12 science myths that just won’t go away

There are many science myths floating around, and some have been so commonly spread for so long they’ve become universally accepted as truth. A survey conducted in 2015 by OnePoll found that 82% of adults believe in at least one common misconception.

12 science myths that just won’t go away

The next time you hear someone spout about Everest being the world’s tallest mountain or how the Great Wall of China can be seen from space, feel free to step in armed with our myth-busting facts.

Everest is the world’s tallest mountain

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To scale all 8,848 metres of this unforgiving spike of rock is one of the greatest human achievements, but anyone who claims to have conquered the world’s tallest mountain would be incorrect. That title goes to Mauna Kea, a volcanic peak in Hawaii with a summit of 4,205 metres.

But hang on, that’s much shorter than Everest, we hear you cry. In fact, that number is only the amount peeking above sea level – the rest of its enormity goes all the way to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. A measure of its entirety from base to peak clocks in at almost 10,000 metres, making it the tallest mountain on the planet. Technically, Everest is the tallest mountain above sea level, but a more formidable title would be the highest point on Earth.

The Great Wall of China can be seen from space

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This man-made structure is impressively massive, no doubt, but is it big enough to be seen from space? No. This remains a wonder only on Earth: numerous astronauts have confirmed it can’t be seen with the naked eye in orbit, and certainly not from the surface of the moon.

The myth has been regurgitated in popular culture since the 18th century – before people actually went into space – but based on its measurements, spotting it from the moon would be like trying to see a human hair from two miles away. The fact is, despite being 13,171 miles in length, it’s only approximately six metres in width, making it far too narrow to be visible. Those astronauts who claim to have seen the Great Wall have been proven to have mistaken the object for a river, in particular the Grand Canal of China.

Bumblebee flight violates the laws of physics

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This is one myth that’s often wheeled out, usually to say “pfft, scientists – what do they know?” Indeed, presidential candidate Mike Huckabee used the line while out campaigning in 2008: “It’s scientifically impossible for the bumblebee to fly, but the bumblebee, being unaware of these scientific facts, flies anyway.” You may also remember the line coming at the start of Jerry Seinfeld’s animated film, Bee Movie.

It’s a myth that science is baffled by bee flight. The misconception seems to come from a 1934 French book called Le vol des insectes, which suggests that insects – not just the bumblebee – shouldn’t be able to fly.

But, of course, they can, and the physics behind it isn’t a great mystery to scientists. Yes, if you use the same calculations you’d use to explain why an aeroplane flies, then bees shouldn’t be able to take off, but a cursory glance will confirm that bees are not planes. In the 1990s, it was discovered that the secret of their flight comes from air swirling in a tight circle over the wing. “The vortex is a low pressure region above the wing, and it sucks the wing upwards,” explained Charlie Ellington, professor of Animal Mechanics at the University of Cambridge.

Red enrages bulls

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We’ve all seen bulls bear down at the sight of someone waving a red cape in their face. It’s even spawned popular sayings such as “seeing red” or “red mist” to describe anger overcoming us. In all truth, however, bulls are colour-blind. It’s not the colour of the cape that enrages the animal, but the flapping movement of the material. In tests conducted by science’s favourite tandem, the MythBusters, a bull was presented with three dummies holding capes of varying colours. It was proven that the bull would charge at the cape that was moving, regardless of the colour.

Chameleons can change to any colour

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A huge 69% of adults believe this one but, despite what cartoons may tell us, a chameleon can’t turn itself tartan or mimic the pattern of your wallpaper as part of its camouflage capabilities. The chameleon does have an extraordinary colour-changing ability, but it actually shifts colour in response to mood, a change in body temperature or to communicate rather than to blend in with its environment.

For instance, they’re able to turn themselves bleach-white in direct sunshine to reflect the heat or turn dark in the cold to absorb light, while a male’s colourful patterned body can be a mating display. A little bonus fact is that the outermost skin of a chameleon is transparent: they change colour through layers of cells called chromatophores, which contain different pigments to make up its striking palette.

Lightning never strikes in the same place twicelightning

Image: Joost Rooijmans

Yes it does. Trees and tall buildings are often hit repeatedly by lightning that isn’t too fussy about what it targets. In fact, the US National Weather Service believe that the Empire State Building is hit by lightning around 25 times per year. During one storm, it took eight strikes in less than half an hour.

Of course, the main purpose of the idiom is to encourage people to try something more than once – a folksy way of informing them that a bad experience is unlikely to be repeated. Again, not always true. Park ranger Roy Sullivan was hit by lightning on seven different occasions, seeing him enter the Guinness World Records, while Tsutomu Yamaguchi had an even more traumatic experience, managing to be hit by both the Nagasaki and Hiroshima atomic bombings.

So it’s bad science and a bad idiom. 0/2.

There are left- or right-brained people

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We’ve all heard people claiming to be more artistically inclined or rubbish at maths because they’re either left- or right-brained but is there any weight behind it? Sorry, but you can’t blame your inability at Countdown on your brain hemispheres any more.

The school of thought was always thus: creative types were more right-brained, while more calculated and detailed folk channelled the left half of their brain. It’s a neat way to classify personality traits, but studies have shown no indication that individuals have stronger left or right halves of their brains.

The University of Utah conducted a two-year study with more than 1,000 participants, whose brains were observed as they performed various tasks. While the researchers found it was true that the left and right parts of the brain are responsible for alternative functions (language on the left; attention on the right), no brain was stronger either way. As Dr Jeff Anderson, the study’s lead author, stated: “The truth is that it would be highly inefficient for one half of the brain to consistently be more active than the other.”

Head over to the next page to dispel five more myths about senses, flat-earthers, human brains, sharks and dogs. 

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