Internet Trivia:

How much of it is even true?


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a-s 021 Male Ostrich rolling egg Male ostrich turning eggFor a time in 2005, I received many emails with titles such as 'Facts To Impress Your Friends' and immediately realized that about half the items were not even factual.

That was all well and good for me, but then I found that *gasp!* some people actually took these 'fact lists' at face value.

I had to get the word out, so I did some research and posted the corrections on the only blog I had at the time.

Since these lists were such a hit with the few people who commented, I've decided to share a generous sampling of them, right here on this page!

I've divided them into four groups, starting with my favorites, Life Forms and The Origins of Words and Expressions. Then, I picked out the Somewhat Medically-Oriented Items in order to divide The Rest into two smaller groups.

Peruse or browse, as you like!


Life Forms

The REAL reason ostriches stick their head in the sand is to search for water.

False! - Once again, the years I've spent studying animals has paid off. To begin with, ostriches don't stick their heads in the sand, although they may appear to be doing so.

For example, when an ostrich perceives that it is trapped by some danger and cannot run away, it flattens itself along the ground and hides its head.

Also, when ostriches nest, the dominant male and female turn their eggs over several times a day to prevent the embryos from sticking to the inside of the shell. (See drawring above!)

As for water, ostriches don't drink much. Like many other dry-adapted animals, an ostrich gets most of its water from the vegetation it eats. Though they do drink from water holes, digging for water - which is deep underground - would require more time and effort than it is worth.

How is it, then, that there are photos of ostriches sticking their heads straight down into the sand? Simple; they are actually eating food that was put in the hole by humans who, in turn got the idea from their culture!

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An ostrich's eye is bigger than it's [sic] brain.

True, and that's not all! - In fact, most birds have eyes larger than their brains! (I discovered this while reading about bird morphology.) This is because most birds need to have better vision and better color perception than we do. In the case of the ostrich, the eye is about 5 centimeters long and weighs around 60 grams while its brain weighs a mere approximate 40 grams.

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A goldfish has a memory span of three seconds.

False! - If that were so, then how is it that they're so darn trainable? (And this goes beyond the MythBusters team, who taught goldfish to swim through a maze!) Since B.F. Skinner, and before, people have been training goldfish to swim in circles, swim backwards, and even swim around, under and through obstacles, as well as to swim to one's finger.

All you need is a light to signal them, some fish food to reward them, and lots of patience! In fact, there are kits to to help people train their goldfish to push miniature soccer balls through goals, under 'limbo' bars, etc.

Not to mention, scientists have also determined that goldfish can distinguish between different shapes, sounds and colors by training them to respond only to certain ones; however, goldfish don't seem to be able to distinguish between different magnetic fields.

And that's not all -- goldfish can tell time! In 2003, Dr. Phil Gee led a Plymouth University research team that trained goldfish to push a lever in order to dispense food. Partway through the experiment, they rigged the lever so that it only worked during one particular hour each day.

At the time just before the hour was due, the fish would begin striking at the lever in anticipation. They hit it all during the hour in a sort of feeding frenzy, but when the lever was inactive again, they stopped trying. The point is, those fish not only remembered from day to day, they remembered the right time of day!

So, if a fish's memory is a lot longer than three seconds, then how long can a fish remember something without being reminded? I'm not sure about goldfish, but salmon have been recorded to have a memory span of over a year. Goldfish are probably similar in this respect.

Also, researchers from the Technion Institute of Technology in Israel discovered that if they spend a month training young fish to respond to a sound that signals feeding time, and then release them into the wild, they will still return in response to the same sound five months later.

By this time, the fish are the right size for slaughtering, and as they have been foraging in the wild all this time, no money has been spent on feeding them. Fish farmers are taking note.

One last thing -- I happened to run across this on the internet while I was doing research:

Scientists belive that fish can only remeber for 10sec. but I know that every day my fish... remembers me I also taught him tricks and how to play soccer, so I know that fish can remember just as long as humans can!!!

This reminds me; I have met people who have a misconception of some part of the science status quo, and then discovered that it is so obviously incorrect (being a misconception and all), so they wind up thinking they are one-up on scientists.

I would like to point out that such false 'facts' as you might see in Internet Trivia can hurt the reputation of solid science and scientists, and in more ways than just goldfish! Anyway, that's a whole other article....

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Almonds are members of the peach family.

