In The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date, Samuel Arbesman argues that, well, facts have an expiration date. People use facts as a way of 'organising and interpreting our surroundings,' Arbesman argues, but as we evolve and our methods become more sophisticated, we often learn that our understandings are incorrect.
This list discusses some of the facts you may have been taught in school that have exceeded their shelf life.
1. The Food Pyramid
USDA Food Pyramid
The Food Pyramid represented the foods one should eat every day to enjoy a healthy and balanced diet, with healthier, every day foods providing the foundation and junk foods in the small space at the top. The first food pyramid appeared in Sweden in 1974, but the version that most people are familiar with was released by the United States Department of Agriculture in 1992.
Why it’s wrong:
Harvard nutritionist Dr Walter Willett is the most vocal opponent of the Food Pyramid. In his book Eat, Drink and Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating (Simon & Schulster, 2005), he begins by pointing out that the USDA creator has an interest in promoting agriculture and that, ‘what’s good for some agricultural interests isn't necessarily good for the people who eat their products’ (p14).
Harvard Food Pyramid
Willett goes on to argue that the USDA pyramid is based on unscientific advice and that it doesn't differentiate between whole grains and refined carbohydrates, places too much emphasis on red meat, and ignores evidence that healthy fats can have health benefits. He recommends a new pyramid that places whole grains and plant oils together at the bottom, gives nuts and legumes more attention, and puts red meat, white carbohydrates, potatoes and sweets in the ‘use sparingly section’ at the top, although he states that this isn't a diet designed for losing weight, but rather for staying healthy and reducing the risk of disease.
2. I Before E Except After C
That the letter i always comes before the letter e, except when the two follow the letter c. A latter version of the mnemonic included the ‘long a’ rule: I before e except after C/ Or when sounded as ‘a’, as in neighbour and weigh.
And the less commonly known 'i before e except in Budweiser' rule
Why it’s wrong:
Go through words that have an ie or ei combination and it won’t be long before you hit upon one that breaks this rule – science and heinous are two that spring to my mind. In fact, there are 923 words in the English language that don’t follow this rule, and only 44 that do.
There are exceptions to the ‘long a’ rule as well – fancier, glacier, seize, height... you get the idea.
In this video by Merriam-Webster, associate editor Kory Stamper explains that because English is ‘kind of a mongrel of a language’ that borrows from different languages, grammarians create these rules to make sense of the language. Unfortunately for confused school children everywhere, the i before e rule is ‘a modern invention postdates most of the ie words that entered the language’.
Perhaps the jaunty little rhyme was so catchy that it earwormed its way into our consciousness and never let go.
3. The Salem Witch Trials
'Accused of Witchcraft' by Douglas Volk
A case of mass hysteria in the American town of Salem led to dozens of people being convicted of witchcraft, a heinous crime in the hugely theocratic seventeenth century society. Those who were found guilty were sentenced to death by being burned at the stake. Sounds pretty gruesome, right? Don’t worry. It’s mostly crap.
Why it’s wrong:
The convicted weren’t burned at the stake – they were hanged! And in one case, pressed to death by heavy stones! Don’t you feel better now?
While the Europeans were fond of burning their witches, the Americans were much more civilized, thank you very much. Well, except for the slow-drip method of hanging they used, where the victim was strangulated instead of having their neck broken (as is common in modern day hangings). Oh, and the man who was pressed to death was 81 years old. And, come to think of it, the whole false accusation leading to multiple deaths is pretty horrid too.
The elderly man with the cane was clearly a danger to the community
There is one more part of this story that you may not have been taught at school – the trials weren’t restricted to Salem but took place in the neighbouring towns of Salem Village, Salem Town, Ipswich and Andover as well. Witch executions for all!
4. The World’s Biggest Mountain
Your year four geography test asked, “What’s the biggest mountain in the world?” - you wrote, “Mount Everest,” and your teacher gave it a big old tick. But that tick is a lie!
Why it’s wrong:
The Pocket Book of General Ignorance (Faber and Faber, 2009) explains that the criteria used to determine the measure of mountains can be tricky and ambiguous.
First of all, there’s a difference between the world’s tallest and the world’s highest; the first is measured from the bottom of the mountain to its peak, while the latter is measured from sea level. So, using these guidelines, Mount Everest, at 8 848 metres can be considered the highest, while Mauna Kea, an inactive volcano in Hawaii, is considered the tallest, at 10 200 metres (but only 4 206 metres above sea level).
But that’s still not the whole story. You see, Mount Everest isn’t actually a mountain – it’s merely one of the peaks topping the Himalaya mountain range. Therefore, Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania could also be considered the world’s tallest, at 5 895 metres, as it is a single, standalone mountain (p5).
5. Ring Around the Black Plague
The children’s nursery rhyme Ring a Ring o Rosies (also known as Ring Around the Roses) is actually about the Black Death, one of the most devastating pandemics in history; the ‘ring around the rosies’ refers to the red blisters that were the most common symptom of the bubonic plague, ‘a pocket full of posies’ refers to either the practice of carrying flowers to mask the stench of death or the flowers placed on graves, ‘a tissue, a tissue’ imitates the sneezing of the infected, and ‘we all fall down’ is a more child-friendly way of saying, “Everyone dies.”
Why it’s wrong:
Snopes has an in depth analysis of this myth, but if that’s tl;dr, here’s a breakdown:
The first printed appearance of the song is its inclusion in Mother Goose or The Old Nursery Rhymes, published in 1881. The Black Plague took place between 1348 and 1350. It is highly unlikely that it was passed down for 500 years before being printed.
Illustration from Mother Goose or The Old Nursery Rhymes
To put this into perspective, let’s examine the tale The Pied Piper of Hamelin. This story is believed to be based on the real life disappearance of children in the German town of Hamelin circa 1284 – an entry in the towns chronicles in 1384 states, ‘It has been 100 years since our children left’. The story was transcribed within the next one hundred years – a mid fifteenth century manuscript is the oldest surviving record, although other accounts are believed to have existed and been lost in the remaining centuries. There are no such records for Ring a Ring o Rosies.
Furthermore, folklorists Peter and Iona Opie point out in their 1985 book The Singing Game that the symptoms mentioned in the song don’t match the symptoms of the Black Plague (p221) and that there are many versions of the song, some of which have nothing to do with death or disease (p222-3).
Ring Around the Rosies was most likely composed in the nineteenth century as a way to get around the Protestant ban on dancing.