- By David M. Kinchen
“Most myths and misconceptions do no harm; however, some of them do,” Yaffe says.
“For example, a misconception about fundamental physics means that people living in cold climates spend a hundred dollars or more every year unnecessarily heating their homes. Likewise, a misconception about basic biology means that people living in hot climates spend hundreds of dollars every year unnecessarily cooling their homes. Aside from wasting financial resources, these widespread misconceptions also use up precious natural resources.”
Yaffe’s book clearly explains these two misconceptions, as well as many others. However, the purpose of the book is not to save the planet, although this would be a felicitous side effect. Rather it is to entertain the reader by pointing out and explaining a plethora of “things we know that just aren’t so.”
Although extensive and wide-ranging, the myths and misconceptions treated in the book represent only the tip of the iceberg. There are just so many of them that to try to deal with more than a selected few would require an entire library.
A second purpose of the book is to sensitize the reader to the dangers of making important decisions based on false or misleading information,Yaffe says. To this end, the book also contains short essays on “How to Check Misconceptions,” “How to Check Myths,” “Conspiracy Theories; How to Separate the Wheat from the Chaff,” and a lesson in critical thinking excerpted from an iconic short story by iconic science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov.
Here’s an excerpt from a book that makes delightfully illuminating reading:A prevalent source of misconceptions is “common sense,” i.e. the idea that something must be true or false simply because it couldn’t be otherwise. However, we live in a world where common sense often breaks down, leading to misconceptions that not only are not close to the truth, they are totally false.
For example, it is common sense to believe that the Sun moves while the Earth is stationary because we see it happening each and every day, but we know this isn’t true. It is also common sense not to believe that a small lump of uranium could release the same energy as 20,000 tons of dynamite, but tragically we know that this is true (remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki).
The raison d’être of science is to go beyond the obvious to determine what is real, often with surprising results. Common sense should help us govern our daily lives, but common sense and science are inherently incompatible for the very good reason that they have little or nothing to do with each other.
When we become aware of a possible misconception, or a common sense idea that may be wrong, we have two choices. We can either ignore it because it is of no significance or interest to us. Or we can check it out because it is of significance or interest to us. If we chose to check it, there is a right way and a wrong way doing so. Here is the right way.
Keep Your Cool
We often become aware of a possible misconception when in discussion with others, i.e. someone says something that just doesn’t sound right. The civilized thing to do is to examine the two ideas, yours and that of your interlocutor, to see if you can easily reconcile them. If you cannot easily reconcile them, the next thing to do is a bit of investigating.
This is often easier said than done. Some people are so attached to a misconception that the very suggestion that it should be confirmed is taken as an affront to their intelligence. Thus, they may become angry that you don’t ipso facto accept their version of things.
Don’t you be such a person. You can argue over an opinion, e.g. which is the best rock band, who is the best rugby player, what is the most beautiful type of music, etc. However, it makes no sense to argue over a fact. Either it is correct or it isn’t. And today with the internet, it is so easy to check it that not doing so would seem to be senseless. If your interlocutor blows a fuse at the very suggestion, then change the subject and check it yourself later on.
But a word of advice. If your version of the fact turns out to be correct, don’t tell him or her later. Some people — in fact too many people — would prefer to be wrong than to be corrected.
Good advice! I recall getting a hairy eyeball from a fellow copyeditor at the Los Angeles Times when I pointed out an error he made — and it got worse when he persisted in saying it wasn’t an error!
About the author
Philip Yaffe was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1942 and grew up in Los Angeles, where he graduated from the University of California — Los Angeles (UCLA) with a degree in mathematics and physics. In his senior year, he was also editor-in-chief of the Daily Bruin, UCLA’s daily student newspaper.
He has more than 40 years of experience in journalism and international marketing communication. At various points in his career, he has been a teacher of journalism, a reporter/feature writer with The Wall Street Journal, an account executive with a major international press relations agency, European marketing communication director with two major international companies, and a founding partner of a specialized marketing communication agency in Brussels, Belgium, where he has lived since 1974.
Books by Yaffe
• The Gettysburg Approach to Writing & Speaking like a Professional
• The Gettysburg Collection:
A comprehensive companion to The Gettysburg Approach to Writing & Speaking like a Professional
• Actual English: English grammar as native speakers really use it
• Gentle French: French grammar as native speakers really use it
• What’d You Say? / Que Dites-Vous?
Fun with homophones, proverbs, expressions, false friends, and other linguistic oddities in English and French
• Belief, Disbelief, Unbelief: A Thousand Thoughts before You Die
• Extraordinary Ordinary Things: How Did We Ever Live without Them?
• Myths and Misconceptions: Things We Know that Just Aren’t So
• One-line Wonders: Humor in the Fast Lane
• The Little Book of BIG Mistakes
• The Eighth Decade: Reflections on a Life
Books in “Major Achievements of Lesser-known Scientists” Series
(at November 2013)
• Astronomy & Cosmology: Major Achievements of Lesser-known Scientists
• Human Biology: Major Achievements of Lesser-known Scientists
Books in “The Essential Ten Percent” Series
(as of November 2013)
• College-level Writing: The Essential Ten Percent
• Human Psychology: The Essential Ten Percent
• Logical Thinking: The Essential Ten Percent
• Public Speaking: The Essential Ten Percent
• The Essential Ten Percent Omnibus: Logical Thinking, College-level Writing, Public Speaking
• The Human Body: The Essential Ten Percent
• Wise Humor: The Essential Ten Percent
• Word for Windows: The Essential Ten Percent