Call it knee-jerk knowledge. From moral precepts (“Never tell a lie”), to medical wisdom (“Take your vitamins”), to life's simple pleasures (“My dog smiles at me”), we take for granted a range of “truths” that don't entirely stand up to close scrutiny. Maybe the relentless cultural buzz is to blame, with its profusion of unexamined assumptions, half-baked info-bits, and outright superstitions—beliefs that sometimes amount to wishful or muddy thinking, but that we instinctively accept because, well, they're “out there” and seem somehow obvious. Even when we really know better, we sometimes find ourselves repeating dubious verities. Want some examples? The Bulletin came up with a few seemingly self-evident truths and asked Kenyon experts—both faculty members and alumni—to probe beneath the surface.
Call it knee-jerk knowledge.
From moral precepts (“Never tell a lie”), to medical wisdom (“Take your vitamins”), to life's simple pleasures (“My dog smiles at me”), we take for granted a range of “truths” that don't entirely stand up to close scrutiny. Maybe the relentless cultural buzz is to blame, with its profusion of unexamined assumptions, half-baked info-bits, and outright superstitions—beliefs that sometimes amount to wishful or muddy thinking, but that we instinctively accept because, well, they're “out there” and seem somehow obvious. Even when we really know better, we sometimes find ourselves repeating dubious verities.
Want some examples? The Bulletin came up with a few seemingly self-evident truths and asked Kenyon experts—both faculty members and alumni—to probe beneath the surface.
Scientific fact: Black holes suck up everything around them.
Think again> A star at the end of its hydrogen-burning lifetime will begin to collapse on itself as it runs out of fuel. The largest of these completely collapsed stars become black holes.
Professor of Physics Ben Schumacher points out that a star-turned-black-hole becomes not only much smaller but also, in some ways, more powerful. A star that's a million miles across might end up as a black hole that's just a few miles across, but with the same mass. As a result, the gravitational pull becomes much stronger in the space just outside the black hole. “There's a boundary in space around a black hole where, if you get any closer, gravity is so strong that not even light can escape from inside. Get closer than that, and you will indeed be sucked into the center of the black hole and crushed to nothing.”
Grim, yes. But note the word “boundary.” Your starship is not doomed until it crosses that line. In fact, says Schumacher, if our very own sun turned into a black hole tomorrow, Earth would continue to orbit around it, because the gravity from 93 million miles away wouldn't be strong enough to suck our planet in.
So while black holes are incredibly powerful and grow over time, it's not time to write your last will and testament yet, says Schumacher. “Even the super-gigantic black holes are small compared to the size of a galaxy,” he says. “It's pretty easy to miss being eaten by a black hole.”
Standard Assumption: Taking a multivitamin is a good way to fill nutritional gaps in your diet.
Think again> Maybe you didn't get your recommended five servings of fruit and vegetables today—and that strawberry shake from the local fast food joint with “real fruit flavor” definitely doesn't count. Don't worry: you took a vitamin pill.
That daily multivitamin might not be the nutritional backstop that you think it is, according Rebecca Ray '01, a student in the nutrition science program at the University of Illinois–Chicago. For one thing, all-in-one pills typically have so much extra vitamin content that when your body tries to process them, it exceeds the absorption rate of your intestines. “All those vitamins get kicked out,” she says. “You're really just making expensive urine.”
But the real problem is that isolating vitamins and minerals and taking them separately (or with your chocolate cake and Diet Coke) is much different from eating healthy food. “Whole foods have a lot of other compounds in them [that vitamins don't], and we haven't even begun to study that,” she says. “It just makes more sense to consume the majority of your nutrients in a whole food, instead of a pill.”
Civic Tenent: It's best for our democracy if everyone votes.
Think again> Voting is certainly important, says Associate Professor of Political Science and Humanities Tim Spiekerman. But he wonders whether it's really so good to vote if you're uninformed. “If you don't know how you feel about the candidates, it may be worse to have the responsibility for voting someone in who turns out to be awful than not voting at all,” he says. You can always choose your candidate based on party affiliation, but that won't help you in contested primary elections.
In Spiekerman's view, voting is just a part of the democratic picture. He feels that citizens should think of participation in broader terms. “In a democracy, we're supposed to rule ourselves, and the way to do that is by registering your opinion,” he says. “You can do that through voting, but you can also do it by writing to your Congress member or answering a pollster. Your representatives will be paying attention.”
Received Wisdom: Honesty is the best policy
Think again> There's no question that some lies are incredibly destructive, and it's those lies that give the rest of our (mostly harmless) deceptions a bad name, says Professor of Philosophy Joel Richeimer. “If you push people into a corner, they'll admit that lying is necessary,” he says. “Are you really going to tell your three-year-old that her drawing is mediocre? No. You'll say it's wonderful and put it on the refrigerator.”
The trouble with “thou shalt not lie” as an absolute policy is that it doesn't factor in the consequences of brutal honesty, says Richeimer. “If someone has a heart condition and you find out news that is so devastating that it might give him a heart attack, do you tell him?” Yet even dishonesty with good intentions can backfire when we decide on a course of action without knowing the consequences. And, of course, we never know the consequences for certain. Do you tell someone about her terminal illness so she can seek closure, even if she is unable to cope? There is no rule here.
