An educator's Brief survey of common canards


Craig Chalquist, PhD

We all possess some false notions, and we will continue to believe what isn’t true so long as we depend on others (as we inevitably must) for information about how the world works. The best we can do is to stay as informed as we can in a time of widespread misinformation.


“Lightning never strikes in the same spot twice.”

Don’t tell the Empire State Building that: it gets hit on average about 25 times a year.

“Lemmings commit mass suicide by jumping off cliffs.”

Only those shot by Disney filmmakers, who added a bit of drama after filming some lemmings by giving them a push.

“Water going down a drain spins one way in the Northern Hemisphere and the opposite way in the Southern.”

If so, the Coriolis Effect isn’t responsible, although unwitting reversals of photographic imagery might be.

“Evolution is just a theory.”

Afraid not. Many species can be witnessed evolving today, including Darwin’s famous finches and even humans. Evolution has allowed some of European descent to drink milk into adulthood (lactose tolerance) and native Tibetans to get by on thin air at high altitudes.

"Darwin believed in 'survival of the fittest.'"

Darwin believed in survival of the most adaptable. He rejected "survival of the fittest," a coinage of philosopher Herbert Spencer, a shameless darling of monopolistic steel and oil magnates.

“The pyramids (statues at Easter Island, etc.) could not have been built in ancient times without supernatural means.”

Big stones have been carved, rolled uphill, and fitted precisely during demonstrations with premodern tools too many times to count.

“Ostriches bury their heads in the sand.”


“The moon has a dark side.”

The sun illuminates the entire moon. However, we don’t see the “back” of it because the moon keeps one face pointed in our direction due to tidal locking.

“Science will eventually cure superstition and irrationality.”

It never has, nor have scientists found the rationality to avoid arming dictators, designing arsenals, supplying marketers with mind-control techniques, or investing scientific work with compulsive rigidity and unacknowledged ritualism. The idea that science is the only path to knowledge shares institutional religion’s frequent contamination by absolutist thinking.


“You can’t love someone else until you love yourself.”

Dualistically implies that the two are somehow totally separate from one another, whereas self-love generally arises in the context of relationships. The above is like saying, “You can’t learn to manage a sailboat until you practice first without wind or water.”

“After a while every romance cools down into normal friendship.”

Not always. Couples have been known to be passionate about each other long after the projections and idealizations wear off. (Our generalizations about human nature tend to point back at our own failed transitions.)

“Naming ‘the elephant in the room’ lessens its power.”

Sometimes, but often this “naming” makes things worse by opening up a conflict that might have defused itself naturally. (Let’s quit evoking the poor overworked elephant and let him amble on homeward.)

“Psychotherapy can increase how much we love each other.”

Psychotherapy can clear up communication problems and address old hurts, but it can’t create any love that wasn’t present at the start.

“People do the best they can in life.”

People can choose to do their worst and often do. It’s up to us whether we live well or badly, strengthen other people or diminish them.

“Making an accusation against someone who hurt me empowers me.”

It depends. Sometimes having someone to blame condemns one to go around filled with unquenched resentment, forever defended, easily bruised by anyone perceived as an antagonist, and unable to heal and move forward. Every avenger begins like Captain Ahab: by claiming to be a victim in pursuit of justice.

“People don’t lie about being victimized.”

Young children generally don’t. There are, however, many cases of “victims” who later admitted to having made up lies about someone who supposedly hurt or assaulted them in order to retaliate for some perceived ego injury. Families and work places have so often been destabilized by such lies that corrupt politicians and manipulative pundits like Dr. Laura now rely on victimhood claims routinely.

“Underneath anger is sadness.”

Not always. In fact, in cultures uncomfortable with anger, it’s often the other way around, just as underneath moralizing simmers intense hostility.

“My soulmate will see through my neglected and shabby appearance to my true essence.”

Your soulmate is liable to conclude that you have low self-esteem and move on.

“He’s the calm partner; I’m the emotional one.”

