Common Misconceptions

Common misconceptions are widely held, erroneous ideas and beliefs about notable topics which have been reported by reliable sources. Each has been discussed in published literature, as has its topic area and the facts concerning it. For example, in ancient Rome, the architectural feature called a ‘vomitorium’ was the entranceway through which crowds entered and exited a stadium, not a special room used for purging food during meals. Vomiting was not a regular part of Roman dining customs.

Also, Nero did not ‘fiddle’ during the Great Fire of Rome (violins had not yet been invented, nor was he playing the lyre). In fact, according to Roman historian Tacitus, upon hearing news of the fire, Nero rushed back to Rome to organize a relief effort, which he paid for from his own funds, and he also opened his palaces to provide shelter for the homeless, arranging for food supplies to be delivered in order to prevent starvation among the survivors. Finally, he made a new urban development plan that attempted to make it more difficult for fires to spread.

It is true that life expectancy in the Middle Ages and earlier was low; however, many take this to mean that people usually died around the age of 30. In fact, the low life expectancy is an average based on high infant mortality, and the usual lifespan of adults was much higher. A 21-year-old man in medieval England, for example, could by one estimate expect to live to the age of 64. There is no evidence that Vikings wore horns on their helmets. In fact, the image of Vikings wearing horned helmets stems from the scenography of an 1876 production of the ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’ opera cycle by German composer Richard Wagner. There is no evidence that iron maidens were invented in the Middle Ages or even used for torture. Instead they were pieced together in the 18th century from several artifacts found in museums in order to create spectacular objects intended for (commercial) exhibition. The plate armor of European soldiers did not stop soldiers from moving around or necessitate a crane to get them into a saddle. They would as a matter of course fight on foot and could mount and dismount without help. In fact soldiers equipped with plate armor were more mobile than those with chainmail armor, as chainmail was heavier and required stiff padding beneath due to its pliable nature. Modern historians dispute the popular misconception that the chastity belt, a device designed to prevent women from having sexual intercourse, was invented in medieval times. Most existing chastity belts are now thought to be deliberate fakes or anti-masturbatory devices from the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The latter were made due to the widespread belief that masturbation could lead to insanity, and were mostly bought by parents for their teenage children.

Christopher Columbus’s efforts to obtain support for his voyages were not hampered by a European belief in a flat Earth. Sailors and navigators of the time knew that the Earth was roughly spherical, but (correctly) disagreed with Columbus’s estimate of the distance to India, which was approximately one-sixth of the actual distance. If the Americas did not exist, and had Columbus continued to India, he would have run out of supplies before reaching it at the rate he was traveling. Without the ability to determine longitude at sea, he wouldn’t have learned that his estimate was an error in time to return. Many of the educated classes believed the Earth was spherical since the works of the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. Eratosthenes made an accurate estimate of the Earth’s diameter in approximately 240 BCE. Columbus did not ‘discover America’ in the sense of identifying a new continent. Although some historians argue he knew he had found a land between Europe and Asia, most of his writings show he thought he reached the eastern coast of Asia. This is, in part, why it was named after Amerigo Vespucci (who identified the new continent) in 1507, about one year after Columbus died. Most of the landings Columbus made on his four voyages, including the initial October 12, 1492 landing (the anniversary of which forms the basis of Columbus Day), were in the Caribbean Islands. Columbus was not the first European to visit the Americas: at least one explorer, Leif Ericson, preceded him.

There is a legend that Marco Polo imported pasta from China which originated with the ‘Macaroni Journal,’ published by an association of food industries with the goal of promoting the use of pasta in the United States. Marco Polo describes a food similar to ‘lagana’ in his Travels, but he uses a term with which he was already familiar. Durum wheat, and thus pasta as it is known today, was introduced by Arabs from Libya, during their conquest of Sicily in the late 7th century, according to the newsletter of the ‘National Macaroni Manufacturers Association,’ thus predating Marco Polo’s travels to China by about six centuries.

