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"The bald eagle sounds like a cross between a squeaky toy and a seagull"
July 12, 2013 11:04 AM   Subscribe

Mental Floss tackles 50 Science Misconceptions. [slyt]
posted by quin (52 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
I knew the first one from a few years back, but what shocked me was that this mistake was corrected in 1903! I learned what a brontosaurus "was" back in 1977-78, and somehow those schools hadn't heard about this correction for three-quarters of a century?
posted by grubi at 11:24 AM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Pretty much every commercial, movie, whatever, depicting a Bald Eagle I've seen has a Red-tailed Hawk dubbed over it.
posted by mcstayinskool at 11:24 AM on July 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


Man, we were still learning about the Brontosaurus at least as late as 1987. That is some unacceptable shit right there.
posted by uncleozzy at 11:34 AM on July 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


"Duck quacks echo like other sounds" - what? This is a thing?
posted by odinsdream at 11:38 AM on July 12, 2013


I remember getting the duck quack thing in an email forward in the mid-90s. That was the first time I realized just how full of crap the Internet was.
posted by DU at 11:42 AM on July 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


Can we deal with historical misconceptions next?

"16th century British cardinal Thomas Wolsey"

This is, quite literally, no more possible than time travel.
posted by Jehan at 12:06 PM on July 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'd just love it if I never again heard Schrodinger's Cat described as the factual reality of quantum mechanics rather than a thought experiment designed to show one interpretation of quantum mechanics as facially absurd.
posted by Navelgazer at 12:26 PM on July 12, 2013 [10 favorites]


I lost a lot of friends over that brontosaurus thing. Tragic.
posted by orme at 12:39 PM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


With all the emphasis on reforming the way schools are organized, instituting zero tolerance policies and metal detectors, using measurements to prove why those lazy, good-for-nothing teachers deserve getting it stuck to them, when is there any time left to actually focus on the content taught in the classroom? Besides, everybody knows content is worthless now that the Internet has led us to the ultimate triumph of form over substance, with people cheerfully shelling out money for imaginary goods at a pace that would have embarrassed even Hans Christian Andersen's naked emperor. And besides, then we'd have to let some intrusive central authority step in once and for all and settle longstanding and vitally important cultural debates such as whether Eve was really fashioned out of one of Adam's ribs and some mud, and whether the earth goes around the sun or vice versa. Who do we trust with that kind of authority really?
posted by saulgoodman at 12:42 PM on July 12, 2013


This is, quite literally, no more possible than time travel.

"British" is a pretty capacious word with fairly fuzzy definitional boundaries. Shakespeare refers to the "British" crown, for example. It's not really true to say that there's no "Britain" or "British" before the creation of the Kingdom of Great Britain (assuming that was your point).
posted by yoink at 12:43 PM on July 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


The video summarizes the history of the Brontosaurus thing incorrectly, by the way, which makes it seem much more egregious than it actually was. They didn't stick the wrong head on an Apatosaurus and dub it Brontosaurus. What happened was that they found one species of Apatosaurus first and called it Apatosaurus Ajax. Then they found--a couple of years later--a much larger specimen which the discoverer decided was, in fact, different enough to warrant being classed as a different genus: Brontosaurus. That specimen was, in fact, headless, so they had to speculate as to what the head would have been like. In 1903 another scientist reexamined the two skeletons and argued that in fact they were of the same genus; which meant that the "Brontosaurus" name had to be chucked, because naming conventions mean the earlier name for a new genus prevails. This was still a separate species, however--Apatosaurus excelsus rather than A. ajax.

The thing about the skull is that when the Yale museum put the "Brontosaurus" bones on display--one of the first fully mounted dinosaur skeletons on exhibition--they had to fashion a conjectural head together out of various spare parts. This was done in 1905 and there was still a real scientific debate on hand about whether this was the same genus as Apatosaurus or not (plus the guy putting the skeleton together was the guy who'd discovered the bones and named it "Brontosaurus"--the same guy who'd discovered Apatosaurus, come to that). So Yale put it on display as "Brontosaurus"--not unreasonably--and the name became famous as people flocked to see the display.
posted by yoink at 12:58 PM on July 12, 2013 [18 favorites]


From the video: "The far side of the moon is not the dark side of the moon. We don't see it because the moon is tidally locked with the earth, but the far side receives just as much sunlight as the side that faces us."

