Thomas More wrote a book that first explored all that was wrong in the current society and then revealed a wonderful society called 'Utopia' where there was no unemployment, no senseless wars, gold and jewels were not at all prized, and religious tolerance for all (though atheism was highly discouraged). It also had slavery, where slaves come from other kingdoms or criminals, no personal property, and no freedom to go where one likes. All in all, if I had to live in the year 1516, I'd probably prefer Utopia to other lands but it is hardly an 'ideal paradise'.

In fact, the name 'Utopia' is a bit of a pun. On the one hand, it could come from eu-topos, Greek for 'good place'. But more commonly, it is accepted to come from the Greek ou-topos...which means 'no place'. So literally, the word Utopia does not mean 'paradise', it means a place that doesn't exist. Whether you find this information awful or awesome is up to you.

Like Mir Foote's writing? Why not try her books?

Pirate Perdita and the Time Travelling Zombie Dinosaurs...from Space!
Pirate Perdita and the Time Travelling Zombie Dinosaurs...from Space!

Pirate Perdita: she's no one's damsel in distress.

Pirate Perdita is a juvenile fiction novel. It is written at a fourth grade reading level. It is appropriate for all ages. There is no eating of any brains. They aren't that type of zombies. Someone, however, may or may not get eaten in the story. Or stepped on. A dinosaur may or may not devour an unattended dinner. Sherlock Holmes himself may or may not show up within these pages. I refuse to give anything away. You'll just have to read to find out. Enter if you dare. Here there be dinosaurs.



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