The two of you have probably decided unconsciously that he carries the reputation for logic and you carry the feelings. We often relegate to romantic partners what we do not yet own in ourselves. Take back ownership of logic and calmness and see how long he remains unemotional....

“Opposites attract.”

....and then, usually, they split up. We tend to do better in relationships with partners with whom we share a lot of common ground, with just enough differences mixed in to make things interesting.


“My astrological sign doesn’t line up with the constellation it’s named after, so I need a new sign.”

The signs and their names haven’t lined up for thousands of years. Tropical astrology calculates natal charts by seasons, not by which constellations are in the sky at a given time.

“Astrology claims that the planets determine your life.”

Reputable astrologers claim no such thing. Astrology is based on the historical Doctrine of Correspondences: that what happens during a particular moment (e.g., you being born when Jupiter is at midheaven) is meaningfully but non-causally connected. Jung called this “synchronicity,” or “meaningful coincidence.”

“Alchemy was bunk peddled by shysters trying to make gold.”

Alchemy has known its share of shysters, but research chemistry evolved from the efforts of sincere experimentalists in alchemical labs. Alchemical terms like “hermetic seal” are still in use.

“Alchemy was actually a path to self-realization.”

Most of the alchemists had bigger things in mind than self-realization. They wanted to rejuvenate matter itself, which they believed possessed qualities of consciousness.

“People suffer misfortunes because of being off their true path.”

Otherwise known as “blaming the victim.” Sometimes the misfortunes we suffer indicate how we bear a collective burden that afflicts many other people.

“In order to be whole we must ‘lose our minds and come to our senses.’”

Psychic self-dismemberment is incompatible with wholeness.

“Meditation can cure what ails the world.”

It never has, not in India, China, Tibet, North America, or anywhere else people have practiced it since the dawn of history. Meditation brings numerous health benefits, fine-tunes the brain, improves concentration, and offers spiritual gifts, but it has never liberated anyone from oppression or poverty (except for the occasional wealthy guru) or reversed widespread ecological damage.


“Business can regulate itself.”

Historically, businesses beneficial to a community outnumber those that aren’t--but those that aren’t will eat everything available until the community holds them accountable for their actions. Case in point: Big Oil’s near-total domination of American politics since 1900, when Standard Oil (predecessor to Exxon and Chevron) became the first true multinational corporation.

"The U.S. is addicted to oil."

This was the claim of George W. Bush, an alcoholic whose incoherent ramblings during public events strongly suggest that he drank while in office. Addiction is a poor model for political and financial entanglement. The U.S. is dependent on and entranced by oil because oil companies spend billions a year to strengthen their monopolies.

“Power corrupts.”

Not necessarily. Power never corrupted Gandhi or Nelson Mandela. As Frank Herbert pointed out, a more accurate statement is, “Absolute power tends to attract the corruptible.”

“People who don’t vote have no right to complain about the system.”

They have as much right as anyone else. Voting is not the only way to participate politically, especially for those whose integrity won’t allow them to give their energy to plutocracies or dictatorships masquerading as democracies. Whether somebody votes or doesn't vote has nothing to do with the legitimacy of their grievances or the usefulness of their civic participation.

“Socialism means taking money from the wealthy and giving it to the poor.”

Socialism calls for the key means of production to be publicly owned as a safeguard against potentially oppressive private control of vital resources.

“Wealth trickles down.”

This justification for institutionalized inequality is as old as hierarchies built on forced or underpaid labor.

“Successful business requires selfish and ruthless behavior.”

Businesses flourish when they acquire a solid reputation for honesty, fair dealing, social concern, and services of high quality.

“The economy is beyond human control.”

The economy undergoes fluctuations typical of complex systems, and not all such fluctuations are predictable. But how the economy actually works depends on the people who participate in it, or are made to. It is a human invention that has often been deliberately modified to channel wealth upward from below.

“There have always been poor people.”

Indigenous cultures tend to make sure nobody goes hungry or thirsty. Poverty arose as a widespread social problem during the Industrial Revolution. It is created and sustained not by food scarcity but by deeply unjust power relations within and across cultures.

