SCIENCE SAYS… It Ain’t So (Dec, 1950)

All my life, I’ve believed that practice makes perfect and that the hand is quicker than the eye. Now stupid, meanie science has to come and shatter all of my dreams. Damn you science!!!

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Before you read the story on the following pages, mark these items TRUE or FALSE, then check the answers in the text. If your score is 16 or better, you’re smarter than science thinks you are.

1. Ground glass will always kill you
2. Brain power declines rapidly with age
3. Your body is symmetrical
4. Geniuses are sickly and die young
5. Faces reveal character
6. Alcohol is a stimulant
7. Women have more intuition than men
8. Practice makes perfect
9. Ptomaine poisoning causes most food sickness
10. You’re more efficient in cold climate
11. Milk prevents tooth decay
12. Cats can kill babies by sucking their breath
13. Marriage between cousins produces morons
14. Goldenrod is the main cause of hayfever
15. Pasteurization kills all germs in milk
16. Don’t keep food in opened cans
17. Blood tests can prove paternity
18. The hand is quicker than the eye
19. Don’t drink water with meals
20. Hypnotized people won’t act against their will
21. Tuberculosis and syphilis are hereditary
22. Rust causes lockjaw
23. Sleeping on the left side is bad for the heart
24. Treat frostbite by rubbing with snow

By Donald G. Cooley

GLASS crunched between the young man’s teeth like peanut brittle. He had bitten off the end of a cocktail glass, munched it with relish and was now swallowing it with pleasure.

Before the astonished eyes of Dr. Walter S. Haines, famous toxicologist, the young man started on his main dinner—two good-sized lamp chimneys, a four-ounce medicine bottle and two pieces’ of window glass.

For several hours Dr. Haines kept the glass-eater under observation. Nothing happened. The man happened to be a professional glass-swallower who put on this sort of performance regularly, with the single precaution of eating a heavy meal beforehand. Later Dr. Haines used the facts of this case in a book as evidence that razor-sharp foreign bodies do not necessarily make mincemeat of the intestines if they can “get lost” in food residues present in the tract. So, the answer to No. 1 is False. Although inadvisable in the diet, finely powdered glass that you can’t detect in food is unlikely to cause any symptoms, much less kill you outright.

But don’t feel silly if you always have believed that ground glass is a deadly poison. All of us, including the highly educated, believe many things that aren’t so. But we can’t be blamed for most of our fallacies, for science itself is just catching up with them. Here are 23 other reinvestigated “facts’ of life:

2. Brain power declines rapidly as you grow older. False.

When you’re fifty, you’re still as good a learner as a 17-year-old. Learning ability before the age of 10 is relatively poor, as Prof. E. L. Thorndike’s learning curve demonstrates. You’re at your peak between 20 and 30, but after that the decline is so slow that a man or woman of 70 or 80 can still learn anything he wants.

3. Your right and left sides are normally symmetrical. False.

One of your arms, one of your legs or one of your feet is larger than its mate. One side of your face grows a little bigger than the other. If you doubt it, place a small mirror perpendicularly down the middle of a full-face portrait of yourself. See how different you look when one side of your face is matched up with its mirror image.

4. Geniuses are sickly and die young. False.

On the contrary, a high IQ is a good passport to long life. Professor Lewis M. Terman who has been keeping tabs on hundreds of gifted children for years finds that they are physically superior to the average.

5. Character can be read from a person’s face. False.

Many tests prove that people can’t tell saint from sinner when given photos of thieves, ministers, confidence men, college presidents, bank robbers, politicians and murders. Facial features are no reliable means of judgment. Often we think we can judge the character of someone we meet and we may be fairly accurate. But it isn’t the shape of his nose or length of his jaw that establishes our opinion. It’s ordinary intuition at work—the unconscious way by which we fuse gestures, manners and words into an impression derived from memories of life experience.