Contrary to the popular image of the Pilgrim Fathers, the early settlers of the Plymouth Colony did not necessarily wear all black, and their capotains (hats) were shorter and rounder than the widely depicted tall hat with a buckle on it. Instead, their fashion was based on that of the late Elizabethan era: doublets, jerkins and ruffs. Both men and women wore the same style of shoes, stockings, capes, coats and hats in a range of colors including reds, yellows, purples, and greens. Children of both sexes wore identical clothing: a chemise, an ankle-length gown, an apron and a close fitting cap tied under the chin. At the age of seven, boys were ‘breeched,’ i.e. allowed to wear adult men’s clothing. According to Plimoth Plantation historian James W. Baker, the traditional image was formed in the 19th century when buckles were a kind of emblem of quaintness. The thanksgiving at Plymouth Colony, widely believed to be the ‘First Thanksgiving,’ was not the first day of thanksgiving on the North American continent. Preceding thanksgiving days were held at the Spanish colony of Saint Augustine, Florida in 1565, in Frobisher Bay in 1578, in French Canada beginning in 1604, in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607, and at Berkeley Hundred in 1619, in addition to numerous similarly themed indigenous celebrations. The association of Thanksgiving Day with the Plymouth celebration was largely the work of 19th-century writer Sarah Josepha Hale, who campaigned over multiple decades for a permanent national Thanksgiving holiday.

Marie Antoinette did not say ‘let them eat cake’ when she heard that the French peasantry were starving due to a shortage of bread. The phrase was first published in Rousseau’s ‘Confessions’ when Marie was only 10 years old and most scholars believe that Rousseau coined it himself, or that it was said by Maria-Theresa, the wife of Louis XIV. Even Rousseau (or Maria-Theresa) did not use the exact words but actually, ‘Let them eat brioche [a rich type of bread].’ Though not said by her, Marie Antoinette was an unpopular ruler, and the quote is in keeping with her reputation as being hard-hearted and disconnected from her subjects.

George Washington did not have wooden teeth. According to a study of Washington’s four known dentures by a forensic anthropologist from the University of Pittsburgh (in collaboration with the National Museum of Dentistry, itself associated with the Smithsonian Museum), the dentures were made of gold, hippopotamus ivory, lead, and human and animal teeth (including horse and donkey teeth). The American Revolution was not won by the use of guerrilla warfare. Though there were battles in the American Revolution in which guerrilla and other non-traditional tactics were employed, they were not the norm. The war was won by the American army learning to fight according to European warfare doctrine, and by America’s alliance with France. The signing of the United States Declaration of Independence did not occur on July 4, 1776. The final language of the document was approved by the Second Continental Congress on that date and it was printed and distributed on July 4 and 5, but the actual signing occurred on August 2. The United States Constitution was written on parchment, not hemp paper. However, drafts were likely written on hemp paper, as most paper at the time was made from hemp.

Antonio Salieri did not despise Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, nor did he have any role in Mozart’s premature death. While Mozart did have a certain amount of distrust of the elder Salieri, the two are otherwise believed to have been friendly, if somewhat rivalrous. The supposed acrimony between the two, which has been adapted in numerous works of fiction (including the play ‘Amadeus’ and its film adaptation), is believed to have originated in a rivalry between German and Italian factions of the classical era musical scene. Napoleon Bonaparte was not short; rather he was slightly taller than the average Frenchman of his time. After his death in 1821, the French emperor’s height was recorded as 5 feet 2 inches in French feet. This corresponds to 5 feet 7 inches (1.69 m). Some believe that he was nicknamed ‘le Petit Caporal’ (‘The Little Corporal’) as a term of affection. Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s Independence Day, it is the celebration of the Mexican Army’s victory over the French in the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. Mexico’s Independence from Spain is celebrated on September 16.

