5 Popular Misconceptions That Stubbornly Persist

Popular misconceptions and modern myths, from the five-second rule to Beam me up, Scotty!

Popular misconceptions, both localised and widespread, are a common aspect of modern life. There are some things we simply accept without questioning, taking as read what has been constantly reinforced within our belief system. The fact that hearing something enough times can lead us to no longer question it, turning myth into “fact”, is both fascinating and worrying at the same time. From an immortal pop culture catchphrase and the mundane maintenance of one’s automobile to darker modern myths, here are five popular misconceptions that have persisted over time.

“Beam Me Up, Scotty”

When James Doohan passed away in 2005, his Associated Press obituary read, “James Doohan, 85, the burly chief engineer of the Starship Enterprise in the original “Star Trek” TV series and movies who responded to the command “Beam me up, Scotty,” died July 20 at his home in Redmond, Wash.”

Only, he never actually answered to “Beam me up, Scotty”. It’s a popular misconception so persistent that it even appeared in the poor man’s obituary. So what’s the deal? TV Tropes dug deeper in a bid to find out where this particular phrase, popularly uttered by Captain Kirk, came from. It turns out the exact four-word catchphrase was never uttered either in the original television show or in Star Trek: The Animated Series. They found “Scotty, beam me up,” and even “Beam us up, Scotty”, but never that most famous line. According to the wiki, its first appearance was actually on a bumper sticker, and it wasn’t until 1995 that William Shatner finally recorded the line in an audiobook version of The Ashes of Eden.

There’s another footnote to this popular misconception, too. Since Scotty was the chief engineer, he was rarely the person sitting at the console pushing the buttons, anyway. The most common version of the line was, “Four to beam up,” directed at whoever was sitting there at the time.

Fan Death

Fan death, a popular misconception of South Korea. (Image: Infrogmation)

Fan death is a real fear in South Korea, where there’s a persistent belief that falling asleep in a closed room with a fan going is potentially deadly. The popular misconception is so widely believed that – according to The Atlantic – many fans have a timer that will automatically shut them off in the middle of the night. The Korean Herald calls it the country’s best-known urban legend. Even though people understand that its a myth, the story persists.

The Korean Consumer Protection Board issued an official advisory in 2006, warning that nighttime exposure to a fan can cause hypothermia and death by an “increase of carbon dioxide saturation concentration and decrease of oxygen concentration”. Snopes also looked into the myth of fan death, including claims that fans turn oxygen into carbon dioxide, and that their blades render air unbreathable.

Needless to say, it’s not true. Most nighttime deaths attributed to fans have been found to have other tragic causes, like undiagnosed heart conditions. No-one’s entirely sure how this popular misconception took root in the South Korean psyche. One theory posits that it was started by the government in an bid to get people to use less electricity.

Related: Sleep Paralysis: Evil Spirits & the Terrifying Night Hag

The Five-Second Rule

Popular misconceptions: the five-second rule for picking up dropped food. (Image: Rachel Glaves)

It’s unclear where this popular misconception originated, but we’ve all done it – especially when the tasty morsel we’ve just dropped is our favourite cookie or chocolate. The belief is that if you pick something up off the floor within five seconds (or sometimes, three seconds), it’s germ-free and safe to eat. It’s not that easy, of course, so let’s look at what the science says.

In 2016, National Geographic reported on a series of experiments published in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology, and to make a long report short, they found a few things. The longer an item of food was in contact with a surface, the more bacteria it accumulated – but there was also plenty of bacteria that transferred instantly. Researchers found that the type of food was important. The more moisture present in the environment, the more bacteria was transferred. So you may want to think twice about picking up that piece of watermelon you’ve just dropped.

On the flip side, you’ll also occasionally read news stories claiming that scientific research supports the five-second rule, like this March 2017 article in the Independent, quoting a germ expert at Aston University. Nevertheless, buried in that story is a caveat that picking up food is never 100 percent safe, so better to err on the side of caution.

The 3,000 Mile Myth

The 3,000 mile myth for changing your cars oil persists to this day despite negatively environmental consequences and wasted cost. (Image: Myke Waddy)

It’s probably one of the first things you learned about car care when you start driving, especially if you live in the USA. But the idea that you need to get your oil changed every 3,000 miles isn’t just a falsehood, it’s a popular misconception with serious unintended consequences.

In 2008, SF Gate reported that California’s waste management officials were kicking off a campaign to debunk the 3,000 mile myth and hopefully help the environment along the way. The site reported that 73 percent of California drivers were changing their oil far more often than necessary, meaning they were wasting money and damaging the environment also.

Just how often you really need an oil change depends on a range of factors, such as the age of your car and what kind of driving you can do, but a campaign website aimed at debunking the 3,000 mile myth stated that “automakers are regularly recommending oil changes at 5,000, 7,000 or even 10,000 miles based on driving conditions.”

Tornado Myths

Tornado myths (Image: Will Campbell)

Tornadoes – those vicious, twisting columns of air – are terrifying, but there are many popular misconceptions over the safest thing to do when one strikes. Let’s discuss a couple of them here. It might just save your life.

According to Popular Mechanics, one dangerous myth is that overpasses are safe places to head to if you’re caught out in the open. An overpass is actually highly dangerous in a tornado. The narrow space can create a wind tunnel with even faster winds, and you should never seek shelter there. Equally dangerous is the idea that you should open windows in your house to equalise the pressure. Doing so just isn’t necessary – finding somewhere safe and heading to the basement is more important.

There’s a plethora of non-safety related myths about tornadoes, too. Contrary to popular belief, they’re not just restricted to North America and have been seen on every continent except Antarctica. There’s also no kind of terrain that can prevent or stop a tornado, and twisters don’t gravitate toward sparsely populated or rural areas over urban ones, either. Another popular misconception? They can’t happen in winter. Yes, while it’s true they generally form in warm weather, it’s entirely possible for twisters to strike snow-covered areas during the winter.

Read Next: 8 Creepy Internet Characters Who Became Urban Legends


About the author: Debra Kelly




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