Wouldn't the near side actually receive slightly less sunlight on average? I mean, the near side is the side that's affected by eclipses.
posted by baf at 1:17 PM on July 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


One I didn't know and had to lookup: Alcohol doesn't kill brain cells (vitamin B deficiency in alcoholics may damage them, which where the myth comes from). Yippee!

Oh, and the diamonds/coal thing, which I never really thought about.

The correlation not implying causation thing is a handy rule of thumb, but I always thought it was badly stated because the "imply" can be a bit technical for this kind of shorthand. It really should be something like "a correlation is not a causation". Even in his example, the correlation does suggest (non-technically "imply") a causation, just from a direction and a source not considered in the correlation. I guess I'm used to thinking of things as part of large directed graphs...
posted by smidgen at 1:33 PM on July 12, 2013


I'm hoping removing most of these misconceptions, many of which I was taught in science class too, doesn't harm my other erroneous stores of knowledge.
posted by bearwife at 1:34 PM on July 12, 2013


It really should be something like "a correlation is not a causation".

I think "correlation does not prove causation" would be the best formulation. Because consistent correlation sure as hell "implies" causation.
posted by yoink at 1:35 PM on July 12, 2013


The video summarizes the history of the Brontosaurus thing incorrectly, by the way,

So you're saying there *is* such a thing as bronto-burgers, then? Whew!
posted by aught at 1:36 PM on July 12, 2013


Also, nothing on MeFi is quite so much fun as people nitpicking a nitpicker.
posted by aught at 1:37 PM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


yeah, "prove" feels like a better non-technical substitute for "imply".
posted by smidgen at 1:41 PM on July 12, 2013


> like a cross between a squeaky toy and a seagull

I found out what a barn owl sounds like just last night. A pair of what-on-Earth-izzits nested in a neighbor's attic this year. Her house is old, has two stories, foundation walls that come up to chest level with the first floor beginning there, and a high pitched roof. The izzits' entry hole is way up in a gable peak and they're pretty hard to observe, especially since they're clearly nocturnal. We only see them coming and going as ghostly unidentifiable black shapes starting in the late twilight. We figured they weren't owls because they didn't go who-WHO. Instead they filled the night and the neighborhood with the most godawful and unexpected hoarse SKRAWKs and we referred to them as the skrawkbirds.

But last night I happened to have a good flashlight with fresh batteries in my pocket when I saw one of the mystery critters float up and perch on a projection of the house instead of going straight into its hole. So I rudely shined my light into its face and I go "OMG I know you, you're Tito alba." Before I got a positive ID we had all pictured these beasties as looking like birds drawn by Dr. Seuss.
posted by jfuller at 1:43 PM on July 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


So you're saying there *is* such a thing as bronto-burgers, then?

Well, of course. But they were never on the drive-in menu; that was just irresponsible extrapolation on The Flintstones' part.
posted by yoink at 1:45 PM on July 12, 2013


When I moved to the pacific NW, I remember wondering briefly what kind of huge seagull those large soaring birds were. :-)

The barn owl call is kind of terrifying.
posted by smidgen at 1:50 PM on July 12, 2013


Killer whales are cetaceans. So, yes, they ARE whales. Odontocetaceans, or toothed whales, actually.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 2:22 PM on July 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


As are dolphins (the mammals, not the fish).
posted by Benny Andajetz at 2:23 PM on July 12, 2013


I'm sure there are a few people here waiting for me to break out my "glass is not a liquid" rant, and so who am I to disappoint?

I was happy to hear him mention this myth, although the idea that it's "somewhere between the two" is not quite true. It is a solid. Being an amorphous solid, it just happens to have no long range order. END OF STORY.

Won't someone think of the children? The poor misguided children?
posted by blurker at 2:34 PM on July 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


From the video: "The far side of the moon is not the dark side of the moon. We don't see it because the moon is tidally locked with the earth, but the far side receives just as much sunlight as the side that faces us."

Wouldn't the near side actually receive slightly less sunlight on average? I mean, the near side is the side that's affected by eclipses.