True - but wait! I think there's an important clarification in order:

Almonds and peaches are actually two different species of the same genus (Prunus), which means they are on the same small twig of the 'family tree'.

Furthermore, it isn't just peaches (a.k.a. Prunus persica) and almonds (a.k.a. Prunus dulcis), but also plums (Prunus sp.), apricots (Prunus armeniaca), and cherries (Prunus cerasus sp.), too!

The family, however, is properly called Rosaceae, the 'rose family', rather than the 'peach family'. Some other fruit-bearing genera of the rose family include Malus (apples), Pyrus (pears), Fragaria (strawberries), and Rubus (raspberries, blackberries, etc.).

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Tigers have striped skin, not just striped fur.

True! - And I even found a photo as evidence! (I knew this anyway because the same is true of housecats.) Aw, the poor big kitty got hurted!

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The average housefly lives for one month.

False - but close. It is true that a housefly can live for a month, though its average lifespan is two weeks at the most. However, that's only under natural conditions - in captivity, the lifespan of the male housefly is up to sixty days, while the female can live up to seventy days!

If it matters to anyone, I recall watching a Discovery Channel special on houseflies sometime in the late 1990s, where several flies spent the winter 'hibernating' in someone's attic: Their bodily functions slowed down to almost nothing for months, which preserved them until the next spring! If that is so, you may want to seal off your attic!

I would also like to note that in American culture, there are many references to houseflies living for only 24 hours: If that suddenly started being true, they would go extinct in about two days, because flies need to hatch, pupate, find a suitable mate, etc.

Where could that idea have come from? It could be the fact that mayflies spend only 24 hours as adults before falling to the ground dead. Talk about being pressured to create the next generation!

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The only two animals that can see behind themselves without turning their heads are the rabbit and the parrot.

False! - There are many other animals that have the same abilities, including some rodents, ducks, fish, and chameleons - not to mention various invertebrates! How do I know this? By reading a lot about different animals being able to see behind them!


The Origin of Words and Expressions

In Shakespeare's time, mattresses were secured on bed frames by ropes. When you pulled on the ropes the mattress tightened, making the bed firmer to sleep on. Hence the phrase "goodnight, sleep tight".

False, although rope beds are real enough: I could tell that right away because I personally witnessed a demonstration at the 'living museum', Hale Farm & Village in Bath, Ohio. However, the phrase 'sleep tight' has nothing to do with centuries worth of winding bed ropes with a key.

"Good night, sleep tight" is an old saying, probably not much older than 1900; There are many variations including "Wake up bright, in the morning light, to do what's right." Specifically, the phrase 'sleep tight' meant 'sleep soundly'; therefore, invoking bed ropes to explain its existence is superfluous. (Good old Occam's razor!)

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It was the accepted practice in Babylon 4,000 years ago that for a month after the wedding, the bride's father would supply his son-in- law with All [sic] the mead he could drink. Mead is a honey beer and because their calendar was lunar based, this period was called the honey month we know today as the honeymoon.

False! - Though there has been some speculation that the word may have something to do with an old European tradition of giving mead to newlyweds, it has nothing to do with ancient Babylon that I have found:

Whatever the case may be, the word 'honeymoon' was apparently coined by English speakers sometime in the sixteenth century. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, it is first known from 1546 and referred to as "the idea that the first month of marriage is the sweetest".

In 1552, Richard Huelot explained that the term referred to the way newlyweds' affection tends to wane -- like the moon -- in his work entitled Abecedarium Anglico Latinum:

'Hony mone, a terme proverbially applied to such as be newe married, whiche wyll not fall out at the fyrste, but thone loveth the other at the beginnynge excedyngly, the likelyhode of theyre exceadynge love appearing to aswage, ye which time the vulgar people cal the hony mone.'

To translate for you "vulgar people":

'Honeymoon, a term proverbially applied to the newly-married, who will not fall out (as in 'quarrel') at first, but they love the other at the beginning exceedingly, the likelihood of their exceeding love appearing to assuage [the quarrels]; of which time the common people call the honeymoon.'

As far as I can tell, no one is really sure just how the term came about, though as with many other instances of word origins, this does not stop some people from making up their own stories.