Richeimer says there's no easy rule of thumb to replace all-honesty-all-the-time. But a tendency toward honesty, as long as it's layered with kindness and humanity, is typically the best course. “Purists [who insist on honesty] are obnoxious,” he says. “They don't understand the human condition. We're all just muddling through life, stuck in the same vat of pudding. It's best just to try to help each other out.”
Gut Feeling: If the roulette wheel comes up red ten times in a row, the law of averages says you're "due" for black.
Think again> You really do know better than this, but it's hard to get past your intuition here, especially because the law of averages does say that, in the long run, the ratio of red to black will be 50/50. The problem, says Professor of Mathematics Brad Hartlaub, is that this law doesn't justify predictions for a single outcome. “The ratio exists only if you do hundreds of thousands of trials,” says Hartlaub. “The law of averages is also called ‘the law of large numbers.' There is no ‘law of small numbers.'”
The fact is that, unless it's rigged, a roulette wheel is no more likely to hit black on the eleventh spin than it was on the first ten, says Hartlaub. “Chance doesn't remember what happened in the past.”
So, the next time you're in Las Vegas, don't listen to your “sixth sense” when it urges you to push your life's savings onto the gaming table because black (or red) “has to” come up. Your intuition didn't stop to think things through—or maybe it had one too many drinks.
All-American Lore: Abner Doubleday invented baseball.
Think again> Doubleday (1819-93) is often credited with the creation of our national pastime—in 1839, in Cooperstown, New York. Even Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig calls him “the father of baseball.” But most scholars think that Doubleday's status was cooked up by clever marketers.
Professor of American Studies Peter Rutkoff, who teaches “Baseball in American Culture,” explains. Near the end of the Great Depression, baseball needed something to celebrate. Attendance at games was sparse, and even gimmicks (such as “Ladies Day” promotions, night games, and the creation of a Hall of Fame) weren't generating ticket sales to the owners' satisfaction.
Maybe a big anniversary—a centennial, even—would make an impact. “Someone decided that they'd date the creation of baseball to 1839, making 1939 the 100th anniversary,” says Rutkoff. The invention was credited to a Civil War general, Abner Doubleday, who (it was said) had invented the word “baseball,” created the rules, and even drawn up a diamond.
The only problem: there is no evidence that Doubleday had any role in the game's creation. In fact, scholars have found newspaper accounts and town bylaws suggesting that the game existed as early as the 1750s.
In Rutkoff's view, it's OK to keep the myth alive. “Much of American culture is built on this sort of mythology,” he says. “And really, it's a lovely story.”
What we all know from watching TV: After you're arrested, you get to make one phone call.
Think again> It's an old cop-show scene: the suspect (sometimes still in handcuffs) picks up the receiver of a pay phone to make his one phone call, generally to his lawyer.
In real life, suspects typically aren't limited to just one call, says criminal defense lawyer James Giles '78. America's founders didn't get into specifics when they included a constitutional right to counsel, but many state statutes do. In Ohio, for example, Revised Code Section 2935.20 states that an individual can contact an attorney—or anyone else—to obtain counsel after an arrest. “It goes on to say, ‘Such communication may be made by a reasonable number of telephone calls,'” says Giles. Other states have similar provisions.
In other words, while the purpose of the phone call is to line up an attorney (rather than, say, to call voicemail at the office and dictate a memo for tomorrow's meeting), you don't have to give up if you don't succeed in a single call. So one could say that you can use the phone for just one reason, but you may end up making as many as five or ten actual calls.
That said, don't be surprised that no one in law enforcement is trying to correct the misperception. “In general, law enforcement tries to discourage defendants from contacting an attorney,” says Giles. “They're not going to volunteer [the details of the statute]. If you want more than one phone call, you're going to have to demand your rights.”
Everyday Observation: Animals feel the same things we do.
Think again> If you've ever watched your dog race to greet you at the door when you return home from work or cock its head sheepishly after tipping over a trash can, you could easily assume that Rover is capable of feeling the same kind of happiness and guilt that you do.
But Associate Professor of Neuroscience Andy Niemiec says it's not that simple. “Animals' sensory systems are different, their evolutionary history is different, and they have different problems to solve,” he says. “We can't know firsthand what an animal is feeling; we can only test it perceptually.”
His recent research has shown, for example, that rats make vocalizations akin to laughter when researchers play with them—and also make that same “laughter” when they want to play. It's not like guffawing at The Three Stooges, though. Rather, it's a sophisticated way to solicit and maintain social interaction.
Dogs, meanwhile, will drop their jaws and show the edges of their teeth—in a way that looks almost like a grin—when they're relaxed and content. “Does it mean the same thing as a smile? There may be contentment, but it doesn't necessarily mean that they're happy,” Niemiec says.
In the end, he observes, we aren't living in a Disney world where animals are just like us. But that doesn't mean they're so unlike us, either. We may differ from animals in the degree and subtlety of
our emotions. “But are we different in kind?” he asks. “No.”