Good thinking, baf; that had never occurred to me.

And when the far side is receiving full sun it's closer to the sun than the near side is when it's getting full sun, and that would make the amount of sunlight the far side receives greater, too.

However, I think the far side is actually the darker side in spite of getting more sunlight, and that's because of earthlight.

The moon is ~.3 of the diameter of the earth, which means that the earth would be around 10 times as bright in the sky of the moon as the moon is in the sky of the earth-- if the moon and the earth reflected a similar percentage of the light that falls on them (had similar albedos, in other words).

But they don't: the earth reflects about 2.5 times more of the light that falls on it than the moon does, making the light the moon gets from the earth about 25 times as much as the earth gets from the moon, and almost all of that light falls on the near side, so I think-- but don't know for sure-- that's enough to overcome the far side's advantage in sunlight and make the far side the darker side of the moon, if not the dark side.
posted by jamjam at 2:47 PM on July 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Whenever I watch one of the Green brother's videos, which is a few times a week because I enjoy them, I usually find myself saying "yeeeaahh, but...". They provide a lot of insightful info but usually the info is just right enough. They provide heavily edited (obvs) info because it is probably easier, saves time, and sounds better.

They are fun to watch though.
posted by Rocket Surgeon at 2:51 PM on July 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


This sort of video is pretty interesting and hopefully it gets people curious, but they're kind of terrible as far as information goes. Like, you tube speed pacing is such that I barely have a moment to register what was just said before the next thing comes crashing into my brain. And like with the brontosaurus misconception, there's always a more interesting story if you bother to spend the time to tell it.

I can't help but feel quite a bit dumber after watching things like this.
posted by danny the boy at 3:11 PM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


While Watson and Crick did not discover the structure of DNA they also didn't 'figure it out', they developed a very useful model for it that has been verified in all sorts of cool ways.
posted by Blasdelb at 3:46 PM on July 12, 2013


Also, we've all heard the same old thoughtlessly dismissive canard about correlation and causation, However, correlations when teased apart properly are pretty much how we know things - indeed more or less all the things. Educating people about the non-intuitively subtle ways that correlation and causative relationships connect is really much more useful than continuing to insist that they are completely independent.
posted by Blasdelb at 3:52 PM on July 12, 2013 [7 favorites]


"Duck quacks echo like other sounds" - what? This is a thing?

Yes, it is. I've long heard the canard (sorry) that duck quacks don't echo.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:59 PM on July 12, 2013


There is another error that he made in that list. Unfortunately this comment box is too small for me to write it here.
posted by bukvich at 4:04 PM on July 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


"The video summarizes the history of the Brontosaurus thing incorrectly, by the way, which makes it seem much more egregious than it actually was."

In addition to the bare factual errors, even the concept of saying that the Brontosaurus never existed is both wrong and really stupid when you think about it. The Brontosaurus plainly did exist, it just had a name that was less than useful for scientists trying to understand it for a short time. The map is not the territory and, in a way similar to Green's misunderstanding of what is actually wrong with saying that Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA, the name for the Apatosaurus/Brontosaurus is not the critter. What they're doing is missing an awesome and genuinely educational conversation about how scientific nomenclature works and what makes it useful for a shallow 'ha ha what your were told was wrong' moment that is itself much more wrong.
posted by Blasdelb at 4:07 PM on July 12, 2013


"Stars do not twinkle"
Oh for fucks sake.

If you want to describe the dominant optical effect visible of stars from Earth in a precise way, stars scintillate as a result of refraction caused by stochastic fluctuations in temperature and pressure naturally present in the Earth's atmosphere, but that doesn't mean describing them as twinkling is any less accurate. The purpose of scientific nomenclature is not for demonstrating one's own pompous erudition, but for usefully describing things. While the twinkling of a candle and the twinkling of a star describe two fundamentally different natural phenomena they do both look pretty damn similar and so the word does still have utility in situations that do not require scientific precision about which natural phenomena one is describing exactly. To say that a star twinkles is not at all wrong, it is just not useful for an astronomer talking to another astronomer who would need to be discussing the phenomena on a much deeper level, which is different.