6. Alcohol is a stimulant. False.

It’s hard to refute this one, for alcohol at first makes people act as if they were stimulated. What really happens is that inhibitions are depressed so that suppressed urges are released and the drinker isn’t worried about looking foolish. Alcohol is a depressant right down the line. It works backward along the lines of man’s evolution. First it depresses lately acquired functions of the mind—inhibitions, for instance. Then it depresses speech. Later it depresses muscular coordination. Last to fade out are breathing and heartbeat, which come first in nature’s design for living. First to last, alcohol is not a stimulant.

7. Women have more intuition than men. False.

Intuition is overrated in women and underrated in men. It is the art of arriving at a conclusion from a series of often unconscious observations—a gesture, tone of voice, a glance. Psychologists agree that women’s institution is keenest in social situations most important to their sex. Thus many of their hunches seem mysterious to men. But in masculine fields—for instance, a salesman sensing that his prospect is ready for the kill—men are just as intuitive as women. However, women are more likely to act on intuition since they are less given to cold logic than men.

8. Practice makes perfect. False.

Not unless you think while you practice. Practice makes our mistakes perfect if we keep working on them. Repetition merely fixes habits, good or bad. Usually it takes an outside observer to make us aware of mistakes we have been practicing—which is how golf pros make a living. Men who had practiced laying bricks for years increased their production five times when Frank Gilbreth, efficiency engineer, showed them better methods to practice.

9. Ptomaine poisoning causes most food sickness. False.

Ptomaines are not specific chemical substances like table salt and aspirin. The word was coined from ptoma, meaning corpse, by an early Italian investigator who thought that putrefying food gave rise to deadly poisons. You wouldn’t knowingly eat decayed food and even if you would, it doesn’t often form poisonous substances. So says Dr. George Dock, a specialist in food poisoning, who gives limburger cheese as a proved example. Most food poisoning is caused by toxins produced by bacteria which give little or no taste or smell to warn of their presence.

10. You are more efficient in cold weather. False.

You are more energetic in stimulating, cool weather—but also more wasteful of energy. Cold weather makes your body fires burn brighter, but like an overheated motor, there’s a wasteful excess of heat. You actually expend more energy climbing a flight of stairs in January than you do in August.

11. Milk prevents tooth decay. False.

Milk is a superb food and our best source of calcium, necessary for sound tooth formation. But milk drinkers are as susceptible to tooth decay as anyone else. Fermentation within the mouth, creating conditions favorable to enamel destruction, is now generally accepted as the basic cause of tooth decay. Milk does not halt the fermentation process and calcium is of no measurable value to teeth that are fully formed.

12. Cats can kill babies by sucking their breath. False.

The anatomy of a cats mouth makes such a feat impossible. Perhaps this old wive’s tale started because cats love warmth and conceivably could snuggle up to a sleeping baby and smother the child with their bodies.

13. Marriage between cousins produces defective offspring. False.

Such marriages are more likely to produce superior than defective offspring since good traits are intensified as well as bad. And traits good for race survival tend to be dominant. Some hereditary defects may be transmitted between cousins but these are quite rare. It is not so much a matter of whether the individuals are cousins as whether they come from good genetic stock. Animal breeders work within bloodlines to produce superior thoroughbreds of pure strains. Most human beings are hybrids. Offspring of cousin marriages come just a little closer to being thoroughbreds.

14. Goldenrod is the main cause of hay fever.


Poor maligned goldenrod! It happens to bloom about the same time as less conspicuous ragweed and gets the blame it doesn’t deserve. Goldenrod pollen is heavy, sticky and never gets into the atmosphere, as wind-borne pollen does, in quantities to make it a hay fever threat.

15. Pasteurization destroys all germs in milk. False.

If it did, pasteurized milk would be sterile. It isn’t. The heat of pasteurization is far below the boiling point and is maintained only briefly in order to leave natural taste unchanged. This quick heat treatment is sufficient to destroy the great bulk of pathogenic (disease-causing) bacteria but it leaves spores and some forms of harmless germ life unaffected.

