My rantings about some topics. Email me at with your comments and your favorite "ItJustAintSo"s.
- The American Revolution
Several myths are quite enduring about the American Revolution.
- The majority of Colonists supported it.
In fact, best estimates are that only a third wanted to break with Britain, a third wanted to stay a colony, and a third didn't really care.
- The colonists won by using guerrilla style tactics
George Washington fought for the British in the Indian wars and was trained in European tactics. Except for a few notable battles, like the Cowpens, the Colonists fought a European style war.
- We won it ourselves.
The success of the revolution depended upon French aid. Without French troops and money the revolution would not have succeeded. At Yorktown, the French had almost three times the number of troops as did Washington. The French fielded 29,000 men with 37 ships, Washington mustered 11,000 soldiers, and the British had 8,700. Without the French blockade of Yorktown, the British would have collected the troops by ship and moved them to fight another day. Ironically, the French support of the Americans contributed greatly to the downfall of the French monarchy. The immense cost of the war bankrupted the French treasury and the French soldiers returned with funny ideas about rebelling against monarchs.
- The majority of Colonists supported it.
- People in Columbus's day thought the world was flat.
Educated people since the third century knew the shape of the earth. The scholars of Queen Isabella knew that you could sail West to reach China, but that it was too far and the crew would die of thirst or starvation. Which, of course, would have been true if North American had not gotten in the way.
Before 1830, no one believed that the Medievals thought the world to be flat. John Draper promoted this erroneous view apparently to discredit Christianity. He believed the world was in a struggle between dualities, like good and evil, science and religion. As an example he propagated the myth of a "modern" scientific Columbus battling backward religious leaders. His view was put into textbooks in America, and the rest is history. See http://id-www.ucsb.edu/fscf/library/RUSSELL/FlatEarth.html for more info. and Inventing the Flat Earth
Quote from Dr. Lawrence M. Principe, History of Science: Antiquity to 1700 The Teaching Company:
"The flat-earth story is flat-out wrong. The Greeks knew the earth was spherical, the Romans knew it, the Arabs, the Middle Ages, everyone. The notion that the earth was once believed to be flat is totally bogus. The flat-earth notion was invented in the 19th century and passed on from schoolteachers to students. It's time to break the cycle." -
- 'Third World' Development
I used to believe that poverty in the 'Developing Countries' was caused by:
- Poor education
- Exploitation by rich countries
- Lack of money
- A dearth of natural resources
- Effects of colonial occupation
- Over population
- Natural disasters
But after a trip to a third world country, I realized that those are too simplistic.
In short, poverty is most likely caused by a corrupt government, an inept economic system, or a cultural view that discourages development of resources. Some of the most resource rich countries are the poorest.
An example of governments impoverishing their people was recently exemplified by Zimbabwe. In the May 18th issue of "The Economist" it is reported,
"In Zimbabwe, tobacco farmers refused to sell their crop, which is the country's main export, because the government insists on confiscating five-sixths of the proceeds through a rigged exchange rate."
Next year the farmers may not even plant a cash crop; why bother if the government is going to make you sell it for less than it costs to raise it.
- We are about to run out of Oil and Coal
I like the following quote attributed to Alexander Graham Bell
"In relation to coal and oil, the world's annual consumption has become so enormous that we are now actually within measurable distance of the end of the supply."
It sounds like something we would hear today, but it was said on February 1, 1917. Bell did not foresee the vast fields of petroleum found by new technology or in distant lands.
Besides, we will never "run out" of oil. It will just get more expensive. At some price point, other sources of energy will be more economical. Coal could be converted into a fuel for our car's gas tanks using the Fischer-Tropsch process that was used by Germany and Japan in WWII and more recently by South Africa. Biofuels made from algae or agriculture waste can make fuel for our cars, although the technology needs improving. Ultimately electric cars will slowly replace gasoline cars as battery technology improves. The electricity for those cars can be made by wind, solar, tidal, nuclear.
The only commodity we are really running out of is Helium. This precious element is produced deep inside the earth from radioactive decay and slowly floats to the surface. Breaking free of its earthly bonds, the Helium flies up to the roof of our atmosphere, beyond our reach and floats into space.
- Fear of new technologies, forgetful of the old dangers
For example, people are very afraid to give a credit card number over the web, but will happily give it to an unknown waiter who takes it to a back room and could do anything with it.