By way of analogy saying that a star twinkles is not wrong in a similar way to how describing a Thunnus albacares as a fish is not wrong, just not useful to a marine biologist in the same way that it would be to a fishmonger or someone with a taste for sushi. The term 'fish', generally describing all gill-bearing aquatic craniate animals that lack limbs with digits, is what biologists call polyphyletic, which means that if it were taken seriously as a taxon by including including all of the critters that share the closest common ancestor with all 'fish' it would include critters that are plainly not 'fish', like us. Thus if you were to use the term fish in a scientifically rigorous way you would have to call your mother one, but does that mean describing your corner store lake trout as a fish is somehow wrong?

No.
posted by Blasdelb at 4:38 PM on July 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


IIRC what they're getting at in the "stars do not twinkle" bit is more "they wouldn't twinkle if we weren't looking at them through the atmosphere" than the "twinkle vs. scintillate" thing. It's still kinda silly, though, because when you say "look at the stars twinkling" you are making a comment about their appearance to you here, on earth, where you see them through the atmosphere. In the end, the distinction that we're being asked to make here (between "see the stars twinkle" and "see how the stars merely appear to twinkle") is an absurd one for the purposes of ordinary discourse, because the "merely appears to" is something we could through into pretty much every statement we make about perception. At a sufficient level of precision/abstraction nothing is as we perceive it.
posted by yoink at 4:52 PM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Space is not devoid of gravity, lets just say that there is enough of it out there to keep all of the stars orbiting the center of the galaxy"

Particularly right after insisting that we should be careful to obsessively describe the sun as a star, its pretty fucking obscene to then declare that all of the stars orbit the center of our relatively unremarkable galaxy.
posted by Blasdelb at 4:53 PM on July 12, 2013


odinsdream> "Duck quacks echo like other sounds" - what? This is a thing?

Yep. I mean, the belief is a thing, but a duck's quack does echo.
posted by UrineSoakedRube at 5:02 PM on July 12, 2013


While stars do not combust, the fusion process that powers stars is generally given the shorthand "burning" (H burning, He burning, core burning, shell burning, etc).
posted by dirigibleman at 5:08 PM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


odinsdream: ""Duck quacks echo like other sounds" - what? This is a thing?"

I first ran aross this belief while browsing the archives of The Straight Dope.
posted by workerant at 5:08 PM on July 12, 2013


While stars do not combust,
Carbon Stars

A carbon star is a late type star similar to a red giant (or occasionally to a red dwarf) whose atmosphere contains more carbon than oxygen; the two elements combine in the upper layers of the star, forming carbon monoxide, which consumes all the oxygen in the atmosphere, leaving carbon atoms free to form other carbon compounds, giving the star a "sooty" atmosphere and a strikingly ruby red appearance. ...
Not at all meant as a 'gotcha'-- I was astounded when I found out about these recently, and thought you might enjoy reading about them if you haven't already.
posted by jamjam at 5:31 PM on July 12, 2013


we've all heard the same old thoughtlessly dismissive canard

And according to the video he's been echoing all over the place too.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:38 PM on July 12, 2013


"Facts" like "Alcohol doesnt kill brain cells!" masks that it does damage your dendrites, inhibiting your brain function, and otherwise fucks your brain as well as the rest of your body. Sometimes the cure for misinformation ends up being worse misinformation.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:41 PM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Didn't Mythbusters test the duck quack echo thing and note that it echoes just like any other sound but the sound is such that for human hears the echo is slightly hard to make out.

Also the Italian scientists were actually convicted for predicting earthquakes, not for failing to predict them.
posted by Authorized User at 6:14 PM on July 12, 2013


"The seasons are caused by the Earth's 23-degree axial tilt—not by our distance from the sun"

Uhhh... Aren't those the same thing? I mean, it's not the distance from the sun per se but the distance from the sun to either of the northern or southern hemisphere relative to the other. Right?
posted by Sys Rq at 6:53 PM on July 12, 2013


Only in the very limited sense that nighttime is also caused by "distance from the sun" - there's a bunch of planet in the way that's closer to the sun than you are. Seasons are caused by the planet being in the way for more or less of the day depending on the orientation of the axial tilt.
posted by NMcCoy at 7:38 PM on July 12, 2013


"The seasons are caused by the Earth's 23-degree axial tilt—not by our distance from the sun"

Uhhh... Aren't those the same thing? I mean, it's not the distance from the sun per se but the distance from the sun to either of the northern or southern hemisphere relative to the other. Right?