There is a common misconception among Americans that Abraham Lincoln freed the American slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863. Slaves were not immediately freed as a result of the Proclamation, as it only applied to slaves in rebelling states not under Union control, which ignored it, and not to the 800,000 slaves in the Union’s slave-holding border states of Missouri, Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland, or Delaware. It was only with the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 that slavery was officially abolished in all of the United States.

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini did not ‘make the trains run on time.’ Much of the repair work had been performed before Mussolini and the Fascists came to power in 1922. Accounts from the era also suggest that the Italian railways’ legendary adherence to timetables was more propaganda than reality. There is no evidence of Polish Cavalry mounting a brave but futile charge against German tanks using lances and sabers during the German Invasion of Poland in 1939. This story may have originated from German propaganda efforts following the Charge at Krojanty in which a Polish cavalry brigade surprised German infantry in the open and charged with sabers until driven off by armored cars. While Polish cavalry still carried the saber for such opportunities, they were trained to fight as highly mobile, dismounted infantry and issued with light anti-tank weapons.

Albert Einstein did not fail mathematics in school, as is commonly believed. Upon being shown a column claiming this fact, Einstein said ‘I never failed in mathematics… Before I was fifteen I had mastered differential and integral calculus.’ Einstein did however fail his first entrance exam into Federal Polytechnic School in 1895 although at the time he was two years younger than his fellow students and did exceedingly well in mathematics and science on the exam. John F. Kennedy’s words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ are standard German for ‘I am a Berliner.’ An urban legend has it that due to his use of the indefinite article ‘ein,’ ‘Berliner’ is translated as ‘jelly doughnut,’ and that the population of Berlin was amused by the supposed mistake. The word Berliner is not commonly used in Berlin to refer to the Berliner Pfannkuchen; they are usually called ein Pfannkuchen.

Entrapment law in the United States does not require police officers to identify themselves as police in the case of a sting or other undercover work. The law is specifically concerned with enticing people to commit crimes they would not have considered in the normal course of events. Embassies and consulates are not the territory of the country they represent, but remain part of the host country. (They do enjoy some special legal protections, in accordance with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.)

Searing meat does not ‘seal in’ moisture, and in fact may actually cause meat to lose moisture. Generally, the value in searing meat is that it creates a brown crust with a rich flavor via the Maillard reaction. Some cooks believe that food items cooked with wine or liquor will be non-alcoholic, because alcohol’s low boiling point causes it to evaporate quickly when heated. However, a study found that some of the alcohol remains: 25% after 1 hour of baking or simmering, and 10% after 2 hours. Monosodium glutamate (MSG) has a widespread reputation for triggering migraine headache exacerbations, but there are no consistent data to support this relationship. Although there have been reports of an MSG-sensitive subset of the population, this has not been demonstrated in placebo-controlled trials. ‘Sushi’ does not mean ‘raw fish,’ and not all sushi includes raw fish. The name sushi means ‘sour rice,’ and refers to the vinegared rice used in it. The now-discontinued Twinkie does not have an infinite shelf life. It has a listed shelf life of approximately 25 days and generally remains on a store shelf for only 7 to 10 days.

The word ‘fuck’ did not originate in Christianized Anglo-Saxon England (7th century CE) as an acronym for ‘Fornication Under Consent of King’; nor did it originate as an acronym for ‘For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge,’ either as a sign posted above adulterers in the stocks, or as a criminal charge against members of the British Armed Forces; nor did it originate during the 15th-century Battle of Agincourt as a corruption of ‘pluck yew’ (an idiom falsely attributed to the English for drawing a longbow). Modern English was not spoken until the 16th century, and words such as ‘fornication’ and ‘consent’ did not exist in any form in English until the influence of Anglo-Norman in the late 12th century. The earliest recorded use of ‘fuck’ in English comes from c. 1475, in the poem ‘Flen flyys,’ where it is spelled ‘fuccant’ (conjugated as if a Latin verb meaning ‘they fuck’). It is of Proto-Germanic origin, and is related to either Dutch ‘fokken’ and German ‘ficken’ or Norwegian ‘fukka.’ The word ‘crap’ did not originate as a back-formation of British plumber Thomas Crapper’s surname, nor does his name originate from the word ‘crap,’ although the surname may have helped popularize the word. The surname ‘Crapper’ is a variant of ‘Cropper,’ which originally referred to someone who harvested crops. The word ‘crap’ ultimately comes from Medieval Latin ‘crappa,’ meaning ‘chaff’ (discarded material).