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In English pubs, ale is ordered by pints and quarts. So in old England, when customers got unruly, the bartender would yell at them mind their own pints and quarts and settle down. It's where we get the phrase "mind your P's and Q's"

False! - As with the last case, no one actually knows the origins of this phrase, so spouting a definite answer as fact is not sensible.

I've found that there are a lot of ways it could have come to be, though the bartender one is not likely. For example, the expression 'pee and kew' is known from the seventeenth century, as in Rowlands' Knave of Hearts in 1612:

"Bring in a quart of Maligo, right true: And looke, you Rogue, that it be Pee and Kew." (Cited by Oxford English Dictionary.)

Some have speculated that this stands for 'Prime Quality', though you'd think that would be said; 'Pee-Kew'. Whether it is related to "mind your P's and Q's" is not known.

Another phrase, "learn your Ps and Qs" was common around the 1820s, as advice to children who might be confused about the lowercase 'p' and 'q', though that seems to have evolved from the phrase "mind your Ps and Qs", which is first known from the late 1700s.

There are a few other frustratingly unlikely leads into the etymology of "mind your P's and Q's", but as it happens, the real answer has been lost in time.

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Many years ago in England, pub frequenters had a whistle baked into the Rim [sic] or handle of their ceramic cups. When they needed a refill, they used the whistle to get some service. "Wet your whistle" is the phrase Inspired [sic] by this practice.

False! - Though someone I once met argued that this was true because they had some antique ceramic cups with whistles in them, those items have been made hundreds of years too late to have inspired the phrase.

Since the 1300's, the 'whistle' in question has referred to one's mouth, throat, or voice, since whistling or singing is difficult with a dry mouth. I have heard that this expression was used in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, so I looked it up. As the whole text is online, I quickly found it in The Miller's Tale, on page 116:

As any jay she light was and jolif,
So was hire joly whistle wel ywette.

As far as I can tell by looking at the page, it means this woman's whistle was well-wet with ale and she was feeling pretty good and light as a jay. Another reference I found was in the 1386 Towneley Mysteries:

Had She oones Wett Hyr Whystyll She couth Syng full clere Hyr pater noster.

Though I'm no expert, I'm pretty sure that means; "Once she had wet her whistle, she could sing full and clear the Lord's Prayer."

Clearly, today's ceramic cups with whistles in them have been created jokingly in reference to the phrase, not the other way around!

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In Scotland, a new game was invented. It was entitled Gentlemen Only Ladies Forbidden.... and thus the word GOLF entered into the English language.

False! - Here's a good rule: Whenever you are told an acronym has been used to create a word, be suspicious, because acronyms (like LASER) were not invented until the twentieth century. On the other hand, backronyms, which spell out already-established words (like the Greek ICHTHYS) are another matter.

In truth, one cannot be 100% sure where the term comes from. The Dutch word kolf, meaning 'club' or 'bat' may have inspired the name golf. I should also note that there is a Scots word, gowf, which means a blow or a slap, though this word seems to have come from the game, not the other way around!

 

Somewhat Medically-Oriented Items

Babies are born without kneecaps. They don't appear until they are 2-6 years old.

False, kind of! - Clearly, by looking at a baby's knees, you can see that it does indeed have kneecaps. (In fact, I have done so just today!) However, I happen to know that a child's bones start out with a large proportion of cartilage, which ossifies (turns to bone) in a particular pattern, taking about twelve years or so to complete.

Looking into this online, I found that the kneecaps in particular begin as cartilage and do not totally ossify until at least three years of age.

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People do not get sick from cold weather; it's from being indoors a lot more.

True! - I've read about this from many science sources: When you are indoors more often from cold weather, you spread around germs more effectively. So yes, it's behavior from cold weather that induces contagious illnesses rather than the cold weather itself.

Similarly, people also tend to drown a lot more in warm weather. Fancy that!

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Most of us have eaten a spider in our sleep.

False! - Thank goodness! As it happens, no spiders have ever been documented being eaten by a sleeping human, so this claim would seem to come from fear and shock value rather than from actual observation.

Luckily, most spiders are not stupid enough to crawl across your face at night.

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40,000 Americans are injured by toilets each year.

False! - Once again, I suspect that fear and shock value (as well as a sense of humor) has inspired this figure. How does one even get injured by a toilet?

I do recall seeing those television commercials from around 1988 where the little girl looks into the bathroom and screams when she sees that the toilet has gnashing teeth, so her mother takes action with the toilet bowl cleaner that subdues even the scariest anthropomorphic toilets.