“Social transformation can only occur when leaders are responsible to the people.”

Social transformation only occurs when people find their own leadership capabilities, understand their own power, come into voice, and insist without relenting that their “leaders” either serve authentic change or find another job.


“Drink at least 8 glasses of water a day to stay hydrated.”

And plan to visit the toilet frequently when your body gets rid of the excess moisture.

“Eating turkey makes you sleepy (because it contains tryptophan).”

Cheese contains more. Wine with your turkey might cause drowsiness.

“Reading in dim light will ruin your eyes.”

It might cause temporary eye strain, but it certainly won’t ruin them.

“Gay couples’ being gay harms or ‘confuses’ their children.”

The research to date shows that children raised in gay families usually turn out healthy, self-directed, fair-minded, and tolerant. Additionally, they tend not to condone hate crimes or exhibit homophobic paranoia.

“Being gay isn’t natural.”

It is for a certain more or less stable percentage of dolphins, bonobos, and thousands of other species, including ours.

“Catholic priests have molested children because their church has hangups about sex.”

Molestation isn’t primarily an act of sexuality, but of power and sadism committed by pedophiles. “Hangups about sex” can help shield it, however, as can being more concerned with institutional loyalty than with justice or healing.

“Alcoholics drink because they haven’t surrendered to a Higher Power.”

Nothing complex is ever determined by single causes. Alcoholics drink for a variety of reasons, and many are devout people. Beyond a certain stage of the addiction, they cannot control how much they drink and must choose between complete sobriety or eventual death.

“Hair and fingernails grow after death.”

Hard for something dead to keep growing.

“Brain cells don’t grow in adults.”

Adults grow new brain cells every day.

“You use only ten percent of your brain.”

Only true when uncritically accepting what uninformed people tell you. ; )

“Eating right before you swim causes stomach cramps.”

You won’t drown unless you ate cannonballs.

“Poinsettias are poisonous.”

No, but they don’t taste very good.

“Men think about sex every ten (seven, twenty, what-have-you) seconds (minutes).”


“When you shave or pluck hair it will grow back thicker.”



“People of the time of Columbus and before believed the Earth to be flat.”

It takes a pretty dull sailor not to notice that a ship can sail over the ocean’s horizon.

“Columbus discovered America.”

Aside from native people already living there, Columbus repeated a discovery made five hundred years before by Leif Ericcson. Columbus was able to establish a permanent colony in the New World on Hispanola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic) because he encouraged the colonists to enslave the native people.

“Primitive people don’t progress.”

The customs, techniques, and cultures of the indigenous (who are not “primitive”) evolve as steadily as anyone else’s, along lines of development consistent with their cultural values.

“Myths are archaic explanations for natural processes we now understand scientifically.”

Myth-makers and -tellers never intended their wisdom stories as serious, literal explanations and would frequently laugh at anyone who interpreted them as such.

“Short people have a Napoleon Complex.”

Not usually, and neither did Napoleon, who was not short.

“The Civil War was fought over states’ rights.”

No, it was fought over the Southern states’ anger with the North for not returning fugitive slaves. In a speech in 1861, Jefferson Davis called for action to counter Northern attempts at "rendering insecure the tenure of property as slaves." His vice president, Andrew Stephens, spoke that year about how slavery was the "proper status of the Negro in our form of civilization," and how disagreements over slavery were the immediate cause of the war. Going even farther, he insisted that slavery constituted the very cornerstone of Confederate government. South Carolina, Mississippi, and other Southern states had put their anger over this issue in writing before seceding from the Union.

“George Washington was the first president of the United States.”

He was preceded by Peyton Randolph, John Hancock, and thirteen other presidents before becoming the first popularly elected president.

“Humans have always engaged in warfare.”

Violence, perhaps, in the form of personal and tribal skirmishes. The oldest evidence of organized warfare, with troops under officers, goes back only 8,000 - 10,000 years. Warfare, like patriarchy, slavery, and centralized power, seems to ignite when societies transition from hunting and horticulture to monocrop agriculture, at which point urbanization begins.