It is frequently rumored that the expression ‘rule of thumb,’ which is used to indicate a technique for generating a quick estimate, was originally coined from a law allowing a man to beat his wife with a stick, provided it was not thicker than the width of his thumb. In fact, the origin of this phrase remains uncertain, but the false etymology has been broadly reported. ‘Golf’ did not originate as an acronym of ‘Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden.’ The word’s true origin is unknown, but it existed in the Middle Scots period.

Seasons are not caused by the Earth being closer to the Sun in the summer than in the winter. In fact, the Earth is farthest from the Sun when it is summer in the Northern Hemisphere. Seasons are caused by Earth’s 23.4-degree axial tilt. As the Earth orbits the Sun, different parts of the world receive different amounts of direct sunlight. When an area of the Earth’s surface is oriented perpendicular to the incoming sunlight, it receives more radiation than when it is oriented at an oblique angle. In July, the Northern Hemisphere is tilted towards the Sun resulting in longer days and more direct sunlight; in January, it is tilted away. The seasons are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere, which is tilted towards the Sun in January and away from the Sun in July.

Bulls are not enraged by the color red, used in capes by professional matadors. Cattle are dichromats, so red does not stand out as a bright color. It is not the color of the cape, but the perceived threat by the matador that incites it to charge. Lemmings do not engage in mass suicidal dives off cliffs when migrating. They will, however, occasionally unintentionally fall off cliffs when venturing into unknown territory, with no knowledge of the boundaries of the environment. This misconception was popularized by the Disney film ‘White Wilderness,’ which shot many of the migration scenes (also staged by using multiple shots of different groups of lemmings) on a large, snow-covered turntable in a studio. Photographers later pushed the lemmings off a cliff. The misconception itself is much older, dating back to at least the late nineteenth century. Ostriches do not hide their heads in the sand to hide from enemies. This misconception was probably promulgated by Pliny the Elder, who wrote that ostriches ‘imagine, when they have thrust their head and neck into a bush, that the whole of their body is concealed.’

It is not harmful to baby birds to pick them up and return them to their nests, despite the common belief that doing so will cause the mother to reject them. Some birds have limited sense of smell, and many species primarily rely on visual cues. It is however still best to leave a baby bird alone, as the parents will usually be close by. The claim that a duck’s quack does not echo is false, although the echo may be difficult to hear for humans under some circumstances. The notion that goldfish have a memory span of just a few seconds is false. It is much longer, counted in months. A common misconception about chameleons is that they change color primarily for camouflage. In reality, they usually change color to regulate temperature or as a form of communication. Sharks can actually suffer from cancer. The misconception that sharks do not get cancer was spread by the 1992 book ‘Sharks Don’t Get Cancer’ by I. William Lane and used to sell extracts of shark cartilage as cancer prevention treatments.