- The Rosetta Stone was written in three languages.
The Rosetta Stone actually only has two languages, Egyptian and Greek. The Egyptian is written in two different alphabets, hieroglyphs and demotic. Demotic was the common man's writing alphabet. Hieroglyphs were used for formal or religious purposes.
- Melting the Arctic ice cap would flood coastlines.
Oddly enough, if the entire North Pole ice cap were to melt completely next week, the sea level would remain constant. Underneath the North Pole is just water, and since ice displaces its own weight of water, the level remains constant when ice melts in water. Kids, you can try it at home with a glass of ice water.
The ice on Antarctica and Greenland are a different matter. Since most of it sits on top of land, these would raise the level of the oceans if melted.
- Solar cells are a great pollution free way to make electricity
Actually it takes a lot of energy just to create a solar cell. It takes many years of continuous operation before a solar cell "repays" the amount of energy it took to create it. Solar cells are getting cheaper and more efficient and will one day, I think, contribute much to our power needs.
Creating solar cells actually produces two types of pollution. The first is from generating the energy to create the cell (usually fossil fuels). The second type is the result of using toxic chemicals in the production of the cells. Also disposing of spent solar cells can be tricky.
- The Myth of the Better Alternative
People are averse to picking a known bad alternative, while waiting for the perfect solution to a problem. Often waiting for the perfect solution is a much worse situation than picking the known bad alternative.
This can be illustrated with the problem of storing of nuclear waste.
"We know that the desert repository in Nevada has some problems, so let's not put our nuclear waste there."
This really doesn't address the real issue of "Is it safer to store the waste in 141 sites, 75% of which are just 50 miles from major urban centers, or one remote site in the desert?" Just because the Nevada site is bad, doesn't mean it's not a better alternative than the current solution. (Unless of course, you live in Nevada).
- If an event causes a bad result, the event is totally bad.
In 1997 El Nino caused over 4 billion dollars of damage - so El Nino is bad. But wait - the Midwest US saved billions of dollars in lower heating costs due to the milder winter. All totaled the net benefit to the US from the '97 El Nino is estimated to be 15 billion dollars. (From Science News March 2, 2002)
The same is true of automation. The automobile put many people out of work which is bad, but it also employed more people doing other types of work. I get frustrated by listening to the news talking about how bad a development is, but they often do not give the complete picture.
- Planting trees is good for the environment
Often planting a tree is a good thing, sometimes it's bad thing.
Trees use so much water they can dry up streams and suck the life from entire ecosystems.
Trees are planted to control soil erosion, but trees can kill the grass underneath them making soil erosion even worse.
New research implies trees can produce the green house gas methane which traps 20 times more heat than carbon dioxide.
Trees give off volatile organic compounds, primarily monoterpenes and isoprene. These chemicals are involved in the formation of smog.
Trees can make the landscape darker, reducing the amount of sunlight reflected from the earth, called albedo.
- America's Great Depression was caused by government inaction and only recovered after FDR's interventionist policies.
Our government's actions worsened what could have been a bad recession to be worse. Interest rates were raised, instead of lowered to encourage employment and investment. The Smoot-Hawley tariff act reduced trade with the world when trade should have been encouraged. Although the New Deal reduced suffering for many people, World War II really put an end to the Depression.
- Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is true
Lots of people believe it is, but really think about it. Just think of starving soldiers fighting for a cause, risking their lives and giving all for a cause. Many people have braved physical danger and hunger for higher values.
- Hawaii was paradise on earth before the white man came.
The actual history of Hawaii is very different than what the tourist bureau would have you believe.
- Only men were allowed to perform the hula dance
- Men and women never ate together
- Women were forbidden, on pain of death, from eating certain foods
- Not just anybody could go fishing, only members of the fishing guild could fish
- Taxes were levied on the population
- Wars were very bloody. The losers were hunted down and killed (unlike European wars where prisoners were often ransomed or freed).
- Food origins
- Potatoes come from South America, not Ireland.
- Pineapples originated in South Brazil and Paraguay, not Hawaii (although we got them through Mexico)
- Religious wars are the worst
I hear this occasionally that religious wars are more cruel because of the fanaticism of those involved. Consider the twentieth century. Some of the worst wars were not for the name of a religion, but for communism, oddly enough, under the banner of atheism. When you think about the Chinese, Cambodian and Russian atrocities during war times, it's every bit as ruthless as the horrible religious war of the past.