“In self-defense, hitting someone in the nose may kill them because it drives the nose bone into the brain.”

Impossible. The nose is lined with cartilage.

“If someone breaks into my house, I can legally shoot him.”

Not necessarily. In some states you can apply only as much force as will appropriately meet an attack.

“If guns are made illegal, only criminals will have them.”

Apply this logic to another dangerous item, say, a bacteriological that slays on contact: “If weapons of mass destruction are made illegal, only criminals will have them.” No one is making a case for private ownership of portable plagues, or for that matter rocket launchers, tanks, or nuclear weapons.

“Guns don’t kill: people kill.”

Especially paranoid people with guns.

“A car’s gas tank will explode if struck by a bullet.”

Only if the shooter uses phosphorus-tipped tracer rounds.

“Gloves protect boxers from too much fight damage.”

Any “sport” that involves repeated shocks to the head, including football, will leave at least some of its players with irreversible brain damage.

“The samurai sword was the sharpest, hardest, deadliest blade ever forged.”

The katana was a useful weapon, but it wasn’t forged with the high-carbon steel that would have toughened it against breakage. And it only carried one edge unlike blade weapons used to deadly effect by the Vikings and other warrior castes.

“Ninja were noble mystics adept at variety of exotic weapons.”

Historically, the ninja of Japan were criminal outcasts who made a living strangling people. Most were killed off by the samurai of the Shogun Tokagawa in the 16th century. Most of the rest he converted into police.

“Colored belts indicate hand-to-hand combat expertise.”

Actually, they indicate mastery of skills taught in strip mall studios and other indoor venues. The real test of skill, as the Irish have always known, is actual fighting. Bruce Lee mused that belts are useful mainly for holding up one’s pants.


“Baking soda in the fridge absorbs odors.”

So an old baking soda marketing ploy would have us believe.

“Don’t go out without a jacket, you’ll catch your death!”

Only if your body is already run down and you expose yourself to an illness somewhere.

“Fake owls deter birds.”

For about five minutes.

“Homes creak because they are still settling.”

You might still be settling, but your home is expanding and contracting with daily changes of temperature.

“A pan placed on a heated stove dries quickly.”

It might, but if you forget about it you could burn down your house.

“Putting garlic in a dog’s food fights fleas.”

It won’t, and you shouldn’t feed garlic to dogs.

“A package labeled ‘Green’ or ‘Earth-Friendly’ means a sustainable product.”

As of 2010, when a comprehensive study on this was conducted, more than ninety percent of such products sold in U.S. supermarkets had absolutely nothing to do with being environmentally friendly. Product lobbyists have ensured that manufacturers cannot be sued for making such false statements on the front label.

“Leave a key under the mat or near the door in case you lock yourself out.”

First two places a thief will check. He will also look for fake rocks nearby and inspect the porch light. Once inside he will examine desks and dressers (for hidden drawers), the backs of paintings and photographs, large books for hollow spaces, and your freezer. If he has time he will also look under your bed, between mattresses, inside closets (including your clothes), and beneath couch cushions.

“During an earthquake, the safest place in your home is beneath a doorframe.”

The safest place is in bed, or crouched down next to a large piece of furniture if you happen to be near one. --And as for keeping a flashlight and shoes under your bed, you’d better strap them to it because a big quake will throw them across the room.

“After a disaster you must boil any water you plan to drink for at least ten minutes.”

Bringing it to a boil will suffice to eliminate most of what’s harmful in it.

“In winter wear a cap on your head to keep your body from losing heat.”

Your body doesn’t lose much heat through the top of your head. Same amount as anywhere else on your skin.

“In a prolonged disaster, or if civilization collapses, only armed survivalists will survive.”

Actually, those most likely to survive AND flourish are groups of prepared citizens who actively cooperate with each other and look out for each other. Empires fall and civilizations topple because they end up being run by people who can't get along with anyone else.