It is a common misconception that an earthworm becomes two worms when cut in half. However, only a limited number of earthworm species are capable of anterior regeneration. When such earthworms are bisected, only the front half of the worm (where the mouth is located) can feed and survive, while the other half dies. Species of the planaria family of flatworms actually do become two new planaria when bisected or split down the middle. According to urban legend, the daddy longlegs is the most venomous spider in the world, but the shape of their mandibles leaves them unable to bite humans, rendering them harmless to our species. In reality, they can indeed pierce human skin, though the tiny amount of venom they carry causes only a mild burning sensation for a few seconds. The flight mechanism and aerodynamics of the bumblebee (as well as other insects) are actually quite well understood, in spite of the urban legend that calculations show that they should not be able to fly. In the 1930s, the French entomologist Antoine Magnan, using flawed techniques, indeed postulated that bumblebees theoretically should not be able to fly in his book ‘Le Vol des Insectes’ (‘The Flight of Insects’). Poinsettias are not highly toxic to humans or cats. While it is true that they are mildly irritating to the skin or stomach, and may sometimes cause diarrhea and vomiting if eaten.

Waking sleepwalkers does not harm them. While it is true that a person may be confused or disoriented for a short time after awakening, this does not cause them further harm. In contrast, sleepwalkers may injure themselves if they trip over objects or lose their balance while sleepwalking. Although it is commonly believed that most body heat is lost through a person’s head, heat loss through the head is not more significant than other parts of the body when naked. This may be a generalization of situations in which it is true, such as when the head is the only uncovered part of the body, or in infants, where the head is a significant fraction of body mass. Multiple studies have shown that for uncovered infants, lined hats significantly reduce heat loss and thermal stress. Eating less than an hour before swimming does not increase the risk of experiencing muscle cramps or drowning. Drowning is often thought to be a violent struggle, where the victim waves and calls for help. In truth, drowning is often inconspicuous to onlookers. Raising the arms and vocalizing are even usually impossible due to the instinctive drowning response. Waving and yelling (known as ‘aquatic distress’) is a sign of trouble, but not a dependable one: most victims demonstrating the instinctive drowning response do not show prior evidence of distress.

Human blood in veins is not blue. In fact, blood is always red due to hemoglobin. Deoxygenated blood has a deep red color, and oxygenated blood has a light cherry-red color. The misconception probably arises for two reasons: 1) From the way diagrams use colors to show the difference between veins (usually shown in blue) and arteries (usually shown in red). 2) Veins below the skin appear blue. This is due to a variety of reasons only weakly dependent on the color of the blood, including light scattering through the skin, and human color perception. Exposure to a vacuum, or experiencing uncontrolled decompression, does not cause the body to explode, or internal fluids to boil, rather, it would lead to a loss of consciousness after a few seconds and death by hypoxia (lack of oxygen) within minutes. All different tastes can be detected on all parts of the tongue by taste buds, with slightly increased sensitivities in different locations depending on the person, contrary to the popular belief that specific tastes only correspond to specific mapped sites on the tongue. The original tongue map was based on a mistranslation of a 1901 German thesis by Edwin Boring. In addition, there are not 4 but 5 primary tastes. In addition to bitter, sour, salty, and sweet, humans have taste receptors for umami, which is a savory or meaty taste. Humans have more than five senses. Although definitions vary, the actual number ranges from 9 to more than 20. In addition to sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing, which were the senses identified by Aristotle, humans can sense balance and acceleration (equilibrioception), pain (nociception), body and limb position (proprioception or kinesthetic sense), and relative temperature (thermoception). Other senses sometimes identified are the sense of time, itching, pressure, hunger, thirst, fullness of the stomach, need to urinate, need to defecate, and blood carbon dioxide levels.

Shaving does not cause terminal hair to grow back thicker or coarser or darker. This belief is due to hair which has never been cut having a tapered end, whereas after cutting there is no taper; the cut hair appears to be thicker, and feels coarser due to the sharper, unworn edges. The shorter hairs being ‘harder’ (less flexible) than longer hairs also contributes to this effect. Hair and fingernails do not continue to grow after a person dies. Rather, the skin dries and shrinks away from the bases of hairs and nails, giving the appearance of growth.

