On skepticism and gullibility

I'm a skeptic. I question everything and I am not easily taken in by hoaxes. My favourite one-word question is, "Why?"

I am a firm believer that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Some people might call this being a cynic, rather than a skeptic. I concede that I am probably both.

So it really pains me to find out that I was misled about something. I have even repeated some of these "facts" to other people and convinced them that it's true. I now feel that I must unburden myself in a public forum; therefore, I give you this Top 10 list of things that I have believed at one time or another in my life.

1. The Coriolis effect

I read as a child that sinks drain counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere, but clockwise in the southern hemisphere. This is because as the earth rotates eastward, it pulls matter near the equator along more quickly than objects near the poles.

It turns out that while this "Coriolis effect" can be seen on large-scale weather patterns such as hurricanes, it is far too small to have any effect on water in a sink. Any rotation in sinks and toilets will depend only on the shape of the basin and the initial motion of the water.

2. Electronics bargain stores

I saw these stores all along Yonge St. in downtown Toronto as a teenager, and in more recent years in the touristy areas of New York, Chicago, New Orleans, and San Francisco. These are the hole-in-the-wall type places with a vast array of stereos, cameras, and gadgets on display in the window. Inside the store, all the merchandise is stocked in boxes behind glass counters. The staff seem anxious to cut you the deal of a lifetime, but today only. You might see a pair of headphones with a $200 price tag marked down to $69.95, or a "$1500" Sigma camera lens for only $400. And they always seem to have a good deal on a "Palm Pilot."

The fact is that in nearly all cases, the "original" prices are fictitious and the products long discontinued. That same Sigma camera lens could have been purchased elsewhere for under $250 before it was replaced by a newer version, those headphones are regularly $34.95, and Palm hasn't manufactured a device under the "Pilot" name since 1998.

You might find a good deal here, but you are more likely to be duped by unscrupulous sales staff whose only job is to lie and cheat you out of your hard-earned money. Don't fall for it.

3. The tongue map

I remember learning that the tongue is divided into different taste areas: sweet at the tip, bitter at the back, and salty and sour along the sides. Manufacturers of wine glasses have long exploited this belief by marketing different shape glasses for different kinds of wine, in order to "direct" the flow of wine to the appropriate part of the tongue.

Contrary to popular belief, there is no tongue map. The notion was the result of a mistranslation of a German research paper from 1901. In fact, taste buds are uniformly scattered across the entire tongue, and no part of the tongue is more sensitive to one taste over another. All taste buds can sense all types of taste.

4. Leaving your windows open during a hurricane

My mother told me this one when I was a kid, and I have heard it several times since then: during a hurricane or tornado, leave your windows open a crack in order to "equalize the pressure" from outside to inside. The idea is that wind will blow through your house instead of knocking it down.

This is actually really bad advice, because any wind entering the house will need to exit as well, possibly blowing out the roof in the process. And it will certainly destroy the contents of your home in the process. Your best bet is to seal your windows as tightly as possible and fit them with hurricane shutters, and let the wind blow around your house.

5. Mail-in rebates

This is the great scam of the big-box electronics retailers, like Future Shop and Best Buy. The scam goes something like this: a $200 item is advertised on sale for $150. The catch is that you have to cut out the UPC symbol and mail it in to a P.O. box somewhere, along with your receipt, and 8-10 weeks later they send you a cheque for $50.

Of course, there is no "rebate" and you never get a cheque. Months pass and you've forgotten all about the rebate. Also, you paid your 15% sales tax on the pre-rebate amount. And my favourite part: if you get fed up waiting for the rebate and decide to return the product because the rebate never arrived, they will not accept the return without the UPC symbol on the box!

NOTE: If you did remember, you can call the number on the form to ask about the rebate, and they will give you a phony excuse like you forgot to include the receipt or the UPC symbol. Fortunately, like the good skeptic/cynic that you are, you made photocopies of everything, and even videotaped yourself putting everything in the envelope and mailing it. Faced with this mountain of evidence, they may reluctantly issue your cheque. Good luck with that.

6. The stolen kidney!

I fell for this email hoax in January 1997 as I prepared to go on my first business trip for RIM. The story goes that a band of organ thieves are targeting business travellers. A stranger in a bar offers to buy you a drink, and the next thing you know you wake up in a bathtub full of ice next to a telephone with a note telling you: "Don't move. Call 911." Both of your kidneys have been harvested.

I believed this story, and it threw both me and my wife into a mild panic. It didn't occur to me that a surgeon skilled in the art of organ transplantation might find more gainful employment in a hospital, or that it was all just a big joke. The fact is that this has never, ever happened.

7. Filling a car with shaving cream

What a great gag! (Definition of a gag: something funny that happens to someone else.) Freeze a couple cans of shaving cream, cut them open, and throw the frozen contents into a car. Within a few hours, it will expand to many times its size and fill the entire car with foam.

In reality, the shaving cream might make a bit of a mess, but it certainly wouldn't fill the car with foam. Most of the expansion of shaving cream comes as it is rapidly mixed with air while being expelled from the shaving cream can. And unfortunately for pranksters everywhere, there is not nearly as much foam in a can of shaving cream as you might think.

8. The Great Wall of China

I have heard many times that the Great Wall of China is the only man-made object that is visible from space.