But seriously, other than the occasional instance of a guy getting his scrotum stuck under the toilet seat, there really isn't much potential for a toilet to injure anyone. Not even when they're installing it.

Sure, people can still get injured while sitting on a toilet - I personally know someone who was stung by a wasp that had probably been attracted by the cool water and had crawled under the seat. Also, does anyone remember the poor Olympic athlete who went to use the bathroom and wound up getting bitten by a snake in an unfortunate piece of anatomy?

I also recall that humor columnist Dave Barry once wrote about exploding toilets. As he might say (and probably did): "I am not making this up." Again, in seriousness, I still can't find any evidence of 40,000 people a year whose toilets have gotten the best of them, so I think this may have been fabricated just for laughs.

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Only 7 per cent of the population are lefties.

True! - As far as I have found, seven to ten percent of any population being left-handed is pretty typical. Problem is, people keep switching hands all the time (like me!), so it's hard to tell exactly.

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Forty people are sent to the hospital for dog bites every minute.

False! - According to a 1998 article I found in JAMA (that's The Journal of the American Medical Association), the number of fresh emergency room dog bite injuries in America per day was only 914. Meanwhile, the number of minutes in a day is 1,440. You do the math.

...Unless, of course, this refers to 'people worldwide' -- that's a bit more plausible, but I don't have any data on that. Oh, I wish I knew!

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A pack-a-day smoker will lose approximately 2 teeth every 10 years.

True! - I think. According to the Academy of General Dentistry, people who smoke a lot are two times more likely to lose their teeth than people who don't smoke (this is looking at two different 30-year studies). Since the average person loses about one tooth every ten years, it follows that heavy smokers lose twice as many.

 

The Rest

In most television commercials advertising milk, a mixture of white paint and a little thinner is used in place of the milk.

True! - Simply put, paint just holds up better - and looks better - than milk, when subjected to the Sahara Desert-like conditions of television studio lighting. How do I know? Saw it on a TV special about making commercials with food. The people in the program also demonstrated how they add color to Crisco to make non-meltable 'ice cream' as well as carve and polish acrylic cubes to simulate ice cubes in drinks. Yum!

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The average person over 50 will have spent 5 years waiting in lines.

False! - All you need to do is... the math:

It's pretty simple, actually; 438,000 is the number of hours in fifty years, and that's about 18,250 days. Since there are 43,800 hours in that time, that comes to about four hours per day spent waiting in line!

Outside of Soviet Russia and all, is this remotely possible?

Most people don't even spend ten minutes a day waiting in line, although if they did so for 438,000 days, they'd still only be waiting in line for six months.

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The toothbrush was invented in 1498.

True - apparently! - According to the American Dental Association's website, the Emperor of China apparently had a bone and hog-bristle toothbrush made in 1498. It also said that the nylon-bristle toothbrush was invented by DuPont in 1938.

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The microwave was invented after a researcher walked by a radar tube and a chocolate bar melted in his pocket.

True! - This researcher's name was Percy LeBaron Spencer of the Raytheon Company. After the candy bar incident, he got a bag of unpopped popcorn kernels and 'invented' the first microwave popcorn - all over the floor! According to this 1958 Reader's Digest article (Percy Spencer and His Itch To Know, by Don Murray), a doubtful researcher wound up getting exploded egg on his face when he opened up Spencer's next cooking project.

Though it sounds like an urban legend, I am not surprised since -- so it seems -- that technological advances are typically discovered on accident.

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Winston Churchill was born in a ladies' room during a dance.

False! - It is in fact well-known that Churchill was born right here in this room! All I had to do was a Google search. However, it was during a dance, St. Andrew's ball, when Winston's mother first began going into labor. According to William Manchester's The Last Lion:

She fainted and was carried into a little room just off Blenheim's great hall. Once it had belonged to the first duke's chaplain; tonight it was the ladies' cloakroom. Sprawing, she lay on velvet capes and feather boas, which were deftly drawn from beneath her when the ball ended and the merry guests departed. It was a long night, with servants hurrying in and out with poultices and towels.

Later on, the term 'cloakroom' became a euphamism for 'restroom' (which is itself a euphamism), hence the confusion.

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Apples, not caffeine, are more efficient at waking you up in the morning.