Eight glasses of water a day are not needed to maintain health. The amount of water needed varies by person (weight), activity level, clothing, and environment (heat and humidity). Moreover, consuming things that contain water, such as juice, tea, milk, fruits, and vegetables, also keeps a person hydrated, and can supply more than half of the needed water. Drinking normal levels of caffeinated beverages does not cause a net dehydration effect. The mild diuretic effect of caffeine is offset by the large amount of water in the caffeinated beverage. There is no evidence that coffee stunts a child’s growth. Sugar does not cause hyperactivity in children. Double-blind trials have shown no difference in behavior between children given sugar-full or sugar-free diets, even in studies specifically looking at children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or those considered sensitive to sugar.

Alcohol does not make one warmer. The reason that alcoholic drinks create the sensation of warmth is that they cause blood vessels to dilate and stimulate nerve endings near the surface of the skin with an influx of warm blood. This can actually result in making the core body temperature lower, as it allows for easier heat exchange with a cold external environment. Alcohol does not necessarily kill brain cells. Alcohol can, however, lead indirectly to the death of brain cells in two ways: (1) In chronic, heavy alcohol users whose brains have adapted to the effects of alcohol, abrupt cessation following heavy use can cause excitotoxicity leading to cellular death in multiple areas of the brain. (2) In alcoholics who get most of their daily calories from alcohol, a deficiency of thiamine can produce Korsakoff’s syndrome, which is associated with serious brain damage. Swallowed chewing gum does not take seven years to digest. In fact, chewing gum is mostly indigestible, and passes through the digestive system at the same rate as other matter.

There is no physiological basis for the belief that having sex in the days leading up to a sporting event or contest is detrimental to performance. In fact it has been suggested that sex prior to sports activity can elevate the levels of testosterone in males, which could potentially enhance their performance. Vaccines do not cause autism or autism spectrum disorders. Although fraudulent research by Andrew Wakefield claimed a connection, repeated attempts to reproduce the results ended in failure, and the research was ultimately shown to have been manipulated.

Mental abilities are not absolutely separated into the left and right cerebral hemispheres of the brain. Some mental functions such as speech and language (e.g. Broca’s area, Wernicke’s area) tend to activate one hemisphere of the brain more than the other, in some kinds of tasks. If one hemisphere is damaged at an early age, these functions can often be recovered in part or even in full by the other hemisphere (neuroplasticity). Other abilities such as motor control, memory, and general reasoning are served equally by the two hemispheres. Until recently, medical experts believed that humans were born with all of the brain cells they would ever have. We now know that new neurons can be created in the postnatal brain. Researchers have observed adult neurogenesis in avians, Old World Primates, and humans. The function and physiological significance of adult-born neurons remains unclear. People do not use only ten percent of their brains. While it is true that a small minority of neurons in the brain are actively firing at any one time, the inactive neurons are important too. This misconception has been commonplace in American culture at least as far back as the start of the 20th century, and was attributed to William James, who apparently used the expression metaphorically.

Drinking milk or consuming other dairy products does not increase mucus production. As a result, they do not need to be avoided by those suffering from flu or cold congestion. Warts on human skin are caused by viruses that are unique to humans (human papillomavirus). Humans cannot catch warts from toads or other animals; the bumps on a toad are not warts. Neither cracking one’s knuckles, nor exercising while in good health, cause osteoarthritis. The Trendelenburg position (lying on the back with the feet elevated) for treating hypotension or shock is not supported by evidence and may in fact be harmful. Stress plays a relatively minor role in hypertension contrary to common belief. Specific relaxation therapies are not supported by the evidence.

