Just in time for the holidays, Ken Jennings, the reigning Master Of All Things Trivial following his long stint on Jeopardy! back in 2004, has a new book that sets aside esoterica in favor of the received wisdom of American parenting. While parents will recognize many of the canards in Because I Said So!: The Truth Behind The Myths, Tales & Warnings Every Generation Passes Down To Its Kids as words that have unthinkingly passed their own lips, even the childless may discover that some of the guiding precepts of their lives are based on junk science, misremembered history, and/or fairy dust.
Like his three acknowledged inspirations—Cecil Adams at The Straight Dope, the Mikkelsons of Snopes.com, and the Mythbusters—Jennings measures 125 nuggets of semi- and quasi-truths passed down by parents through the last few generations. The topic is a natural fit for Jennings’ appealingly goofy suburban-dad sense of humor. Some writers might shy away from citing a guy with a grey ponytail at Whole Foods when quoting statistics about the good of using canvas grocery bags over plastic ones, but Jennings has the affability to pull it off. That said, most of the sources Jennings cites are significantly more reliable, which gives his ponytail-guy joke its legs.
The book is divided into topical sections for quick reference, and each entry has a meter illustrating its relative truth or falsity. For instance, the section “‘You’ll Eat It And You’ll Like It!’ (Mealtime Misinformation)” contains articles on the importance of breakfast (true), the five-second rule (mostly false), and the danger of eating raw cookie dough (false). The rationale in each article, though, is often enlightening. In the breakfast entry, Jennings dismisses the breakfast aphorism, then points out that a growing percentage of children and adolescents skip breakfast, which leads him to his excellent point: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day relative to its perceived importance. He debunks the five-second rule with similar deftness. Of course bacteria doesn’t wait five seconds to climb onto food that falls on the floor, but studies show that a relatively clean floor, will not lead to bacteria transfer in five seconds—or five minutes. So it really comes down to how comfortable a person is with eating food off the floor, regardless of the time it spent there. A few of these nuggets of received wisdom may be unfamiliar to some readers (who really thinks milk will curdle in your stomach on a hot day?), but even those can be edifying, or downright startling. Mixing batteries of different types and brands can be dangerous? Who knew?
Throughout the book, Jennings maintains his humor and warmth, keeping everything on the level of friendly, well-researched advice from the dad down the street who, by the by, would totally own your ass on trivia night at the neighborhood pub. Because I Said So! is breezy and illuminating, a mix that would be more volatile in less capable hands.