Childhood is a time of wondrous belief. Children are taught that those who behave well will be rewarded with a visit from a “right jolly old elf” on Christmas Eve. A miraculous bunny visits on Easter, leaving baskets of goodies and hidden eggs, though the relationship between rabbits and eggs remains mysterious. Why a fairy would want the lost teeth of children, exchanging cash for them in the dead of night, is another mystery left largely unexplained, though children dutifully place no longer needed teeth beneath their pillows in expectation of financial reward.
Eventually such beliefs are outgrown, but many of the concepts taught to children are retained into adulthood, erroneously passed on by succeeding generations. Most are harmless, though nonetheless false. Some remain as fables, such as George Washington’s demonstration of honesty after using his new hatchet to remove his father’s prized cherry tree. Others represent simple lack of knowledge, shared with children in schools and at home. Here are 10 examples of things taught to children which remain widely believed, though provably wrong.
10. Camels store water in their humps
Everyone knows camels travel long distances over arid deserts, going days and even weeks without water. Both Bactrian (two humps) and Dromedary (one hump) camels possess the ability to last longer than any other transport animal without resorting to water. Their humps serve as water storage tanks, gradually decreasing in size as the fluid is absorbed by the animal. Camels refill their humps with water when they arrive at a stream or desert oasis, readying to embark on another long trek through wastelands. Or so children were long taught. In truth, a camel’s hump does not store water at all. Camel humps store fat.
The fat allows the animal to remain nourished during long periods between eating, an attribute for which camels are less well-known. As the fat is burned by the animal’s metabolism, the humps sag, replenished when the camel again has access to food. Camels drink massive amounts of water, up to 20 gallons at a time, which is stored in their bloodstream, not in their humps. In truth, a camel’s hump holds little water, and none as storage for long desert journeys.
9. Swallowed chewing gum stays in the stomach for years
Warning children against swallowing chewing gum often contained the veiled threat that said gum remains in the stomach for years, forming a large ball as additional pieces join it. The warning found its way to children largely through teachers who objected to their chewing gum in class. Imagery of digestive tracts clogged with wads of Juicy Fruit or Big Red served to deter such miscreant behavior, or at least it was so hoped. If a child spit out his or her gum, an obvious admission of misbehavior, an opportunity for assertion of authority presented itself. Swallowing the gum denied such opportunity, thus the creation of the myth of giant gumballs in the stomach.
Although some were taught that gum remained in the stomach for up to seven years, it was and is completely false. Gum remains in the stomach no longer than any other food ingested, which depending on individual metabolisms is 30 minutes to two hours. For most healthy people, the stomach is emptied within that time period, which is one reason people often snack between meals. Chewing gum is not intended to be swallowed, but the idea that it remains in the stomach indefinitely, growing into a larger mass, is totally false.
8. China’s Great Wall is the only man-made object visible from space
Teachers describing Ancient Chinese civilization often point out the Great Wall of China as the only man-made object on Earth visible from outer space. NASA disagrees. The wall is not visible from “low Earth orbit,” such as that maintained by the International Space Station, and all manned space missions in history other than those sent to the moon during the Apollo program in the 1960s and 1970s. The Great Wall can be “seen” by cameras and telescopes, but the unaided human eye cannot detect it from space, except under extraordinary viewing conditions, such as backlighting on Earth.
Other man-made structures are visible from space, including of course cities, especially at night when they are lighted. The Spanish greenhouse complex at Almeria, which produces the bulk of the fruits and vegetables sold in Spain and throughout western Europe, is visible. With clear viewing conditions, man-made canals and reservoirs are viewed by astronauts and cosmonauts. They also see the Kennecott Copper Mine, the largest excavation by man to be found anywhere in the world.
7. Most body heat escapes through the head, so wear a hat in winter
This one isn’t limited to children. Until recently, even the US Army instructed its recruits nearly half of their body heat escaped through the head, making the wearing of hats essential in controlling hypothermia. During the 1950s experiments regarding heat loss in humans led to the conclusion that most body heat escaped through the head, though subsequent research indicated the earlier experiments were flawed. The subjects were warmly covered except for their heads, meaning that more heat did escape from the exposed portion of the body.
In the 21st century, researchers discovered the estimates from previous studies were erroneous. More heat escapes from limbs than the head. According to a report in the British Medical Journal, published in 2008, about 7 to 10% of heat loss occurs through the head when it is exposed, rather than the nearly 50% previously believed. Of course, in frigid temperatures, all areas of skin should be covered to protect against frostbite, including the head and face.
6. Raindrops are shaped like tear drops
How and why this myth came into existence is a mystery, but raindrops aren’t generally shaped like teardrops at all. According to NASA, raindrops, as they fall to Earth, are shaped similarly to the top half of a hamburger bun, the bottom flattened by air resistance. They also change shape as they fall, affected by wind, their own mass, impact with other drops, and other factors. The image of teardrop shaped raindrops is reinforced by televised weather reports, and in the artwork drawn by young children, but it is false.