Glass does not flow at room temperature as a high-viscosity liquid; although glass shares some molecular properties found in liquids, glass at room temperature is an ‘amorphous solid’ that only begins to flow above the glass transition temperature, though the exact nature of the glass transition is not considered settled among theorists and scientists. Panes of stained glass windows are often thicker at the bottom than at the top, and this has been cited as an example of the slow flow of glass over centuries. However, this unevenness is due to the window manufacturing processes used at the time. Normally the thick end of glass would be installed at the bottom of the frame, but it is also common to find old windows where the thicker end has been installed to the sides or the top. No such distortion is observed in other glass objects, such as sculptures or optical instruments, that are of similar or even greater age. Most diamonds are not formed from highly compressed coal. More than 99% diamonds ever mined have formed in the conditions of extreme heat and pressure about 90 miles (150 kilometers) below the earth’s surface. Coal is formed from prehistoric plants close to earth surface, and is unlikely to migrate below 2 miles through common geological processes. Most diamonds that have been dated are older than the first land plants, and are therefore older than coal.

The Coriolis effect does not determine the direction that water rotates in a bathtub drain or a flushing toilet. The Coriolis effect induced by the Earth’s daily rotation is too small to affect the direction of water in a typical bathtub drain. The effect becomes significant and noticeable only at large scales, such as in weather systems or oceanic currents. Other forces dominate the dynamics of water in drains. It is not true that air takes the same time to travel above and below an aircraft’s wing/airfoil. This misconception is widespread among textbooks and non-technical reference books, and even appears in pilot training materials. In fact the air moving over the top of an airfoil generating lift is always moving much faster than the equal transit theory would imply.

The idea that lightning never strikes the same place twice is one of the oldest and most well-known superstitions about lightning. There is no reason that lightning would not be able to strike the same place twice; if there is a thunderstorm in a given area, then objects and places which are more prominent or conductive (and therefore minimize distance) are more likely to be struck. For instance, lightning strikes the Empire State Building in New York City about 100 times per year. A penny dropped from the Empire State Building will not kill a person or crack the sidewalk. The terminal velocity of a falling penny is about 30–50 miles per hour, and the penny will not exceed that speed regardless of the height from which it is dropped. At that speed, its energy is not enough to penetrate a human skull or crack concrete.

Photographic or eidetic memory is the ability to remember images with high precision—so high as to mimic a camera. However, it is highly unlikely that photographic memory exists, as to date there is no hard scientific evidence that anyone has ever had it. Many people have claimed to have a photographic memory, but those people have been shown to have good memories as a result of mnemonic devices rather than a natural capacity for detailed memory encoding. There are rare cases of individuals with exceptional memory, but none of them has a memory that mimics a camera. In recent years, a phenomenon labeled hyperthymesia has been studied, where the individual has superior autobiographical memory—in some cases being able to recall every meal they have ever eaten.

Abner Doubleday did not invent baseball. The black belt in martial arts does not necessarily indicate expert level or mastery. It was introduced for judo in the 1880s to indicate competency of all of the basic techniques of the sport. Promotion beyond black belt varies among different martial arts. In judo and some other Asian martial arts, holders of higher ranks are awarded belts with alternating red and white panels, and the highest ranks with solid red belts.

The forbidden fruit mentioned in the Book of Genesis is commonly assumed to be an apple, and is widely depicted as such in Western art. However, the Bible does not identify what type of fruit it is. The original Hebrew texts mention only tree and fruit. Early Latin translations use the word ‘mali,’ which can be taken to mean both ‘evil’ and ‘apple.’ German and French artists commonly depict the fruit as an apple from the 12th century onwards, and John Milton’s ‘Areopagitica’ from 1644 explicitly mentions the fruit as an apple. Jewish scholars suggested that the fruit could have been a grape, a fig, wheat, or etrog (a citrus fruit).

The historical Buddha was not obese. The ‘chubby Buddha’ or ‘laughing Buddha’ is a tenth century Chinese folk hero by the name of Budai. In Chinese Buddhist culture, Budai came to be revered as an incarnation of Maitreya, the Bodhisattva who will become a Buddha to restore Buddhism after the teachings of the historical Buddha, Siddhārtha Gautama, have passed away. The Buddha is not a god. In early Buddhism, Siddhārtha Gautama possessed no salvific properties and strongly encouraged ‘self-reliance, self discipline and individual striving.’ However, in later developments of Mahāyāna Buddhism, notably in the Pure Land (Jìngtǔ) school of Chinese Buddhism, the Amitābha Buddha was thought to be a savior. Through faith in the Amitābha Buddha, one could be reborn in the western Pure Land. Although in Pure Land Buddhism the Buddha is considered a savior, he is still not considered a god in the common understanding of the term.

