With over 4 million articles, Wikipedia is an invaluable resource, whether you're throwing a term paper together at the last minute, or piecing together what exactly’s going on in Syria and whether you can blame it on Anthony Weiner. But follow enough links, and you get sucked into some seriously strange places. We explore some of Wikipedia's oddities in our 4,323,282-week series, Wiki Wormhole.
This week’s entry: List of Common Misconceptions
What it’s about: Occasionally, we, as a society, come together and mutually agree to get things wrong. We call Frankenstein’s monster Frankenstein, we say things like “lightning never strikes twice in the same place,” even though common sense tells you there’s such a thing as a lightning rod and those get struck all the time. And we misuse “literally” to the point where there’s literally a wrong entry in the dictionary for the word. Misconceptions are such a wide-ranging field that a Wikipedia entry can’t possibly be definitive (as this one acknowledges). Still, it's a fascinating collection of trivia and setting-the-record-straight that's sure to come in handy settling arguments and boring friends.
Strangest fact: Most people in South Korea believe that keeping an electric fan running overnight can be fatal. Purveyors of this myth include the Korea Consumer Protection Board and the dean of Kwandong University’s medical school. Supposedly, super-powered Korean fans can cool down a closed room to the point of causing hypothermia. In fact, fans don’t cool a room at all, they merely create a breeze that helps sweat evaporate, cooling the body, but not anything else in the room.
Controversy: Many controversies are set straight here, from political (Al Gore did not in fact claim to have invented the Internet) to scientific (evolution has a whole section to itself to clarify that yes, it’s a thing, and no, that’s not how it works), medical (sugar does not make kids hyperactive), religious (Jesus was probably born in September; Islam doesn’t offer 72 virgins to martyrs or anyone else) and idiot-based (there has never been a link between vaccines and autism. There has been a consistent link between vaccines and not getting loads of other diseases).
Thing we were happiest to learn: Society is not, in fact, going to hell. Despite perceptions that crime and violence are getting worse, violence has more or less decreased steadily from the beginning of time to present. Ancient empires were less violent than the tribal societies they replaced; things got still less violent as those empires coalesced into nation-states; violence worldwide took a significant drop after WWII, and America is in the midst of a steady decrease in crime.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: The Walt Disney Corporation is (allegedly) made up of a bunch of mass lemming murderers. Despite their reputation, Lemmings to not dive off cliffs en masse to their doom. They do sometimes accidentally fall off cliffs, as individual lemmings. The Disney film White Wilderness helped popularize the misconception, and probably a few others, as the lemming migration depicted in the film was partly filmed on a soundstage, and partly outdoors. During the outdoor portion of filming, the photographers actually pushed the lemmings off a cliff. And then blamed the victims. However, the misconception about lemming mass cliff deaths actually predates the Disney film, and started somehow in the 19th century.
Also noteworthy: Thomas Crapper did not invent the toilet, and the word “crap” is not derived from his name. Crapper did, however, refine and popularize the toilet, and invented the mechanism that allowed the tank to refill after each flush, called the “ballcock.” You can’t make this stuff up. What you can make up? A photographic memory, Twinkies with a shelf life of several years, hypertension caused by stress, conditioner that repairs split ends, George Washington’s wooden teeth, the medieval chastity belt, and the horns on Viking helmets—none of those things really exist(ed).
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Similarly exhaustive-but-hardly-complete is List of misquotations. Besides such favorite misquotes as “Elementary, my dear Watson,” “Play it again, Sam,” “Beam me up, Scotty,” “Just the facts, ma’am,” are lesser-known ones like “There’s a sucker born every minute,” (said about P.T. Barnum’s exhibits, not by Barnum); “With great power comes great responsibility,” (part of Stan Lee’s narration of Spider-Man’s original origin story, it wasn’t uttered by Uncle Ben or any other character); “Damn it Jim, I’m a doctor…” (Bones never cursed on Star Trek); and no one on a movie set shouts “Lights, camera, action!”—the lights are set up well in advance, and when older movie cameras were used, the cameraman would tell the director the camera was up to speed, not the other way around. Action? That part still works.
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