Nor do raindrops depart from clouds in a manner similar to water dripping from a leaking faucet. While lodged in a cloud the drops are globular, held in shape by their own surface tension. They retain the round shape as they begin their journey to the ground, before the other factors cited cause them to flatten on the bottom. The same surface tension which kept them round retains the circular shape of the top until it reaches its destination. Larger drops can even develop a parachute-like shape, but the top remains circular, rather than streamlining into a teardrop shape.
5. Columbus proved the Earth was round
This is one of the earliest distortions of history presented to children in school and entertainment. Christopher Columbus did not set out to prove the world was round, nor did he encounter resistance to his argument from men of science and religion. Nearly all educated people knew the world was round before Columbus set sail in 1492. There were books so describing the Earth at the time, one of which accompanied Columbus on his voyage. Not to mention that, for some today, Columbus proved nothing of the kind, and the Earth is, in fact, flat.
Flat Earthers generally believe the planet is flat, with the North Pole at the center and the outer edges bordered by the ice mass known as Antarctica. Others believe the Earth is flat because the Bible says it is flat, often referring to the “ends of the Earth” (28 times in the King James version). It’s probably safe to say there are more believers in a flat Earth today than there were in the time of Columbus. Even the highly influential churchmen of his day accepted the idea the Earth was spherical. The myth he had to overcome their opposition based on the belief of a flat Earth arose in the 19th century, with the works of Washington Irving and others.
4. Chameleons change color to hide from predators
Chameleons have long been fascinating to children and adults, based on their ability to change color. Children were taught the little lizard changed colors to adapt to their surroundings, in effect camouflaging themselves from predators. They do indeed change color, but not for the reason of hiding from their natural enemies. They change their color to attract the attention of other chameleons, and to regulate their body temperatures, becoming darker when they desire to retain more heat, and brighter to repel high temperatures.
Chameleons change their colors multiple times over the course of a day. If something makes them sense danger they generally darken themselves, while excitement will cause them to brighten. Only male chameleons change color, often to attract females. Their skin contains nanocrystals which they can expand and contract. Changing their shape affects the manner in which they reflect light, creating the change of color, rather than changing the pigmentation of their skin through the release of oils or inks as previously believed.
3. Albert Einstein failed math and was a generally poor student in school
Poorly performing students often hear the assertion that Albert Einstein failed math in elementary school, uttered by students and parents as a means of motivating them. The assertion is supported by websites, biographies, videos, and scores of other sources. It is false. When Ripley’s repeated the myth in its Believe it or Not column, Einstein responded by noting he had mastered integral calculus by the age of 15. He taught himself algebra, beginning at the age of 12. He never failed at math, and why children are taught otherwise is a mystery.
That is, until one considers he applied to enter the Swiss Federal Polytechnical School at Zurich at the age of 17, a year and a half early. He passed the math and science portions of the entrance examination, but failed the sections on history and social sciences. Einstein studied at a trade school for another year before retaking the entrance exam, which he passed. Gradually the failure to pass the entrance examination on the first try morphed into the myth that one of the greatest minds in history failed at basic mathematics in school.
2. Human blood is blue before it is oxygenated
The color of the blood vessels visible through human skin led to the belief, often reinforced by teaching it to children, that blood in veins is blue, while that in arteries is red. The fact that people always bleed red when cut is explained by claiming the exposure of blood to the air immediately oxygenates it — thus the color. The argument is supported by the appearance of veins, which look blue through the skin, an effect of the eyes rather than the blood the veins contain. Human blood is always red.
It is true that blood within arteries, which is oxygenated and on its way to nourish cells throughout the body, is brighter red than that returning to the heart in the veins. The veins appear blue because the light which penetrates the skin to make them visible is on different wave lengths, and the blue light is more successful in penetrating the skin and thus being apparent to the eye. It is an optical illusion, which led to children being incorrectly taught their blood was often blue.
1. It will go on your permanent record
Used as an admonishment to control the behavior of children, it will go on your permanent record applied to a wide range of activities. Failing to turn in homework on time could end up on the permanent record. Skipping classes was a permanent record offense. Failing a fourth grade English quiz could well appear on one’s permanent record, as could disruptive behavior in class. The permanent record loomed over childhood, a foreboding presence, though where it was maintained, and by whom, remained somewhat vague. Nonetheless, the permanent record threatened to bar one from a successful life, despite entries dating from first grade, and even earlier.
There was no permanent record, a fact learned as life evolved, at least for most of the activities which led to the dire warning. Unfortunately, there is one now. Social media and the internet save for posterity whatever is entered there, even after they’ve been deleted by whomever posted the items in the first place. What’s posted is easily found during background checks for employment, for school admissions, and for character checks. A minor indiscretion on social media can indeed become part of the permanent record, maintained in the cloud for all to see.