True, apparently! - According to the Michigan Department of Agriculture's website, the MDA conducted a study which found that the sugar in apples and the act of chewing them keeps people awake more effectively in the morning.

I certainly can vouch for the effectiveness of chewing to enhance wakefulness. If this is actually true, and not purely a self-promoting study, I am still not surprised since coffee is distinctly non-chewable.

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There are only four words in the English language which end in"-dous" tremendous, horrendous, stupendous, and hazardous.

False! - Now that's just infandous! ...Though I will add that most  English words with that ending are scientific terms.

Los Angeles's full name is "El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciuncula" and can be abbreviated to 3.63% of its size, "L.A."

False, but close! - I checked it out myself and found that when the town was founded in 1781, its official name was El Pueblo de la Reina de los Ángeles - The Village of the Queen of the Angels. The river Porciuncula apparently didn't figure into it, as is sometimes thought. 

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Q. What is the only food that doesn't spoil?

A. Honey

True! - Though I found that it must be sealed in a jar or honeycomb. Don't forget that you can make honey 'go bad'!: Mead is made from adding a certain kind of sugar-tolerant yeast to honey, and if the wrong kind of yeast is added, less pleasant 'fermentation' occurs.

Honey is also hygroscopic - a.k.a. hydroscopic - meaning it takes moisture out of its surroundings. This includes the air itself, which is what helps to preserve baked goods it is put into. Even if it's not sealed in a jar, honey tends to suck the water out of mold and bacteria, which kills them.


There you have it, folks!

Internet trivia, straight from my inbox, and filtered through... me! Ironically, I obtained much of the information in my research from... the internet! You just have to know where to look, and that's a whole other article - maybe several!

"Remember, kids;don't believe every-thing you read!"It is clear, however, that much false information is exchanged over the internet, and, it seems, not many people actually challenge a lot of the stuff they read online.

One of the trivia lists I had addressed says at the top; Can you guess which of the following are true and which are false? Of course I found many to be true and many false, but at the bottom it said; All of these things are true! - now think about number 16 (spiders crawling into mouths).

I found this same list in a forum, and the commenters who responded to it seemed largely credulous. Even those who suspected that one or two items were fishy did not bother to actually check.

This whole thing inspired me to draw a picture of 'Gourdy' (the result of an experiment gone horribly wrong) when I dabbled with some vector software in 2005 to see if drawing with a computer mouse could be made any easier. (It could, but not nearly enough for me to want to try it again.)

Gourdy is meant to remind us "kids" that we shouldn't believe everything we read, especially strange claims. In this particular case, even little 'factoids' which may seem likely to be true may still be false or at least distorted as to be somewhat misleading.

In addition to the internet (and television), the 'real world' is littered with 'trivia' -- I've seen it everywhere from shampoo bottles to under beverage caps (i.e. Snapple's 'Real Facts') -- which I've often found to be false.

If you should happen to come across one of these 'fast facts' in your daily life, hang onto it! You can use it as an exercise in verifying or falsifying a claim by checking it against a valid source. Practice is the only real way to become good at critical thinking!

So, what are some trustworthy sources? Encyclopedias are usually good -- generally they are more accurate than Wikipedia, though Wikipedia often has useful references at the bottom of the page. Also, you'll notice from the text that I looked in a few science journals as well as some 'official' websites representing the subject at hand. In these cases, it was appropriate.

Occasionally, it may even be possible to test the idea yourself. For example, in 2008, an Australian middle school student named Rory Stokes actually did a fairly good scientific test for the goldfish memory 'fact'. According to this article in the Daily Telegraph (Goldfish memory myth busted), he trained some goldfish to swim to a beacon each day, which preceded their being fed.

Over three weeks, the goldfish's time to reach the beacon became progressively faster, from more than a minute to less than five seconds. Finally, he began feeding the fish without the beacon. After six days of this, he placed the beacon back in the water and the fish only took 4.4 seconds to reach it. Despite not having seen it for almost a week, they remembered it.

Why did he do this? "We are told that a goldfish has a memory span of less than three seconds and that no matter how small its tank is, it will always discover new places and objects," Rory stated. "I believe it is a myth intended to make us feel less guilty about keeping fish in small tanks."

That may be.

The point is, there are many ways to be a critical thinker and check things out for yourself. I would go into more detail here, but I think this post is long enough! I'll save it for its own post!


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