Monday, August 07, 2006

World: On myths and half-knowledge

I’m a simple bloke with an analytical temperament. I don’t like fiction masquerading as fact. This is why I’ve always included a link to Snopes on the right.

Mythology per se has a real, cultural purpose, but I resent any attempt to pass it off as objectively real.

I get niggled by the little bits of misinformation and disinformation that spread through the net. Reading Snopes, it's apparent that a fair bit of urban myth is created maliciously, while some of it comprises stories (or opinion) that is eventually passed off as fact, via chinese whispers.

Snopes deals with the myth that eight glasses of water per day is good for you. As is typical, Snopes found it hard to identify the source of the original story. Like a lot of urban myths, it probably gained legs because it captured the imagination - entered popular culture as mythology does.
Also dispelled is the story of evil sulphates in shampoo (the bad ones were phased out, the not-so-bad ones are only minor irritants). This one’s probably being perpetuated by shampoo manufacturers who make a point of tagging their product “no sulphates” – probably in response to a previous generation of consumers.

This week's New Scientist bursts the bubble on antioxidant supplements. A recent study found that while there is benefit from antioxidents ingested naturally from fruit and vegetables, there is no benefit when extracted from the proper food stream and taken as pills.

Be aware that even good sources can sometimes snag. For example, Karl Kruszelnicki is an Australian scientist who spends his time these days spreading enthusiasm for science through books and radio. I have a lot of respect for him; like myself, he’s a sponge for information, and his gusto is infections. Yet despite an extensive background debunking misconceptions, he’s occasionally prone to propagating some himself. (Recently he made an off-the-cuff comment that the word hello was invented specifically for the telephone, whereas its use clearly predates that innovation.)

This is just to illustrate that nobody’s perfect. The best one can do is to check information, be able to refer back to your sources. Be suspicious of anything that is counter-intuitive, and check it up. And sometimes be prepared to drop that long-cherished belief that has no foundation.

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