16. Food should not be kept in opened cans. False.

Canned goods are sterile when opened for they have been heat-treated during processing. A kitchen storage dish contains many more germs than a newly opened tin can. No poisonous substances are formed from the tin lining of the can. Cover it as you would a storage dish and keep it in a refrigerator.

17. Paternity tests tell if a man is the father of a child. False.

A baby inherits its blood type from mother and father. If its blood is consistent with its mother’s but not with that of a specific man, then that man could not possibly be the child’s father. Thus paternity tests are really nonpaternity tests. Of course, a man may have the same blood type as a baby and still not be its father.

18. The hand is quicker than the eye. False.

You can’t move your hand so fast that you won’t see at least a blur provided you are looking at it. But you see nothing until your brain does. Magicians are adept at diverting attention so your brain doesn’t see all your eyes do. Nobody can move muscles faster than nerve impulses controlling them and seeing is practically pure nerve impulse. If you can’t think of yourself as not seeing when your eyes are open, consider the fact that you actually see nothing when your eyes are moving, as when you scan this line of type, jumping from phrase to phrase.

19. Water should not be drunk with meals. False.

Ignore this “health rule” if you’re thirsty. Water at mealtime stimulates the flow of saliva and gastric juices and aids digestion. Water does not dilute food which is being digested by the stomach. Instead it leaves the stomach quickly and does yeoman work in the small intestine where food substances must be liquefied so they can be digested and absorbed. Of course, water should not be used to wash down half-chewed food.

20. Hypnotized people won’t act against their will. False.

This belief, shared by psychologists and laymen alike, has been considerably shaken by recent experiments. At Welch Convalescent Hospital in Florida a hypnotized soldier was told that a superior officer was an enemy Jap. The soldier suddenly pulled a knife that nobody knew he possessed and only by a miracle was a serious stabbing averted. At Syracuse University W. R. Wells induced crime compulsions in hypnotized subjects and made them steal valuable objects. L. W. Rowland at Baylor University found that he could make hypnotized persons perform acts that endangered their lives. So you’d better know your hypnotist!

21. Tuberculosis and syphilis are hereditary diseases. False.

Congenital disease is quite different from hereditary disease. A baby born with syphilis has not inherited it from his mother. He has acquired it congenitally from “exposure” to his mother. Hereditary disease is transmitted by genes of the germ cells—the same units that determine hair color, nose shape, etc. Of course, disease tendencies may be inherited. In the case of tuberculosis it is not inherited but a baby born into a tubercular family is exposed to active carriers.

22. Rust causes lockjaw. False.

If a rusty nail happens to carry spores of tetanus germs, it’ll cause lockjaw. Spores live for years in the soil and are especially likely to be found in ground that has been heavily manured. A nail that has been lying in soil long enough to become rusty may well have become contaminated with tetanus spores. But the rust in itself is not deadly.

23. Sleeping on the left side is bad jor the heart. False.

Numerous sleep studies have proved that we change our posture in bed at least a dozen times a night. Fortunately, it makes no difference to the heart which side we sleep on. The heart isn’t on the left side of the chest anyway—it’s in the center.

24. Treat frostbite by rubbing with snow. False.

Folklore has been wrong for ages on this one but science has just caught up with it. Army and Navy doctors have been tackling the frostbite problem because it is a serious military hazard in cold-climate campaigning. They find that the best way to treat a frozen part is not to thaw it slowly by applying snow or ice but to thaw it rapidly by application of heat considerably higher than body temperature. Quick-thawing prevents gangrene.

Well, what’s your score? Did you know the answers to at least 16? If you happened to be wrong on most of them, don’t feel chagrined because most of your neighbors probably don’t know that they’re ail false either.

But the next time you hear a fellow talking through his hat about one of these common fallacies, be sure to stop him and say, “Sorry, bud—science says it ain’t so!”

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