There is no evidence that Jesus was born on December 25. The Bible never claims a date of December 25, but may imply a date closer to September. The fixed date is attributed to Pope Julius the First because in the year 350 CE he declared the twenty-fifth of December the official date of celebration. The date may have initially been chosen to correspond with either the day exactly nine months after Christians believe Jesus to have been conceived, the date of the Roman winter solstice, or one of various ancient winter festivals. Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute. She is often confused with a different, unnamed woman in the Gospel of Luke (immediately before Mary Magdalene’s introduction) who indeed was a prostitute. The misconception stems from a 6th-century homily from Pope Gregory I, who assumed that the seven demons that Jesus cast out of Mary Magdalene corresponded to the still-nascent concept of the seven deadly sins. Roman Catholics do not believe the pope is sinless or infallible. Catholic dogma does state that a dogmatic teaching contained in divine revelation that is promulgated by the pope is free from error; but this does not mean that the pope or everything he says is free from error, even when speaking in his official capacity.

A fatwā is a non-binding legal opinion issued by an Islamic scholar under Islamic law. The popular misconception that the word means a death sentence probably stems from the fatwā issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran in 1989 regarding the author Salman Rushdie, whom he stated had earned a death sentence for blasphemy. This event led to fatwās gaining widespread media attention in the West. The word ‘jihad’ does not always mean ‘holy war’; literally, the word in Arabic means ‘struggle.’ While there is such a thing as ‘jihad bil saif,’ or jihad ‘by the sword,’ many modern Islamic scholars usually say that it implies an effort or struggle of a spiritual kind. The Quran does not promise martyrs 72 virgins in heaven. It does mention virgin companions, houri, to all people—martyr or not—in heaven, but no number is specified. The source for the 72 virgins is a hadith. Hadith are sayings and acts of the prophet Mohammed as reported by others and as such not part of the Quran itself. Especially the hadiths that are weakly sourced, such as this one, must not necessarily be believed by a Muslim.

The character Sherlock Holmes never used the phrase: ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’ in the works of Arthur Conan Doyle. However, he did say ‘my dear Watson,’ followed shortly by (to Watson) ‘Elementary.’ The first use of the complete phrase was in the 1929 film ‘The Return of Sherlock Holmes.’ Frankenstein was not the name of the monster in the novel ‘Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus’ by Mary Shelley; rather it was the surname of the monster’s creator, Victor Frankenstein. The monster is instead called Frankenstein’s monster. Also, although often portrayed as a doctor, in the novel Frankenstein was a medical student. ‘Edelweiss’ is not the national anthem of Austria, but is in fact an original composition created for the musical ‘The Sound of Music.’

George Washington Carver did not invent peanut butter, though he reputedly discovered three hundred uses for peanuts and hundreds more for soybeans, pecans, and sweet potatoes. Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb. He did, however, develop the first practical light bulb in 1880 (employing a carbonized bamboo filament), shortly prior to Joseph Swan, who invented an even more efficient bulb in 1881 (which used a cellulose filament). Henry Ford did not invent either the automobile or the assembly line. He did improve the assembly line process substantially, sometimes through his own engineering but more often through sponsoring the work of his employees. Karl Benz (co-founder of Mercedes-Benz) is credited with the invention of the first modern automobile, and the assembly line has existed throughout history. Guglielmo Marconi did not invent radio, but only modernized it for public broadcasting and communication. No one person was responsible for the invention of radio. James Watt did not invent the steam engine, nor were his ideas on steam engine power inspired by a kettle lid pressured open by steam.

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