Research: Beware Misconceptions

See the original here.

I found this XKCD comic online recently and then asked myself, does Wikipedia really have a list of common misconceptions? Another Google search showed me that, yes, they do! How intriguing. Some of the information on this rather long list I already knew, some of it I didn’t. What it made clear to me, however, is how easy it is to get something wrong. Misconceptions, misperceptions, and misunderstandings happen all the time. In fact, it’s a little scary how easy it is to misunderstand someone.

Since misinformation is so prevalent, how do you know what to believe when doing research for your books? Especially when a lot of research is being done online and all it takes to make a source look legitimate is a good website and a believable url. It’s a tricky question and truly depends on the subject. A lot of times, though, finding someone who works in the field and asking them to direct you to reputable sources or answer some questions is the best and safest way to go. If this fails, books published by a reputable house are usually (but not always) safe. Textbooks are safer. You can use the internet as a starting point, but don’t let it be the only way you research.

Below the cut line are some of the misconceptions I found interesting, amusing, or weird. Since they’re on Wikipedia, I in no way vouch for them being 100% true, but it’s still interesting. To see the full list, go here.


There is no evidence that Vikings wore horns on their helmets. In fact, the image of the horned helmet stems from the scenography of an 1876 production of the Der Ring des Nibelungen opera cycle by Richard Wagner. The actual Viking helmets were practical battle gear, and had a rather plain appearance.

There is no evidence that iron maidens were invented in the Middle Ages or even used for torture. Instead they were pieced together in the 18th century from several artifacts found in museums in order to create spectacular objects intended for (commercial) exhibition.

Christopher Columbus’s efforts to obtain support for his voyages were not hampered by a European belief in a flat Earth. Sailors and navigators of the time knew that the Earth was roughly spherical, but (correctly) disagreed with Columbus’s estimate of the distance to India, which was approximately one-sixth of the actual distance. If the Americas did not exist, and had Columbus continued to India, he would have run out of supplies before reaching it at the rate he was traveling. Without the ability to determine longitude at sea, he could not have noticed that his estimate was an error in time to return. This longitude problem remained unsolved until the 18th century, when the lunar distance method emerged in parallel with efforts by inventor John Harrison to create the first marine chronometers. The intellectual class had known that the Earth was spherical since the works of the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. Eratosthenes made a very good estimate of the Earth’s diameter in approximately 240 BCE. See also: Myth of the Flat Earth.

Marie Antoinette did not actually use the phrase “let them eat cake” when she heard that the French peasantry was starving due to a shortage of bread. The phrase was first published in Rousseau’s Confessions when Marie was only 10 years old and most scholars believe that Rousseau coined it himself, or that it was said by Maria-Theresa, the wife of Louis XIV. Even Rousseau (or Maria-Theresa) did not use the exact words but actually Qu’ils mangent de la brioche (“Let them eat brioche [a rich type of bread]”). Marie Antoinette was a very unpopular ruler and many people therefore attribute the phrase “let them eat cake” to her, in keeping with her reputation as being hard-hearted and disconnected from her subjects.

Napoleon Bonaparte was not particularly short, and did not have a Napoleon complex. After his death in 1821, the French emperor’s height was recorded as 5 feet 2 inches in French feet. This corresponds to 5 feet 6.5 inches in modern international feet, or 1.69 metres. Some believe that he was nicknamed le Petit Caporal (The Little Corporal) as a term of affection.

Albert Einstein did not fail mathematics in school, as is commonly believed. Upon being shown a column claiming this fact, Einstein said “I never failed in mathematics… Before I was fifteen I had mastered differential and integral calculus.”

Entrapment law in the United States does not require police officers to identify themselves as police in the case of a sting or other undercover work. The law is specifically concerned with enticing people to commit crimes they would not have considered in the normal course of events.

Sushi does not mean “raw fish”, and not all sushi includes raw fish. The name sushi means “sour rice”, and refers to the vinegared rice used in it. Sushi is made with sumeshi, rice which has been gently folded with rice vinegar, salt, and sugar dressing. The rice is traditionally topped by raw fish, cooked seafood, fish roe, egg, and/or vegetables such as cucumber, daikon radish, and avocado. The related Japanese term sashimi is closer in definition to “raw fish”, but still not quite accurate: Sashimi can also refer to any uncooked meat or vegetable, and usually refers more to the dish’s presentation than to its ingredients. The dish consisting of sushi rice and other fillings wrapped in seaweed is called makizushi, and includes both “long rolls” and “hand rolls”.

Lemmings do not engage in mass suicidal dives off cliffs when migrating. They will, however, occasionally unintentionally fall off cliffs when venturing into unknown territory, with no knowledge of the boundaries of the environment. This misconception was popularized by the Disney film White Wilderness, which shot many of the migration scenes (also staged by using multiple shots of different groups of lemmings) on a large, snow-covered turntable in a studio. Photographers later pushed the lemmings off a cliff. The misconception itself is much older, dating back to at least the late nineteenth century.

Drowning is often thought to be a violent struggle, where the victim waves and calls for help. In truth, drowning is often inconspicuous to onlookers. Raising the arms and vocalising are even usually impossible due to the instinctive drowning response. Waving and yelling (known as “aquatic distress”) is a sign of trouble, but not a dependable one: most victims demonstrating the instinctive drowning response do not show prior evidence of distress.

Humans have more than five senses. Although definitions vary, the actual number ranges from 9 to more than 20. In addition to sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing, which were the senses identified by Aristotle, humans can sense balance and acceleration (equilibrioception), pain (nociception), body and limb position (proprioception or kinesthetic sense), and relative temperature (thermoception). Other senses sometimes identified are the sense of time, itching, pressure, hunger, thirst, fullness of the stomach, need to urinate, need to defecate, and blood carbon dioxide levels.

Schizophrenia is not the same thing as dissociative identity disorder, namely split or multiple personalities. Etymologically, the term “schizophrenia” comes from the Greek roots skhizein (σχίζειν, “to split”) and phrēn, phren- (φρήν, φρεν-; “mind”) and is a juxtaposition proposed by the Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler, which may have given rise to this common misconception.

Nowhere in the Old Testament or the New Testament is Satan described as dwelling in or ruling over hell.

It has been widely believed that Macintosh computers are immune to malware, such as viruses, though recent developments are correcting this belief. Although much less frequently than computers running Microsoft Windows, they can and do get malware.

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