It turns out that this is not exactly the case. Some features on the earth's surface, like highways and airport runways, can be made out by astronauts aboard spacecraft in orbit around the Earth at a height of 200 to 400 km. The Great Wall of China, while an impressive structure, is difficult to see from such a distance. The origin of this myth pre-dates the first moon landing, and predicted that it would be the only object visible from the moon. In fact, there are no man-made objects that are even close to being visible from the moon, which is about 400,000 km away from the earth.

9. Jesus Christ died for my sins

It seems to me that if there indeed exists a God who is so incredibly powerful as to have created the universe and the Earth and all its human inhabitants (never mind the overriding question of where such a powerful being would, itself, come from), that he could come up with a better way of getting rid of evil (sin) in the world than to get his son nailed to a giant cross and subjected to the most painful torture you can imagine. And then stay silent on the subject for 2,000 years.

What really makes this story so unbelievable to me is that, despite God's phenomenal powers, it didn't work. We still have a lot of evil in the world and, according to many self-righteous individuals who think they own the exclusive rights to morality, it's just getting worse. Perhaps it might have worked out a bit better if, instead of dying for my sins, the Son of God had stuck around and fixed up the world a bit. Or if that's too much hassle, just smite all the evil people and leave the nice ones behind.

To me, this is one of those hoaxes that people believe because it is all they have been told since early childhood by their parents or other people that they trust -- who themselves are not really in a position to know any better about the subject except what they had been told by their parents -- and so on.

10. Coca-Cola is Chinese for bite the wax tadpole

When I was a teenager, I read a book about the importance of cultural awareness when advertising products to new markets. The book offered a couple of examples. The first example was when Coca-Cola introduced its soft drink in China, its name translated to Bite The Wax Tadpole. The second example was that the Chevrolet Nova sold poorly in Spanish-language markets because no va is Spanish for "it does not go."

I have repeated both of these myths many times and am ashamed of myself to find out that neither is true. It is true that "ko-ka-ko-la" could be pronounced in a certain way as to mean "bite the wax tadpole" in Mandarin. But the only brand that Coca-Cola has ever actually used in China is pronounced "ko-kou-ko-le" which (conveniently) translates to "happiness from the mouth."

As for the Chevy Nova, it actually sold quite well in Spanish-speaking countries, in some cases exceeding GM's own sales projections. "Nova" is pronounced differently from "no va" with the emphasis on a different syllable. This is an important distinction because, as the good debunkers at snopes.com so eloquently point out:
Assuming that Spanish speakers would naturally see the word "nova" as equivalent to the phrase "no va" and think "Hey, this car doesn't go!" is akin to assuming that English speakers would spurn a dinette set sold under the name Notable because nobody wants a dinette set that doesn't include a table.
11. We use only 3% of our brain

Whether it's 3% or 10%, we've all heard the claim that we only use a tiny portion of our brains. This claim originated with psychics and soothsayers who wanted to convince a gullible public that there is a vast "subconscious" mental resource that can be tapped into. With their paid help, of course.

The devastating question is: which 97% is not used?? It may be true that many people do not always think things through as well as they should, or use their brain to its full intellectual potential. But there is no objective evidence to suggest that we use only a tiny portion of our brain, or that a "subconscious" mind even exists. This is one of those things where, just because you hear it many times in your life, doesn't make it true.

12. Top 10 lists must contain exactly 10 items

I've made lists on my blog before. I usually strive for 10 items in the list. A part of my brain (97%, to be exact) (ha ha) strongly urges me not to list 9, or 11, items. And certainly not 12!

My teeth are clenched and that I am pounding the keys on my keyboard pretty hard. The reason for this is that I know that something terrible will happen to me if I post this Top 10 list with 12 items in it, because I am putting the universe into a delicate imbalance, if not complete disarray.

That's it, I'm clicking Publish Post now.


Anonymous said…
I've finally taken to boycotting all product offerings where rebates are offered. I find this very frustrating and hard to do, because sometimes the items are things that I really want to buy. I am also simultaneously contacting the sales departments for the manufacturer of products where a rebate is being offered. This is one of the letters that I've sent... ---------------- I've been considering purchasing a xxxx for a long time. Recently I saw that a rebate is available from your company in the amount of $100.00 Unfortunately, I've had several problems with receiving rebates from various companies over the last few years. In fact, I've lost hundreds of dollars in non-honored rebates from manufactures. I've found theat rebate centers are often not responsive to my resending photocopies of my rebates and many times will simply never reply at all. I suspect that these rebate centers may not be playing fair with consumers. I have also have considered that mail fruad or loss may also be a factor. Since the rebate center you are using does not offer a physical street address, I am not able to send my letters certified mail through a notary public mailing service. Therefore; I am sorry that I cannot buy your product at this time. Presently I am boycotting all products with these rebates and I am actively encouraging friends and family to do the same.
Sassan Sanei said…
Good for you for letting them know that the rebate turned you OFF buying the product.

Rebates are advertised with the specific intention that some percentage of buyers will not redeem the rebates. Whether because it is too much hassle, or they are simply forgetful, a lot of people just don't send the forms in. And if they do, they will catch you on some other point, like not sent within the allotted time. It's designed to be inconvenient so that you don't bother.

You should know that I am the most anal-retentive person in the world and that I triple-check everything and write my name/address in perfectly neat block capital letters, play by all (all!) the "rules" - and I still have had to chase down the majority (>50%) of my rebates.

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