Even in the U.S., the most vicious war was the Civil War, which was not fought along religious lines.
- Vietnam was the first truly unpopular war
Very few of our wars have been supported by an overwhelming proportion of the population. The Revolutionary War not - more Americans in 1779 fought for the British than with Washington. The War of 1812 was not very popular in many regions of the country. WWI was not seen as "our" war; the US did not enter until very late in the war. The Mexican-American war was very unpopular, especially in the North, where it was viewed simply as a land grab for slave states.
World War II was widely supported because Pearl Harbor in the American territory of Hawaii was attacked and then Hitler declared war on the United States.
A sixty year old person was rare in previous centuries
Most people see statistics that the average age in previous centuries was only 30 years old and assume people older than 30 would have been rare. But average includes infant mortality figures. An average life span of 30 years would be achieved if half of all infants died and the survivors lived to be 60.
In ancient Greece, Spartan men served in the army until the age of 59.
- Manned space flight is a good idea
Manned space flights really only made sense in a military context. Without an arms race with the evil empire, it's way too expensive to do anything in space with people. A better idea is unmanned space exploration and experiments - so much cheaper since the hardware doesn't have to have such an extremely high margin of safety. Sure, the space program gave us Tang and ceramic bricks that can be heated to a zillion degrees, but what is the opportunity cost of all that money?
With regard to traveling to other planets, the really hard part is not shielding the travelers from deadly radiation. Also, can humans survive in gravities vastly different from earth?
- The Myth of the Noble Savage
People believe that primitive man was kind, loving, and respectful of nature and the neighboring tribe, but it's just not true. More info by Michael Shermer at Scientific American.
- Thomas Malthus was Right
Malthus wrote "Essay on the Principle of Population" in 1798. He believed food resources grew linearly, but human population grew exponentially. The inevitable outcome was mass starvation. Although 200 hundred years of history have proved him to be dead wrong, his beliefs, oddly enough, are still held by many.
- We need to work at raising children's self-esteem.
From Reuters news agency, 2001/11/16:
Common Beliefs on Low Self-Esteem Are Myths
Many of the most commonly held beliefs about low self-esteem are myths without reliable evidence to support them, says a study published on Wednesday. Low self-esteem has become one of the most frequently cited explanations for social and personal problems, ranging from young people's involvement in violent crime to adult failures in business, and the U.S. state of California has gone so far as to invest significant public funds in trying to raise the self-esteem of its citizens.
But Nicholas Emler, a social psychologist who conducted the study, said his research showed that people with a high opinion of themselves could pose a far greater threat to others than those with a low sense of self-worth.
``People with low self-esteem tend to injure themselves rather than other people. Those with high self- esteem tend to damage other people, either because they are reckless and dangerous or because they're unpleasant,'' he told Reuters. Young people with very high self-esteem are more likely than others to hold racist attitudes, reject social pressures from adults and peers, and engage in physically risky pursuits such as drunk-driving or driving too fast, the study said.
- Animals are noble and only kill for food and waste nothing
I often hear how in nature animals only kill for food, and are not as cruel as man. I watched an interesting documentary on bears and they said, "As bears become sated on Salmon, they only eat the eyes, eggs, and brains of the fish" The film showed a bear grabbing a salmon swiftly ripping out the eyes and eggs and letting the rest of the fish carcass float downstream.
In the documentary series "Blue Planet" a pack of killer whales is shown hunting a baby whale for days. The pack eventually separate the youngster from its mother, kills the baby, and eats only the tongue (which I assume is the tastiest part for a fellow cetacean). The rest of the body drifts down into the deep.
An Orca has also been filmed killing a large Great White shark just to eat its liver.
- Mother Nature is Loving
People often say "Mother Nature" to imply that the wild world is a kind, nurturing place. In Austin a popular bumper sticker even has a picture of the earth and the slogan, "Be kind to your mother" on it.
In my limited experience, nature is not a nurturing mother, but is out to kill us. Given half a chance we die. Microbes, viruses, wild animals, sun exposure, cancer are all out to get us. We survive by outsmarting nature.
Nature should be respected , but not thought of as our "Mother".
"In the jungle, you're just another piece of protein".