Nope, the earth is actually closer during the Northern Hemisphere's winter. Winter is when the Northern Hemisphere is angled away, therefore causing us to receive less direct light (the Sun doesn't come as high in the sky and of course rises later/sets sooner.

At least from what I remember.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 7:40 PM on July 12, 2013


"British" is a pretty capacious word with fairly fuzzy definitional boundaries. Shakespeare refers to the "British" crown, for example. It's not really true to say that there's no "Britain" or "British" before the creation of the Kingdom of Great Britain (assuming that was your point).

A British Venn diagram.
posted by Evilspork at 8:33 PM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


As David Hume pointed out a long time ago, causation cannot be perceived. It is a hypothetical relationship extrapolated from strong correlation. I personally think our universe does exhibit causation, but is not a perceptible Thing. It is a theoretical model that the human brain forms naturally.
posted by communicator at 5:31 AM on July 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


For example if there are infinite number of entirely random universes then one will have 12 billion years of apparently reliable 'causality'. in fact an infinite number of universes will have that. and in one of them causality will break down... now
posted by communicator at 5:35 AM on July 13, 2013


"Nope, the earth is actually closer during the Northern Hemisphere's winter."

Yeah, but that's not what Sys Rq meant. Note the "relative to the other" part.

And, no, that's not it — the relative distance of the hemispheres due to the axial tilt is unimportant.

It's all about the angle relative to the Sun. This is easiest to understand if you just think in terms of a flat surface instead of a sphere — a rectangle of a given area oriented perpendicular to the Sun will intercept an amount of radiation. If you tilt it halfway to parallel to the Sun, it will intercept half that amount of radiation. Parallel to the Sun, it will intercept zero.

The equator is equivalent to the perpendicular, the poles equivalent to being parallel. The equator will always get more energy and the latitudes near the poles less; but with the axial tilt those latitudes will get even less than they otherwise would during the winter and more than they otherwise would during the summer. But in the latter case, it's still much less energy than the equator gets, so it's still colder than the equator.

Also, if the varying relative distances of the hemispheres from the Sun due to the axial tilt were a factor, think of how small that difference is relative to the Earth's orbit — which isn't perfectly circular, but elliptical. The difference due to the elliptical orbit is relatively huge and so would be the seasonal difference, if that were what was driving the variation.

"Seasons are caused by the planet being in the way for more or less of the day depending on the orientation of the axial tilt."

No, that's not the cause of the seasons. The length of the day does have an effect, but it's very small as is evidenced by the fact that the length of the day during the summer near the poles is very long but it doesn't make that much of a difference as compared to the temperatures nearer the equator.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 6:22 AM on July 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have a feeling most of this was pilfered from Wikipedia's List of common misconceptions.
posted by Rhomboid at 7:25 AM on July 13, 2013


Killer whales are whales. The fact that they are in the family of toothed whales we call dolphins does not make them "not whales". I have no idea what he thinks he means.
posted by DanielDManiel at 10:02 AM on July 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm kind of intrigued by the 'quack doesn't echo' thing because I can imagine relatively common circumstances where it might be better for the duck if it didn't.

On or just above a good-sized lake, say, where you might want your quack to convey distance and direction information to another duck, and an echo from a curving shoreline could be much louder than the original quack because of focusing effects from the curve of the shoreline, and seem to come from an entirely different direction.

The actual boundary between the water and the shore wouldn't reflect much sound on a tree-lined lake with shores of soil or sand sloping down to the water, I'd think, but the trees might, and that's where I think you might be able get an anechoic effect with just the right sound.

The sound with wavelengths much smaller than the spacing between the trees would tend to be absorbed, and the sound with larger wavelengths than that spacing would be more strongly reflected-- so all a duck might have to do would be to have a pretty high-pitched quack to largely suppress the echo.
posted by jamjam at 8:54 PM on July 13, 2013


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